He is a fluent English speaker, born to French, shaped with a British upper class accent. A soft mix that echoes in the cave, hypnotic and smoke cured to a deep rumble. He reminds us no one really knows why these things are here. His quiet voice makes the group hush deep in a cave that has seen humans for at least 35,000 years. Our guide, with sad sleepy eyes and scarf for the chill of deep cave, is an English Lit. Professor at a French university doing a summer gig he likes. He is the tour guide at Font de Gaume, one of the famous caves of ice-age art still open to the public. We had entered the cave, through a high arch opening in the rock hillside. It was like a cartoon of a cave, a perfect arch, the mouth protected by a steel wall with a locked door painted green. Our guide produced a hefty brass skeleton key you’d see in an antiques store and opened the lock.
We single-file-it through the narrow passage, the walls arm’s width. The guide stops—he reminds us we are not to touch the walls. Turn right he says as he turns off the electric lights. In the velvet black he shines a flashlight on the wall popping into view the 3D swell of a Bison chest, then the black curve of the outline comes into view, done in one master stroke, unselfconscious, sure. Ochre rubbed into the wall makes the chiaroscuro fullness of the Bison come to life. They used the shape of the rock to find the forms. You don’t see that in the glossy art books on cave art. Our guide moves the light as a pitch pine torch might have been waved across the rock wall. It’s alive again and in a dream just as it was made to come alive 20,000 years ago when it was first painted. The Bison seems to move, animated with shadows.
He shows us the charcoal marks where a pine branch was rubbed to scrape off the burnt end to open the wood to let more pitch ooze out keeping the flame alive. He shows us the great kissing Reindeer a male and female in red, still bright after 18,000 years,. The sweeping antlers of the male make a double C arching forward over the female who is kneeling with forelegs tucked under. There is such tenderness expressed—their mouths so close. Our guide tells us this kind of double curve was a stylistic device found in cave art from the Urals to Spain in a period lasting 15,000 years. He asks us to contemplate this in silence.
Up out of the cave and back in daylight he lights up a Gauloise. He and I are walking back to the parking lot down hill. I ask him which English poets he likes and his sad eyes brighten. He stops. He’s been waiting for this. “A little Keats,” he says:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
The trail passes through an oak woods; this is black truffle country. The smoke curls around his yellow fingers, aroma more like cigar than cigarette. How unexpected/expected that passage from Ode on a Grecian Urn and if you were making all this up you’d pass that one right by.