Islam (part III)

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The Arab, it is true, never compels the artist to refrain entirely from representing animate life, and sometimes it trembles furtively on the walls of the palaces and mosques of Spain and Morocco. Like all the monotheistic peoples who have been modeled by the desert, he was only obeying his instinctive repugnance for everything that is living form. Religion represses instinct only during periods of decadence. During periods of strength, instinct sweeps religion along with it in whatever direction it chooses. In Egypt or in Syria, Mohammedan art had the nakedness, the sadness, and the grandeur of the desert. In the depths of the cool grottoes of the Moghreb and of Spain, where the caliphs came to listen to the philosophers and to breathe the odor of the lemon trees after their cavalry had reaped its harvest, Mohammedan art seemed to work with blocks of gold ground in clotted blood. In India, it allowed the whole flood of the world of matter to invade the mosque. On the plateaus of Iran it was like a field of flowers.

Persia no more resembles the sandy plains of the eastern Mediterranean than it does the Andalusian or Moroccan valleys, which are forever contested by hard shadow and by fire. To the west, in the upper regions which border the central desert, high above the dust, three thousand meters above sea level, and thus so much nearer the stars, the air has the transparence, the limpidity of glass. In the breath of the wind the white meadows and the pink meadows there are mottled like watered silk, and from spring to autumn the broad strips of poppies and the fields of grain run the gamut of all the uncertain color tones, from tender green to golden yellow. The skies, where the pigeons fly, and the clouds have those delicate tints that one can observe in the earliest blossoming of trees. The cities are deluged with roses [Pierre Loti, Vers Ispahan].

When one approaches them their assemblies of domes, ovoid, swelling, or twisted, and their long, straight minarets that emerge from the groves of cypresses and plane trees, seem like memories already blurred by uncertainty. In turquoise blues, burnt-out pinks, pale greens, and dulled yellows the mirage has taken on the appearance of an aerial water color painted with vapor on the fleeing horizon that is known to artists who have followed the path of the caravans from oasis to oasis. Near-by one sees crumbling walls, cracking cupolas, minarets whose decoration of interlacing black and white is scaling off. It is ruins that are before us. But they are the ruins of a recent period. The enamel that clothes them, the old Chaldean enamel that ancient Persia had made known to China and that China brought back to Iran by the Tartar hordes—the enamel has kept its glassy brilliancy under the coating of silicate that covers the brick. Violets, blues, and browns, ivory whites, lilacs, yellows, and greens, shine in these enamels, pure or in combinations that make rosebushes and anemone or iris flowers over white inscriptions and arabesques of gold. The pulpy flesh and the pearly surface of the flowers marry and swell the living garlands that here replace the abstract arabesque in which the inventive faculty of the Arabs found its expression. Under the high ogive of the doors framed with a crust of enamel, the dim glow of turquoises, amethysts, and lapis lazuli makes a creeping phosphorescence; under the inner crown of the domes whose rounded softness knows nothing of the mystic impulse of the desert, the ornaments shaped like honeycomb drip with stalactites. Sometimes the interior of the cupolas sends forth flashes from plates of glass combined with prisms.

It was in an ancient and forgotten period that the people spread on the walls the Persian carpets resembling dark, plowed earth into which crushed flowers have been pressed. In their place shone enameled brick when, at the end of the sixteenth century, the great Abbas suddenly caused the monumental fairyland of Ispahan to be built. The Persian school of painting which was born at that moment had only to listen to the counsels of the men who gave the wealth of decoration to the enameled mosques in order to reach, through Djahangir, through Mani, and through Behzade especially, the highest living expression that Mussulman art has known. The whole industry of the potter, everywhere most ancient and most durable, brought its necessary contribution to this art also. The Persian pot is already painting crystallized in fire. Its decoration, which is not very rich in images, is doubtless the richest of all in its ever new stylization of the summits of sensation. Nothing remains of the world of the senses save what is profoundest in color, what is most immaterial in the object, most fleeting in the form. Neither the sky nor the sea nor the flowers are painted there, but beds of flowers break through with their freshest corollas, great stretches of sky with their pearliest billows of cloud, and the immensity of the seas with their shining surface. In spots, in creeping lines, in drops, in clusters, and in mottlings, the most elaborate and elusive principles of the flowers, the sky, and the sea are evoked according to the changes in the harmonies with which they fill the memory. The rare painting of Persia arrests this fugitive splendor in every form depicted. The school flowers suddenly, to fade quickly, and to die in two centuries because it had given out too much perfume and brilliancy. It was like an enchanted dream in which for an hour there were blended the passionate sensuality of India, the mannerism of the Persians, the slow science of the Chinese, and the great fairy dream world of the Arabs.

Rolling its treasure from the deserts of Arabia to the happy islands of Japan, and from the Moghreb to India, Persian painting is like a deep ocean made up of all the ingenuous desires of the flesh, all the frankness of its intoxications, all the puerilities, the smiles, the wild and touching fancies of the primitive peoples suddenly carried beyond the rosy gates of the paradise of art! . . . It was an Eden where tigers trod on meadows full of flowers, where men and women in robes of silk—green, red, or blue—men and women with delicate noses, little mouths, very long black eyes, and oval faces, were seated in a circle on beautiful embroidered carpets. Trees in bloom rose against backgrounds all of gold. For the Persian there could never be enough flowers: there are flowers on those lawns of almost black green which make one feel that living water is near; there are flowers among all the leaves, flowers on the carpets, flowers everywhere, enormous flowers whose trace is to be found even on the little cups of coral and of porcelain from which the ladies and gentlemen with golden spoons dip the candied flowers. In landscapes of red, green, or gold, whose natural symphonies take on the quality of a deep and precious velvet, nervous, delicate black horses with curving necks pass at a gallop, each bearing a proud rider, a falcon on his wrist, a brilliant aigrette on his turban. Multicolored birds fly in the trees—they are genii who talk with men, far better than those golden birds with topaz eyes which flew and beat their wings about the throne of the Byzantine autocrat. Magical palaces open their gates of light and their porticos of lace; their enameled or damascened walls are embroidered with gems; their ceilings are of crystal; silent carpets lead to thrones of gold where golden peacocks spread tails of emerald; there are gardens with vases of porphyry and jets of water where the sun lights up opals, graded white terraces, and cupolas, pink, azure, or milky. Even in the depths of the night they gleam like the snow at dawn. When evening came, one listened to musicians on the blue waters, one breathed the odor of the fruits that gleam in the black heart of the trees. The djinns descended among men with baskets of rubies and baskets of topazes, and the rising moon was like a pearl fallen from the necklace of stars that encircles the sky. . . All this is painted with subtle strokes, with brilliant tones that die out in their harmonies, with the tremulous purity of the shadows, and with the unchanging light of the day. Here are all the Thousand and One Nights dreamed of by the old story-tellers who, from evening to morning, talked inexhaustibly to the gay travelers seated in a circle under the tent.

Here are strange races, veritable masses of contrasts; and the deeper they plunge into the desert, the farther they live from the cities, the heavier the sun that beats upon them, the more marked and surprising these contrasts become. Here are men who wear robes of green and red silk under burnooses of white wool, and who cover the harness of their horses with gold. They forge weapons and incrust them with gems; they keep their water pure in damascened copper. They know only silence and melancholy contemplation, or else frenzied laughter and uproar. They forget their natural sobriety to enter suddenly on a round of incredible feasting. They despise death, they despise life. Among them a state of ecstasy follows hard upon crises of unbridled sensuality. Their paradise of abstractions is peopled with women. Their terrible fanaticism is unequaled by anything but their terrible inertia; the flight of time is nothing for them, and they let their temples crumble with an indifference as marked as the ardor which they expended in building them.

The excessive climate, the great contrasts of nature, and the life of the nomad have created this ignorance of—or this disdain for—the balance of soul that we love. The oasis is too cool after the sands, the water is so sweet to the burnt lips, the cities offer to the wanderers such hot pleasures and such gold! The rich man shall have a hundred wives and the poor man shall have none, and so there is a gap that can never be filled between the metaphysical absolutes and the worst bestiality. But the races of the Occident fill this gap by exploring all the roads that must be traveled in order to rise from and by means of sensual life to the threshold of the heroic life. With these races of the Occident we must number some of the Oriental races which belong to the same ethnic groups as the European peoples. It was, doubtless for this reason, that the Persians—whose mind was less spacious, perhaps, but certainly more curious than that of the Semites—never swerved from their historic role, which is to carry on forever into the future a little of the immemorial civilizations of the country of the rivers. It was for this reason again that in Persian art there was no break in continuity between Sassanian Persia and Mussulman Persia, and that the carpets and the vases continued to be made in the same workshops. Because of their racial quality, also, the Persians recovered from the Tartar invasions and outlived the Arabs in their period of greatness by three centuries. It was for the same reason, also, that the idol worshipers of Byzantium will one day be justified by the moral history of the world, as they triumphed, ten centuries ago, in their struggle with those who were opposed to the idols. A resolutely spiritual religion must, doubtless, do without images, even at the risk of declining, at the risk of dying; but what we need to know is whether it is better for us to cultivate pure spirit or the images. It is a weak defense of the iconoclastic emperors to show them as encouraging art whenever it v/as separate from religion. Art is one; its growth increases with the growth of a living faith, regardless of the way in which it is clothed or labeled or of the role in which men try to arrest it; and if religion dies of freedom, art lives only through its introducing into the world a little more freedom each time it manifests itself. To forbid art to drink at any one source is to dry up all the sources at once.

If idolatry did not save Byzantium, it was because Byzantium was not a beginning, but an end, a rotten fruit of the Greek tree. But it was idolatry which made Egypt and Greece and India, which unchained the great Gothic revolution and the Italian and Flemish Renaissance, and which, later, at the threshold of our own time, aroused sensualism, transformism, and the admirable, vital investigation of the whole last century in Europe. Ail durable civilizations are born of idolatry, obliged, as they have been, to demand that external nature surrender to them the inexhaustible treasure of her teachings in order that they may give reality to the images that are within them. We cannot demand that humanity live in the desert forever, when we see that even the peoples of the desert seek the oases.

We may not believe that among idolatrous peoples the superior minds have freed themselves from idolatry: they have freed themselves by it. It is they who, by it, by the living relationships that it revealed to them, have introduced reason into the world, not as an end in itself, but as an incomparable instrument for analysis and for the liberation of the individual. The peoples who recognize nothing but the spirit are the only ones who have never been able to detach themselves from the metaphysical idols which the blankness of the desert imposes on their meditations, because they have been powerless to seize upon their thought and confront it with life.

Moreover, far from arresting the dream, the image offers it a point of support, which enables it to keep within the limits of human reality, and at the same time the dream is broadened because the relationships which the image reveals to it cause other relationships to be suspected, other images to be desired; and so men draw from realization—always a dead thing—the ever-living hypothesis. Idolatry leads to experience and through it to action. When we have lost our equilibrium, it is to the idols that we turn to invoke them to teach us form and life once more. Science is the aspect that our eternal idol worship wears at the present time. Idolatry saves the world when nothing but a little invisible dust is left of the great unbalanced dreams which have been lived by the prophet-peoples fashioned by the desert.

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