Scratched on a stone LRB January 27, 2022
Inot August 2006 I visited an architect friend called David Martin who lived near the town of Montignac in the Dordogne. He was in the middle of a complicated job of transforming the interior of a nearby castle, which had been acquired by a wealthy Japanese client. One evening he brought out a large, rather dirty wooden crate. “I found it hidden in the back of a cupboard in the castle. These are the papers of a local poet who lived there, Jean-Luc Champerret. Have you heard of him?
The crate, when I finally opened it, contained papers, some loose, some bound in bundles, all covered in thick brown dust, as well as a few rusty pens, bits of charcoal, several bundles of letters, three small notebooks including one black, one gray, one blue – and six copies of a volume of poems by Champerret, Songs of the Dordogne, published in 1941 by a small publishing house in Périgueux, Editions du Noir (presumably a reference to Périgord Noir, the region south of Périgueux, which takes its name from the black oaks that grow there). The poems were written in rhymed alexandrines and were based on, or attempted to recreate, peasant songs from the region. The papers were flimsy and some of the sheets turned to dust when you picked them up. What survived included notes and other poems, written in much shorter lines, accompanied by diagrams reminiscent of Chinese calligraphy, and a number of abstract charcoal drawings done on standard blank Post Office postcards. There were also a number of visual poems with words and letters of varying sizes spread sparsely across the page, possibly indebted to Apollinaire, certainly influenced by Mallarmé. A roll of the dice, of which they seemed a late imitation. The gray notebook, the first I opened, was titled “Notes on Lascaux,” and was written in pencil. The first 36 pages were filled with handwriting and diagrams in tiny, impenetrable handwriting. The rest of the notebook was blank.
There was little on Champerret – I found no other trace of Songs of the Dordogne, and the National Library did not hold a copy. He does not appear to have published any other works. My few contacts in university French departments had not heard of him. However, I managed to find his birth certificate via the town hall in Montignac. He was born in the village of Moustier, on the road from Les Eyzies to Montignac, on September 11, 1910, to Alice Rose Champerret and Gaston Yves Champerret. But there was nothing more. David Martin put me in touch with Isabelle Dupois, who had worked as a chambermaid at the chateau where the crate had been found. She told me that Champerret was living in Paris at the start of the war and had, she thought, briefly been a member of a Resistance cell which included a tall, nervous Irishman, before being forced to flee the capital to return in the Dordogne. There, he had gone to live in the castle, requisitioned by the local Resistance. He was a discreet man, who didn’t say much, but she knew he had worked as a decryptor. When Lascaux was discovered by four schoolchildren and their Robot dog on September 12, 1940, Champerret was sent by his cell to inspect the caves, in case they could serve as a hiding place for resistance fighters. Nothing came of it: within days everyone in the region was aware of the discovery of a remarkable new set of cave paintings in the hills south of Montignac. Then in February 1942, the castle was raided by the Gestapo. Champerret escaped, but Dupois knew nothing of his subsequent moves. “Has he ever been married?” I asked him. “No,” she replied emphatically, “he wasn’t the type.
The notebooks, I quickly realized, provided the key to Champerret’s work. During his clandestine excursion to Lascaux, made before archaeologists set foot there, Champerret had not only assessed the potential of the caves for Resistance operations, but had examined the paintings very closely, and in particular the signs and marks. He used his code-breaking skills to examine them, and the notebooks contain the fruit of his ruminations. They are not always easy to decipher and some pages are missing, many are blank and in seemingly crucial places they look like they have been chewed up by rodents. And these are notebooks: the arguments are neither advanced nor advanced systematically.
Champerret seems to suggest that the signs he found in the caves – signs that later generations almost unanimously found uninterpretable – should be read as a form of primitive writing, and in the last pages of the Blue Book offers meanings that should be attached to each sign. . A row of vertical lines could perhaps represent spears, or a forest, or even rain. An upside-down “v” sign (or two such signs, one above the other) can represent mountains or huts. A line of dots can represent people, travel, faces, or stars. A row of horizontal lines can represent mist or night. A sign resembling an upside-down question mark could represent a club; a sign resembling a three-quarter circle with a dot in the middle, an eye; a winding line or a group of lines a river, etc. “The sign”, he remarks at one point, “is never arbitrary”. These signs, he argues, could be linked together to form primitive sentences, or to carry messages if carved on a stone or a piece of bark, or in the earth with a stick. Or they could simply register a transaction between tribes. So, for example, the sign of the mountains in conjunction with the sign of travel might imply that a hunting party had crossed the mountains. A group of signs representing antlers could record the goods handed over in an exchange.
Champerret draws attention to the three-by-three square grilles that are frequently found on the walls of the cave, notably in the polychrome coat of arms under the Black Cow in the nave of Lascaux. Take a leap in the dark – and isn’t that what the leaping horses that line the ceiling of the axial gallery of Lascaux ask of us? – Champerret proposes that these grids serve as frameworks for the insertion of signs. Just as the signs of mountain and travel, put in conjunction, acquire meanings, so a grid filled with signs and engraved on a stone could carry a message. When the grid is filled with forest signs and fire signs, for example, it can be a warning that the forest is going to burn. But Champerret goes further, proposing that although the grids may originally have been used for practical purposes, they evolved to form the basis of early written poetry. It’s an amazing proposition.
Just as Wittgenstein argues that one does not learn a game by reading a rulebook but by playing it, Champerret seems to have believed that practice would prove or disprove the validity of his idea, and so he began to write poetry. using these signs and grids. It is unclear whether he decided the possible meanings for the individual signs in advance, or whether the compositional process suggested these meanings, but the latter seems more likely. The notes attached to each sign seem to have been completed and developed as he worked on the poems.
Starting from the postulate that nine signs extracted from the network of caves and inserted into the grid three by three would make a poem, Champerret wrote (if one includes its variants) more than six hundred of them. His method breaks down into five steps: a) he fills in the grid with signs; b) he minimally “translates” the signs into French; c) he writes through the first translation, adding connecting words, to make the poem easier to read in modern French, translating the three-by-three structure of the grid into three stanzas of three lines each; d) he writes a first variation on the poem, elaborating certain lines and embellishing the detail, as a shaman or an oral poet might vary the bare outline of an inherited story; e) it repeats this process, continuing to elaborate and embellish the original, while retaining the stanza pattern, although the lines are gradually indented to echo the original three-by-three structure as it is spread laterally and vertically on the page.
Here is one of these poems, in its translated variants:
sun buffalo eye
bison horns spears
paw bison club
is the sun
is like the bright sun
are like sharp spears
are like heavy clubs
The white eye
is like a star at night
are like sharp spears
are like heavy clubs
Champerret continues his explorations in his Blue Notebook, experimenting with other grids found at Lascaux: simple squares, for a single sign; squares separated by a vertical line, where two signs could be inserted; squares divided by two vertical lines and a horizontal line, where six signs could be inserted; and grids four by four, accommodating sixteen signs. With these grids, Champerret was able to write short poems, stemming from a single sign, as well as longer stories.
One of the crate letters suggests that he wrote a document, now lost, explaining his work. The letter is from the director of the Musée de l’Homme, Paul Rivet, and is dated June 1941.
Thank you for your essay on the Lascaux caves and the mysterious signs found there. We have received a great deal of correspondence concerning Lascaux since its discovery in September 1940, and unfortunately it is not possible to respond in detail to every request. The study of the parietal art of the Upper Paleolithic is a science, and must be left in the hands of specialists, because the interference of amateurs can only damage this sacred national heritage in the long term. Your work is pure fantasy. The signs you describe bear no resemblance to those discovered at Lascaux, and meticulously recorded in tracings and documented in detail by Abbé Breuil, as indicated in his report presented to the Académie des Inscriptions et des Belles Lettres in October 1940.
I sincerely advise you not to pursue your speculations, and advise you in this moment of national turpitude to direct your considerable energies elsewhere.
Rivet’s belief that there were discrepancies between Champerret’s collection of signs and that of Lascaux is not unfounded, but his dismissal is hasty. He had something else in mind: in June 1941, he worked to set up a Resistance network operating from the Musée de l’Homme. Indeed, in his letter he clearly urges Champerret to get involved in the Resistance himself, ignoring the mission that had brought the poet to the caves in the first place.