Monday, November 14, 2022

The Lascaux Notebooks by Jean-Luc Champerret

Lascaux, a placename standing for the abyssal revelation of the cave paintings discovered there after millennia in darkness, and Notebooks, suggesting a private endeavour, preparation, a work to come. While neither is secret as such, neither was meant for the light. Two intrigues then for the price of one. 

Of the notebooks, Philip Terry explains that he was offered a dusty crate found in a chateau under renovation that contained the disintegrating papers of an obscure French poet who had scouted the Lascaux caves as a possible hideout for his wartime Resistance cell in which he worked as a codebreaker (a cell that included “a tall wiry Irishman”). The poems found among the papers are Terry's translations from the French of Champerret's translation into contemporary poetic forms of the signs and symbols painted or carved alongside the famous paintings of animals. 

According to The First Signs by the paleoarchaeologist Genevieve von Petzinger, there has been little attention given to the meaning and significance of the signs and, while she doesn't offer a translation herself, she does say they could be humanity's first writing system. This gives retrospective mitigation to Champerret and he uses the freedom to gradually augment their spartan form to create the atmospherics of a domestic Ice Age scene. There are numerous others: descriptions of mountainous landscapes, the killing and butchery of prey, burial rituals, and ceremonies performed by shaman. As the poems follow the seventy signs listed in the back of the collection, the vocabulary is limited and over 380 pages this can be a monotonous read, enlivened by occasional use of prose and the patterning Mallarmé used in Un coup de dés. Even so, in the movement of each poem we sense from a state of deathless being in the world to one of displacement and distance – storytelling – stimulating in the reader an awareness of the profoundest moment in human evolution, which one cannot say of most other books of poetry.

"Movement" and "evolution" may be deceptive words here because everything changed as the first sign was simultaneously carved and read. A space opened in that instant, differing from the animal paintings because they are recognisable as representations of animals, whereas what the signs represent retreats behind their appearance, opening a beyond to their purely communicative value. Yes, the scholars say that the signs must have meant something to those who created them except, in such an act, a world apart was exposed. This is the great secret of the signs; an open secret which nevertheless remains.

What is also an open secret is that there was no Jean-Luc Champerret, no crate of papers, no poems in French. It’s curious then that of the four reviews of that I’ve found of The Lascaux Notebooks only one of them is aware that the author and his poems are inventions. Despite this, two reviewers take on face value Terry’s origin story, which one might think too literary to be true, with the hint of Champerret's connection to Beckett removing the benefit of the doubt. Of course, one cannot expect a reviewer to know an author's previous publications but one might hope they would look up Terry's name and discover that he edited The Penguin Book of Oulipo as well as works by the most renowned Oulipean of all, if not also notice that the blurb for his 2021 novel Bone announces that it was written without “letters with descenders (g, j, p, q, y)”. This prison narrative is in the spirit of the linguistic exercises by which the uninvented Dr Edith Bone maintained her sanity while solitary confinement for seven years; a literary embodiment of the prison-house of language and the unexpected spaces confinement might open, marvellously independent of authorial intention, all of which may have led reviewers to hear the echo of “Sham Perec” in Jean-Luc’s surname. [Update: I now understand one of the reviews didn't mention it in order not to spoil the effect.]

Missing this is perhaps an insignificant detail, a mere point of order, as is the fact that the story of the discovery of the Lascaux cave is itself an invention. Melvyn Bragg's introduction to the recent BBC's In Our Time episode on cave art repeats it and goes uncorrected by his expert guests. In a lecture in 1955, Georges Bataille tells his audience that the story of a dog called Robot falling down a hole and whose rescue led to the discovery was either made up by a journalist or local gossip and that the true story is that a storm uprooted a pine tree and a woman decided to put her dead donkey in the hole that had opened up, telling a local boy she thought it may be the entrance to a tunnel rumoured to lead to a château. Later, the boy and a couple of wartime refugees decided to explore the hole when some other refugees they had arranged to meet in order to give them "a good thrashing" failed to appear. 

As I wrote, perhaps insignificant. But at the end of the In Our Time episode, one expert says there is still lots of learn about cave art and while "we're still in the dark to some extent" recent developments in radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology should help to illuminate what's left to learn. For the ancient people, descent into the Stygian darkness of the caves is where they discovered, invented, themselves, and us. Philip Terry's transformation of the signs into poetry and dissimulating its origin may in turn be the proper means to turn our eyes towards that darkness. As Bataille writes elsewhere in a book of poetry and in opposition to poetry:

Poetry was simply a detour: through it I escaped the world of discourse, which had become the natural world for me; with poetry I entered a kind of grave where the infinity of the possible was born from the death of the logical world.

As it is, we're still in the light.


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