The French Monarchy and the Aesthetic Dogma (part III)

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The dead masters apart, and the honest Domenichino, whose heavy labor he respected, Nicolas Poussin, who felt nothing but disdain for the honors with which people sought to embarrass him and who remained only two years in Paris, although he was lodged in the Louvre as first painter to the king—Nicolas Poussin despised the various manufacturers of sculpture and painting who surrounded him. When he had arrived in Rome, at the approach of his thirtieth year, they had elected with enthusiasm, as prince of the Academy of St. Luke, that Simon Vouet who later was to scheme to force Poussin to flee the court and thus reserve the pickings for himself. Which indicates the state in which he found painting there. The School was triumphing there in its narrowest and emptiest form. The French painter knew hardly anything about the School. But the spoils of the heroes are the habitual food of the parasites of the mind. Le Brun had received in Rome the counsels of the master whose example was later to be monopolized by the Academy in Paris, to the point of still calling him, after his death, "M. le Poussin." The religion of the School was being established. Its dogma was passing from Italy into France, after having been filtered and decanted by the bigoted missionaries sent by Colbert to Rome. Nothing remained but to adapt it to the imperious needs of the French monarchy which, for half a century, would attempt to impose upon France a unity of action and thought which was perhaps necessary, but from which she nearly died.

To establish itself in France, to organize itself, and to conquer there, the dogma found, indeed, an intellectual atmosphere which was particularly propitious. The Cartesian method impregnated all minds. What, then, after all, was all this return to nature through generalizations which were considered to have produced ancient art, if not the "reduction to the universal" to which the whole system of Descartes was tending? Did not Malebranche see in the irregularities of nature the punishment of sinners? And did not Jansenist rigors represent an attempt to conduct the moral law toward the same absolute ends? The writers, and the best ones, precisely, affirm the superiority of the "ancients" over the "moderns." Tragedy subjects the exposition of psychological conflicts and even their unrolling, to inflexible rules. Mathematics—whose edifice will be crowned by Newton's law, regulating the order of the heavens—penetrates literature to the point of bringing Fontenelle, toward the end of the century, to set up "the geometrical spirit" as the basis of all action. Bossuet, hauled about in every direction by his need for controversy, always saves himself by invoking the necessity of keeping the Church immutable, and by placing dogma outside of all discussion. The true, the beautiful, and the good begin to be confused one with another. In short, in the freest natures, Molière, La Bruyère, La Fontaine even, something is appearing of the Cartesian rigor, in the architecture of speech, the precision of contours, and the clearness of avenues. And when the state, in the name of unity, tracks down Protestantism and Jansenism, it is itself penetrated by their logical thought and their thirst for demonstrating. The king is in no wise different from the men of his period. They recognize the period and they recognize themselves in him, which is what gives him such ascendency over the others and over himself. The irreducible alexandrine of Molière, of Racine, and Despréaux, the symmetrical battles of van der Meulen, the ritualized etiquette of his court, and the inflexible administrative organism on which his power rests, establish around his mind a network of precise images and of forms rendered hierarchical. The only profound drama of the century, the anguish of Pascal, is nothing else than a perpetual struggle between an immense aspiration toward love and the limits wherein it is inclosed by the rationalist method which his geometer's mind was forced to adopt.

A man astoundingly organized for the task holds all the threads of the system, which he renders more complete and more rigid each day, and more logically deduced from the premises which command it. Everything holds together in it; a broken thread may, and should, compromise the whole. Colbert institutes powerful bodies which will be able, by themselves, to build bridges and cut roads on an invariable model, in order to regularize the diffused life of the country. He sees nothing but the straight line. River is joined to river or helped out in its unequal and sinuous course by paved canals which cross the hills, going by the shortest route. He protects the forests, in order to direct the regular cuttings of the timber there, which shall go off to the maritime arsenals, and so furnish the wood necessary for the construction of ships, whose tonnage and form he determines, and which he launches on an exact date, inscribing in lists, pitiless in their exactitude, the men who will man them. For he must force the springs, so that nothing shall be in excess; he must make use of the public treasury, and the chain and the whip to compel life to fit into such precise frames. He gives to soldiers their uniforms. He rigorously organizes the protection of industries. He opens manufactories in order to incorporate with the state all the trades that he can seize upon. He subjects to his control those whom he cannot deliver to the king. He struggles against everything which combats or balances the autocracy: the parliaments, the governments of the provinces, municipal rights, the synods, and soon religion, which refuses to return to universal and national Catholicism. He hates the press, he hates the book—all that which can introduce a rift into his system—or a wheel which he has not carefully tested. He concentrates, in Paris, collections and casts, volumes, manuscripts, medals, vases, statues, and pictures. He administers the Fine Arts with as much method as the Department of Roads and Bridges, or that of Finance, or of the Navy. He extends his protectorate to literature and plastics, institutes pensions for the artists who consent to obey, organizes and centralizes the Academies, and creates other ones for the bodies that as yet had none—the archaeologists, the musicians, and the architects. He makes a state institution of the journey to Rome by founding a School there, admission to which will be determined every year by a formal examination, and which shall be an aesthetic convent, with obligatory mass, fixed hours for rising and retiring, and inflexible surveillance over the elected inmates. That is enough; we must go back to Byzantium to find a precedent. It is prohibited to open free studios in France; he reserves to the Academy of painting and sculpture a monopoly in teaching. . . One day, he will have a member of that academy banished for five years for a pamphlet which the artist was suspected of having written against Le Brun.

Art, which Colbert wished to protect, is thus menaced, and tracked to its living sources. It does not as a whole, however, die of this; something of its profound disquietude survives, a general idea which all the adherents of the system are engaged in propping up everywhere for fifty years. It was the invincible need of the century itself which placed above the Italian School, evolving according to hollow formulas in decadent surroundings, the French aesthetic dogma, an outgrowth of the concrete and living foundation of the race, and pursuing the systematization of art to the point of travesty, at the same time that science, philosophy, theology, and society as a whole, under the shadow of the centralizing monarchy, pursue the moral and material unity of the nation. The irreducible Gallicanism of the king and of the clergy of France is a manifestation of that same desire, assuring to the French soul, after all, the right to express itself. Italian doctrine is only a frame into which it is necessary to fit in the whole mass of the great general effort, willingly or by force. The prejudice of the noble subject, the subordination of the accidentals of color to motionless form, the hierarchy of the styles, and the strict obedience to the proportions of the antique, all must, however, pass through the clarity of French reason in order that it may adapt to its needs abstractions too distant and absolutes too isolated. The education of the will, slowly given by Descartes and Corneille to minds full of knowledge, and to energies well ordered, imposes, even so, upon the ensemble of the edifice, an imposing character. The economics of Colbert, the art of Le Brun and Le Nôtre, the military science of Turenne, the exegesis of Bossuet, the architecture of Hardouin-Mansard, the criticism of Boileau, the comedy, the tragedy, the verse, and the prose are all laid like an homage at the feet of a king made for his time, modeled by it, and convinced that he directs it. And when all this results, despite numberless insufficiencies of detail, in setting on foot a system which holds everywhere, the system borrows from its unity a strong intellectual life. Unity, after all, is one of life's essential characteristics. In this case, to be sure, it is from without that it is gained, from a theoretical point of departure and by means of artificial processes. . . It manages, however, to raise an edifice which all minds, momentarily uniform, have labored to build. Catholicism employs its habitual method. It monopolized the spirit of the commune, and the Renaissance bears its stamp. It will rationalize itself to combat the tendencies of that period by making itself master of the weapons forged by the Renaissance in its fever and its torment. All will crumble; but what a work! The artist, the poet, the soldier, the writer, the priest, the artisan, the clerk, and the noble— each one traces his straight course to the same central point where all meet and where the king unites all the reconciled dogmas in his solitary majesty.

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