- Poet, Actor, Spectator
Section five of Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy ends with a curious figure, a “weird image from a fairy tale which can turn its eyes at will and behold itself [...] at once subject and object, at once poet, actor, and spectator” (52). The figure weds Dionysus and Apollo as Nietzsche conceives them. The Dionysian musician surrenders his subjectivity by sinking into identification with the primal unity of the world in all its pain and contradiction. But the Apollonian dream conjures images—symbols, metaphors—from this identification: “Then the Dionysian-musical enchantment of the sleeper seems to emit image sparks, lyrical poems” (50). Nietzsche distinguishes the lyric poet from the epic poet, who is nevertheless related to him, with the fact that while the epic poet loses him or herself in the pure contemplation of images, as in the relentless unfurling of poetic language, the lyric poet loses him or herself in the pain and contradiction of the world; lyric images, charged with meaning, burst with the brevity of sparks. Through the “mirror of illusion” that is poetic language, the epic poet is “protected from becoming one and fused with his figures. In contrast to this, the images of the lyrist are nothing but his very self and, as it were, only different projections of himself, so he, as the moving center of this world, may say ‘I’” (50). Unprotected, the lyric poet becomes fused with the world and with his or her images. The hybrid figure of Nietzsche’s imagining—at once poet, actor, and spectator—is such a lyrist: a poet in the world, a performer of flesh and blood, and an observer, conscious of himself in his turns.
In Juniper Fuse: Upper Paleolithic Imagination and the Construction of the Underworld, Clayton Eshleman cuts just such a figure. Three distinct, but intersecting and overlapping, areas of interest animate the text. The book is at once a book of poetry, a poet’s autobiography, a memoir of his life in and life reflected in prehistoric painted caves, and an extended scholarly engagement with the anthropology of prehistory. At its best, and most complex, Eshleman challenges academic anthropology with the test of his own experience and the imagination of a visionary poet. “Instead of solely employing rational documentation (as have the archeologists), it struck me that this ‘inseparable mix’ might be approached using poetic imagination as well as through fieldwork and research” (xv). Eshleman’s method, then, is not one but many. It is a gesture of what he calls disciplinary pluralism (xii). In this way, significantly and occasionally disastrously, among its other pleasures, Juniper Fuse offers a test case for reflections on interdisciplinarity as well as for the limits and uses of each of the disciplines involved. Readers are challenged to follow him, and this is no easy task.
Eshleman’s subject is not cave painting per se but rather the imagination that is recorded in cave wall imagery (xi). Because he tracks this “Paleolithic imagination” primarily through the roots of his own experience and sensibility, his subject is also his subjectivity. The underworld of Eshleman’s title is first and foremost the human unconscious, an unconscious which he believes can be made conscious through the symbolic consciousness expressed in poetry. (Here Eshleman owes these ideas to James Hillman’s essay “The Dream and the Underworld” and Norman O. Brown’s argument from “Fulfillment,” chapter eight of Love’s Body.) The underworld is secondly all that has been repressed or rejected from human psychology, experience, and history: unacceptable acts and urges, animal instincts, the extinction of species and potential extinction of the human race through ecological disaster. The underworld, then, is the Hell of man. It is the bottom rung of consciousness and what lies beneath. It is the back wall of human history. His guiding assumption is succinctly stated: “Consciousness [...] seems to be the upswing of a ‘fall’ from the seamless animal web, in which a certain amount of sexual energy was transformed into fantasy energy, and the loss partially and hauntingly...