Phidias (part IV)

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The meeting of life and of the accessible heavens, this ideal realized on the face of the temples and in the intelligence of the heroes, was to flower, for the glory of the Greeks and the demonstration of the unity of the soul, on a political plane of struggle and liberation. Democracy is not fully victorious and consequently it is already on the road to decline, but Greece makes the effort from which democracy is to be born. With the wooden idols and the multicolored monsters of the old temples came the death of the oligarchy, the power delegated to a caste which, at bottom, symbolized accepted revelation. Tyranny, which, in Greece, is government by one man whose science has been recognized, the system whose apogee coincides, in the fourth century, with the determination of sculptural science—tyranny is shaken when the movement of life invades the archaic form. The first statues to stir are those of Harmodios and Aristogiton, the men who killed the King of Athens. Then the crushing forces which Aeschylus set like blocks upon the human soul are shaken, with Sophocles, to penetrate one another, to act on one another, and to cause their balanced energy to radiate in consciousness and will. Then Phidias transports into marble the poise of life, and man is ripe for liberty. Democracy appears—the transitory political expression of the antagonism and the agreement of forces in the cosmic harmony.

Then from every Acropolis a Parthenon arises. The chief of the democracy inspires them, the people work at them, the humblest stonecutter gets the same pay, as Ictinos the architect, or Phidias the sculptor. At the Panatheniac festivals, with the ritual order ill observed by the enthusiastic populace, in the dust and the sunlight, to the often discordant sound of Oriental music and the thousand bare feet striking the ground, with the brutal splendor of the dyed robes, the jewels, the rouge, and the fruits, the city sends to the Parthenon its hope—with the young girls scattering flowers, waving palms, and singing hymns, its strength with the horsemen, and its wisdom with the old men. The protecting divinity is to be thanked for having permitted the meeting and sanctioned the accord between man and the law.

The temple sums up the Greek soul. It is neither the house of the priest as the Egyptian temple was, nor the house of the people as the cathedral is to be; it is the house of the spirit, the symbolic refuge where the wedding of the senses and the will is to be celebrated. The statues, the paintings—all the plastic effort of the intelligence—is used to decorate it. The detail of its construction is the personal language of the architect. Its principle is always the same, its proportions are always similar, it is the same spirit that calculates and balances its lines. Here the Doric genius dominates, by the austere unornamented column, broad and short; there the Ionic genius smiles in it, through the long column, graceful as a jet of water and gently expanded at its summit. Sometimes young girls, inclining toward one another as they walk, balance the architrave on their heads, like a basket of fruit. Often it has columns on only one or two faces; at other times they surround it entirely. Whether it is large or small, its size is never thought of. We are tempted to say that the law of Number, which it observes with such ease, is innate with it; one would say that the law springs from this very soil as the shafts rise in their vertical flight between the stylobate and the architrave, that it is the law itself which halts them, and which hangs suspended in the pediment with a sort of motionless balance. The law of Number easily places the temple in the scale of the material and spiritual universe of which it is the complete expression. It is on a plane with the pure gulf which, at its base, rounds a curve formed by the cadenced wave that comes to sweep the blond sand. It is on a plane with its own promontory, which turns violet or mauve according to the hour, but is always defined against space by a continuous line, which the bony structure of the earth marks out distinctly. It is on a plane with the day sky, which outlines the regularity of its rectangle in the ring of the horizon of the sea. It is on a plane with the night sky which turns about it according to the musical and monotonous rhythm in which the architect has discovered the secret of its proportions. It is on a plane with the city, for which it realizes, with a strange serenity, the perfect equilibrium vainly sought by its citizens in the essential antagonism of classes and parties.

It is on a plane with the poets and thinkers, who seek the absolute relationship between the heart and the intelligence in tragedy and dialogue, to which it is related by the drama of its sculptural decoration, irrevocably inscribed in its definite order. On the simple Acropolis it is a harmony that crowns another harmony. After twenty-five centuries it remains what it was, because it has retained its proportions, its sustained sweep, its strong seat on the great slabs of stone that dominate the sea surrounded by golden hills. One might say that the years have treated it as they have treated the earth, despoiling it of its statues and of its colors at the same time that they have carried the forests and the soil of the mountains down to the sea and dried up the torrents. One might say that the years have burned it as they have burned the skeleton of the soil which crops out everywhere under the reddish grass—that eight hundred thousand days of flame have penetrated it to make it tower over the conflagration of the evening, seeming to mount even higher the lower the sun descends.

If one has not lived in the intimacy of its ruins, one thinks the Greek temple as rigid as a theorem. But as soon as we really know it—whether almost intact or shattered—our whole humanity trembles in it. The reason is that from its base to its summit the theorem bears the trace of the hand. As in the pediments, the symmetry is only apparent, but equilibrium reigns and makes it live. The laws of sculpture, the laws of nature, are found in it, with logic, the energy and silence of the planes, the quiver of their surfaces. The straight line is there, as solid as reason, the spacious curved line also, reposeful as the dream. The architect secures the stability of the edifice by its rectangular forms, he gives it movement by its hidden curves. The sweep of the columns is oblique; they project a little, one beyond the other, like the trees of an avenue. An insensible curve rounds off the architrave at the line of their summit. All these imperceptible divergences, with the fluting of the columns—a shell which breaks the light, a stream of shadow and of fire—animate the temple, give to it something like the beating of a heart. Its pillars possess the strength and the tremor of trees; the pediments and the friezes oscillate like the branches. The edifice, hidden behind the curtain of the columns, resembles the mysterious forest which opens at the moment one enters it. The temple of Paestum, which is quite black, has the appearance of an animal walking.

Thus, from the living temple to the eternal men who people its pediments and march in the circle of its friezes, Greek art is a melody. Man's action is fused with his thought. Art comes from him, as does his glance, his voice, and his breath, in a kind of conscious enthusiasm; which is the true religion. So lucid a faith exalts him that he has no need to cry it forth. His lyrism is contained, because he knows the reason of its existence. His certitude is that of the regular force which causes torrents of desire and the flowers to spring from beings and from the soil. And the Apollo, who arises from the pediment of Olympia with the calm and the sweep of the sun as it passes the horizon, and whose resplendent gesture dominates the fury of the crowds, is like the spirit of this race which, for a second, felt the reign over the chaos that surrounds us, of the order inherent within us.

A second! no longer, doubtless, and we cannot determine its place. It is mysterious, it escapes our attempt to measure it, as do all human works in which intuition plays the larger part. Did it perhaps burst out in a lost work, perhaps in several works at once? Toward the middle of the fifth century, from the sculptor of Olympia to Phidias, between the rise and the fall, there occurs in the whole soul of Greece an immense oscillation round about this unseizable moment, which passed without her being able to retain it. But she lived it, and one or two men expressed it. And that is the maximum that a living humanity has a right to demand of the dead humanities. It is not by following them that it will resemble them. It may seek and discover in itself the elements of a new equilibrium. But a mode of equilibrium cannot be rediscovered.

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