Haunting the Prehistoric
Joel Weishaus"Everything remains to be said on the subject of the Ghost
and the ambiguity of the Return." -Hélène Cixous
I see myself as a specter of everything walking, crawling, running, swimming, flying, as if the secret is not unspeakable because it is taboo, but because it cannot (yet) be articulated in the languages available to us. The ghost pushes at the boundaries of language and of what I am conscious is already extinct.
I recall only once encountering an apparition that could not be ignored. I was staying at Tassajara Springs, a Zen monastery near Big Sur, CA. Sleeping on the floor of a pitch-black room, I was awakened by the flat whack of a wooden clapper. Used as a call to meditation sessions, in the middle of the night it served to awaken me to a monk sitting or floating on the other side of the room. For a long moment we looked at each other....then he disappeared.
In the morning I told the incident to some of the monks. Used to dismissing apparitions in their meditation practice, they laughed. But ghosts played a lively role in the development of China's Ch'an Buddhism, with its masters I have consecrated my life to changing matter into spirit, with the hope of one day seeing it all. Seeing its total form, while wearing the mask, from the distance of death. And there, in the eternal destiny, to seek the face "celebrated for taming natural and supernatural forces, including magical animals, local gods, and demons who controlled access to the inner recess of the mountains."
This morning, reading a story by a Japanese student who skiing down a slope was hit from behind by a snowboard, and from then on felt as if he had died and been reborn, I realized I had left out how the monk was dressed. "A 'dead' man," the student wrote, "I might be walking around dressed in the white robe typical of Japanese ghosts."
What is left out—deleted, censored, ostracized, excommunicated, banned, forgotten—is the presence of the ghost.
Would a ghost risen from prehistoric times display bodily adornments, which may have been the first form art took? Such decoration, which includes scarification, communicated "the shared beliefs and values that give the group, and individuals within the group, an identity." But how can these adornments appear on a presence that has no skin? Something more was needed, such as "fixing" two-dimensional imaginals onto the knobby walls of caves.
There was a School of Altamira, named for the cave known as the Sistine Chapel of Paleolithic Art. The writer Raymond Queneau called one painter of this group, Joan Miró, le poète préhistorique. Another, Pierre Tal Coat, tried to draw like a cave artist by using "minimal outlines of an indeterminate figure." And how do we explain Pablo Picasso's Guernica, in which hallucinatory images return from the bestial darkness of Franco-Cantabria caves to haunt the hyperrational mind of Modern Man? Or the smooth primality of sculptures such as those by Hepworth and Moore?
All art is an expression of the artist's culture, and though our brain may share the same configuration as the Cro Magnon, the experience and knowledge the neurons gain as they migrate through youth to their final home is incomparable. Thus, has been a long time since philosophers have read men’s souls. It is not their task, we are told. Perhaps. But we must not be surprised if we can only theorize the context and meaning of Prehistoric Art, a psychoanalytical skill that also addresses the archetype of the Oracle, and the prophetic interpretation of dreams.Its voice is oracular, either deep-throated or impossibly high, there is no mid-range, no baritone or contralto, although sometimes bass and soprano intertwine. Its choreography is a macabre dance played out in the same fluvial atmosphere as the oneiric mind. As "through dance the shaman felt out the vibrations of the animal world," the ghost dances in order to transform itself. Into what?
i awake in an unfamiliar cabin and walk outside onto a deck by large lake. An unbroken stand of evergreen
trees grows to the edge of the lake's far side. Looking out over the expanse, several hundred yards to my left
a river is feeding the lake with huge waves. Opening to the awesome spectacle, in breathtaking roar,
i feel complete. Reluctantly, then, i return Inside again, and fall back asleep.
As a revenant, Wovoka taught that the time was coming soon when all the dead Indians would return to this earth. The youth of these returning dead would be restored, and their advent would be accompanied by a restoration of the important game animals and a supernatural destruction of all Whites (by a flood). In order to facilitate this event, the Indians were instructed to perform a certain dance regularly, and those who disbelieved and did not take up the dance were threatened with supernatural punishment.It is clear from all the early accounts, projected from the past, their future is pinned to an insubstantial present. "All it says, if it can be thought to speak, is that the living present is scarcely as self-sufficient as it claims to be; that we would do well not to count on its density and solidity, which might under exceptional circumstances betray us.”
The ghost disappears at the moment we are conceived.
It reappears whenever we recall we've been drawn
into believing the apparition of who we are.
The ghost is always for-getting and re-membering,
receiving and continuously transmutating
the observer's flickering mind.
The ghost is balanced on a timeless scale.
When it is, before us, what is
before us is prehistoric.
Autumn morning. A variegated quilt of dead leaves warms the soggy earth. Smoke rises from our nostrils toward a seamless gray sky. Mists, the material of specters, hangs over evergreen hills and precariously-perched houses. As a shy disk of sunlight peeks through, I wonder how such a day would have been when this city was an unbroken forest all the way to the sea. Wrapped in blankets against the chill, the people would be going about their daily gathering and hunting chores. At night, around a campfire, stories discovered in historic dumps outside the Graeco-Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus ('city of the sharp-nosed fish') in central Egypt at the end of the 19th century. Running to 400,000 fragments, it is the biggest hoard of classical manuscripts in the world. The previously unknown texts, read for the first time last week, include parts of a long-lost tragedy of heroes and spirits would be enacted, while children huddled in the warm circle of wizened elders.
Specters live naturally in the forest.
In fairy tales they inhabit the long
shadows of trees, from which they
stalk children who can't find their
In mythology, they enact the shady
side of the Gods, or the Trickster's
dark sense of humor.
In old Japan, on snowy winter nights,
many a woodcutter met and married
a White Lady, who later revealed her-
self as a ghost.
As many theories have been advanced as to the meaning of the figures painted and incised on cave walls and rocks outside around the world as there are paleoanthropologists, from the simplest explanations, to using technology's latest tools. What remains clear is that I don't buy this explanation of myth as fumbling, pre-scientific attempts to explain natural phenomena. It seems just too typical of a scientific age to look at ancient mythological stories and guess that they must be a primitive stab at science. The ancients might as easily look at science, shake their heads sadly, and say, 'what a primitive attempt at myth.' I presume not only the inherent value, but also the inherent need and drive, to share stories addressing the peculiar facts of existence. Science might have explained why we see the sun rising in the east and setting in the West, but no single theory will do. We do know that human symbol-making had been developing in south-central and eastern Africa for at least 300,000 years before the paintings in Europe, South Africa, and Australia were accomplished. The so-called "creative explosion" was actually a long series of neural time-bombs.
Michel Lorblanchet wrote that "the main technique of Cro-Magnon art involved not brushes but a kind of oral spray-painting." I suggest these images of various animals formed on the tongue represent the archetypal energies of prehistoric gods, and the "roughly textured mineralized surfaces" are painted with myths lost to the Neolithic. If there is a Rosetta Stone for deciphering prehistoric art, we may find traces of it in the mature work of modern artists.
Doctor, you say that there are no haloes around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish the edges you regret I don't see.
Years ago, during nights of nausea, I'd drive to Mt. Tamalpais, in California, to a campsite circled by hungry raccoons begging on hind legs. Years later, the term ‘archetype’ denotes in Greek a master stamp or impress, and these sacra, presented with a numinous simplicity, stamp into the neophytes the basic assumptions of their culture. The neophytes are told also they are being filled with mystical power by what they see and what they are told about it. According to the purpose of the initiation, in New Mexico, my sanctuary was a copse in the foothills of the Sangre de Christo Mountains, where shadows of silvery specters slid over the snow's hard shell.
Is it because we were prey to creatures,
that phantoms still haunt the darkness,
whose eyes evolved for nocturnal hunting
while light illuminates a path
"in the sense that the Tao is a path"?
Beyond the brain’s spectrum a atopia stands sideways to the mirror we call reality. As in a dream in which Muslims in zero gravity may use a wet cloth rather than water for ritual cleaning, as is done in the desert, and they can pray while sitting in a chair—as disabled Muslims do—rather than struggling to kneel on floating prayer mats a person is recognized by "the energetic hallucinatory projection that constitutes the phantasm," the ghost's appearance and disappearance challenges cognitive theories of mind as being a wholly neurological event. Also, "to entertain those notions, psychoanalysis must rely on psychological conceptions it believed it had surmounted." If the ghost is a revenant, it returns from where?
i'm in Tibet. i borrow a car to drive into the mountains.
In one village i find the Buddhist Center i am seeking.
i have come to have my shoulder healed. After lunch,
although I am not healed, it's already getting dark, so
i must return to the city. But i don’t know the way out
of the mountains. No one i meet can explain it to me.
In Schrödinger's Paradox, a thought-experiment in which a cat is sealed in a box, there is a 50% chance that the cat is either alive or dead. But opening the box, making an observation, would surely kill the cat. While Einstein hated the indeterminate state of Schrödinger's cat , Niels Bohr was comfortable with the cat being neither alive nor dead.
"What is intolerable is that the Ghost erases the limit which exists between the two states, neither alive nor dead; passing through, the dead man returns in the manner of the Repressed." To the Freudian analyst, the Ghost is a neurosis caused when painful memories have been entombed, and the method toward a cure is to talk them out.
There is a case in the Hekiganroku, a collection of koans, conundrums used for teaching Zen students, in which a master and his student pay their respects to a recently deceased man. Taking every opportunity to learn, the student hits the sealed coffin and asks, "Alive or dead?" The master replies, "I won't say alive, I won't say dead. I won't say!"
When a ghost speaks it is with your spirit passing through the cowl of its lips. This connection between the living and the dead cannot be broken. No hacker can intrude on its code, no religion can tap its transmission lines. Speaking of the Holy Ghost, John Stuart Mill memorably described poetry as ‘overheard’ speech. His image calls to mind the solitary poet so absorbed in conversation with himself that we are able to sneak up behind and listen in. Often this means, St. Augustine said, "In no other subject is the danger of erring so great, or the progress so difficult, or the fruit of a careful study so appreciable." The Holy Ghost is energy without mass, words without speech, a dove unable to unfold its wings.
"between the spirit
and the specter, between
tragedy and comedy,
between revolution on the march
and what installs it in parody,
there is only the difference of a time
between two masks."
How many mythic heroes have journeyed to Hades? Orpheus, Dionysus, Hercules, Odysseus, Christ, to name a few. The walls of its well-trod path are painted with the vapor of airborne feet. What these figures have in common is that they all descended for reasons deeper than ground of their being. "This suggests that our primal, protectively hedged interiority corresponds to equally primordial enclosures in the external world. First discovered in the environment and then imitated and improved, these consciousness-redoubling configurations were made to summon and control—as on Shakespeare’s stage—ancestral ghosts, wandering spirits, and questing revenants."
i am in a skyscraper, negotiating with others a spiral passageway with walls of hieroglyphized plaster, down the street level.
Walking in front of me is an elder woman, to whom i say,"This is my favorite place." "Why?" she asks. "Because i can't
see around the next bend."
led the bottom
led its bitter smoke, swooned, and began to recall that the world did not come out of a creator’s hand, but grew out of this hollow place and became a tree whose fruit was diversity. Human beings weren’t on that tree, but everything that was on that original tree eventually went into human beings. You have gourd seeds in you, and raccoons, and amoebas—everything. When the tree finally grew to maturity, flowered, and bore fruit, the fruit was made of sound, and every piece of it that dropped to the ground sprouted and gave birth to the future. Least of all did she know what her prophecies meant, as inspiration and interpretation, hermit and hermeneut, don't breathe the same air.
The poet Clayton Eshleman, who spent more than twenty-five years
visiting, writing, and theorizing about the caves in southern Europe,
said that I should "try to make the journey sometime." Ever since
I became an artist the dampness of the caves has wakened me
me at night, chilled as if rising from an ancient grave. My black
walls appear to be painted with the silhouettes of magnificent
animals, while echoing wordless voices lull me into deeper
dreams. If I could inhale exhaled air before the cave was
opened; if I could place my hands against their hand-
prints...but this is no longer possible. What I'll do,
then, is haunt what was & what continues to be.
Some Stray Thoughts on Ghosts Before They Disappear
- Ghosts are children of the moon, which is why women are so haunting.
- After dying, one sees living beings as ghosts and ghosts as living beings.
- A ghost is always somewhere other than where we think it is.
- Ghosts occupy dysfunctional spaces.
- A ghost is a trickster turned outside in.
- Why does the anticipation of a ghost send chills through an otherwise warm body?
- Ghosts put all knowledge into question as they themselves are questionable.
- Related to oracles, ghosts are cloaked in an aura of infallibility.
- Ghosts live between thoughts, between memories, between lives.
- A ghost doesn’t occupy space as we know it. Its space is unconditional, but not acausal.
- What is uncanny is also prehistoric, a familiarity that can't be grasped.
- Thoughts rise from the mind’s haunt, whose source we can only imagine.
- That which returns is not that which was before.
- Where we run out of theories of why anything exists, there stands a ghost.
The word 'haunting': M. Wigley, The Architecture of Deconstruction: Derrida's Haunt. Cambridge, MA., 1993.
the secret is not: C. Davis, "État Présent: Hauntology, Spectres and Phantoms." French Studies. July 2005.
I have consecrated: J-P Witkin (1986). Quoted in D.L. Strauss, Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics. New York, 2003.
celebrated for taming: S. Heine, Opening a Mountain: Koans of the Zen Masters. Oxford, England, 2002.
the editors: Peter Buse and Andrew Stott. New York, 1999.
a 'dead' man: I. Yasuhiro, "Spirit." Kyoto Journal 66 (2007)
the shared beliefs: L.S. Barham, "Art in Human Evolution." In, G. Berghaus, Editor. New Perspectives on Prehistoric Art. Westport, CT., 2004.
fixing: J. D. Lewis-Williams, "Consciousness, Intelligence, and Art: A View of the West European Middle to Upper Paleolithic Transition." Ibid.
minimal outlines: R. Cardinal, "European Modernism and the Arts of Prehistory." Ibid.
Thus, it has been: E.M. Cioran, The Trouble With Being Born. New York, 1998.
through dance: S. Lonsdale, Animals and the Origins of Dance. New York, 1982.
Wovoka taught: T.W. Overholt, “The Ghost Dance of 1890 and the Nature of the Prophetic Process.” Ethnohistory, Winter, 1974.
All it says: F. Jameson, “Marx’s Purloined Letter.” In, M. Sprinker, Editor, Ghostly Demarcations. London, 1999.
discovered in historic dumps: D. Keys & N. Pyke, “Decoded at last: the 'classical holy grail' that may rewrite the history of the world." 17 April 2005. http://news.independent.co.uk/world/ science_technology/story.jsp? story= 630165
White Lady: The White Lady appears all over the world, usually as a ghost. Her most famous literary appearance is in Robert Graves’, The White Goddess: "The Goddess is a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips red as rowan-berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into sow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid, or loathsome hag....” [p.10, 1948 edition]
I don't buy this explanation: D. Anderson, “Re: Further response to Robert (Segal)’s Further Response.” International Association for Jungian Studies Discussion List. April 25, 2007.
Michel Lorblanchet: See, "Spitting images: Replicating the spotted horses of Peche Merle." Archaeology, Vol. 44, #6, (1991).
creative explosion: J.E. Pfeiffer, The Creative Explosion: An Inquiry into the Origin of Art and Religion. New York, 1982.
roughly textured: B.M. Stafford, Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images. Chicago, 2007.
Doctor, you say: L. Mueller. From, "Monet Refuses the Operation."
the term 'archetype': V. Turner, “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage. In, L.C. Mahdi, S. Foster, M. Little, Editors., Betwixt & Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation. LaSalle, IL, 1987.
Muslims in zero gravity: A Kenigsberg, “Islam Hits International Space Station.” Discover. August 2006.
in the sense: M. Pulver, "The Experience of Light in the Gospel of St. John..." J. Campbell, Editor, Spiritual Disciplines. Princeton, NJ., 1985.
the energetic: R. Luckhurst, “Something Tremendous, Something Elemental’ On the Ghostly Origins of Psychoanalysis.” In, P. Buse and A Stott, Editors, Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History. New York, 1999.
to entertain: Ibid.
What is intolerable: H. Cixous, “Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche.” New Literary History 7 (1976).
Hekiganroku: Blue Cliff Record. T.F. Cleary & J.C. Cleary, Translators. Boston, 2005.
John Stuart Mill: L. Hammer, “Overheard Speech.” Review of Helen Vendler’s Invisible Listeners: Lyric Intimacy in Herbert, Whitman and Ashbery. New York Times Book Review 16 Oct 2005.
In no other: De Trin., I, iii, 5
Between the spirit: J. Derrida. Specters of Marx. New York, 1994.
This suggests: B.M. Stafford, Echo Objects. Chicago, 2007.
I am in a skyscraper: Transcribed and annotated for "Paul Harryn: Neuro Series" Gallery Catalog, 1993.
that the world: M. Prechtel. “Saving the Indigenous Soul: An Interview With Martin Prechtel by Derrick Jensen.” The Sun, April 2001.
This project originated from two emails I sent on Sept 10, 2007. The first letter was sent to Digital Poetry scholar, Jorge Luiz Antonio: "Hi Jorge. How come my work isn't mentioned, even in passing, in Chris Funkhouser's Prehistoric Digital Poetry? It's like I'm a ghost (again)!" I forwarded this letter to the poet Anny Ballardini, who replied: "Hi Dear Joel. This reaches me out of the blue, I don't know the context. You're no ghost!"
"Haunting the Prehistoric" is dedicated to gifted friends who died too young. And to the memory of Jacques Derrida. Having lived a full life, he had much to say about ghosts, and almost everything else.
Thank you to Jorge Luiz Antonio, Anny Ballardini, and Chris Funkhouser, without whom this project wouldn't have appeared.