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EGYPT is the first of those undulations which civilized societies make on the surface of history—undulations that seem to be born of nothingness and to return to nothingness after having reached a summit. She is the most distant of the defined forms which remain upon the horizon of the past. She is the true mother of men. But although her achievement resounded throughout the whole duration and extent of the ancient world, one might say that she has closed herself within the granite circle of a solitary destiny. It is like a motionless multitude, swelled with a silent clamor.

Egypt sinks without a cry into the sand, which has taken back, successively, her feet, her knees, her thighs, and her flanks, with only her breast and brow projecting. The sphinx has still, in his crushed visage, his inexorable eyes, outlined by rigid lids, which look inward as well as outward into the distance, from elusive abstractions to the circular line where the curve of the globe sinks downward. To what depth do his foundations go, and how far around him and below him does history descend? He seems to have appeared with our first thoughts, to have followed our long effort with his mute meditation, to be destined to survive our last hope. We shall prevent the sand from covering him entirely because he is a part of our earth, because he belongs to the appearances amid which we have lived, as far back as our memories go. Together with the artificial mountains with which we have sealed the desert near him, he is the only one of our works that seems as permanent as the circle of days, the alternation of the seasons, and the stupendous daily drama of the sky.

The immobility of this soil, of this people whose monotonous life makes up three-quarters of the adventure of humanity, seems to have demanded lines of stone to bind it, and these lines define the soil and the people even before we know their history. Everything around the pyramids endures. From the Cataracts to the Delta, the Nile is alone between two identical banks, without a current, without a tributary, without an eddy, rolling on, from the depths of the centuries, its regular mass of water. Fields of barley, of wheat, of corn, palm trees, sycamores. A pitiless blue sky, from which the fire flows ceaselessly in sheets, almost dark during the hours of the day when the eye can look at it without difficulty, lighter at night when the rising tide of stars spreads its light there. Torrid winds rise from the sands. In the light, where the hot air vibrates, shadows are sharply outlined on the ground, and the unalterable colors—indigos, baked reds, and sulphurous yellows, turned to molten metal by twilights of flame, have only, as their transparent veil, the periodically changing green and gold of the cultivated land. A silence in which voices hesitate as if they feared to break crystal walls. Beyond these six hundred leagues of fixed and powerful life, the desert—without any other visible limit than the absolute circle which is also the horizon of the sea.

The desire felt there to seek and give form to eternity, imposes itself on the mind—the more despotically since nature retards death itself in its necessary acts of transformation and recasting. The granite is unbroken. Beneath the soil are petrified forests. In that dry air, wood that has been abandoned retains its living fibers for centuries, cadavers dry up without rotting. The inundation of the Nile, the master of the country, symbolizes, each year, perpetual resurrection. Its rise and fall are as regular as the apparent march of Osiris, the eternal sun, who arises each morning from the waters and disappears each evening in the sands. From the 10th of June to the 7th of October he pours on the calcined countryside the same fat, black mud, the mud which is the father of life.

The Egyptian people never ceased to contemplate death. It offered the spectacle without precedent, and without another example to follow it, of a race intent for eighty centuries on arresting the movement of the universe. It believed that organized forms alone died, amid an immovable nature. It accepted the world of the senses only so long as it seemed to endure. It pursued the persistence of life in its changes of aspect. It imagined alternate existences for itself. And the desire all men have to survive mortal death caused the Egyptians to endow the soul with that individual eternity of which the duration of cosmic phenomena gave them the vain appearance.

In their estimation man entered upon his true life at death. But, no less than in all the conceptions of immortality which succeeded theirs, did the desire of the Egyptians for immortality escape the irresistible need to assure a material envelope to the ever-living spirit. It was, therefore, necessary to construct a secret lodging, where the embalmed body should be sheltered from the elements, from beasts of prey, and especially from men. It must have with it its familiar objects—food and water; it was necessary above all that its image, the unchangeable envelope of the double which should not leave it again, should accompany it into the final shadow. And since nothing dies, it was necessary to shelter forever the symbolic divinities expressing the immutable laws and the resurrection of appearances—Osiris, fire, and the heavenly bodies, the Nile and the sacred animals which regulate the rhythm of their migration by the rhythm of its tides and its silences.

Egyptian art is religious and funerary. It began with the strangest collective madness in history. But since its poem to death lives, it touches the highest wisdom. The artist saved the philosopher. Temples, mountains raised by the hands of men, the Nile's own cliffs cut into sphinxes, into silent figures, dug out into labyrinthine hypogees, make a living alley of tombs to the river. All Egypt is there, even present-day Egypt which has required the most unchanging of the great modern religions; all Egypt, with its broken enigmas, its cadavers buried like treasures, perhaps a billion mummies lying in the darkness. And that Egypt which wanted to eternalize its soul with its bodily form is dead. The Egypt that does not die is the one which gave to stoneware, to granite, and to basalt the form of its mind. Thus the human soul perishes with its human envelope. But as soon as it is capable of cutting its imprint in an external material—stone, bronze, wood, the memory of generations, the paper which is recopied, the book which is reprinted and which transmits from century to century the heroic word and the songs—it acquires that relative immortality which endures so long as those forms shall endure in which our world has continued long enough to permit us to define it, and, through those forms, to define ourselves.

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