Can you hear me in the darkness?
I am standing here, 30 metres away from you.
But we must go to another time and another place. So I need your help.
Help us now to imagine that we are surrounded by stone walls, rock walls, rocks, and that above us there are one hundred metres of solid limestone.
It is the eighteenth of December 1994 and in the chilly air of a winter's evening, in a gorge of the river Ardèche in France, three French speleologists have been crawling through a tunnel 30 inches high and 10 inches wide. Claustrophobia is a question of context. They have been crawling for a long while. And suddenly they feel a slight breeze. Do you? Can you feel it? Blowing, very soft?
They pull away a stone around a gap from which the breeze seems to be coming. And then they go down through the gap on a ladder, a corded ladder and they sense in the darkness that they are in an immense chamber, dozens of metres long and tens of metres high. The darkness is like the darkness in this railway tunnel where I'm standing, and the silence... the silence is the same. Listen to it.
Is it like the silence of the desert?
No, not really. Not at all.
For the silence in the desert is as thin as a blade.
And this silence is deeper, deeper than we can imagine.
Look, look a bear's skull, and it's covered in calcite from thousands of years of water dripping onto it.
We are not underground any more, we are inside, inside a body of limestone whose innards glisten. There's the sound of our breath, and, somewhere, the inaudible, because immensely slow, clicking of carbonate of calcium crystals forming to make stalagmites, stalactites, skins, draperies, folds, sinews of mineral, whitish in colour, sometimes red. We are inside the tripes of a mountain.
And the darkness, the darkness around us has nothing to do with the darkness of the sky, or the darkness of water. This is the darkness of rock. The other darknesses are more or less empty. This darkness is full. You can put out your hand and touch it, and through it come the animals.
On that December evening, Eliette Brunel, the woman amongst the three speleologist, raises
That was probably the first human cry in this cave for 25,000 years.
"Our light flashed onto a mammoth, then a bear, then a lion with a semi-circle of little dots which seemed to emerge from its muzzle like drops of blood, rhinoceros... We saw human hands, both positive and negative impressions. And a frieze of other animals 30 feet long."
This is how Jean-Marie Chauvet described what they saw after Eliette had cried out.
"And everything was so beautiful, so fresh, almost too much so. It was as if time had been abolished, as if the tens of thousands of years of separation no longer existed, and we were not alone, the painters were here too. We could feel their presence. We were disturbing them."
The cave painters used three colours: haematite for their reds, ochres for the yellows and browns, and oxide of manganese or charcoal for their blacks. They didn't use a binding medium, they simply mixed the colours and, then with the powder, mixed it with water. And surprisingly it's the dampness, the continual dripping of the limestone caves which has preserved the paintings. Sometimes they blew their colours on, they made pipes from bones to blow through. For brushes they used feathers or fur, or the chewed ends of sticks. You, whilst you're listen¬ing, could be chewing the end of a stick which one of these painters might have used as a brush...
"We are not wrong to imagine that God was there". These words were written by Master Eckhardt, who was condemned by the Pope for heresy at the beginning of the thirteenth century.
"We are not wrong to imagine that God was there, waiting for a Now to come, when he would create the world. At the same instant as he engendered his Son, who is equal to him in everything, he created the world. God speaks only once. He speaks as he engendered his son, for the son is the Word, and he speaks as he creates the animals."
Time and again man has thought that perhaps the animals are closer witnesses of the creation than he is. And maybe this is because animals, who live time differently, give the impression of still living in that Now.
During the last Ice Age of the planet, these hunter-painters, who were exactly like us except that they also felt themselves to be part of the "populations" of the immense herds of animals they followed, these hunter-painters, these men and women looked at the rocks here with flares and here they found the company of animals. And the animals led them to a Now where everything met.
The painters began with the rocks. They let the rocks look at them, like Demos looked at her painter. The rocks watched them by torch light. There is no sky in a rock, so there are no horizons and no right-way-up and no upside-down. Everything in the rocks, like in our sleep, is packed, tight.
A drawn line on a rock is like a liquid flowing in a vein, and the vein traces the part of the animal waiting to appear. It doesn't matter what size they are when they nudge the surface. It doesn't matter whether there's already another animal there. All that matters is how far they have come through the rock to be with the painting hand.
Can you smell something?
Bear, I can smell bear. Before the hunters and the painters, this cave belonged to the bears. Perhaps this is why they chose to paint here. At first they - the painters, they, like us were intruders, trying to get closer, closer to the animals.
Look up, slightly over your shoulder. There's a cave-bear, he's drawn in red. He's padding from right to left, slowly, his head down... look at the fat on his neck, look at the softness of his muzzle, look at the width of his forearm, he's walking on all fours for you and his paw is about to touch the ground. No drawing can know more than this one, it's like a self-portrait, made by the bear himself. He knows the dead and the dead know everything.
Esy, thou, toi, tu, ti.
Applied to art, the idea that the early is primitive is naive. The first paintings - and these are the first paintings we know in Europe - they whisper something which is unexpected. There was no fumbling at the beginning.
The astounding talent came with the insistent need.
Here, under this mountain perhaps, they chanted, perhaps they talked, in what language we do not know. They certainly painted on the rock surface. And they waited.
Before waiting, they sometimes stencilled their hands on the rocks, and the stencil mark of each hand said "Here". And so they waited... and waited, as we might wait. now.
In this cave took place regularly some of the earliest waiting known to us. Today, space means distance, the space, say, between London and Paris, or between Paris and Tokyo.
Their space - and this is what the cave paintings tell us - had nothing to do with distance. Their space was a meeting point, and it brought everything to the meeting point.
The animals cross the rocks. They do not come towards us. Because if they did, they'd have to stop when they met us, and they never stop. They go on, and on. And in going on, they are always at the meeting point.
The Chauvet cave has been closed to the public. No public visits, other than this one, will take place. A correct decision, for the paintings will be preserved. The animals on the rocks are back in the darkness in which they came, and in which they resided for so long.
And there is no word for this darkness, it is not night and it is not ignorance.
We all know it, because from time to.time we all cross this darkness, seeing everything.
At the end of the Vertical Line I want to read you some words, written by Blaise Pascal... if I can find it now...
"We never keep to the present. We anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that are not ours and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts."