Egypt (part IV)

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But all the intimacy, all the furtive charm of its spirit is hidden there, like the fellah in his mud warren, far from the palaces and the temples. On the surface of the soil we get the philosophic Egypt. Only under the Ancient Empire, five or six thousand years ago, the Memphite school of sculpture essayed an expression of every-day existence. Egypt remembered old epochs of liberty, perhaps, before the sphinx himself, epochs of which we shall some day find traces under ten thousand years of alluvial deposits, lower than the foundations of the pyramids. Art, moreover, is always realistic at its beginnings. It does not yet know how to form those synthetic images, made up of the thousands of forms encountered on the long ascending road toward civilization, which art tries to realize as soon as it gets to the threshold of the general idea. Primitive man is almost solely concerned with his own life. Certainly he makes his attempt at résumés of sensations, but at résumés of things before his eyes, not of those which pass beyond the vision of the moment. It is in order to characterize well visible forms that he leaves nothing of them but the summits of their undulations and of their expressive projections. The "Seated Scribe," which is of that ancient epoch, is of a terrifying truthfulness, in the man's direct application to the task he accomplishes. He is not yet a type of average humanity; he is already the average type of a profession and a caste. His attention to his work, his suspended energy, that arrested life which makes his face flame like a torch and that animates his fixed body are due to the planes which define him, and to the trenchant mind, free of disquietude, of the man who cut them. Of the same period are the peasants who march stick in hand, the men and women who start, side by side on the voyage of death, as they embarked on the voyage of life.

The Egyptian of that time possessed the equilibrium of his functions. Each wheel of the social machine acted, at that moment, with a vigor and an automatism which marked a life that was spontaneously disciplined, but free to define itself.

The classic sculpture came into existence only under the Middle Empire when Thebes had dethroned Memphis. From that moment and until the end of the world of the Nile, it was scarcely more than funerary and religious: statues of gods and statues of doubles. The story of the harvest, of the active work of the men and animals of the plow, of boudoir and household cares, of the adventures of every-day life, was left to painting and to the workmen of art. The sculptor of the gods was indeed a workman too, but he was raised, by the importance of his task and the strength of his faith, well above his misery. One might say that he had turned his back on the oasis, that he contemplated only the regularity of the days and the years, the sleeping and the awakening of the seasons, of the river, the sad desert, the impassible face of the sky.

We must not be too greatly surprised at seeing him thus different from the man who gave that account of the scribe with so much passionate attention. From afar, Egyptian art seems changeless and forever like itself. From near by, it offers, like that of all the other peoples, the spectacle of great evolutions, of progress toward freedom of expression, of researches in imposed hieratism. Egypt is so far from us that it all seems on the same plane. One forgets that there are fifteen or twenty centuries, the age of Christianity—between the "Seated Scribe" and the great classic period, twenty-five or thirty centuries, fifty, perhaps — twice the time that separates us from Pericles and Phidias—between the pyramids and the Saite school, the last living manifestation of the Egyptial ideal.

The arresting of Egyptian sculpture in the movement of free discovery, sketched with so much vigor by the Memphite school, was doubtless provoked by a long historical preparation whose elements are too little known for us to define them with sufficient precision. The Ancient Empire was peaceful. The Theban Empire is warlike. It draws its authority more directly from the priestly caste, in order to retain the obedience of the industrious and gentle people whom it wanted to use in its ambition for conquest. The theological mystery becomes denser. Dogma, growing more fixed, limits the flight of sculpture and, by imposing limits upon it, condemns it to research of a restricted type, which will narrow it more and more. It becomes the religious expression of a people of engineers. The statues will define the permanent aspect of Egypt, arrest life between regular dikes, cause the world to begin and end with them as the cultivated land ends and the desert begins with the limit of the river mud. Egyptian sculpture becomes a changeless architectonic frame; a century-old study of form, having penetrated the laws of its structure, has affixed this frame which will henceforth enclose the portrait of the god or the portrait of the deceased, the dwelling place of the double. Everything changes. Forms are born and effaced on the surface of the earth as easily as figures on a blackboard. There is nothing changeless save the almost mathematical relationships which animate them, binding them together with the invisible chain of abstraction. The great sculpture of Egypt materializes that abstraction and formulates in granite a geometrical ideal that seems as durable as the laws which govern the course of the heavenly bodies and the rhythm of the seasons.

Sculpture is at once the most abstract and the most positive of plastic expressions—positive, because it is impossible to evade the difficulties of the task through verbal artifices and because the form will live only on condition that it be logically constructed, from whatever side one considers it; abstract, because the law of that construction is revealed to us only by a series of more and more generalized mental operations. Before it was an art, sculpture was a science, and no sculptor can produce durable work if he has not found the generating elements of it in Nature herself. Now it was the Egyptians who taught us that, and it is perhaps not possible to understand and to love sculpture if one has not first undergone the severe education they afford us.

The head of their statues remains a portrait, to which style is given by the subordination of its characteristics to a few decisive planes, but the body is molded in a canon of architectural science which will not be reached again. One foot is in front of the other or beside it; the statue, almost always crowned with the pschent, is half nude, standing with the arms glued to the sides or seated, the elbows at the thorax, the hands on the knees, the face looking straight ahead, the eyes fixed. It is forbidden to open its lips, forbidden to make a gesture, forbidden to turn its head, to arise, to leave its pedestal in order to mingle with living beings. One would say that it was tied down with bands. But yet it bears within it, in its visage, where thought wanders with the light, and in its immobilized body, the whole life spread out on the walls of the tombs, the bursting life of the shadows. A wave runs through it, a subterranean wave, whose sound is stifled. The statue's profiles have the sureness of an equation of stone and a sentiment so vast that everything of which we are in ignorance seems to reside in it silently. It will never tell its secret. The priest has enchained its arms and its legs, sewn up its mouth with mystic formulas. Egypt will not attain the philosophic equilibrium—that sense of the relative which gives us the sense of the measure of our action and, in revealing to us our true relationships with things in their ensemble, assigns to us, ill the harmony of the universe, the role of conscious center of the order which it imposes on us. She will not know the freedom toward which she was tending in the period of Memphis, and which the painters suspect as they grope about in the darkness of the tombs. The priest forbids her to demand of the confused movement of nature an agreement between his science and the aspirations of sentiment which she can not repress and which shine from the basalt as from an arrested sun.

Master of the soul, or at least holding by the wrist the hand that expresses it, the priest permits all things to the king, who permits all things to the priest. From the beginning of the Middle Empire to the end of the New, Egypt returns to the spirit that erected the pyramids. She will cover herself with giant temples and with colossuses, Ibsamboul, Luxor, Karnak, Ramesseum, Memnon, piles of stone, walls, pylons, statues of disproportionate size, sphinxes, mill wheels of stone under which the king in his pride grinds the multitude which, in turn, is consoled by its pride in making gods. At this moment everything is possible to the sculptor-geometer. One does not know whether he cuts the rocks into colossuses or whether he gives to the colossuses the appearance of rocks. He penetrates into hills of granite, scoops out immense halls there, covers them from top to bottom with immense bas-reliefs and painted hieroglyphs, gives their front which faces the Nile the aspect of giant figures as decisive as the first profiles he traced—figures whose great pure faces stare, for three or four thousand years without the turn of an eyelid, at the terrible sun, which sculptures them with absolute shadows and lights. The monsters he erects as the borders of avenues, the monsters which tell nothing and reveal everything, are rigorously logical, despite their man's or ram's head on a lion's body. That head is attached naturally to the shoulders, the muscles barely indicated have their normal insertions and direction, the bones their necessary architecture, and from the tips of the claws and the silent planes of the sides, from the rump and the back to the round cranium and to the meditative face, the vital forces circulate with one continuous flow. When the artist cuts straight from the block these absolute forms whose surfaces seem determined by geometrical volumes penetrating one another according to immutable laws of attraction, one would say that he retains, in the depth of his inexhaustible instinct, the remembrance of the common form from which all others come: animal forms, and, beyond the animal forms, those of the original sphere whence the planets issued and whose curve was sculptured by the gravitation of the heavens. The artist has the right to create monsters if he can make of them beings which can conceivably live. Any form adapted to the universal conditions of life is more living, even if it exists only in our imagination, than a form based on reality but fulfilling its function badly. The dried-out cadavers, which the soil of Egypt will finally absorb bit by bit, have not the reality of her sphinxes and her fearful gods with men's bodies and the head of hawks and panthers, where the spirit has laid its spark. In all directions and from whatever point one considers them, they undulate like a wave. One would say that an insensible line of light turns about them, slowly caresses an invisible form which its embrace reveals, itself searching out the place—without the intervention of the sculptor—where it is to be inflected or where it is to insinuate itself, barely to modulate the undulating progression of the sculpture by imperceptible passages, as music does.

But this definitive science will eventually destroy the statue maker's art. An hour arrives when the mind, directed along a single road, can discover nothing more there. Doubtless the immobility of Egypt had never been more than an appearance. But the ideal of her mind, even if she tried to define herself in new forms, changed but little, for the teachings of her soil scarcely varied and it was always with the same surroundings that man had to reckon. And she had expended a prolonged effort to approach that ideal. It was for this reason that she had not died. She struggled. But the Theban empire was immobile. The dogma no longer moved; the social order had been poured into its granite mold which the monarchy sealed. Enthusiasm wears itself out if it recommences the same conquests every day. Under the Ramessides, the overstrained effort of the preceding dynasties was disunited. Continual war with outside powers, invasions, and foreign influences discouraged and unsettled the spirit of the Egyptians. After fifteen centuries of uninterrupted production, the Theban statue maker handled his material with too great facility. Occultism was, however, cultivated as much by the priestly classes and was thus the master that directed the artisan. But he had lost the power of action. He had lost that prodigious sense of mass that concentrates life in a decisive form of which all the surfaces seem to rejoin the infinite through their unlimited curves. Each year he delivered by hundreds statues manufactured in quantity from the same commercial model. The school was formed. Geometrical idealism had fixed itself in a formula and sentiment had exhausted itself through continually encountering those unscalable walls of stone which forbade it to go farther. Egypt died of her need of eternity.

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