Aesthetic Religion (Plato’s Cave before Plato’s Cave)

A couple of weeks back there was an article in the NYT Science Times about the flute found at the Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany, which they now date back 42,000 to 43,000 years, not 35,000. That’s really old. I found the following speculation by “Paleogeek” re: the synthesis of music and cave art. Paleogeek cites researchers who speculate about the placing of paintings at other Paleolithic sites.   

The theory is that paintings were placed at those locations inside the caves that carry the greatest acoustic resonance. One possible interpretation is that the synthesis of music and images was intended to engender altered states of consciousness, for ritual-magical-religious purposes.

This all makes me think about the cave-like and interior quality of magical and/or religious consciousness. I don’t think there is any religion that is not in some way cave-like, either literally or figuratively. This is precisely the phenomenon that should worry scholars and critics of religion.

I think the difference between inside and outside is an important difference. There are all kinds of things, good things and bad things that can happen inside that can’t happen outside. Good things might include more intense acoustic, visual, and conceptual resonance, whereas these kinds of things tend to dissipate outside. Ultimately, however, the difference between inside and outside is a difference that makes no difference. The difference makes no difference because inside is just a smaller outside and outside is just a bigger inside.

What was the function of the flute and the so-called “Venus figurines” found nearby at Hohle-Fels? I have no idea, and I don’t think anyone really knows or will ever know. The work of what Harold Bloom has called “religious criticism” (in The American Religion) is to make sure this circularity between inside and outside is a gentle or productive one, not a vicious one.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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2 Responses to Aesthetic Religion (Plato’s Cave before Plato’s Cave)

  1. ysara says:

    Barthes on Jules Verne comments on the ship:as symbol of departure, but also enclosure. This leads to the cave – being perfectly enclosed in a finite space. In the case of ships, “the vastness of their circumnavitagation …. increases the bliss of their closure…the most desirable of all caves.” True, however of every cage and its magic: “from the bosom of this unbroken inwardness, it is possible to watch, through a large window-pane [even if there is only the window of our imagination], the outside vagueness of the waters, and thus define, in a single act, the inside by means of its opposite.” Infinite resonance, the infinite, within finitude.

    • zjb says:

      wow! thanks, ysara! do you have the source for this? it reminds me a lot about what, in Camera Lucida, Barthes called his own “stupid metaphysics.” i’m working on a project and i might want to cite this. (i’ll footnote you as well, either as “ysara” or by your real name if you want to share it with me, either here or by email).

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