Transfixed by Prehistory

An Inquiry into Modern Art and Time

Maria Stavrinaki
Translated by Jane Marie Todd

Zone Books ($35)

by W. C. Bamberger

In the first sentence of Transfixed by Prehistory, Maria Stavrinaki declares that prehistory is an invention of the nineteenth century; the subtitle of the book refers to her assertion that early moderns were "transfixed by prehistory, initially in the sense of being petrified by shock." Throughout, she demonstrates how the revelation of the existence of prehistory drastically changed the science, the art, the metaphors, and even the concept of time in the modern world. The invention of prehistory moved outward from geology and paleontology to the arts and sciences that have humankind as their objects, including linguistics, ethnology, psychology, and literature. New metaphors arose; geological erosion came to represent human mortality.

Stavranaki considers a wide range of prehistory's effects. She looks at the extent of the influence of discoveries by Lascaux on modern art, of geology on Cezanne and Max Ernst, and of prehistory's philosophical implications for Paul Klee, among others. Klee, for example, thought these discoveries revealed "the present state of outward appearances in his own world as accidentally fixed in time and space," "a simple stage in an evolution . . ." Stavranaki points out prehistory’s influence in more recent art as well, looking at the work of Robert Morris and at Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty, for example. While some of these attempts to identify parallels between more recent artists' works and the prehistorical can seem less than convincing, she offers insights from a great variety of sources, ranging from historical records to the science fiction of J. G. Ballard; especially interesting is an excerpt from a letter written by Claude Lévi-Strauss to Georges Bataille, disagreeing with Bataille's view of Lascaux.

As the book proceeds, it becomes clear that Stavranaki's points could be supported by looking at nearly everything around us—we are, in many ways, a continuation of prehistory. The invention of prehistory affected not only our views of the past and understanding of the present, but also, for some, the conception of the future. That is, "the tendency to improvement" over such spans of time suggested that the process would continue indefinitely: "Assurances about the future were thus to be found, quite simply, in the past: time formed an uninterrupted line." To some, however, the same discoveries suggested the opposite—that there might come an end to human time. The invention of prehistory introduced the idea of that we might one day have successors.

Stavranaki's reasoning proceeds speedily, and there are places where slow, careful reading is required to follow what is being said. This is partly due to some unfamiliar terms: "mobilary art" for small objects that can be moved from place to place, and "parietal art” for what we usually call cave art—though technical terms are usually introduced smoothly. The larger reason for the need for slow reading is the serious and sober approach Stavranaki takes to her subject. This flies in the face of the recent leaning of many scholarly books toward popularization; rather than taking time to reassure readers that she likes some of the same rock bands she assumes we must like, Stavranaki takes up detailed analysis of her subject from page one.

There are metaphysical speculations here, but there are simple human anecdotes, too. Stavranaki includes the well-known story of the explorer who was so fixated on a cave's floor that he didn't notice the drawings above; his eight-year-old daughter looked up, saw them, and pointed them out to him. Another discoverer she cites wrote that he couldn't really "see" engravings that were visible on the wall until he also traced them with his fingers.

Stavranaki employs some rhetorical flourishes in the interest of making interesting points; for example, she asserts that explorers' and researchers' presentations of the facts of prehistory meant that "science now ranked alongside fiction, because it proved the reality of the impossible." At another point, she posits that because there are no written records, nor any named individual creators, prehistory can't be "done," can't be tied up neatly, can't be consolidated in the past. Rather, she argues, it remains to be done, inexhaustibly so—it remains "as an enigma from the past to be interpreted in terms of the present's needs." In her concluding paragraph, she writes, "Prehistory is no doubt the only land that remains for us to discover." This thoughtful, no-nonsense book would be a useful guide for anyone setting out on such an ambitious expedition.


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