The magical moment of our ninety-minute trip through the Orient Cave occurred when the guide led us into a large chamber, turned out the few dim lights, and left us in the dark for a minute or so.
“Even if you stayed in here for a week,” he told the group, “you still couldn’t see a thing.” I knew he wasn’t exaggerating—it was almost as though one could feel the absolute absence of light.
Then, in an artfully arranged sequence, he turned on the main illumination, astonishing us with the beauty of the limestone formations.
I hadn’t been inside a limestone cave since visiting Ryūsendō （竜泉洞） in Iwate Prefecture in 1991. So I readily agreed to a suggestion by my friends Herman & Fiona that we make a day trip to Jenolan Caves—which I’d visited many years ago, when I was 11 years old. Jenolan Caves is three-and-a-half hours west of Sydney by car. Herman and Fiona live in the upper Blue Mountains, about midway between Sydney and the caves. They picked me up at Springwood station around 11am and, a couple of hours later, three adults and three children were eating lunch, having already booked for the 2:30pm tour of the Orient Cave.
I have no idea which of the three main chambers—Persian, Egyptian, or Indian—was illuminated after we’d been plunged into darkness. But I know I’d have been perfectly happy if the ninety-minute tour had ended right then, after just fifteen minutes. For if Miyazaki’s Spirited Away first made me aware of my animist sympathies, the Orient Cave confirmed them.
So it was mildly disappointing that our guide, whose skilful piece of theater had provoked my transcendental experience, spent the rest of the tour encouraging us to “use our imaginations” by projecting meaning or identity onto the various limestone formations. Fairies, animals, the Medusa’s head, Cleopatra lying on a couch… one by one, the flowstones, stalactites, stalagmites, helictites, columns, and shawls were drained of their abstract magic. (I tuned out by concentrating on taking photographs—but I’d have been infinitely happier had we been allowed an unmediated interaction with the subterranean landscape.)
A related impulse was at work in Ryūsendō Cave where it seems that neither the natural beauty of the calcite formations nor the astonishing 120 meter deep underground lake were deemed sufficient—for one would turn a corner to be confronted by an exact replica of a prehistoric cave painting from, for example, Lascaux.
Does this need to impose meanings upon (supposedly) inanimate objects spring from our reluctance to acknowledge their innate—although arbitrary—beauty? Or is the desire to name the unknowable a defining characteristic of human behavior? In either case, it seems to me that the pleasure obtained from subjugating natural forms with names often comes at the cost of being blinded to the spirits that animate them.