Christianity and the Commune (part III)

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Then the native soil, that which the peoples knew no longer, their roots having been torn from it in every generation by some human tempest—the native soil rose to the heart of its races. At the same time, the profound movement which cast the mystic and miserable Occident upon the rich Orient, sent flowing back upon the Occident the life of wonderful lands, of other faiths, of other legends, of other customs, and the powerful, confused sensation of a material world and a world of the soul broadening while changing in appearances, and of a universe that would not be contained within the limits of revealed religion.

The earth quivers with pride. Almost at the same hour, appear the Republic of Florence and the Universities of Palermo, of Bologna, of Paris. In the very bosom of the Church there are born spirits more religious than the Church, and they subject dogma to a courageous examination. Abelard, the Christian, denies original sin, contests the divinity of Jesus, exalts once more the dignity of the senses, and tries to establish—from antiquity to the Middle Ages, by the impartial study of ancient philosophy and of the doctrine of the fathers—the unity of the human spirit. Four years after his death, his disciple Arnaldo da Brescia proclaims the Republic in Rome. Such a life animates men's hearts, which Catholicism, carried along with it, discusses, interprets, criticizes—and the dead letter recoils before the living spirit. For the first and the last time in its history, Catholicism follows that profound movement which, from time to time, reveals to a privileged people the conquests it has made during its silence. At the hour when it looks into itself to observe the rising flood of life, it does not perceive what is happening in the strongest cities of northern France. Sometimes supported by the monarchy that feels them to be a bulwark against the lords. Le Mans first, and Cambrai, then Noyon, Laon, Sens, Amiens, Soissons, Rheims, and Beauvais transform themselves into free communes by the refusal to pay taxes, by proscriptions, and by insurrection, sword in hand. Those were the days when the cadavers of bishops were dragged through the streets.

It matters little that the incentive of the movement toward the commune was the material interest of the people. Opposed to the spirit of the Christianity of the Councils, which made obedience the fundamental principle, the spirit of France, which, by way of the Renaissance and the Encyclopaedia, was to reach the Revolution—the spirit of France revealed itself in this movement with a youth and a strength that it never again possessed. For two hundred years it gave to the cities of the Ile-de-France, of Picardy, and of Champagne, a richly flourishing civilization, confused in its appearances, but of an inner rhythm so powerful that it constrained feudalism to take refuge in the country, where it brought about the Jacquerie two or three centuries later, and—under pretext of exterminating heresy—to fall upon the cities of the south, whose culture and growing free spirit it crushed. This was the terrible ransom of the liberty of the north. The foci of energy were still too scattered on our soil, the antagonism among the provinces was too sharp for the people to be able to feel solidarity in itself everywhere and in a co-ordinated effort to overthrow the political powers which it still needed to protect itself against the enemy from without.

Filled with the eager life that had been restrained for so long a time the French Commune assigned to each person the work for which he was best fitted. It was an association of strong corporations representing every stratum of society, wherein individual temperaments obeyed no other rules than those of the spontaneous harmony we see in the woods—made up of a hundred thousand trees which plunge into the same soil, are watered by the same rains and fertilized by the same winds. The Commune entered history with a power that gives it that character of necessity which we now recognize as the "Greek miracle" and the "Jewish miracle." The art, formidable and one that expressed it, was born with it in France, and died with it there. It was the French soul delivered into its own keeping for the first and the last time. The peoples whom it penetrated with its vitalizing force could accept it and adapt it to their needs—they could not touch its inner principle without, at the same time, ruining its national and social significance. Between the Vosges, the English Channel, and the Loire it was really life, order, truth. It was the barn and the farm and the house of the cities which silhouetted the lacework of its carving and its pinnacles against the sky, the narrow house of earth and of wood bordering the round-backed bridges and the tortuous lanes. It was the thick wall that bit into the rock, the high wall as clear-cut as consciousness, the haughty refuge that dominated the sea, the egoistic abbey where slow lives wore away, to the rhythm of the hours of the church services. It was the little country church around which a few huts were gathered at the foot of the curtain wall under the dungeon that, for ten generations of men, prevented the long and fertile contact of those who lived in its shadow with those whom it confined. It was the great cathedral. It was strength, it was the dream and the need, the belly, the heart, and the armor. The same spontaneous harmony was everywhere, issuing from the desire of the people and burning out at the same time that it did. The crenelated towers, proclaimed, to be sure, in the face of the productive commune, the apparently antagonistic principle of the right of conquest. But with it they proclaimed the same principle of life: they were built by the master mason who directed the work of the cathedral. And the cathedral was born with the communes, grew during their time of maturity, covered itself with statues and stained glass, and then languished and ceased to grow when they declined and died. Noyon, Soissons, Laon, Rheims, Amiens, Sens, Beauvais—wherever we find a great commune the great cathedral appears, vast and bold in the proportion that the commune is well armed and well established, and in proportion to the vitality of the communal spirit.

The cities of France, during two centuries of relative peace, had torn down their walls. Their houses spread all along the rivers and the roads; the neighboring forests were cleared away. In observing the new organs that grew little by little from the re-formed social body—to build dwellings, to pave the streets and stretch chains there, to bring vegetables and wood from the country, to kill animals and shear them, to tan leather and forge iron—men saw that their common interests in these activities increased their strength. The concentration of the social forces made possible the birth of that wonderful hope which is born spontaneously in an organism, when all its elements harmonize in the mind which is directed toward a practical purpose that lies within reach. All the guilds together felt that from their instinct there was germinating an ever-growing imperious desire which, for its satisfaction, demanded the creation of a central organ that should summarize the effort whose power and necessity were expressed in the ensemble of the Commune. The church of the clergy was too narrow and too dark, the crowd that was rising with the sound of a sea begged for a church of its own; it felt in itself the courage and the knowledge necessary to build that church to its own stature. Its desire was to have the whole great work of building pass, with the material and the moral life, from the hands of the cloistered monk into those of the living people. No longer should the poor folk who lived in the shadow of the monasteries enter in fear at the hour of the service to hear the voice of the Church in the darkness of the low vault. The Church should be the common house, the storehouse of abundance, the labor exchange, and the popular theater; it should be the sonorous and luminous house which the flood of mankind could invade at any hour, a great vessel, capable of containing the whole city, the ark filled with tumult on market days, with dances on feast days, with the sound of the tocsin on the days of revolt, with singing on church days, with the voice of the people on all days. [The greater part of the ideas expressed in this chapter have already been defended with profound logic and authority by Viollet-le-Duc in his Dictionnaire d'Architecture. It must be said, however, that his writing suffers from an excess of laical narrowness.]

Some of these great temples, to be sure, spring from the pavement amid the silence of the crowds—in Paris, in Bourges, in Chartres, where the communal spirit did not conquer. But Bourges is a city royal and under the sword of the king; its workers, enriched by the court, escaped the power of the feudal lord. Without anxiety or remorse, the cathedral of Bourges spread out the holiday splendor of its porticos at the base of its enormous, irregular mass. In Paris, also a city royal, Notre Dame covers itself with statues and magnifies the light of the day by the rose windows of its transepts at the moment when the citizens and the merchants strive for freedom. At Chartres, whether the vision of the pure façade and the spire dominates us or whether, on passing through the nave, we are gripped by the sensation of poignant mystery, we know well that we are in the presence of an obscure tragedy of the heart. The prodigious harmony has something disenchanted about it, something in which one divines the torment of an imprisoned conscience. How could Roman austerity tolerate in its shadow the radiance, given forth by the sensuous glory of the race of statues which guards the enigma of the nave? Here theocratic will clashes with popular desire without either one becoming aware of it, and from the unconscious conflict there spurts up an invisible flame—the dull, mystical, agonizing beauty of a great idea that contains the secret of a world and cannot formulate itself.

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