Islam (part II)

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The Moghreb artist varied the form of the arcades and gave diversity of aspect as between one hall and another, one alcove and another, in the mosques and especially in the palaces, the alcazars and the alhambras of Andalusia, where one's enervated fancy wanders from the halls of red and gold, black, emerald, or turquoise blue to the great colonnaded courts, to the paved gardens where the perfume of the lemon trees, the mimosas, and the orange trees weighs on the stifling air, and to the motionless shadows under which basins of marble offer to the yews long mirrors of pure water in which to dip their image. Empty of animate forms, the mind of the Moghreb artist sought restlessly to break the monotony of its plastic visions by combining familiar lines and twisting them in every direction. The semicircular arch drew its points together, curved itself into a horseshoe, was narrowed, foreshortened, splayed, loaded with stalactites, with cells like those of a beehive, and was fretted to a greater or less extent with festoons and lacework. And when the formula was exhausting itself there came the arabesque that bit into the stone, carved into openwork the plaster moldings wherein the stained-glass windows were incased, and invaded the rectangular framework of the arcades. It sent its winding flame even to the inner surfaces—blue, red, white, and gold—of the niches and vaults that offered an escape from the world outside, from the sun and the soil whose torrid uniformity heightened the charm of the multicolored paradises stretching out in the cool shadow and the silence over the perfumed waters and the soft divans.

When linear ornament had attained its full sweep, it invaded the mosque, like the alcazar, from the base of the walls to the top of the cupolas. Disdainful or ignorant of the form of a world that offered little to attract the eye, the Arab had the time to pursue, to combine, to vary, and to multiply his arabesques. In the interlacing rosework, the polygonal ornaments, the stylized inscriptions, all the ornamental motifs issuing together from a vague and subtle imagination, ecstasy, doubt, serenity, and distress were expressed by the obliqueness, the verticality, the waviness, the detours, and the horizontality of the lines. All the ornamental motifs corresponded with the obscure and complex ensemble of man's feelings and were developed to the point of mingling, superimposing, and juxtaposing themselves in squares, circles, bands, ovals, and fans. They passed without apparent effort—like the soul itself—from exaltation to depression, from reverie to logic, from rectangular forms to rounded forms, and from the fantasy of the unrestrained curves to the severities of the geometrical figures. Everything that detached from the walls, the nimbars [In Moorish architecture the term for the niche in the mosque indicating the direction of Mecca.], the banisters, and the gratings, was embroidered with interlacing lines; stone and plaster were perforated, wood was inlaid, plaques of bronze, silver, and gold were carved. . . An immense system of tapestries and embroideries seems to be spread over the walls, to cover the arcades, to distribute the light from the windows, and sometimes to fall on the cupolas and the graded minarets where the interlacings and the arabesques became more and more complicated. The whole thing became like a hanging fairyland, like cobwebs in the great garden of space, dust, and sunlight.

The arabesque had had its hour of concrete life. Geometric ornament, into which it was to evolve, is never born spontaneously; it realizes, in the brain of the artists, the final stylization of a motif from nature, just as the mathematical formula is, for the scientist, the form of expression which a truth derived from experience must take, and thereby grow inert. The arabesque was born of the twining together of flowers and leaves, as we first find it around the arcades of the old mosque of Ibn-Touloun at Cairo, when, after the end of the conquest, the imagination of the Arabs was less tense and had the leisure to become complicated and the desire to become subtler. It took on a far rarer quality when the fourteenth century had fixed its law of decoration. And this progressive passage from the living line to the ideographic line, from the ideographic to the geometric line, sharply defines the spiritual direction of this art. When the regular polygon made its appearance in the répertoire of ornament, the Arab geometrists tried to deduce from it general principles which would permit them to extend the system of the polygon to the whole of decoration. Arab art, from that time on, became an exact science [A formula drew from the polygon and brought back to it all the geometrical motifs and decorations.] and allowed the reverie of the mystic to be inclosed in the hard language of perfectly bare abstraction.

Born of the desert, where there are no forms, where space alone reigns and has neither beginning nor end, Arabian spirituality found its supreme expression in the arabesque which also has neither beginning nor end. The eye cannot come to rest on it. It is like those voices of the silence that we hear and follow in their interminable round when we listen only to ourselves, and when our feelings and ideas are enmeshed confusedly in a kind of languid pleasure which we experience when we allow our consciousness to become closed to the impressions of the world. If the reverie aims to reach some conclusion, if the metaphysical abstraction seeks to clarify itself, it can find no other language—since it has remained outside of life— than the mathematical abstraction which compels the mind to move in an absolute of convention.

It is singular that the most precise of the languages that we employ, the most useful to our modern civilizations, should also be the one which—when we seek disinterestedly the pleasure of its abstract creations—should awaken in us only those sentiments that are most lacking in precision and most impossible to seize upon. It is singular that this instrument of pure mind should serve only our most material needs, and that, when used to explore the spiritual world, it should be the most impotent of all in penetrating its mystery. All-powerful when we desire to know what motionless matter is, it is of no use whatever as soon as we seek enlightenment regarding living matter in its activity and its evolution. If it is an incomparable weapon for a mind that dominates it, it is dead for a mind that can be dominated by it.

Art, like life itself, is in a constant state of evolution. If scientific certainty is perchance substituted in the soul of the artist for the desire for that certitude which not only torments him but gives him strength, the need for effort is destroyed within him, and enthusiasm weakens because static realization has replaced the constant renewal of desire. When mathematics is introduced into the domain of the artists, it should remain in the hands of the architects as an instrument whose purpose is to define and determine the logic of the edifices they construct. But architecture cannot pretend to do more than adapt a building to its utilitarian function and suggest, by the direction of its lines, the most powerful, but also the vaguest, of the great collective sentiments. It is not the prerogative of mathematics to monopolize form and thereby inclose it within a wall of pure abstraction. When it prevents sculpture from developing and the painted image from being born, it condemns the people which it expresses to remain slaves to the temporary form, which they had given to their idea; it condemns them to die.

What endows it with its greatness endows it also with its weakness. It is slain by the realization of its purposes. It does not renew itself, since the individual cannot break the definitive formulas in which, by its own will, it had inclosed itself. The mosque and the Arabian world grow motionless together, exactly at the moment when the Occidental peoples are emerging from the collective rhythms. It is in the hope of a discovery half seen that men gain the power they express in their work, and from this moment on the mosque builders begin to lose courage.

If the desert reveals to men the unity of mind, it is also responsible for the mind's forgetting the few forms that are presented. From the desert came the antisocial and anticivilizing conception of the two irreconcilable worlds of the immaterial soul and the material body. After the death of a people that has failed to discover and to express its accord with the external universe, there remains nothing of that people, however great its courage; the spirit which men follow is that which knows how to animate with its life the forms of that universe. It is the rocks, the water, and the trees which, through the spirit of the Greeks, made the Occident fertile. Every time that history hesitates, we look to the pediments of the temples where men recognize themselves in the gods.

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