Man has found ways to communicate through symbols throughout history. The cavemen depicted scenes of their lives on the walls of caves around the world. One theory, posited by Pierre-Jean Fabre, that I find intriguing is that humans are predisposed to ‘create’ what they imagine. Nature supplies the original artistic composition and man finds meaning within that natural composition. He sees a ‘horse’ or a ‘firepit’ or a ‘spear’ amongst the naturally composed formations that the natural elements have created. This is much like how we ‘read’ the clouds, seeing a horse or an old crone leaning over a pot. We take what is already a part of our world and copy that into our art, tracing the lines that we imagine to form what is tangible to us.
And this imagining becomes something that we have talked about before: storytelling. “It is just as likely that the representations were supplements to a cultural practice of storytelling, aided by images that appeared to move along the walls under the flickering flame, for no other reason than that cave artists were, as we are, members of the species Homo narrans: people who tell stories” (Smith, 2018). Another article by H. P. Blum, The psychological birth of art: A psychoanalytic approach to prehistoric cave art posits that the cave dwellers’ art can be that of “functional pleasure” where the art is created again as a way to share stories which is something that seems to be inherent in human nature (Blum, 2011).
We tell stories everyday. We email and text and post to social media stories everyday. As artists continue to translate the natural world into symbolic representations, we see acutely the tragic demise of one form of storytelling – letter writing.
As a genealogist, discovering a letter from the past is a major find. I have gleaned more information from letters than in all the government documents that I find. There is truth in letters, often truth that goes against all the hard facts we find in government records. So, letter writing is very important to historians as a historical artifact. Sadly, letter writing seems to be a lost means of communication, much to the chagrin of researchers everywhere.
I recently found a letter written to my aunt by an unknown writer (sadly, only one page of the letter survived) in which I discovered several bits of information that I had been unaware of in my research of my ancestor, Frances Harriede Knowles. In this letter, her name is different (Huegett). Also, while I had heard the stories about Frances and her husband, James dying of yellow fever in the Florida Keys in 1865, I had been unaware that their daughter, Rita, also succumbed to the disease.
My treasure hunter friends pore over old letters and diary entries of the ships and fleets that have sunk off the Florida coasts over hundreds of years. These documents tell the stories behind the treasures that they find, allowing this generation and generations to come to understand the history behind these artifacts. One single artifact can connect us to the human experience, help us to make sense of our own world, and represent our connection to the human experience.
In this technological age, many stories are disappearing into the ‘cloud’ and can never be recovered. I think of all the text messages, emails, and social media posts that tell the story of a person’s life and weep to know that all those stories are lost to future generations.
Bachelard, Gaston. (1636). La Terre et les rêveries du repos.
Blum, H. P. (2011). The psychological birth of art: A psychoanalytic approach to prehistoric cave art. International Forum of Psychoanalysis, 20(4), 196–204.
Smith, E.H. (2018). What cave art means. Art in America, 106(8), 86–93.