Introduction to the First French Edition (1909)

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ART, which expresses life, is as mysterious as life. It escapes all formulas, as life does. But the need of defining it pursues us, because it enters every hour of our existence, aggrandizing the aspects of that existence by its more elevated forms or dishonoring them by its lower forms. No matter how distasteful it is for us to make the effort to hear and to observe, it is impossible for us not to hear and to see, it is impossible for us to refrain wholly from forming some kind of opinion of the world of appearances—the meaning of which it is precisely the mission of art to reveal to us. Historians, moralists, biologists, and metaphysicians—all those who demand of life the secret of its origins and its purposes—are sooner or later compelled to ask why we recognize ourselves in the works which manifest life. But the too restricted limits of biology, of metaphysics, of morality, and of history compel us to narrow the field of our vision when we enter the moving immensity of the poem that man sings, forgets, and has begun again to sing and to forget ever since he has been man. It matters not which of these studies has interested us, the feeling for beauty will be found to be identical in all of them. And without doubt it is this feeling that dominates them and draws them on to that possible unity which is the goal of human activity and which alone makes that activity real.

It is only by listening to the heart that one can speak of art without belittling it. We are all, in some measure, partakers of the truth, but we cannot know truth itself, unless we desire passionately to seek it out and, having found it, feel the enthusiasm to proclaim it widely. Only he who permits the divine voices to sing within him knows how to respect the mystery of the work which inspired him to induce other men to share in his emotion. Michelet did not betray the Gothic workmen or Michael Angelo, because he himself was consumed by the passion which uplifts the nave of the cathedrals and that other passion which unchains its storm in the vaults of the Sistine. Baudelaire was a great poet because he penetrated to the central hearth from which the spirit of the heroes radiates in force and in light. Moreover, if the ideas of Taine did not die with him, it is because his artist's nature is greater than his will and because his dogmatic stiffness is continually over flowed by the incessantly renewed wave of sensations and of images.

Taine came at the hour when we learned that our own destiny was bound up with the acts of those who have preceded us on life's road and even with the very structure of the earth from which we spring. He was, therefore, in a position to see the form of our thought issue from the mold of history. "Art sums up life." It enters us with the strength of our soil, the color of our sky, through the atavistic preparation which determines it, as well as through the passions and the will of men—which it defines. For the expression of our ideas, we employ the materials which our eyes can see and our hands touch. It is impossible that Phidias, the sculptor who lived in the South, in a clearly defined world, and Rembrandt, the painter who lived in the mist of the North, amid a floating world—two men separated by twenty centuries during which humanity lived, suffered, and aged—should use the same words. Only, it is necessary that we should recognize ourselves in Rembrandt as well as in Phidias.

Not until we have expressed in some sort of language the appearance of the things about us do these things exist for us and retain their appearance. If art were nothing more than a reflection of societies, which pass like shadows of clouds upon the earth, we should ask no more of art than that it teach us history. But it recounts man to us, and, through him, the universe. It goes beyond the moment, it lengthens the duration of time, it widens the comprehension of man, and extends the life and limit of the universe. It fixes moving eternity in its momentary form.

In recounting man to us, art teaches us to know and understand ourselves. The strange thing is that there should be any need for art to do this. Tolstoi's book [Tolstoi, What is Art] meant nothing else. He came at a painful moment when, strongly fortified by the results of our research work, but bewildered by the horizons which it opened, we perceived that our effort was becoming diffused, and sought to compare the results attained in order to unite in a common faith and march forward. We think and believe what we need to think and to believe, and it is this which gives to our thoughts and beliefs, throughout our history, that indestructible foundation of humanity which they all have. Tolstoi said what it was necessary to say at the moment when he said it.

Art is the appeal to the instinct of communion in men. We recognize one another by the echoes it awakens in us, which we transmit to others by our enthusiasm, and which resound in the deeds of men throughout all generations, even when those generations may not suspect it. If, during the hours of depression and lack of comprehension only a few of us hear the call, it is that in those hours we alone possess the idealistic energy which later is to reanimate the heroism asleep in the multitudes. It has been said that the artist is sufficient unto himself. That is not true. | The artist who says so is infected with an evil pride. The artist who believes it is not an artist. If he had not needed the most universal of our languages, the artist would not have created it. He would dig the ground to get his bread on a desert island. No one has more need of the presence and approbation of men. He speaks because he feels their presence around him, and lives in the hope—sometimes despaired of but never relinquished—that they will come at last to understand him. It is his function to pour out his being, to give as much as he can of his life, to demand of others that they also give him as much as they can of themselves, to realize with them—in an obscure and magnificent collaboration—a harmony all the more impressive that a greater number of lives have participated in it. The artist, to whom men give everything, returns in full measure what he has taken from them.

Nothing touches us except what happens to us or what can happen to us. The artist is ourselves. He has behind him the same depths of humanity, whether enthusiastic or depressed; he has about him the same secret nature, which each of his steps broadens. The artist is the crowd, to which we all belong, which defines us all, with our consent or despite our resistance. He has not the power to gather up the stones of the house which he builds us (at the risk of crushing in his breast and of tearing his hands), on any road save that on which we travel at his side. He must suffer from that which makes our suffering, and we must make him suffer. He must feel our joys and he must derive them from us. It is necessary that he live our griefs and our inner victories, even when we do not feel them.

The artist can feel and dominate his surroundings only when he considers them as a means of creation. Only then does he give us those permanent realities which all acts and all moments reveal to those who know how to see and how to live. These realities survive the changes in human society as the mass of the sea survives the agitations of its surface. Art is always a "system of relations," and a synthetic system. This is true even of primitive art, which shows the passionate pursuit of an essential sentiment, despite its indefatigable accumulation of detail. Every image symbolizes in brief the idea which the artist creates for himself of the unlimited world of sensations and forms. Every image is an expression of his desire to bring about in this world the reign of that order which he knows how to discover in it. Art has been, since its most humble origins, the realization of the presentiments of certain men—who answer the needs of all men. Art has forced the world to yield to it the laws which have permitted us to establish progressively the sovereignty of our mind over the world. Emanating from humanity, art has revealed to humanity its own intelligence. Art has defined the races; alone it bears the testimony of their dramatic effort. If we want to know what we are, we must understand what art is.

Art initiates us into certain profound realities whose actual possession would enable humanity to bring about, within and around, itself the supreme harmony which is the fugitive goal of its endeavor; we do not desire such possession, however, as its effect would be to kill movement and thereby kill hope. Art is surely something infinitely greater than it is imagined to be by those who do not understand it. Perhaps also it is more practical than is thought by many of those who feel the force of its action. Born of the association of our sensibility and our experience, formed in order that we may be the masters of ourselves, it has, at all events, nothing of that disinterested aloofness to which Kant, Spencer, and Guyau himself attempted to limit to its sphere. All the images in the world are useful instruments for us, and the work of art attracts us only because we recognize in it the formulation of our desire.

We admit freely that objects of primary utility—our clothing, our furniture, our vehicles, our roads, our houses—seem to us beautiful when they serve their purpose adequately. But we stoutly persist in placing above—that is, outside of Nature, the superior organisms in which she proclaims herself—our bodies, our faces, our thoughts, the infinite world of ideas, of passions, and of the landscapes in which these organisms live, and by which they are mutually defined—so that we are unable to separate them. Guyau did not go far enough when he asked himself if the most useful gesture were not the most beautiful, and with him we recoil from the decisive word as if it would stifle our dream. Yet we know our dream to be imperishable, since we shall never attain that realization of ourselves which we pursue unceasingly. Let me quote a sentence uttered by him among all men whose intelligence was freest, perhaps, from any material limitation: "Is it not the function of a beautiful body," said Plato, "is it not its utility which demonstrates to us that it is beautiful? And everything which we find beautiful—faces, colors, sounds, professions—are not all these beautiful in the measure that we find them useful?"

Let our idealism be reassured! It is only by a long accumulation of emotion and of will that man reaches the point on life's road where he can recognize the forms which are useful to him. It is this choice alone, made by certain minds, which will determine for the future, in the instincts of multitudes, what is destined to pass from the domain of speculation into the domain of practice. It is our general development, it is the painful but constant purification of our intelligence and of our desire, which create and render necessary certain forms of civilization—which positive minds translate into the direct and easy satisfaction of all their material needs. What is most useful to man is the idea.

The beautiful form, whether it be a tree or a river, the breasts of a woman or her sides, the shoulders or arms of a man, or the cranium of a god—the beautiful form is the form that adapts itself to its function. The idea has no other role than that of defining the form for us. The idea is the lofty outlook and the infinite extension in the world and in the future of the most imperious of our instincts. It sums up and proclaims this instinct as the flower and the fruit sum up the plant, prolong it and perpetuate it. Every being, even the lowest, contains within himself, at least once in his earthly adventure—when he loves—all the poetry of the world. And he whom we call the artist is the one among living beings who, in the presence of universal life, maintains the state of love in his heart.

The obscure and formidable voice which reveals to man and to woman the beauty of woman and man, and impels them to make a decisive choice so that they may perpetuate and perfect their species, never ceases to resound in the artist, strengthened and multiplied by all the voices and the murmurs and the sounds and the tremblings which accompany it. That voice—he is forever hearing it, every time that the grasses move, every time that a violent or graceful form proclaims its life along his pathway. He hears it as he follows, from the roots to the leaves, the rise of the sap from under the earth to the trunks and the branches of the trees, every time that he looks at the sea rising and falling as if to respond to the tide of billions of life-cells that roll in it, every time that the fructifying force of heat and rain overwhelms him, every time that the generating winds repeat to him that human hymns are made up of the calls to voluptuousness and hope with which the world is filled. He seeks out the forms which he foresees, as a man or an animal in the grip of love seeks them. His desire passes from one form to another, he compares them pitilessly, and from his comparisons there springs forth, one day, the superior form, the idea whose recollection will weigh on his heart so long as he has not imparted his own life to it. He suffers until death, because each time that he has made a form fruitful, brought an Idea to light, the image of another is born in him, and because his hope, never wearied of reaching out for what he desires, can only be born of the despair at not having attained his desire. He suffers; his tyrannical disquietude often makes those around him suffer. But around him, and fifty centuries after him, he consoles millions of men. The work he will leave behind him will assure an increase of power to those who can understand the logic and the certitude of his images. In listening to him, men will enjoy the illusion which he enjoyed for a moment the illusion, often formidable but always ennobling, of absolute adaptation.

It is the only divine illusion! We give the name of a god to the form which best interprets our desire—sensual, moral, individual, social, no matter what,—our vague desire to comprehend, to utilize life, ceaselessly to extend the limits of the intelligence and the heart. With this desire we invade the lines, the projections, and the volumes which proclaim this form to us, and it is in the meeting with the powerful forces that circulate within the form that the god reveals himself to us. From the impact of the spirit that animates the form with the spirit that animates us, life springs forth. We shall never be able to utilize it unless it responds wholly to those obscure movements which dictate our own actions. Rodin sees quivering in the block of marble a man and a woman knotted together by their arms and their legs, but we shall never understand the tragic necessity for such an embrace if we do not feel that an inner force, desire, mingles the hearts and tie flesh of the bodies thus welded together. When Carrière wrests from the matter of the universe a mother giving the breast to her child, we shall not understand the value of that union if we do not feel that an inner force, love, dictates the bending of the torso and the curve of the mother's arm, and that another inner force, hunger, buries the infant in her bosom. The image that expresses nothing is not beautiful, and the finest sentiment escapes us if it does not directly determine the image which shall translate it. The pediments, frescoes, and epics, the symphonies, the loftiest architectures, all the sweep of liberty, the glory and the irresistible power of the infinite and living temple which we erect to ourselves, are in this mysterious accord.

In every case, it is this agreement which defines all the higher forms of the testimonies to confidence and faith which we have left on our long road. It defines all our idealistic effort, which no finalism—in the "radical" [H. Bergson, Creative Evolution] sense which the philosophers are giving to the world—has directed. Our idealism is no other thing than the reality of our mind. The necessity of adaptation creates it and maintains it in us, that it may be increased and transmitted to our children. It exists as a possibility at the foundation of our original moral life, as the physical man is contained in the distant protozoan. Our research for the absolute is the indefatigable desire for the repose that would result from our decisive triumph over the group of blind forces which oppose our progress. But, for our salvation, the farther we go, the more distant the goal becomes. The goal of life is living, and it is to ever-moving and ever-renewing life that our ideal leads us.

When we follow the march of time and pass from one people to another, the forms of that ideal seem to change. But what changes, basically, is the needs of a given time or the needs of given peoples whose future alone can show, across the variations of appearances, the identity of their nature and the character of their usefulness to us. Scarcely have we left the Egypto-Hellenic world before we see, stretching before us like a plain, the kingdom of the mind. The temples of the Hindoos and the cathedrals break into its frontiers, the cripples of Spain and the poor of Holland invade it without introducing even one of those types of general humanity through which the first artists had defined our needs. What does it matter? The great dream of humanity can recognize, there again, the effort toward adaptation which has always guided it. Other conditions of life have appeared, different forms of art have made us feel the necessity for understanding them in order to direct us in the path of our best interests. Real landscape, the life of the people, and the life of the middle class, arrive and powerfully characterize the aspects of every day, into which our soul, exhausted with its dream, may retire and refresh itself. The appeal of misery and despair, even, is made, that we may get back to ourselves, know ourselves, and strengthen ourselves.

If we turn to the Egyptians, to the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Hindoos, the French of the Middle Ages, the Italians, and the Dutch, one after the other, it is that we belong now to one group of surroundings, now to one epoch, now to one minute, even of our time or of our life, which has need of a given people more than of another one. When we are cold we seek the sun;, we seek the shadow when we are warm. The great civilizations which have formed us are each entitled to an equal share of our gratitude, because we have successively asked of each the things we lacked. We have lived tradition when it was to our interest to live it, and have accepted revolution when it saved us. We have been idealists when the world was abandoning itself to discouragement or was foreseeing new destinies, realists when it seemed to have found its provisional stability. We have not asked for more reserve from passionate races or more ardor from positive races, because we have understood the necessity of passion and the necessity of the positive spirit. It is we who wrote the immense book wherein Cervantes has recounted our generous enthusiasm and our practical common sense. We have followed one or the other of the great currents of the mind, and we have been able to invoke arguments of almost equal value to justify our inclinations. What we call idealistic art, what we call realistic art, are momentary forms of our eternal action. It is for us to seize the immortal moment when the forces of conservation and the forces of revolution in life marry, for the realization of the equilibrium of the human soul.

Thus, whatever the form in which a thing is offered to us, whether true now or true in our desire, or true both in its immediate appearance and in its possible destinies, the object by itself and the fact by itself are nothing. They count only through their infinitely numerous relationships with infinitely complex surroundings. And it is these relationships, never twice the same, which translate universal feelings of an infinite simplicity. Each fragment of the work, because it is adapted to its end, however humble that end may be, must extend itself in silent echoes throughout the whole of the depth and breadth of the work. Its sentimental tendencies are, in reality, secondary: "Beautiful painting," said Michael Angelo, "is religious in itself, for the soul is elevated by the effort it has to make to attain perfection and to mingle with God; beautiful painting is a reflection of that divine perfection, a shadow from the brush of God …!"

Idealistic or realistic, a thing of the present day or of general conditions, let the work live, and in order to live, let it be one, first of all! The work which has not this oneness dies, like the ill-formed creatures which the species, evolving toward higher destinies, must eliminate little by little. The work which is one, on the contrary, lives in the least of its fragments. The breast of an ancient statue, a foot, an arm, even when half devoured by subterranean moisture, quivers and seems warm to the touch of the hand, as if vital forces were still modeling it from within. The unearthed fragment is alive. It bleeds like a wound. Over the gulf of the centuries, the mind finds its relations with the pulverized debris, it animates the organism as a whole with an existence which is imaginary, but present to our emotion. It is the magnificent testimony to the human importance of art, engraving the effort of our intelligence on the seats of the earth, as the bones we find there trace the rise of our material organs.

To realize unity in the mind and to transmit it to the work is to obey that need of general and durable order which our universe imposes on us. The scientist expresses this order by the law of continuity, the artist by the law of harmony, the just man by the law of solidarity. These three essential instruments of our human adaptation—science, which defines the relations of fact with fact; art, which suggests the relations of the fact with man; and morality which seeks the relations of man with man—establish for our use, from one end of the material and spiritual world to the other, a system of relations whose permanence and utility demonstrate its logic to us. They teach us what serves us, what harms us. Nothing else matters very greatly. There is neither error nor truth, neither ugliness nor beauty, neither evil nor good outside of the use in human problems which we give to our three instruments. The mission of our sensibility, of our personal intelligence, is to establish the value of them, through searching out, from one to the other, the mysterious passages which will permit us to grasp the continuity of our effort, in order to comprehend and accept it as a whole. By so doing we shall, little by little, utilize what we call error, ugliness, and evil, as means to a higher education and realize harmony in ourselves, that we may extend it about us.

Harmony is a profound law, which goes back to primitive unity, and the desire for it is imposed on us by the most general and the most imperious of all the realities. The forms we see live only through the transitions which unite them. And by these transitions the human mind can return to the common source of the forms, just as it can follow the nourishing current of the sap starting from the flowers and the leaves to go back to the roots. Consider a landscape stretching back to the circle of the horizon. A plain covered with grasses, with clump of trees, a river flowing to the sea, roads bordered with houses, villages, wandering beasts, men, a sky full of light or of clouds. The men feed on the fruit of the trees and on the meat and milk of the beasts, which yield their fur and their skins for clothing. The beasts live on grasses and leaves, and if the grasses and the leaves grow it is because the sky takes from the sea and the rivers the water which it spreads upon them. Neither birth nor death—life, permanent and confused. All aspects of matter interpenetrate one another, general energy is in flux and reflux, it flowers at every moment, to wither and to reflower in endless metamorphoses; the symphony of the colors and the symphony of the murmurs are but little else than the perfume of the inner symphony which issues from the circulation of forces in the continuity of forms.

The artist comes, seizes the universal law, and renders us a world complete, whose elements, characterized by their principal relations, all participate in the harmonious accomplishment of the ensemble of its functions.

Spencer saw the bare heavenly bodies escaping from the nebulae, solidifying, little by little, the water condensing on their surface, elementary life arising from the water, diversifying its appearances, every day lifting higher its branches, its twigs, its fruits, and, as a spherical flower opens to give its dust to space, the heart of the world expanding in its multiplied forms. But it seems that an obscure desire to return to its origins governs the universe. The planets, issue of the sun, cannot tear themselves from its encircling force, though they seem to want to plunge back into it. Atom solicits atom, and all living organisms, coming from the same cell, seek living organisms to make that cell again through burying themselves in each other. . . Thus the just man contents himself with living, thus the scientist and the artist delve into the world of forms and feelings and cause their consciousness to retrace its steps along the road which that world traveled, to pass from its ancient homogeneity to its present diversity. And thus, in a heroic effort, they re-recreate primitive unity.

Let the artist, therefore, be proud of his life of illumination and of pain. Of these heralds of hope he plays the greatest role. In every case he can attain this role. Scientific activity, social activity bear within themselves a signification sufficiently defined for them to be self-sufficient. Art touches science through the world of forms, which is the element of its work, it enters the social plane by addressing itself to our faculty of love. There are great savants who cannot arouse emotion in us, men of great honesty who cannot reason. There is no hero of art who is not at the same time (through the sharp and long conquest of his means of expression) a hero of knowledge and a human hero of the heart. When he feels living within him the earth and space and all that moves and all that lives, even all that seems dead—to the very tissue of the stones—how could it be that he should not feel the life of the emotions, the passions, the sufferings of those who are made as he is? Whether he knows it or not, whether he wants it or not, his art is of a piece with the work of the artists of yesterday and the artists of to-morrow; it reveals to the men of to-day the solidarity of their effort. All action in time, all action in space have their goal in his action. It is his place to affirm the agreement of the thought of Jesus, of the thought of Newton, and of the thought of Lamarck. And it is on that account that Phidias and Rembrandt must recognize each other and that we must recognize ourselves in them.

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