Monday, 7 September 2015

The Palaeolithic artist: part 8

Kananaskis Country, Alberta
photo: maureen 
When I left you on Friday, I had made an observation about a tenth century Chinese Zen Buddhist painting which was based on something I had heard a long time ago but do not remember where. So I decided to ask a scholar of Chinese history. Had I known a scholar of Chinese art, or of Chinese iconography I would have sent my question there. Mi Gyung Kim specializes in pre-Qin history and that is more than about 1200 years earlier than the painting. Still, I reasoned that she would know more than me. I knew too, that although she truly loves the culture that she studies, she loves the truth even more. That is a rare quality. Even scholars who are trying to be that honest, can often miss something that goes against their hypothesis, or can be tempted to allow poor evidence to prop up something positive about the culture they love. Dedicated honesty in research can annoy some and gratify others. Fortunately, the latter are far more important than the former, and the former, if they have even just a little intelligence, realize that.

I had not spoken to her in about three months and I did not even know whether she was currently in Beijing or Seoul. I had a lot riding on this as I had even invited my readers to bet on whether I was right or wrong and should it be the latter, invited them to laugh and point at me. I sent her an email early Friday evening and I had to wait 24 hours before I heard back from her. For the first part of Saturday, I was busy with correspondence and that helped with my impatience but, all the same I kept worrying. What if she was off traveling somewhere and not checking her email? and even worse, what if she answers and proves me right?

Then I would...
Sorry, what was that?  ...
No, I did not mistype "right".

Remember, I had been luxuriating in the fact that there were things that I could say about the Palaeolithic artist that had a fair measure of objectivity and evidence is rarely that obliging to us. Next, by way of contrast and wallowing in subjectivity, I had taken things that I heard about one of my favorite works of art, and then did a little further checking on the web, only to find some evidence that might conflict with what I had heard. Because I had forgotten the source, I could not just use what I already had. If you can quote someone like Tacitus, or Niels Bohr who supports your hypothesis, you can just write it all up as a fait accompli and then get on with something else without having to worry about whether the former just made something up or whether the latter was just one of several great minds with differing ideas about things difficult to prove.

So, at 7.30 pm. on Saturday, I was pleased to see that her name appeared in my inbox. Of course, she explained: "I am not so familiar with the symbols of Buddhism." (Buddhism had appeared in China in the Han, which was just after the the end of her main interests and these same interests almost butted heads with the Neolithic at the other end) but then went on to offer an interpretation:
 "I think this tiger symbolizes the things which the patriarch must overcome in his mind during the practice "Zen". The patriarch without the tiger means that the patriarch successfully overcame the obstacle in his mind by practicing "Zen"."
This was substantially different to my borrowed interpretation, but, in the light of my sneaky way of making the bet, if you won or not is a matter best discussed between you and your bookie. Her interpretation, however, is in keeping with this quote from a book on Chinese Buddhism about Chán Buddhism which had started in the fifth century AD and had extended right up to the time of the painting which was a representative example of the Chán Buddhist style:
"The Zen teaching was a separate transmission outside the scriptural teachings that did not posit any written texts as sacred. Zen pointed directly to the human mind to enable people to see their real nature and become buddhas."
This is truly fascinating because Chán Buddhism is essentially doing the same thing that C. G. Jung was doing, but the old man was doing it in the twentieth century. And in the west, he was the first, Not only that, but eschewing any text as "sacred" reminds us of the way that archaeology frequently appears in the news media with its "Experts say that..." without identifying (sometimes) the experts in question and (always) why they are saying such. Reports such as this are sacred texts. They are pure oracle.  While not an example of synchronicity, this is terrific literary elegance.

But Mi Gyung is not going to just leave it there: the symbol of the tiger also appears, as part of Buddhism, in different times and places, each with their own Weltanschauung. so she gives me a Tibetan Buddhist example. You see what I mean about her intellectual honesty. The only way to track any continuity between the two would be by their contextual content, and this example contains little of that.

Another person with intellectual honesty is Professor Raimund Karl at Bangor University, and a few days ago, Ray was discussing, on a list,  this phenomenon of people sometimes so dedicated to a theory that with the aid of a single quote believe that their work is done and they rest their case. He said:
"...and that's how it should be: there is nothing more boring than an answer that doesn't create a bunch of new questions, an answer that stops us from feeling we need to progress even further but instead lets us think we have come to an end. Because ends almost invariably are dead ends."
At  that point I had one of those "I wish I had said that" moments and then joked about having corrected just one simple typo when I requoted it back I should be able to use the corrected version as my own. More banter ensued where Ray mentioned that no one would ever plagiarize something they thought was utter nonsense.

After a couple of emails back and forth with Mi Gyung and looking up some references about our tiger symbol I thought it would be nice to rephrase Ray's idea in the style of the Tao. It's always nice to try and absorb something of another's culture while you are there. I composed this in one of the emails to her (reformatted):
We can always learn from being wrong,
We can never learn from being right.
Why do people want to be right all the time?
It never leads to advancement!

I signed it: (The Tao according to John ;-) )

Now while I think it is not too bad an attempt, I would think that Mi Gyung might laugh a lot at my crude attempt to mimic classical Chinese literature: we all see things very differently from within our own cultural viewpoint

Everyone has heard the phrase: "...cannot see the forest for the trees". I think this might also be reversed to say "...cannot see the trees for the forest" and be applied to those too seriously wed to a theory. I had some friends, long ago, who would shift between English, French and German depending on what sort of subject came up in the conversation because this gave just the right nuances to the conversation. I remember, too, that a person once wanted to discuss Palaeolithic art with me online, but as that would consist of much philosophy, he insisted that the conversation be conducted entirely in German as that is a good language for the subject. I can muddle by reading French works on Celtic coins, but German has always defeated me. I tried an online translator but while that might be adequate for something posted on Twitter it was, of course, useless where nuances were required.

Carrie (Carin Perron, my late wife) was my only, ever, line editor. I remember her saying once: "If you are stuck for a subject for an allusion and your only two choices are between Aeschylus and Bugs Bunny, always pick Bugs Bunny if you want to be widely understood."

So here is an allusory piece about some of my own experiences in different sorts of forests:

You just never know where a trail will take you. You expect trails to all go somewhere and so I set off one day, along a trail through the hills just above the Ghost River to be able to avoid having to keep wading across the damned river every time one bank turned into a cliff. After going along the very faint trail  for a while, I came to an area that was so steep and covered with large slabs of loose rock that to continue would have been suicidal. I  realized that the animal trail I had been following must have been made by a mountain goat. Some trails can be dangerous in other ways if you are not too careful: I was trout fishing with some friends up by Exshaw in the backwaters of the Bow made extra interesting with all of the beaver damns, lodges and pools among the trees. My friends were getting impatient to leave because we had seen no trout. I wanted to check out one last spot and promised to hurry. You really should never hurry along a trail. I was jogging. Well, all of a sudden, just in front of a shallow channel, I saw the bull moose about 60 feet in front of me. I stopped, and watched the huge animal stomp the ground so hard that I felt the ground vibrate beneath my feet, even on the other side of  a water channel at least a foot deep. He was also rattling his huge antlers against the branches of the trees around him.  I made it back to my friends even quicker than I had left them. A beaver swore at me as I rushed by.

Even when you do not rush, it is best to make a bit of noise. It was up around Moraine Lake, I was seventeen years old. I turned a bend in the trail and almost bumped into the rear end of an elk who did not even bother to check me out. With an enormous crash he turned left into the forest and then there was dead silence. There was little undergrowth but he had vanished as if some forest wizard had waved his wand. It is amazing how animals can do that sort of thing.

A few years later, Sam and I were in Cougar Canyon, and quite a ways in at that. Sam had wanted to continue, but I was getting fed up with passing bend after bend to see only the same things, and we had reached a very nice wide spot. I wanted to rest there awhile, but Sam wanted to push on. I told him that he could do that and I would wait for him there, he agreed and set off on his own. It was a lovely spot: there were a couple of deeper pools there, a gentle waterfall came down from the mountain where I could take a shower if it got too hot, and there were some nice big flat rocks by the creek where I could dry off afterward. It was idyllic, No one else would happen along. I had the place to myself, or so I thought. It was getting much later and Sam was still not back. I was getting very hungry. I picked up an interesting rock and then imagined myself as some prehistoric hunter eager to find a deer to club to death... My God, I could really use a burger and fries about now! The forest extended a bit down into the canyon, I think the trees were aspens, They were fairly small. A permanent resident of the canyon must have picked up on my intent. I heard the Yeeeoowwwl! snarling growl of the mountain lion among the trees just in front of me. I took this to mean "Keep your thieving hands off my deer". I dropped my rock. This was in the days before mountain lions attacked people much, so I followed the sound into the trees, but again, saw nothing. Sam arrived back not long after that and we headed off to eat, bend after boring bend all the way back to the highway and the closest diner.

Sometimes, even a very big trail can be hard to find: it was with my friend Rob that afternoon, We were looking for gold up on Camp Creek, a tributary of the Goldstream River about midway between Revelstoke and Mica dam in British Columbia. It was cedar forest with very dense undergrowth and very dark. I was getting a bit claustrophobic and the rare moments where there was almost a clearing and you could see blue sky was a tonic to me. The previous night was when we had to camp in the forest in just a pup tent. It was very unpleasant experience: anything we had that could absorb moisture did so. It was also a bit dangerous, There was some active clearcutting on the approach and that attracted a lot of grizzlies. I saw two eroded footprints that looked a lot like a sasquatch that crossed the logging road that crossed a marshy area, I could barely jump from one to the other. I thought it might be more likely to be the last remaining traces of grizzly tracks, though. I actually believe, now, that some alleged sasquatch sightings are really just of grizzlies. The clue, I learned just a couple of years ago, was that grizzlies smell like a rotting body when you get close enough (black bears like a rotting stump). People had reported the corpse smell when  they reported seeing a sasquatch. The mind can play tricks on you: it might have been due to a desire to see a sasquatch, but I think it far more likely that it was the desire not to see a grizzly that close.

That morning, instead of trying to light  fire and cook something, it seemed like a much better plan to drive quite a few miles south to where a prospector ran a small gas station, sold gold panning stuff, and, if you arrived at his own breakfast time, would sell you some bacon and eggs and hot coffee. Before we had camped, it seemed fairly obvious that apart from his claim, there was nothing but flour gold in the creek. We had not encountered his claim, but he had told us when we stopped for directions the previous day that he had built a trail to it.

Over breakfast, I asked him if he got much  from his claim. "Oh no, It;s just a hobby claim" he said.
when we got back to the cedar forest, I saw a porcupine and followed it into the undergrowth. Suddenly, there was his "trail". It had obviously had been built with the aid of a big leased Caterpillar probably a few hundred dollars an hour, I thought. We followed it to see what his claim looked like. Not an illegal thing, prospectors have to cross claims all the time. It is only illegal to work one. It was impressive: he had cut three new channels with the Cat, diverting the creek  and sluices were set up on all of them. Typical prospector tale to avoid too much attention. No one does that for flour gold. He knew we would be unlikely to find his  road. He had taken it in from a distance from the creek. If I had not followed that porcupine we would have missed it. It was invisible anything distance greater than about the length of  a bus. Sometimes, you cannot see even a huge trail unless you stumble upon it by chance, following something else.

Perhaps Jung will join us tomorrow.


  1. Enjoying reading Paleolithic Artist.
    Like to rephrase your rephrasing of Ray's ideas with a follow up of my own

    "Those that know everything can learn nothing!"

    I often said as much to my youngest daughter Melina, who is an aspiring writer.


    1. Hi Kostas,

      I like that one! I can think of all sorts of ways of applying it too.



    2. Me too! Many ways to read this. We may even agree on some! All told, it is True because it rings true for all subjectivities.


    3. Of course, the ultimate truths are objective and unconscious (according to Wolfgang Pauli)