Before History (part III)

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The fresco of the caverns is, therefore, the first visible trace, probably, of religion, which will henceforth pursue its course in common with art. It is born, like art, of the contact of sensation and of the world. At the beginning, everything, for the primitive, is natural, and the supernatural appears only with knowledge. Religion, thenceforward, is the miracle; it is what man does not know, has not vet attained, and later, what he wants to know and attain—his ideal. But before the coming of the supernatural, everything in nature explains itself because man lends to all forms, to all forces, his own will and his own desires. It is to attract him that the water murmurs, to frighten him that the thunder rolls, to awaken his anxiety that the wind makes the trees tremble, and the beast is, like himself, filled with intentions, with malice, with envy. So he must propitiate and adore its image, that it may let itself be captured and eaten. Religion does not create art; on the contrary, it is developed by art, and is planted triumphantly in the sensuality of man by giving a concrete reality to the happy or terrible images through which the universe appears to him. At base, what he adores in the image is his own power to render the abstraction concrete, and through it to increase his means of comprehension.

But religion is not always so docile. It sometimes revolts, and, to establish its supremacy, orders art to disappear. That is doubtless what happened in the Neolithic periods, sixty centuries perhaps after the waters of the deluge had engulfed the civilization of the reindeer. For a reason that is not yet well known, the air becomes warmer, the ice melts. The ocean currents doubtless modify their original course, western Europe grows warmer and the tepid water of the oceans, drawn up by the sun and carried by the winds towards the mountains, falls in torrents on the glaciers. Water streams through the valleys, the swollen rivers drown out the caverns, the decimated tribes flee from the disaster, follow the reindeer to the polar regions, or wander poverty-stricken arid at random, driven from one resting place to another by the deluge or by hunger. With the daily struggle against elements too strong for them, with the dispersal of families, the loss of traditions and of implements, discouragement comes, then indifference and the decline toward the lower grades of animalism, which had so painfully been climbed. When the surroundings become more favorable, when the earth dries in the sun, when the sky clears and the withdrawing of the glaciers permits the grass to grow green and flourish in the moraines, everything is to be re-established—the supply of tools, shelter, social relationships, and the slow, obscure ascent toward the light of the mind. Where are the reindeer hunters, the first conscious society? The prehistoric middle ages give no answer.

We must await another dawn to reveal the new humanity which has elaborated itself in the night. It is, moreover, a paler dawn, chilled by a more positivist industry, a less powerful life; its religion is already turned from its natural source. The weapons and implements of stone that are found by millions in the mud of the lakes of Switzerland and eastern France, over which the re-established human tribes erected their houses to get shelter from hostile attacks, are now polished like the purest metal. Gray, black, or green; of all colors, of all sizes; axes, scrapers, knives, lances, and arrows — they have that profound elegance which always comes from close adaptation of the organ to the function which created by it. The lake - dwelling society, which manufactured textiles and raised wheat, and was able to discover the ingenious system of dwellings built on piles, offers the first example of a civilization of predominantly scientific tendencies. The organization of life is certainly better regulated, more positive than in the ancient tribes of Vézère. But nothing appears of that ingenuous enthusiasm which urged the hunter of Périgord to recreate, for the joy of the senses and in the search for human communion, the beautiful moving forms among which he lived. There are, indeed, in the mud, among the polished stones, necklaces, bracelets, some potteries and numerous other witnesses to a very advanced industrial art, testifying to the economic character of that society; but not a sculptured figure, not an engraved figure, not a bibelot which would lead us to believe that the man of the lakes had any presentiment of the common origin and vast solidarity of all the sensible forms which fill the universe.

Doubtless when men had retired to the cities on the lakes, the beneficent contact with the tree and with the beasts of the forest occurred less frequently than in the days of the split stone; unquestionably men were less often inspired by the spectacle of the living play of animal forms. But there is, in the failure of these men to reproduce these forms, more than a sign of indifference. There is a mark of reprobation and probably of religious prohibition. Already at the same epoch there appear in Brittany and in England those somber battalions of stone, menhirs, dolmens, cromlechs, which have not told their secret, but which could scarcely signify anything else than an explosion of mysticism, a phenomenon which would be perfectly compatible, moreover—especially in a period of hard life—with the positivist activity which the daily struggle for bread and shelter necessitates. The double, the primitive form of the soul, has made its appearance behind the material phantom of beings and objects. From that time onward the spirit is everything, the form is to be disregarded, then condemned; first, because the dwelling of the evil spirit is seen in it, then—much later, at the dawn of the great ethical religions—because in it will be seen the permanent obstacle to moral liberation, which is, all things considered, the same thing. Even before the beginning of history, there appears, in groups of men, that need to destroy the equilibrium between our science and our desires, a need that is perhaps essential for the demolishing of a wearied society, in order that a field may he left free for newer races and conceptions.

However that may be, nothing that suggests the human form has been picked up under the dolmens, which also shelter flint axes and some jewels and—ten or twelve centuries before our era—the first metallic arms, helmets, and bucklers, bronze and iron swords. There is, indeed, in Aveyron, a sculptured menhir that represents, with extreme puerility, a female figure; there are, indeed, at Gavrinis, in Morbihan, on other menhirs, moving arabesques like the lines on the surface of low water, undulations or the tremblings of seaweed, which must be signs of conjuring or of magic. But, aside from these few exceptions, Celtic architecture remains mute. We shall never know what force it was that raised these enormous tables of stone, erected these virile emblems to the sky, this whole hard army of silence which seems to have grown unaided from the soil, as if to reveal the circulation of the lava which makes the earth tremble.

With the last-raised stones ends the story of the prehistoric period in the Western world. Rome is coming to clear off the forests, bringing in its steps the Orient and Greece, dying Greece, and Assyria and Egypt already dead, after each had attained an incomparable summit. Such is the rhythm of history. On this soil, fifteen thousand years ago, lived a civilized society. It dies without leaving visible traces; five or six thousand years are needed for another rudiment of a social organism to be born in the same countries. But already, in the valley of the Nile, in the valleys of the Euphrates and the Tigris, a powerful human harvest has grown up, which flourishes for a moment, only to wither little by little. Athens mounts to the peak of history at the hour when the moors of Brittany were being covered with their dull flowers of stone; Rome comes to reap them; Rome goes down in the flood that rolls from the north; then the rhythm quickens—great peoples grow up on the cadavers of great peoples. In duration and in extent, history is like a boundless sea of which men are the surface and whose mass is made up of countries, climates, the revolutions of the globe, the great primitive springs, the obscure reactions of peoples, one on the other. When humanity shall begin to write its annals, the abysses will be filled up, the sea will seem quieter. But perhaps this is nothing but illusion. A people is like a man. While he has disappeared nothing is left of him unless he has taken the precaution to leave his imprint on the stones of the road.

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