We’re underground with filmmaker Werner Herzog. His helmet lamp is illuminating 32,000 year-old cave drawings. To Herzog, these animal depictions are a milestone in the ascent of man. They mark—and I quote—“the awakening of the human soul”.
Sounds terrific. But wait a minute. The S-word—what does it mean?
Herzog compares the “modern human soul” with the Neanderthal, whose organizing principle hadn’t yet developed “symbolic figurations” such as painting, sculpture or music.
Perhaps, but let’s back up a minute…the awakening of the human soul?
Sounds deep. Which is okay with me. But Herzog, I fear, is banking on viewers colluding with our culture’s benignly fuzzy interpretation of “soul”. Perhaps wisely, Herzog restricts his spelunking to the geo-physical kind. His philosophy barely scrapes the surface:
“I just have this great joy in me about…finding images that are adequate to our civilization—that are sometimes helpfully illuminating an audience beyond what factual things can give you.”
I do feel, though, that Herzog is standing directly over the mother lode when he says that “images” can nourish us in a way that “factual things” cannot. Although I’m not clear if he’s suggesting that the ancient drawings—antelope, horses, rhinos—were food for the primitive soul—or projections from that soul.
Depth philosophers like James Hillman and Roberts Avens might want to join Herzog down there among the stalactites to help take his thoughts to a new level. They would introduce the concept of the “imaginal realm”, which they’d define as “the poetic basis of our minds”. If it’s not a familiar concept, Avens tells why that might be so:
“It has been observed that the basic disease from which our culture may be dying is man’s disparagement, if not vilification, of images and myths—accompanied by his faith in a positivistic, rationalistically ordered and dirt-free civilization.”
Prior to language or culture, prior even to myth, we have a realm of poesis. I can certainly relate. It’s pretty clear to me that I think firstly in images, not words. Writers and artists get pretty good at detecting and honouring deep impulses that are “unobstructed by the literal and dualistic standpoints of the dayworld.”
Hillman has been known to go as far as to equate this imaginal realm with the soul, itself. (!!)
So, when Herzog talks about standing before those cave drawings and gazing back in time to the “awakening human soul”, maybe he is.
I ask my very soulful wife what she thinks about all this:
“Well, dear…he who digs deepest, deepest digs.”