Prehistoric Times by Eric Chevillard (trans. Alyson Waters). Archipelago Books. 136 pp., $16.00.
Born in La Roche-sur-Yon, France in 1964, Eric Chevillard is the author of over twenty books, and has been awarded literary prizes such as the Prix Virilo and the Prix Fénéon in his native country. First published in 1994 by Les Éditions de Minuit, Prehistoric Times has here been skillfully translated by Alyson Waters. Throughout the novel Chevillard profoundly expresses ideas about how we conceive of the emotional value of art, and about creative work as a codified exploration of the human need to seek life against impending death. Chevillard suggests that because we view art as separate from the processes of life and death, we are led to believe in an immortality of the artist. What if, Chevillard asks, we take this idea to its logical conclusion—what would an artist guided by aspirations toward the longest possible posthumous renown look like?
This almost comic motivation is one of the aims of the book’s narrator, an archaeologist obsessed by the immensity of time in relation to both the lives of human beings and their creative endeavors. Badly injured in a fall, he has been given the less physically demanding job of watching over and maintaining an area called the Pales cave, an isolated place in which atavistic figures, painted by humans long prior to historical record, have remained intact in the millennia since their creation. (Crucially, the main character’s vocation as an archaeologist cements his identity as one immersed in contemplation of a lost past: “[No] past is richer in memories than an archaeologist’s,” he tells us, and this is a key point within the wider meaning of his story.)
Per Chevillard, the cave paintings come to represent human creative work and the great lengths of time by which a work of art may outlast its creator. They also show how the remnants of human action from the distant past reach us in a very incomplete form, even while we derive from these few, scattered remains our understanding of the origins of human culture. We obviously cannot hope to encompass those origins within the fabric of our consciousness; even the narrator’s paintings, to which he would give his life to aid in their creation, should he make them, will one day fade.
Importantly, these questions let Chevillard cast light on how we mistake the idea of the past for the past itself, and in so doing search for certainty within our own uncertain lives. Humanity lives in a social state that is created to guard against the outer darkness of a world which, importantly, lacks memory, the very way we signify the nature of our lives and identities. Chevillard seems to imply that through art and through the maintenance of history we try to convince ourselves that the world will remember us, because to remember something is to bring it back from oblivion. What we perceive of the past, however, is simply the shadow called up by our minds to which we ascribe a depth and meaning it does not possess. The narrator notes, for example, that:
We possess Planet Earth, it belongs to us, we are the indisputable masters of it, that is, we reign over a world of miniatures and realities reduced to our size—none of it exists. The whale we know is not a whale, it is nothing like a whale, the real whale is much, much bigger. But all this labeling and miniaturizing must continually be renewed. An illusion that is not maintained cannot survive. . . . At the first flagging of our vigilance, everything comes undone, suddenly the rosebush is a vile bramble and dogs give birth to wolves, even our marvelous inventions attest only to our weaknesses. [Italics mine]
Here Chevillard implies that through language we bring our concept of the world into being by, as he puts it, “labeling and minaturizing.” That is, human beings transmute sense impressions into a version of what they perceive the world to be. The narrator considers, however, that:
[because] we cannot escape our own system of explaining the world, all our alleged questions are in reality tentative but peremptory answers transposed in interrogative form to allow for dialogue that . . . will hardly advance knowledge. What remains is the sincere, infinite amazement from before the questions [are given].
It is an important point that the novel’s epigram is from the painter Gaston Chaissac, and is almost certainly used ironically: “Only cave paintings seem made to last forever.” This quote may take on a double meaning within the narrator’s story: all human history is utterly brief in comparison to a few scattered paintings made in a cave tens of thousands of years ago, and yet, in terms of the prehistory, this time too is ultimately just as brief.
What then, Chevillard seems to ask, is the value of artistic posterity, perhaps the ultimate standard of artistic judgment? Chevillard’s book is a very profound contemplation on the nature of posterity; it may even be inferred that throughout Prehistoric Times Chevillard writes with an awareness that his own artistic production will be dwarfed within the great span of time against which all human beings must live out their brief existence.
We eventually learn that the culmination of the narrator’s final art project will be to seal himself within a cave and make his own wall paintings, so that, though his physical body will die, minimal erosion will prevent his work from falling to its own “death” for as long as possible. “A few simple precautions will guarantee my paintings an afterlife of forty or fifty thousand years, beyond which I have no ambition,” the narrator says, and this is perhaps a maximum treatment of the “ars longa” aphorism. It is an almost deceptively simple statement, for it suggests that artistic posterity is necessarily absurd, because it shares its nature with the myth of history—that is, if we feel that we can understand the narrative of the past, we have in a sense conquered death, because what is remembered must in some way exist. (It is fascinating that in Ancient Rome, for example, some transgressions were punished by having the history of the offender’s existence completely erased from all records. This chilling punishment forced criminals to feel the weight of eternity against them: that if their life were not recorded, or expressed through writing, they would no longer exist.)
Prehistoric Times can be seen as Chevillard’s demonstration of an idea Proust analyzed in In Search of Lost Time: because it is necessary for human beings to interpret and sense art, art is therefore dependent on the existence of human beings. It is therefore not immortal, because human beings as a species (or any species) will not be able to survive past the end of the Earth’s existence, much less so the existence of the universe. Human beings die, but art also suffers a manner of death (says Proust). Whole civilizations determine their laws on the perceived intentions of men who are long dead and whose works are long since beyond a complete interpretation; this is perhaps why Thomas Hardy adopts the biblical quote “The letter killeth” and its inverse meaning, “The spirit giveth life” as the epigram to the novel Jude the Obscure—the spirit of the law can be just and rooted in morality, whereas the temporal, and importantly, written or recorded law can be used with bad intentions. Chevillard develops the argument that through attempting to create a history of human events we are trying to attain a viewpoint on a span of time that is utterly invisible, because it no longer exists. Chevillard argues that, in a sense, all history is prehistory:our “knowledge” of any subject necessarily takes on the form of myth. However, like Thomas Hardy’s imploration toward a belief in the spirit over the letter of the law, perhaps Chevillard demonstrates that art’s meaning lies in the present. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing that we can permanently etch our consciousness into our surroundings; rather, we should give precedence to the present in which that we will most concretely challenge death.
Jordan Anderson is a writer living in Oregon whose main interests are the 19th century and contemporary literatures. He can be reached at anders [dot] jordan [at] gmail [dot] com.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- The Baboons of Hada: Selected Poems by Eric Ormsby Eric Ormsby titles his poem "Origins" and sets it like an epigraph, italicized, at the front of The Baboons of Hada: Selected Poems, suggesting a disclaimer for what follows: “My poems are written to give pleasure,” he might be saying. “No trespassing for the tin-eared and ahedonic....
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Jordan Anderson