The Sources of Greek Art (part II)

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The Dorians had no word to say during the Hellenic middle ages; nothing from Asia entered their land. The ancient continent was advancing step by step, by way of the islands, prudently regaining a little of the lost territory. Melos, in need of pottery, had to wait till the Ceramists of primitive Athens had manufactured at the Dipylon, those vases with the geometrical designs which were the first sign of the reawakening of civilized life in barbarous Greece. We are here witnessing a slow dramatic ascent in the shadows of the soul, under this magnificent sky, at the center of this brilliant world. In order that the spark might kindle, it was necessary that the Dorian, the Phoenician, and the ancient iEgean who has become an Ionian, repair their broken relationships. Thereupon the flame mounted quicker to light up the virgin soil with the most dazzling focus of intelligence in history.

For this focus, the Homeric poems—echoes picked up from the annihilated world by the vanquished—and the radiant Greek myths which are elaborated confusedly along the deserted shores are the heralding dawnlights seen against this black background. The cradle of the Hellenic soul mounts with them on the chariot of the sun. In the evening, the Dorian herdsman bringing home his goats from the mountain and the Ionian sailor bringing home his bark from the sea would repeat to themselves glorious fables which carried over into images men's old intuitive notions of the phenomena of nature, or translated the struggle of their ancestors against the adverse forces of the ill-organized world. The enthusiastic naturism of the human soul in its freshness gave to its young science a robe of light, of clouds, of leaves, and of waters. The whole religion, the philosophy, the austere and charming soul of the builders of the Parthenons are in this anonymous and tangled poem which rises with the murmur of a dawn as Greece reawakens to life.

The "Greek miracle" was necessary. The whole ancient world had prepared, had willed its coming. During the fruitful silence when the Dorians were accumulating within themselves the strength of their soil, Egypt and Assyria kept their lead. But they were discouraged and stricken by the cold of age. The torch, as it grew paler, leaned toward a new race. They were to become the initiators of the Hellenic Renaissance, as they had been the guides for the childhood of the peoples of the Archipelago.

The Dorian barbarian, after his contact with less harsh climates, had disciplined his violence, but he remained rough, all of a piece, and very primitive. His idols, the Xoana, which he cut with a hatchet from oak and olive wood scarcely two hundred and fifty years before the Parthenon, were so rude that they seem to date farther back than the engraved bone of the reindeer hunters. It is to a totally uncultivated race that the intellectual heritage of Egypt and Asia was to fall; in exchange for their high spirituality and profound sensualism they were to demand the sweep and power of Greek virility. The inhabitants of the Dorian coasts, of the islands which occupied the center of the eastern Mediterranean, saw sails in always greater number coming toward them from the depths of the sea. Their contact with neighboring civilizations multiplied every day. At the crossing of all the maritime routes of the ancient world, they were soon to feel the whole of it moving within them.

The Greeks had the privilege of inhabiting a land so inundated, steeped and saturated with light, so clearly defined by its own structure, that the eyes of man had only to open, to draw from it its law. When man enters a bay closed in by an amphitheater of mountains between an illuminated sky and water that rolls rays of light, as if a spring of flame welled up under its waves, he is at the center of a slightly dark sapphire set in a circle of gold. The masses and the lines organize themselves so simply, cutting such clear profiles on the limpidity of space that their essential relations spontaneously impress themselves on the mind. There is not a country in the world which addresses itself to the intelligence with more insistence, force, and precision than this one. All the typical aspects of the universe offer themselves, with the earth—everywhere penetrated by the sea, with the horizon of the sea, the bony islands, the straits, golden and mauve between two liquid masses glittering even in the heart of the night, the promontories so calm and so bare that they seem natural pedestals for our grateful soul, the rocks repeating from morning to evening all the changes of space and the sun, with the dark forests on the mountains, with the pale forests in the valleys, with the hills everywhere surrounding the dry plains, and—bordered by pink laurel—the streams, whose whole course one can embrace at a glance.

Except in the north, one finds tormented lines of hills, savage ravines, sinister grottos from which subterranean vapors issue with a rumbling sound, black forests of pine and oak; except in the harsh countries of the primitive legends where man recounts his effort to overcome hostile nature, there are few, if any, terrifying appearances; the soil is hospitable, the usual climate is mild, though fairly severe in winter. Life in this land keeps close to its earth, is active without excess, and simple. Neither misery nor wealth nor poverty. Houses are of wood, clothing of skins, and there is the cold water of the torrents to wash off the dust and blood of the stadium. There is not much meat, that of the goat which grazes among the fissures of the rocks, perhaps, but there is a little wine mixed with resin and honey and kept in skins ; there are milk, bread, the fruits of the dry countries, the orange, the fig, and the olive. There is nothing on the horizon or in social life which could give birth to or develop mystic tendencies. A nature religion exists, a very rough one—in the beliefs of the people, perhaps even rather coarse, but welling up from springs so pure and so poetized by the singers that when the philosophers think to oppose it they do no more than extract from it the rational conception of the world barely hidden in its symbols. Doubtless man fears the gods. But since the gods resemble him, they do not turn his life from the normal and natural relationships which bind it with that of other men. The priest has but little influence. Greece is perhaps the only one of the old countries where the priest did not live outside the pale of popular life in order to represent to the people the great mysteries as a world apart. Hence the rapidity of this people's evolution and the freedom of its investigations.

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