Paleolithic cave drawing, Chauvet Cave. Werner Herzog, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

On the hand of the spirit, or where the inspiration came and went

There is an anecdote from Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams that comes back to me often. Searching for the answer to the 30,000 year old riddle on the cave wall, Herzog interviews several impassioned eccentrics. Among them is unicyclist-turned archeologist, Julien Monmey, who tells a story of how a Western ethnographer and his Aboriginal guide came across a decaying rock painting in the Australian bush. The Aboriginal, saddened by the painting’s deterioration, began to touch it up, and the ethnographer, disturbed, asked “Why are you painting?” The Aboriginal said,  “I am not painting. It is the hand of the spirit who is painting.” In a hushed voice, Herzog repeats, “The hand of the spirit.”

It occurred to me then that Herzog’s film oeuvre is one obsessive pursuit of the things the hand of the spirit has touched. For me also, this is the only reason for art–at least, it is the reason I wrote fiction and reason the world is drained of color when I don’t. Operatic as it is to say, it has been the better part of a decade since I felt the hand of the spirit strong within me and I miss it every day. I remember being eighteen and feverishly writing a story in the middle of the night. Midway through, I put down a sentence, paused to read it, and thought “Who wrote that?” It will never feel better than that. I’m not religious in an organized way so for me, fiction writing was my pathway to the divine. In one of my favorite childhood books, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman, some characters posit trepanning as a way to let the gods in. The god-hole in my skull feels sealed over and I really hope that in time, I can reopen that door, and walk through it.

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