My Cave Paintings
If I were a paleolithic painter, here’s how I’d decorate the walls of my man cave.
A couple of weeks ago, The New Yorker published excerpts from the 8,000 pages of diaries written by Patricia Highsmith, who in addition to being a journal-ist, was a novelist. She was in her twenties when she was writing these anguished entries, trying to sort out her sexual preference, whether or not to keep on writing comics for a living or just bang on with the fiction, and whether to stop at five martinis or go on to the sixth.
Just like me!
Except for the part where Highsmith was a) invited to the writing workshop Yaddo at age twenty-seven, and b) went on to publish twenty-two novels, including Strangers on a Train (brought to the screen by Alfred Hitchcock in 1951), Carol (released in 2015 as a film starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara), and The Talented Mr. Ripley (with Matt Damon super creepy in the title role, released in 1999).
OK, good on you, Highsmith.
But given all that we already have in common, I read her journal entries with heightened interest, scanning for other connecting points.
One statement, which Highsmith wrote in her journal on February 2, 1950, especially spoke to me.
Highsmith: “I do indeed grow tired and depressed by realism in literature — especially à la O’Hara, or even à la Steinbeck.”
Me: I don’t even let reality intrude on my newsletter!
Highsmith: “I want a complete new world.”
Highsmith: “Painters are doing it. Why not writers?”
Me: Why not both!
Highsmith: “I mean a new world that is at once not real, and at once fascinating and full of message, that is art, too, as simply, timelessly, and unrealistically as the best of the cave dwellers’ wall paintings.”
Now we’re talking, Pat!
I may not be able write novels like Highsmith, but neither am I an anti-semitic, racist homewrecker. Touche!
And as far as I know, she never did any cave paintings. And as of this morning, I have.
Wikipedia tells me that the Lascaux Cave contains “nearly 6,000 figures, which can be grouped into three main categories: animals, human figures, and abstract signs.”
Hell, I can do that. Maybe not 6,000 of them, but I’m working on it.
Welcome to my cave. Try not to breathe on this stuff. That’s why the authorities closed Lascaux to the public: Visitors’ exhalations caused black mold to grow on the walls, and degraded the artwork.
I’d hate for that to happen to this newsletter.
I’m not much of a hunter, aside from the kudu I once murdered, for a story, in South Africa. But I’m very much a hunter-gatherer, in the aisles of my favorite supermarkets.
And by the way, that apparent penis appears on many of the Lascaux figures. Any similarity to modern day penises is strictly incidental.
Like the artist in Lascaux, I too have a thing for aurochs. That’s paleo lingo for “bulls,” and I root for the Chicago species avidly.
The Lascaux caves were discovered in 1940, when a dog fell down a hole in the ground, near the French town of Montignac, and its master and three friends went to retrieve it.
I can relate.
I’m not jealous of my many friends who have fancy agents and book deals. I just want them dead, so that their publishers will work with me, instead.
One of my favorites in Lascaux is the wall of hands.
Which reminds me: Voting day is coming up. Stand up and be counted. Unless you’re one of those people, in which case stay home on November 2nd.
Maybe replace my name with a symbol, just like Prince Rogers Nelson did.
Or maybe this one:
It would take a while to sign a check like that, though.
Highsmith and I aren’t the only ones fascinated by cave paintings.
Werner Herzog managed to badger his way underground for his documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet Cave, in Ardèche, France. I can hear Herzog’s Teutonic accent inflecting this sentence with his trademark sadness and wonder™.
“In a forbidden recess of the cave,” he intones, “there’s a footprint of an eight-year-old boy next to the footprint of a wolf. Did a hungry wolf stalk the boy? Or did they walk together as friends? Or were their tracks made thousands of years apart? We’ll never know.”
That’s another point well taken, about the example of Patricia Highsmith.
The less you know about an artist — i.e. whether she walked with the child, or ate it — the more free we are to be enchanted by her work.
Real life, and real human beings, hardly ever measure up.