Britain's first book blogger (November 2000)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Easter Island: The Great Taboo by Nicolas Cauwe

The moai of Easter Island offer proof of the signal quality of art. For whatever reason they were constructed, with art being the first to be refused, their multiple and identical existence transfigures the known world.


What race of people carved them? Why were so many constructed? How was each statue moved to where it stands? Why were they toppled? For many decades our fascination has been diverted by such questions, perhaps in necessity. Indeed, the initial question was asked by the Dutch seafarers who first encountered the islanders, struck as they were by the lack of timber and rope. Later the question was answered by the likes of Erich Von Daniken who claimed extraterrestrials carved the stone using advanced tools before disappearing, and more serious investigators like Thor Heyerdahl who promoted the theory of the migration of traditions from South America over Polynesian colonisation. In more recent years their answers have been demoted as Easter Island has become a symbol of man-made environmental catastrophe. The trees that once covered the island are said to have been chopped down to provide rollers to move the statues from the volcanic quarry to platforms on the coast, leaving the landscape a barren steppe. The image of a man cutting down the last tree has infused modern studies with horror. In 1992 Easter Island, Earth Island confronted us with “the specter of a civilization destroyed by reckless plundering of the environment”, a specter reprojected in Collapse by Jared Diamond. The story has also featured in recent novels including Jennifer Vanderbes’ feminist potboiler Easter Island and Jeanette Winterson’s fantasy The Stone Gods (the link goes to my review). Winterston herself puts Easter Island’s demise down to “the pointless obsession with carving”. When the resources to feed it declined, internecine violence flared and an entire culture was razed. Is then Easter Island a microcosm of global disaster?

Nicolas Cauwe’s spectacularly illustrated new study Easter Island: The Great Taboo challenges this narrative with evidence drawn from ten years of archeological work. He argues that the moai lying incomplete in the quarry were not abandoned as previously assumed but carved deliberately to prevent further exploitation, and those on the roads between the quarry and the coast were placed there to discourage approach to the volcano. The quarry thereby became taboo, reflecting “a profound change in the religious system”. While the change has long been visible via the toppling of the moai, it has been assumed this happened much like the violence attending the English Reformation. Cauwe refutes this by demonstrating how each toppled statue does not have damage consistent with revolutionary iconoclasm. In fact, they appear to have been lain down with as much care as they were raised.

Facing pages from Easter Island: The Great Taboo

For those unfamiliar with the island’s history and theories surrounding it, The Great Taboo recounts and then revises what is familiar to those who are. For example, it looks at the competing hypotheses for deforestation: newly introduced domestic farm animals, climate change and the use of rollers, and suggests they each played a part. Cauwe's opinion is more forthright when dismissing the mystery of the rongorongo tablets that have long been assumed to be an untranslated script. He argues instead that they are stylised aids to oral storytelling whose meaning disappeared with the voices of the storytellers.

Cauwe's address of the issue of the moai themselves is more noteworthy and requires some background. In his 1774 visit, Captain Cook's naturalist George Forster asked a native what the statues were for and was told they were deified clan chiefs. The platforms or ahu contain their bones and ashes and were often constructed using moai from earlier, deconstructed ahu. The coral eyes of their moai overlook agricultural land. The reason for their ultimate abandonment we're told cannot be easily reconstructed as there were no witnesses once westerners came to interview islanders a century or more after the events; only legends remained. However, Cauwe argues that rather than being destroyed, the ahu were transformed from altars for statues to altars for the dead, much like Christian cemeteries, with the moai helping to seal the ashes; a transformation that took generations while the power of the statues diminished. According to Cauwe, this would explain why Captain Cook saw both standing and toppled statues, while in 1864 a French missionary saw only ruins. So, the archeology reveals not a populace in thrall to the command of all-powerful gods than a traditional community supplicating to ancestral spirits for good harvests.

Vermeer – View of Delft

Easter Island is now little more than a tourist destination, its sacred sites reconstructed without any religious intent, making the island's given name ironic as Christianity supplants another religion based on the continuing life of the dead. Nicolas Cauwe’s narrative, originally published in French and, from a certain stiffness of expression, apparently self translated, has none of the lyric effusions of Pierre Loti’s account of 1872 or the indulgence of other personal narratives such as Katherine Routledge’s The Mystery of Easter Island (1919) and Heyerdahl’s Aku-Aku (1958), which is perhaps inevitable given the exhaustion of Easter Island's enchantment. The stunning colour plates at least offer a glimmer of an aura now faded; a glimmer, however, that still fascinates.

In 1990, John Banville published an essay that begins by comparing James Joyce to “a great looming Easter Island effigy of the Father” before which the writer stands “gnawing his knuckles, not a son, but a survivor”. Joyce, he says, is not an artist one can use to learn one’s trade:
the methods of production are well-nigh invisible, buried so deeply inside the work that we cannot get at them without dismantling the parts. The greatness, or part of the greatness, of an Aeneid, of a View of Delft, of a Don Giovanni, of a Ulysses, rests in the fact that they are, in an essential way, closed. By this I do no mean to say that these works of art are difficult, or obscure – what could be more limpid than the light that hovers over Delft? – but that they are mysterious at their core.
He goes on to say that he thinks all great works of art have this “quality of reticence, of being somehow turned away from us gazing off, like nature itself, into another sphere of things, another reality”. With this comparison, Easter Island’s profound shift from erecting auratic monoliths to sealed necropoli bounds me to think of the modern literary novel, boxing with the shadows of looming effigies of statuesque classics, always appealing to equivalence, contemptuous of sealed necropoli, yet never convinced of its own capacities and unable to acknowledge the implications.

Banville precedes his essay with a quotation: “Every great phenomenon is followed by degeneration, especially in the domain of art” (from Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human) and, following Nicolas Cauwe’s study, we might correlate fiction, specifically anachronistic 800-page state-of-the-nation novels, to reconstructed platforms without bones, without ashes; mere fodder for tourists. While Nietzsche ascribes degeneration to “vainer natures” imitating one-in-a-million greats, the degeneration of art in our time cannot be attributed to a lack of craft mastery or objective lessons of novels demanded by those putting the dick into Dickensian, but rather to the experience of the phenomenon itself.

The experience of the moai is not an experience at all but, following Banville, a presence incommensurate with formal properties. Compare the hundreds of impassive statues staring without eyes covering a fragment of earth in a vast ocean with the overwhelming affluence of accessible art and fiction in our time, heedless of an exhausted quarry and the great taboo of modernism. Banville offers no solution except to express a condition that "half the time ... feels like drowning". But what does drowning feel like?

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