December 5th 2014
There is probably nothing more fundamental to human beings than telling stories. Cave paintings like those blood-red animals in Lascaux France date back around 14,000 years, and they're all over the globe; some go as far back as 40,000 years. This is an era when people were still migrating out of Africa, a period thousands and thousands of years before stone circles or pyramids or any other human structure.
No written word then, of course, just pictures on a wall telling stories, trying to make sense of this place we find ourselves in. Here were our ancestors, thrown into existence (as the existentialists put it) trying to make sense of where they found themselves and who they were. The first human to draw on a cave wall was the very first author.
And today we are still telling stories. There is a very haunting line from the very haunting film The English Patient that is written by the injured female protagonist in The Cave of the Swimmers in the Sahara where she has been left with a fire and a flashlight while Ralph Fiennes is on his way for help. Help, of course, never comes, and so the fire and then her flashlight run out, shortly before her life does. "The lamp is gone now," she writes. "I am writing in the darkness." A cave writer, just like the cave painters. In the dark. But in a very real sense, we are all writing in the darkness, trying to poke a hole in the mystery of why we are here at all.
I'm thinking about these large questions, partly because after more than twenty years I'm re-reading Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Here's a book that was rejected 121 times before being picked up by a publisher. While writing the book, Pirsig had to hold down a day job, and so he would work on it from 2 am to 6 am every morning. That's what you call writing in the dark. But what's the drive? With no hope of publication, why did that man keep sticking his hand print on the wall?
Of course, Pirsig's book became a classic, and is these days regarded as something of a cultural icon. But that's the thing about writing in the dark - only one in one hundred and twenty-one people are going to be able to see what you're really doing. Still, this is how we as humans struggle towards the truth. I don't care if your a minimalist atheist rationalist, you are still telling yourself a story, still trying to forge little pin-pricks of light out of the darkness.
In a time before we projected our idea of god into the heavens, the human being and the god being were not so separable, and so the god was able to tell stories through the man. "En-thused." En-theos, literally means "Possessed by a god." Here's the spark, the flame that inches those drawings, those writings, towards the light. It's the knowledge that we are more than tattered coats upon sticks. Look - my hand on the wall, more than just sticks and bones. I am homo-en-theos; the eternal shines through. The story marks the moment. The writing on the wall says that this is so.