A Meditation upon the Petroglyphs of Ausevik
21 July 2012
On the drive today inland from Florø toward the fjord country of Sogn and Fjordane, my sister and I detoured from the main road to see a group of petroglyphs at Ausevik. This was not at all far from Florø, and well worth the detour. There is a large, flat rock sloping down toward the fjord that is covered with a variety of carvings in the rock, some of them recognizably representative of familiar objects, and some of them not representative at all. I often marvel how the oldest art works of human beings are the most robust and likely to outlast the civilizations that superseded them. The petroglyphs, geoglyphs, and megaliths to be found around the world have been exposed to wind and weather for thousands of years longer than civilization has existed, and they remain today a vivid reminder of our prehistoric past. Similar considerations hold for the earliest monuments of human beings: the pyramids are likely to outlast anything that came, and is still to come, after them.
To mention other forms of robust ancient art like the petroglyphs at Ausevik reminds me of seeing the Nazca lines in January of this year — another perfect example of aesthetic simplicity and mystery likely to far outlast any subsequent constructions of civilization. The petroglyphs at Ausevik and the geoglyphs at Nazca remind me of each other for other reasons besides their robust character: the hypnotic patterns of lines is similar between the two, and the difficult of interpreting that which is not naturalistically representative poses the same dilemma in both cases, and in many other cases as well. Perhaps there is no better proof of ideas in the Kantian sense (as Husserl called them) than non-naturalistic, non-representative art. Such works of art have not correlate in nature; they spring from the mind of man, and are natural only to the degree that the mind is natural (and this is a matter of some disagreement).
It has been an invariant feature of the human mind since the advent of cogntive modernity that the mind is productive of non-naturalistic, non-representative ideas. This is a reminder to us of the conceptual sophistication of our prehistoric ancestors, and of their similarity to us. In other words, we are right to recognize ourselves in them, as they would be right to recognize themselves in us, their descendents. Of course, there are limits to this identification over time, but as I tried to show in my discussion of our intimacy with the past, it is partly a matter of perspective.
In thinking about these petroglyphs at Ausevik I realized that there is both a phylogenetic and an ontogenetic aspect to our intimacy with the past, i.e., there is also a personal version of the historical quest to understand the past. This is precisely what I was getting at in describing my pilgrimage to Kinn, where my fraternal grandmother came from. Personal pilgrimages to discover one’s own origins are the ontogenetic correlate of phylogenetic inquiries into history that privilege the impersonal, the universal, the objective, and the abstract — that is to say, the traditional ideal of history as a rigorous intellectual discipline.
My visit to Kinn recontextualized my personal history in a greater expanse of time than that I had previously understood; the life of my fraternal grandmother, whom I never met, is real to me in a way that it was not previously real to me. I have been to her home and walked in her footsteps and to a limited extent seen the world from her point of view. This is the first step in recontextualizing one’s past in ever greater expanses of history. The more we can expand our concepts to a generalization of our life that eventually coincides with the lives of our ancestors, the greater our intimacy with the past and the greater our understanding of the past. If we continue to extrapolate this process backward through history, the entire universe becomes implicated in our personal existence. In this way, we come to live the interconnectedness of all things. One’s personal history becomes impersonal and ultimately indistinguishable from the history of the world entire.
I see this effort as a way toward formulating a philosophy of history that is as personal as conventional philosophies of history — be they Augustinian, Kantian, Hegelian, Marxist, positivist, or anything else — have striven toward being impersonal, objective, universal, and abstract. I am not suggesting that philosophy or historiography abandon the pursuit of these admirable intellectual ideas, but what I am suggesting is that a personal conception of the world need not be unrigorous. While it is true that most personal visions of life are parochial in the extreme, this is not necessarily true, and it strikes me as an equally admirable intellectual ideal to formulation a personal philosophy of history.
One obvious question that follows from this intellectual exercise, and the question that demonstrates the profound practicality of the philosophy of history, is whether this coincidence of personal and universal history extrapolated into the past also holds when extrapolated into the future. I can intuitively see how this might be the case, or how it might fail to be the case. It would be a further intellectual exercise to try to answer to this question in a rigorous and still personal way. Such an answer — if indeed such an answer is even possible — would point the way to a naturalistic eschatology that might be sufficiently vivid as to supplant the supernatural eschatologies that have fascinating human beings since the beginning of time (and which have probably constituted the greater part of the non-naturalistic, non-representative ideas that human beings have entertained).
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