Our holidays – be they civil, military, or religious – designated by the same name as holidays of the distant past, seem, however, to have only a formal connection with previous holidays. True, we only know these archaic holidays through film, holidays during which frenzy is the rule and, with no ritualized structure, real furor is attained. Yet to the most sensitive among us, it is enough to find ourselves in front of a moving image of such frenzy to know that it corresponds to a nostalgia enduring within us and that this nostalgia, at least in this form, survives in depression. Our civilization links us to these necessities: nostalgia, no doubt, signifies something unattainable to us; we cannot even for a moment dream of recovering a richness whose loss we are only able to measure while deploring it.
But when we seek to understand the possibilities from which we escaped long ago, violent impulses cannot fail to disturb us, impulses that henceforth cannot deliver us but that offered extreme exaltation to those who preceded us. Something is lacking in us, something that we do not understand clearly but that in its absence distinguishes us from the crowds who, in great tumult, danced and leaped for joy, lost consciousness in their half-divine, half-demonic intoxication.
We were driven out of this half-paradisiacal intoxication! We know we have fallen! Can we claim a naïveté without which we henceforth have only the sense, the certainty of having lost this intoxication? Evidently, when faced with a vision of these archaic peoples – brought to us sometimes by a film, by a trip, even through stories – we cannot doubt that as a whole we are separated from them by an impenetrability within which our world disappears completely (this real world of factories, machines, science, and conflicts of interest). Such is the vision, the intervision, of a kind of incredible, marvelous, but inaccessible dream.
We know that we cannot attain this world without denying, without suppressing what we are. But in catching sight of it, we are led to forget its real spirit, its horrible tribal wars, its tortures, its massacres; or, in a less primitive civilization, the reduction of an unfortunate group of conquered men to slavery, men transported by force, under the lash, toward unspeakable markets.
Only by dint of grievous lies can we conceal the accursed truth of history. There is something frightful in human destiny, which undoubtedly was always at the limit of this unlimited nightmare that the most modern weaponry, the nuclear bomb, finally announces.
Only the first period, that of man's initial effort – ascending to consciousness in the Paleolithic era – seems to have escaped the horror that war and murder, both contemplated and generalized, then slavery, introduced. Only these – most distant – times escaped, times when man, with a perfect slowness, disengaged himself from animality through work, attained consciousness by degrees, made works of art, and, from that moment at least, came to resemble us in every way, having both our skeleton within and our seminude, furless skin without.
It is at the beginning of the so-called Upper Paleolithic that, in this way, the fundamental revolution took place, the revolution from which man emerged fully formed. Completed man? On two levels at least: biologically, this man already had the same characteristics that all men from various races have today; as for his mental astuteness, he had the power – and the desire – to make a work of art, and he so perfectly had this power that the most famous of contemporary painters, speaking on this subject, has asserted that since then we have done nothing better. No doubt magical – utilitarian – intentions were associated with the superficial joy of reproducing, and rediscovering, in a way grasping, the objects of continual preoccupation: hunted animals, sometimes deities, and then all of a sudden the obsessive aspects of the human race.
In the darkness of the caves, by the flickering light of grease lamps, objects of momentary desire and of long-held obsession were composed. These vast, successive murals have a meaning that may be outdated but anticipates that of festivals. Insofar as the animals represented are there so that the hunter, for a fleeting instant, can have them in his grasp, the paintings are situated far from a different representation, far from the neighbouring reality of the festival. It was at the end of the Upper Paleolithic that these themes appeared, enriched, beyond the immediate reality of the hunt, by the more composite reality of the festival. In Les Trois-Frères – in the Ariège department – these different themes appear all jumbled up: from an immense crowd of animals, figures that are half-human and half-animal emerge. They lead, it seems, a musical tumult, a dance of deliverance into intoxication. The straightforward animal figures were those of the hunt, but these strange – human yet animal – figures were in fact divine: for the undeveloped men, the animal, being essentially man's double, had something of the divine, the very thing he no longer attains except in the prodigious effervescence of the festival.
Of course it is hard for us to think that we are becoming completely wretched!
And yet . . .
We might have a sublime idea of the animal now that we have ceased being certain that one day the nuclear bomb will not make the planet an unlivable place for man.
Georges Bataille, The Cradle of Humanity (2009: 175; first appeared as "Terre invivable?" United States Lines, Paris Review, "For a World Festival," summer 1960)