The Flowers of Shanidar

May 25, 2015
Shanidar Cave. Picture: JosephV en.wikipedia.

Shanidar Cave. Picture: JosephV en.wikipedia.

Phone for Phineal toomellow aftermorn and your phumeral’s a roselixion.

James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

A wish to respond to the posting online of a cartoon drawing a crass comparison between the iconoclasm of Islamic State and the supposed ‘brutishness’ of Neanderthals has led me to search out the Shanidar Flower burial. This search and response was done against the backdrop of listening to a lecture by the art historian, and ‘expelled situationist’, TJ Clark. I’d summarise (clumsily) his talk as a rambling ‘work-in-progress’, seeking an escape from a temporality which is directed to a future, instead to ‘foresee a present’ which is a catastrophe, wrought by the arrogance of a modernity that saw millions slaughtered in the process of proletarianising ‘backward’ peasants as economic development (view the lecture here). neandthug

I feel compelled to assemble my thoughts now, as the lecture plays on, having just spent some time in Gozo, Malta (frankly, in a consumerist/touristic context), a place not ‘fully developed’ out of a ‘peasant’ way-of-life, a way-of-life which paradoxically attracts tourists, contributing to a cycle of development exemplified by the construction of hotels and apartments along the beaches and around the rocky coves of fishing villages. In terms of financialisation and globalisation, the sighting of a Chinese dignatory’s limousine travelling up a street in Victoria, Gozo last week, and the projected construction of the campus of an American University in Malta, points – ominously – to the attraction of the islands to these capitalist global powers (dark thoughts of waves of evangelical missionaries, the elimination of the siesta, the elimination of the festive calendar, the elimination of the ‘open sociality’ of the street of the locals – while encouraging the licensed pleasure of tourists – all in the name of economic rationality). The catastrophe piles up its wreckage… Here’s the comment I left under the cartoon:

It’s an insult to Neanderthals who created art and culture of their own. The famous Neanderthal burial in Shanidar Cave, Iraq, was laid to rest with flowers – the first known use of flowers in a funeral rite. Neanderthals are just as much a part of the beauty of human culture that the sociopaths of IS want to destroy.

I thought of Marx’s critique of transcendent religion’s estrangement from earthly life – human, other-than-human – in which

Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.


The mourning context of the Neanderthal rite accords with TJ Clark’s engagement with the tragic register of the writings of Walter Benjamin – prompted by reading Christopher Hill’s The Experience of Defeat – so as to cultivate a ‘pessimism of strength’ which remains conscious of the predicament we’re in, to mourn what has been lost, away from a futurism in lockstep with the triumphal forward march of history’s victors, seeking instead ‘to assemble the materials for a society’. I’m aware that I may be misrepresenting what Clark is trying to say, it is an all-too-brief summary of the snatches of what I heard and how it’s resonating with me. The homogenising religious orthodoxy of IS is, of course, as much a part of capitalist modernity as Stalin’s exterminating of the Kulaks, a theocratic modernism complete with the opening of luxury five star hotels in Mosul to cater for jihad tourists; another reason I think the cartoon representation of IS iconoclasts as ‘backward Neanderthals’ is so stupid, illustrative of the same catastrophe of progress, mourned by Benjamin, pondered on by Clark.

For everything that lives is holy, life delights in life

Early last week, on the small island of Comino – between Gozo and Malta – we found a 16th-century church dedicated to the Flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. Someone had placed a solitary white chrysanthemum on the wall in front of the church, a flower symbolising death, grief and lamentation in much of Europe, the Mediterranean as well as China, Japan and Korea.


On our return to the UK yesterday, we learnt that two British tourists had been drowned off Comino just the day before. Many thousands more people – in a modern-day ‘flight from Egypt’ – have also perished in the waters of the Mediterranean…

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