Since childhood, Dr. Jeffrey Skoblow, professor of English language and literature, has been fascinated by the Paleolithic cave-paintings of southern France and northern Spain. The earliest of these images date back approximately 35,000 years ago, and Paleolithic people continued to create them up to 10,000 years ago. Now, Skoblow, inspired by visits spanning more than a decade to 12 of the caves,has completed a book exploring the power and mystery of their prehistoric artwork.
Skoblow began writing his book, “In a Trance: On Paleo Art,” in 2001, four years after his first visits to the caves. Compelled by his childhood fascination, as well as questions on the possibility of understanding a long-gone past, Skoblow has applied his training as an expert in interpreting English literature by “reading” the cave paintings as visual texts. The question of what these paintings mean has resisted any attempts by archaeologists and paleoanthropologists to provide definitive answers.
“What the images mean, or what purposes they might have served, what cultural connections and distinctions they might have marked, or spiritual connections or disconnections they may have embodied ... all this remains totally unknown," Skoblow said.
In addition to what Skoblow calls the “unknowability” of the Paleolithic images, his essay focuses on their “immediacy and power.” The “odd combination of that powerful immediacy,” he said, combined with the “impossibility of knowing what it means” has given him the opportunity to write a book that combines descriptive prose with a reflective account of the history of efforts to explain the cave paintings.
According to Skoblow, the essay is ultimately interested in asking questions, “less about those images and cultures themselves, and more about our own connection to them.” The piece ends by exploring the continuities of experience from Paleolithic cave dwellers to modern humans. According to Skoblow, this text is “an atypical essay … a kind of hybrid or in-between ‘scholarly or creative’ work,” and may be seen as a clear departure for a scholar whose research has generally taken the form of literary criticism.
However, hints of Skoblow’s interest in the themes present in “In a Trance: On Paleo Art” can be found in both of his earlier books. “Paradise Dislocated: Morris, Politics, Art” and “Dooble Tongue: Scots, Burns, Contra-diction,” focused on writers who, Skoblow explains, “were somewhat lost to scholarship, once popular but no longer regarded with any serious interest, if remembered at all,” and, he continues, “in this sense,” “In a Trance” fits right in, examining a ‘visual text’ whose meaning has utterly faded from current understanding.”
“In a Trance: On Paleo Art” was published in November 2014 by Peanut Books, an imprint of Punctum Books.