One characteristic of humans is the urge to leave a record of our existence, a talisman against mortality. We hope that others will see whatever token we have left and remember us—perhaps our children, if our ambitions are limited, or perhaps the entire world, if we’re as arrogant as emperors.
The oldest such mementos (at least those that have survived) are red handprints and hand stencils in caves, next to paintings of women and animals. Of these, the earliest were made by Neanderthals in Spain over 64,000 years ago, but there are similar artists’ signatures in caves all over the world, from Borneo to Brazil. Most male archaeologists have presumed, in their overweening phallocentricity, that men drew the animals as a kind of hunting magic. However, a recent study showed that three-quarters of the handprints were female.
We can speculate, but we can’t know those ancient cave dwellers’ motivations for painting women and animals. As for the handprints, however, I am convinced that our ancestors, whether homo neanderthalensis or homo sapiens, had the same desire to sign their work as any Renaissance artist—or modern graffitist who tags the sides of buildings.
Portraits of specific people, as opposed to generic images, go back as far as ancient Egypt, and realistic, recognizable portraits probably existed in ancient Greece. Until the 20th century, in general only aristocrats and the wealthy could hire someone to produce their likenesses. Even then, it was just one painting, at one stage of life. In the meantime, generation after generation of peasants went down into the earth they tilled without leaving more than a name in the local tax records or an X on a bill of sale, if they left anything at all. And then came photography.
The earliest photographs required subjects to dress up and sit still while a light-sensitive plate was exposed. These studio images were formal, and for the working class the technology was still too pricey for anything other than a significant life event. My family has a few such photos.
In 1900 Eastman Kodak introduced the Brownie camera. It sold for $1, which was cheap enough, but you still had to buy film and pay to have it developed. My paternal grandparents arrived in Ellis Island in 1910. By 1914, they had three little ones to support, and three more would be added in the next few years. Grandpa worked in the garment industry in New York, where in 1913 to 1914 the average weekly wage for men was $15.16. A $1 camera, plus film costs, would have been a luxury the family could not afford.
My parents likely acquired their first Brownie during the 1940s, because starting then we suddenly have plenty of black and white family photos. Ordinary people, at least in the wealthier countries, could fill albums with snapshots of themselves and their relatives, from infancy to old age. We can turn the pages and reminisce, or use them to illustrate family stories we pass to the next generation. In my opinion this development has deserved more celebration than it received. We too were here, these images declare. Our lives and histories matter to us, just as the lives of the wealthy matter to them.
Next to arrive were digital cameras, and then cameras on cell phones. Now we can not only collect visual images of ourselves and our kin and take selfies at the Taj Majal, we can flood the internet with photos of what we had for breakfast. For me, unless it’s a special dish accompanied by a recipe, I’d say this falls under the category of Too Much Information. But then I’m old and crabby.
Recently someone who interviewed me about my Gay Liberation Front days asked me how I’d like to be remembered. What will people think of the handprints I’ve left on the cave wall? I replied that what matters to me is doing my best to improve the world while I’m alive. I don’t care how I am remembered, since I’ll be dead and won’t know about it.
And that brings me to Orion. For those who don’t pay attention to extraterrestrial matters, it’s one of the largest and most recognizable constellations, appearing in winter in the northern hemisphere. I look forward to his arrival every November. Thirty-odd years ago, as I wrote in a recent blog, I took a solo trip to Indonesia. It was the strangest place I’d ever seen, and I was lonely and homesick much of the time. Then one night I rose very early to climb a volcano and there, before dawn, was my old friend Orion! After seeing him, and for the rest of the journey, I felt at home.
The heavens are eternal. Or are they? It turns out that even Orion will change. Astronomers think that Betelgeuse, the star in Orion’s right shoulder, is likely to go supernova sometime between now and the next 100,000 years. It will be so bright that it is visible even in the daytime, and then it will fade away to a remnant not visible to our eyes. I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, I’d love to witness the spectacle. On the other, it grieves me to think of losing my familiar companion.
100,000 years is nothing astronomically. Will our species survive that long? Will the handprints in caves? Eventually we are all destined to oblivion—handprints, poems, photos, planets, and stars. Oddly enough, perhaps, looking up at the stars gives me comfort. I feel very small and unimportant. It’s a good antidote to worrying about my legacy as an artist and human being.