The Tropics (part III)

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One can believe such a thing when one tries to recover the trace of the old inhabitants of the dead island. Outside the art of the Polynesians nothing reminds one more of the spirit of archaic Oceanica than the hieratical forms found among the Aymaras of the Peruvian Andes. There, as in the Egypt of the Middle Empire, the architectonic formula seemed arrested. In exchange for the lands distributed to the Incas, their bureaucratic socialism doubtless exacted from them that blind and definitive submission of soul to everything touching the spiritual domain. The Aymaras had reached the point of no longer seeking anything more in nature than motives for ideographs, which they stylized with relentless insistence. Hieroglyphics, carved out and flat, and composite images in which vague human forms appeared among the precise and mysterious interlacings of geometrical figures, framed the monolithic gates of the temples and the palaces. Pizarro melted down and minted the silver and golden statues which the Incas erected to their heroes. Were they of a freer art? Doubtless they were. . . The Quichua pottery of the same time bears witness to a charming popular spirit. These peoples were good. They loved men and beasts. They looked on them roguishly, but very gently. Almost all their pots, their bottles, their alcarazas for keeping water cold, had heads of animals as spouts, and arms or paws for handles, and the forms are unforeseen, sometimes beautiful; almost always monstrous, they are grotesque, contorted, blown up, crushed in, warped, or paunchlike. Egypt had also reserved the hieratic forms for the face of the sanctuaries, and spent her sorrow in the shadows where, like Peru, she buried her mummies. She also loved to give animal forms to her smallest objects, to finish off pitchers and jugs with the heads of cats, of panthers, of jackals, and cynocephali, even as the Peruvians drew out the tops of their vessels or flattened them down into the heads of dogs, of pumas, of ducks, and alligators. But in Egypt there was a purer and a loftier spirit. And if she was sometimes moved by her bent for irony, a very discreet and subtle tendency, she seldom went so far as caricature. Instead of heaping up her cadavers in earthen vases, she stretched them out in troughs of granite. She possessed the cult of form even beyond the grave, and purified the form to the point of abstraction. The wing of the mind had touched it—and our world was to issue from that contact.

But in Peru also there was no lack either of ingenious social systems or of great dreams. Does not an Aymar legend show the creator peopling the earth with statues which he animates and to which he intrusts the mission of civilizing the world? In no other cosmogony is this profound myth to be found. The old Peruvian poets had felt that it is only when there is a contact between the soul and form that the lightning flashes, and that it is for the artist to introduce into the universe more order, a harmony which is forever evolving and which projects upon the future an anticipated realization of our hope. But the murderous climate and the debilitation of the people, who were decimated by the bloody sacrifices which the priests offered to the sun, upset the prophecies of those who sang the epic of the race and neutralized the best-intentioned sociological teachings. In that torrid and trembling part of America, the most gigantic efforts were to miscarry suddenly, upon the shock of contact with a superior civilization. For in spite of everything, the Spanish civilization was superior, despite the killing and rapine of its envoys and the Inquisition which they brought with them. These adventurers, coming from an old world where the human mind was boiling with the deepest agitation to which it had been a prey for fifteen centuries, these violent madmen, who had stumbled against this continent in trying to encircle the earth, represented the conquest of the future against themselves.

They had only to touch a finger to the rotten fruit for it to fall from the old tree in which the sap no longer rose. In Mexico, even more than in Peru, the incessant ritual massacres had plunged the people into a dull torpor that rendered them incapable of resisting the effort of the invader for more than two years. The sole remaining energy which they recovered was used to help Cortez in driving the Aztecs from Tenochtitlan [Aztec name for the City of Mexico], which the latter had held under their yoke for two centuries. All things considered, the religion of Torquemada immolated fewer victims than did that of Montezuma. And for a thousand years, moreover, such deep waves of men had been passing over this soil that there came over its ancient possessors an absolute indifference as to which master must be paid and to which god should have its tithes of gold and of blood. Like the Dorians in primitive Greece, like the Teutons in the Italy that was the contemporary of the civilizations of Mexico, all the conquerors had come from the north—the Toltecs in the sixth century, the Chichimecas in the ninth, the Aztecs in the thirteenth. From what direction they had entered, whether from the Orient or the Occident, from Greenland or the Bering Sea, we do not know—from both directions, doubtless. We find all types among the present-day natives or in the old sculptures of Mexico: Mongolian Asia and probably Scandinavian Europe are represented there, perhaps also the sunken Atlantis. The people had, doubtless, crossed the polar regions, carrying with them, in their migrations, some of those Inoits who still inhabit the shores of the Arctic Ocean and who are said by certain scholars to be the descendants of the oldest artist people of the earth, the cave dwellers of Périgord who moved northward with the cold. They had come into contact also with the nomadic Indians of North America, leaving some of their own people among them and taking with them some of the latter to the south. At some periods they had spent winters with the polar races, huddled in their squalid, ill-smelling huts, and, in the dim light, had, with the natives, given rhythm to the interminable polar night by preparing the apparatus for fishing, hunting, and command—the reindeer horn, the jaws of the reindeer and the seal, and whalebone which they engraved with images as precise as the memories of their monotonous life that recommenced each year with the return of the pale sun. At other periods, while moving down the Mississippi, they had drunk water, kneaded bread, eaten meats and fruits from beautiful red vases with broad black spots, which sometimes give to the geometrical ornament the crude appearance of a beast or a bird. They had slept on the prairies under tents of hide decorated with childlike designs of hunted bison, demons, and fearful gods, which, in their violent coloring and their awkward drawing, united the most primitive of symbolisms with the most primitive of writings. In them can be foreseen the hieroglyphs of Mexican manuscripts and of Peruvian bas-reliefs, with their geometrical life and their harsh intricacies like those of a picture puzzle. With their faces hidden under horrible masks decorated with striped feathers, beaks, and horns, their bodies painted in violent colors and covered from head to heel with multicolored plumes which gave them the appearance of those monsters with crested spines that are found in the coal of the Rocky Mountains, they had danced the terrible war dances that center round the idea of death. [The art of the polar regions and the art of the North American Indians, among the Eskimos, on one hand, and among the natives of Alaska, Vancouver, and the United States, on the other, still continues to-day nearly the same as it has always been. It seems to present the point of relationship with Mexican art—which would be the stylization attained after centuries or thousands of years—that the artistic industries of the African Negroes have to the great art of Egypt.] Perhaps even more distant memories moved within them; perhaps there lay in the depths of their minds some images of the sculptured rocks of prehistoric Scandinavia and through the thousands of years of their traditions they may have preserved, transformed by time and adapted to new climates, the primeval technic of building with wood which their oldest ancestor had brought from the plateau of Iran. [Viollet-le-Duc, Preface to Cités et Ruines Américaines, by Désiré Charnay.]
In any event, the ruins which are so abundant in Yucatan all bear the trace of these things. The Maya conquerors, who constructed these edifices, probably before the arrival of the Toltecs and perhaps even at the period of the Greco-Latin civilizations, connect the American branch of the Aryas—through their pyramids built with steps on the outside and their buildings with sloping walls—with the Asiatic and European branches which had spread, in the earliest times of our history, over Mesopotamia, India, Egypt, Greece, and southern Italy. And in all the remainder of Mexico, which, in the Middle Ages, was covered with aqueducts, quays, piers, canals, bridges, reservoirs, stone streets, pyramidal temples, terraced palaces, and ramparts, the genius of the white peoples, more or less mingled, more or less resistant, persists—in great purity at times, as among the Yucatecs, or stifled, oftentimes, by theocratic formulas, as at Mitla, or thickened by black or yellow blood, as we find it when we wander on the plateaus where so many races are crossed, where Nature takes back everything to herself, where the woods so often cover enormous ruins that bear on their summit a temple of the Catholic god.

As in India, when one moves from the south to the north, from the confused intoxication of the sensualist peoples to the clear conceptions of the rationalist peoples, here, when one descends from the north to the south, one passes through every stage, from the façades bursting with complicated sculptures to the great horizontal bands—smooth or hollowed out into abstract ornament—which are supported by colonnades and cut by pure edges, as bare as the profile of the soil. From the calcareous plains of Yucatan to the cool plateaus of upper Mexico the way leads through feverish undergrowth, alive with serpents, scorpions, and poisonous insects—a place where the mind could have been dulled by the weight of the noxious exhalations, the eye blurred by bloody mists, so that the various styles of building were fused, as the most bizarre fancies of theocratic pride were imposed on the architects. Primitive India, northern Europe, Asia, and America were mingled, even as their mythologies had been mingled, and disfigured, in the fierce soul of the old Mexican prophets. Nothing can express the burning restlessness of the soul of these peoples, who knew astronomy; who had divided the epic of humanity into four sublime ages— the suns of water, air, fire, and earth—which represent the struggle against the deluge, the cold, lava, and hunger; who sang the loves of the volcanoes; who adored the sun, the profound father of life, from the tops of the terraces, but who thought it necessary that the walls of the temples which they raised to him be always bathed in human blood, that it should rot on the burning earth, and that at the summit of the temples a Stone of Hearts should offer to the eagles the viscera of the human beings who were sacrificed. [I address my warmest thanks to M. Auguste Génin of the City of Mexico for the precious information that he has transmitted to me, when I have not found it in his beautiful Poëmes Aztèques. M. Briquet, the photographer at the City of Mexico, is also entitled to my deep gratitude for the zeal and disinterestedness with which he has placed at my disposal a great number of photographic documents.]

For Teoyaomiqui, goddess of death, for Huitzilopoctli, god of carnage, for Tlaloc, god of water, of forests, of storms, the god who regulated the warm torrents that streamed from the sky for six months, and for Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent that was already adored by the Toltecs [Toltec signifies “artist”]—from whom the masters of Tenochtitlan received art, the cult of the sun, and the thirst for blood—for all these gods new cadavers were necessary. To consecrate the temples of Huitzilopoctli at Tenochtitlan, eighty thousand prisoners had their throats cut. The bread offered in sacrifice was kneaded with the blood of children and virgins. Their hearts were torn out and lifted up to the god, the pools of blood that spurted from the severed arteries were carefully spread over the image of the god so that it should disappear under a mantle of smoking clots at the end of the ceremonies. Heaps of severed heads were raised as high as the pyramidal temples. There were sanctuaries where one entered through a mouth whose teeth crushed skulls and tore entrails and which one could not pass without walking in blood up to the knees. The priests flayed men to dress in their skins.

From the depths of this horrible red steam that rose everywhere, which got into one's throat, caused a nauseous poison to roll in the veins, and threw a veil over memory, how could the enervated and discouraged soul of the peoples have drawn the forms that surrounded them, the great laws of living structure from which there issued through Egypt and Greece the civilization of the Occident? Everything that was not death was hidden from the eyes of the people. Only when the sun was at its zenith did it touch the sculptured altar in the well that was hidden in the heart of the artificial mountain. The flat bas-reliefs with which the walls were covered and in which one might, under the brilliant varnish of the greens, the turquoise blues, and the reds, have seen men in plumed helmets hunting the tiger and the boa, disappeared under the blood. The vapor of the slaughterhouse masked the idols. The tradition of sculptured material could not be handed on to mutilated generations, and the landscape at which they looked too hastily was always steaming with rain or else vibrating with sunlight. It is by the intuition for mass, and not by intelligence in the use of profile, that one may compare the stone idols which the bronze tools of the Mexicans drew little by little from the block, with the pure Egyptian colossuses whose planes answer one another, introduce one another, and balance, as the land balances the sea.

The Mexicans scarcely reached and certainly could not go beyond the architectural stage in the evolution of the mind. Undoubtedly, the need for an essential symmetry haunts them when they raise Tlaloc on an ornamented pedestal, his hollow eyes turned to heaven, as he sits motionless with his prodigious expression of waiting and boredom, or when they represent Chacmool gathering the rain in his belly, or the goddess of death dressed in serpents and claws and raising her skeleton face and her horrible, rotted hands. In an effort that one feels to have been a painful one, they attempt the most trenchant expression and, to be sure, they do often attain profoundly moving structural epitomes, in a sudden equilibrium that arrests the tottering of the form and, with the energy of despair, sets it firmly in place. The continuity of the composite monster is then no longer, as with the Egyptian, in the progressive and fleeting undulation of modeling that flowed like a clear water. Like a tropical vegetation swollen with spongy bulbs, with spines and blotches and warts, the Mexican sculpture has its own continuity, as it continues sending forth its thick blood, from the torpid depths where the heart beats, to the fat projections—heads and other parts of reptiles, bare skulls, human fingers, and breastbones of birds that, at first view, seem to be caught there by chance. And yet the work does not break down under the load it bears, for it is brought back to organic unity by a summary but imposing architecture that enables it to retain its sense of mass, whatever the depth of the carving, and that is seen in its living ensemble more than in its abstract planes. Only, the frightful destiny of the Mexicans warned them that they would not have the time to arrive at the deepest meaning of the unity in their art, to rise into abstraction, to reach the idea of harmony. They say what they have to say hastily, in confused and violent visions, brief and fragmentary, a heavy nightmare of sadness and cruelty.

Even when they erect whole statues, when they abandon for a day their hieroglyphical combinations of geometrical figures and animated forms, one would say, from their manner of articulating the limbs and of giving an architectural quality to the masses, that they never saw anything but mutilated trunks, dislocated members, scalped heads, skinned faces with empty eye sockets, and grinning teeth. Life exists in these works only by fits and starts, broken as it is in their soul; it comes in brief tremors, and then is stopped short by dogma and by fear. In confused forms the sculptors combine sections of living animals, enormous pulpy masses swollen with turbid water and bristling with spines like the prickly cactus. In Central America, where the earth is soaked with the water of the hot rains, where the vegetation is heavier, the miasmas deadlier, and the poisonous thorn bushes impossible to traverse, the dream is still more horrible. In the sculptured rocks one distinguishes nothing but heaps of crushed and palpitating flesh, quivering masses of entrails, faces from which the skin has been torn—a confused pile of viscera from the sides of which blood seems to run.

By what aberration of art, a thing made to unite mankind, did it occupy itself so exclusively, among these peoples, with the celebration of slaughter and death—as it so frequently did also among the most civilized peoples? Our hearts beat more regularly and more strongly when we follow the Assyrians into their mountains, when they strangle lions whose iron muscles grow tense and whose claws tear the belly of the horses. We unite as if for a prayer around the harmonious groups on the Greek pediments which evoke the terrible myths of Hercules, or the war of gods and man, on the centaurs and the lapiths, or the Amazons—works full of murder, of the blows of falling axes and of the flight of spears, where fingers clutch desperately at knives. The lines of soldiers on the arches of triumph of the Romans, the passage of the lictors, of the legionaries, of the somber imperator with his laurels, the plod of the captives, and the sonorous step of the horses fill us with calm and energy. We know on what heaps of cadavers the mosques and the alcazars are raised, with what bloody mortar their stones are cemented, and yet we love the cool of their shadow and their gardens. We even feel a powerful exaltation before the Indian monsters who drink blood and devour rotten flesh. It is because the spectacle of strength exalts our strength. It is also because we deceive ourselves as to the meaning of our acts and because we like the forms that are necessary to the development of our faculty of bringing about order and of comprehending, even through the composite monsters and the mutilated fragments, as, through combat and violence, we pursue an illusory and distant idea of harmony and of fellowship. We fumble in the darkness and injure ourselves as we collide with the walls. The gateway to the light is never found.

And so we must look for it together, or at the very least we must refrain from striking down those who are passionately seeking it in the depths of the shadows. In Mexico, in Peru, the slaughter of the peoples was at every moment sweeping away thoughts that were necessary to the development of other thoughts, and so, one by one, the roots of the future were cut as fast as they grew again. If war can at times exalt and even reveal the creative energy of a people, systematic massacre extinguishes all energy. The arrival of the Spaniards in the New World, which brought the most implacable of the European races face to face with the most implacable of the exotic races, was a terrible confrontation and one that was providential in history. Spain, to whom the attainment of its unity had given a century of creative velocity, was, because of the Inquisition, to perceive the need that man has for man in order to realize himself. It was not to be long before the moral desert should reach across Spain, as it was beginning to reach across America when that land had made a material desert of itself by burning its cities and by throwing its broken idols into the lake of Tenochtitlan.

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