The Dusk of Mankind (part V)

View the scanned original illustrations

But it still discusses, it wrangles, and, let us add, it tries, in the wreck of its spirit, to bequeathe the essential lesson of that spirit—if not by the language of form which it scarcely knows any longer, at least by words. About the first century the whole civilization of antiquity concentrates around Alexandria, as if to take an inventory of its conquests. The Egyptian, in his weariness, is at the back of the stage, but the Jew and the Greek stand before the audience, applauded or hooted, friends or enemies. Now alone, now followed by fanatical multitudes, they work in the fever, the trepidation, and the clamor of a ceaselessly jostling and renewed cosmopolitanism. On a bed of abject vices, of intensified asceticisms, among uncompromising mystics and indulgent skeptics, the idea ferments. Philosophers, critics, romancers, theologians, rhetoricians, artists—this whole world mingles together and shouts. The artist goes in for theology, the philosopher for romances, the theologian for criticism, the romancer for rhetoric. It is a unique moment in the history of mankind; Egypt contributes its mystery, Greece its reason, Asia its god. And in spite of Egypt, Greece, and Asia, the synthesis of the ancient world, that is to be effected in the too aristocratic domain of the mind by the enthusiasm of the prophets and the subtlety of the sophists, is to pass over the mass of humanity without satisfying the hunger of its needs. The world is wearied with thinking, it tempers its unsettled ideal in its primitive element once more—in the innocence of the people. A new mythology is to triumph over the philosophers, who are preparing its unfolding.

Social surroundings such as these do not permit belief in a great Alexandrian art, which would have been lost. Neither strong architecture nor great sculpture reposes on systems, especially when the systems interpenetrate and vary incessantly. The source of plastic inspiration had dried up in the too complicated mind of the upper classes and had not yet appeared in the dark soul of the people. At Alexandria, as at other places, there were admirable renewals, spiritual leaps as straight as those of a dying flame, the gleams of a deep love. Certain bas-reliefs of Alexandrian, Greco-Latin, or Hellenistic origin—the matter is of little importance for the same spirit insinuates itself everywhere—certain bas-reliefs seize upon us through the liveliness and the grace—the joy rescued from intellectual pessimism, the ardent abandon to the intoxication of enjoyment through understanding, and of understanding through enjoyment. The fruit of the vineyard is ripe, the vintagers gather it, to the sound of flute and cymbals; they dance on the grapes. A long, long winter may come. The round of the dancers grows wilder, the hair of the women streams, their heaving bosoms and their legs are bared, the panthers creep through the shadows to lick up the blood that Is to flow. But this epoch, in which Egyptian hieratism often comes to tempt the dying inspiration of the Greek, cultivates "genre" sculpture, which is the unmistakable mark, on the dust of the centuries, of baseness and vulgarity of mind. These sculptors surprise the questionable professions in their picturesque adventures; they tell little stories that make you laugh or cry. It Is the Japanese bibelot, done with far less skill, or the clock-top of the lower middle classes of our century with far more skill and not much more wit. The greater part of the bas-reliefs exhibit the same tendencies, the often confused and overloaded anecdote, and a background of landscape as its setting. They show how sculpture was corrupted in the Ptolemaic periods by the studies and method of painters. And that is the most serious of the social indications that can be found in this art.

This need of fusing the two great modes of plastic evocation had been appearing in Greece itself for at least three centuries. Praxiteles looked on form as a painter rather than as a sculptor; Lysippus, also, at times, and the sculptor of the "Tomb of Alexander," and especially the decorator of Pergamos. The great classic sculpture had indeed made use of painting, but as an accessory means, to give to the form, already living through its own structure, the superficial appearance of life. Under the broad, simple tones which covered the decorative ensembles and remained tranquil in the light, the sculptural plane persisted. On the contrary, in the fourth century, and very much more in the Hellenistic periods, pictorial expression tends to get along without form and to model the surfaces by the mysterious play of the lights, the shadows, the half-tones, and the diffused envelope of the air. It is still a legitimate process when it is practiced on bas-relief, but it is fatal to sculpture. Form must live in space by its own means, like the living being. The planes determined by its inner life are the exact criterion of the statue's success or failure in its contact with the outside atmosphere. An envelope is necessary only to the painter, since he transfers conventionally, to a flat surface, the materiality and the depth of space. If the sculptor incorporates an artificial atmosphere with form, the real atmosphere will devour it.

In the epoch of Alexandria the confusion is complete. The mystics of Asia and the skeptics of Europe, wearied by their skepticism, need the vague envelope that destroys form and opens dreams as vague as itself. The great sculpture of Egypt, even while retaining its strong traditions, had already, in the Saite epoch, headed for these cloudy horizons. The anecdote surrounded by the mystery of painting, indeed the whole of Greek art from Praxiteles onward, tends toward them. Grandeur of sentiment having disappeared, sentimentalism, a new thing, was bound to germinate in the pain of the masses and the indecision of the intellectuals, to renew the energy of the world. It is only in these tendencies that we can find in Alexandrian art an attempt, even if an obscure one, to fuse the essential aspirations of the ideals of the ancient world.

The ideal of the Jew is justice. It is a limited and exclusive ideal, and, for that reason, uncompromising and hard. Like every excess of passion, the passion for justice, when it has no counterpoise, renders man unjust toward those who do not think as he does, and unjust toward himself, for his thought knows no other refuge than daily sacrifice and pitiless severity. He is unhappy and alone, for he is unacquainted with forgiveness. The ideal of the Greek is wisdom, the order of the world obeyed and disciplined by the intelligence, the conquest—patient and undivorced from life—of a relative equilibrium. He has a strong feeling for what is just, but what is beautiful and what is true is to the same degree the object qf his passion. He finds in each of these ideas the echoes of the other two, and completes, tempers, and broadens each one through the others. Phidias is in Pythagoras, and Socrates is in Phidias.

The Jews were bound to misunderstand Christ because he reacted as an artist against the ideal of justice which had made them unjust, and taught the lowly to pity the strong. The Greeks were far better prepared to understand Him. They knew Him from long ago. He was Dionysus, come from India and returning through Asia with the armies of Alexander; Dionysus the god of periodic resurrections, the god of primitive superstitions, of magics and sorceries, as he had been, in the time of Aeschylus, the god of pagan drunkenness; Dionysus, the eternal god of the multitudes and of women. He was the God-man of their myths also, the hero, Herakles, Prometheus. Before Christ the Stoics had taught the conquest of the inner freedom, which is the measure of the discipline which we can impose on ourselves. Before Christ Socrates had died for man. The humanity of Christ was the testament of the ancient world rather than the preface to the new.

First it brought the sword. St. Paul was to betray Jesus and whisper into the darkened intelligence of the moaning world the revenge of the Jewish mind. The philosophers were to turn their backs on Him, but the suffering slaves and the women, of whom our mind as well as our flesh is born, the women forever watching that the fire may burn on the hearth—the slaves and the women hearken to Him. Man creates the ideal, but he tires of it. When the ideal burns out in him it is woman who picks it up to let it sleep in her until another male voice comes to awaken it there. If art is feminized and softened in the mind of men, as all the works of this age testify, the will becomes virile and tense in the heart of women. And it is the latter development which kills the former.

Reason was dying alone, skeptical and disdainful. Sentiment was growing up alone, blind and groping. It was to conquer. It was the crowd and it was life.

The sentimental uprising of the weak ruins civilization. We are about to burn the books, smash the statues, gut the human temples, and lose our contact with the earth. What does it matter? We must accept these downfalls. It is they that are the condition of the morrow which makes reparation. On the western soil, plowed by Greece, the real thought of Christ is to be reborn in the speech of Prometheus, after more than a thousand years of darkness, furies, and misunderstanding. Perhaps it is this abyss that is contemplated by the old portraits of the last Egypt, with their faces of enigma and their shadowy eyes in which a light trembles.

No comments: