Monday, September 27

Learn to look

May I have a silly story? A poor fable, a tale without its fairies? Good thank you. Then I will begin by telling you that that teacher used to go to that cave, although I will not tell how, for what. We do not know: surely some assumed that he was with a woman and that, at the end of the 19th century and in a town in deep France, it was better to keep him quiet. Some imagined that he was going to do other things, even more quiet. But, in truth, I was surely going because everyone in town went: because going to that cave, Font-de-Gaume, was a regular walk.

Font-de-Gaume was less than a kilometer from the center of Eyzies-de-Tayac – if a village of a thousand inhabitants lost in the Dordogne, in the middle of the middle of that France, could have a center. Eyzies was built between cliffs and cliffs and, forever, some of its people lived in cave houses, a hole in the rocks with a room built in front. And around there were more wild caves, so going to play or walk or take refuge in them was so common.

The teacher’s name was Denis Peyrony and he was born in the region in 1869, the son of a peasant like so many. Denis was destined for farming but he was too weak and slightly pretentious, so he went to study to teach. In 1891, already received, he was assigned to Eyzies; There he settled, gave his classes, curled his mustaches, lived as he could. On his days off, it is said, he walked through the fields and caves.

Font-de-Gaume was one of the best: all the men and women of Eyzies had ever been, all the boys had played among his stalactites and stalagmites, his bones, his boulders; so many had written their names and a date, an arrow, a broken heart on their walls. Some covered old scribbles, stains, shapes with their signs; others preferred to find their own place, not to mix their lines with the old ones. The teacher liked that space of nooks and crannies, of ocher colors, of fugitive lights, but he had never paid much attention to those brown spots: they looked like animals, they weren’t bad but who cared. They were, like his, like all the others, minor drawings.

Nothing particular. In Eyzies, caves and bones was what was left over: a few years before, less than a kilometer from the center – if such a small town had a center – workers who opened a path had stumbled upon the remains of several skeletons: they gathered them together They gave them to a chief, two gentlemen came from Paris and took them away. The place was called Cro-Magnon and, since then, there have been people who began to be interested in these ancient remains.

There were not many, and sometimes they suffered. To suppose that many millennia before there were already some men – very similar, so different – was to challenge the authority of the Holy Mother Church, which said that the Earth was not more than six thousand years old and that then a god had created man as he was and the woman of his rib. Darwin and his people were already planting themselves; studying these primitive remains was another way of contributing to the onslaught of science against myths and superstitions, another triumph of “progress.”

But those blasphemers were still few, and the teacher was not one of them. Until, in ’95, a prestigious doctor from Paris, Louis-Joseph Capitan, and an enlightened priest from Mortain, Henri Breuil, appeared in town and explained their passion: they had discovered that these Cro-Magnon men were also artists who had left, in certain caves, their ancient works. Capitan and Breuil were looking for them; they asked him if he knew of any. Then the master remembered those spots, rethought them with that new rod, took his new friends there, and together they “discovered” one of the best groups of rock art that exist in the world. One that had always been there, in view of all, but no one had seen yet: that no one had known how to see.

The story, even if it is true, is almost a fable, so it has a moral: remember that there is no worse blind than the one who cannot see, the one who does not know what to look at. If no one had told us about the stars as kids, all those little white dots in the night sky could pass for little holes, lost gods, wildfires. Or we could, more than anything, not see them: suppose that the night is black and white. Thus the teacher, when he looked at the stains without seeing them because he did not know that they could be the works of the first men. Thus each one of us every day, when he looks at the world and does not see it because he does not know what to look at.

Thus we see what we always saw, what we know we will see and we stop, so many times, to see what we could. Almost all those who speak – those who write, those who write to us and speak to us – dedicate themselves to showing us what we already know, to repeating to ourselves what we have already heard, to convincing us to look a thousand times at what we always look at.

The decisive ones are the others: those few who see that there, not far away, not very hidden, right in front of the eyes, there is something that we did not know how to see because we did not believe that we should look at it. Stains that reveal art, bones that deny mythology. You have to be able to make sense of what you see but, above all, understand that there is something there that will make us understand something that we do not know, something that we do not know that we ignore.

And the story of the teacher and his friends also reminds us that there are risks in doing so. They believed that these drawings were ten or twenty thousand years old but they could be wrong: in fact many did not believe it, it seemed ridiculous to them, the ridicule increased. They studied it, they were convinced, they insisted, they took risks – and they changed something. I mean, although it may seem like Pedro Grullo: this is the task, to ask incessantly what it is that we do not know how to see, what we have in front of our eyes and we do not see because we do not know; in turning the stain into ancient art, the blur into history. Those who do so broaden the field of vision, the whole of what we look at: they are the ones who open the way, the ones who matter.

For this reason, I suppose, the question should not be what we see, but always: what are we not seeing, that we do not know how to see? What stain is a drawing? What is there, where we do not see anything? That is why, I suppose, looking at the world is the most difficult task: looking at it seriously, with that distrust, with the powerful magnifying glass of doubt. To look at it, I say, as if we had never seen it, as if we finally managed to see it. Stain, I say: discover the drawings, understand something new.

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