Egypt (part V)

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But her death was to be a slow one. She was even to have, before passing on the torch to younger hands, a fine reawakening to action. With the Saite dynasty, about the time when Greece emerged from the myth into history, she profited by the decadence of Assyria and that of the interior organization of the Medo – Persian power, to recover courage, in view of her re-established security. Once more she looked about her and into herself, and discovered in her old soul—infused with freshness by the confused presentiment of a new ideal—a supreme flower, as warm as an autumn. She cradled nascent Greece with a farewell song, still quite virile, and very gentle.

Saite art returned to original sources. It was as direct as the ancient Memphite art. But it has almost rediscovered the science of Thebes, and if it seems softer than Theban art, it is because its tenderness is more active. Now, we no longer find only funerary statues. Saite art escapes the formula; it produces faithful portraits, precise and nervous—scribes again, statuettes of women, personages seated on the ground, their hands crossed on their knees, at the height of the chin.

Egypt did not fail to obey that consoling law which decrees that every society about to die from exhaustion or which feels itself dragged into the current of revolution, shall turn back for a moment to address a melancholy farewell to woman, to her indestructible power which society, in the course of its vigorous youth, has usually misunderstood. Societies rising in full flight are too idealistic, too much concerned with the conquest and the assimilation of the universe, to look in the direction of the hearth they are abandoning. It is only on the other slope of life that they look backward to bow their wiser or more discouraged enthusiasm before the force that conserves while everything around it wearies, droops and dies—beliefs, illusions which are presentiments, and civilizing energy. Egypt at her decline caressed the body of woman with that sort of chaste passion which only Greece knew afterward, and which Greece perhaps did not express so religiously. Feminine forms, sheathed in a clinging material, have that pure lyrism of young plants that reach up to drink the daylight. The silent passage from the slim round arms to the shoulders, to the ripening breast, to the waist, to the belly, to the long, tapering legs, and to the narrow, bare feet has the freshness and the quivering firmness of flowers not yet opened. The caress of the chisel passes and slips over the forms like lips brushing a closed corolla which they would not dare to press. Man, grown tender, gives himself to her whom till then he had thought only to take.

In these last works Egypt confides to us her most intimate thought about the young women and the men seated like the boundary marks of roads. Everything is a restrained caress, a veiled desire to penetrate universal life before Egypt abandoned herself unresistingly to its current. As a musician hears harmony, the sculptor sees the fluid of light and shade that makes the continuous world by passing from one form to another. Discreetly he joins the projections that are barely indicated by the long, rhythmic planes of the thin garment which has not a single fold. The modeling passes like water, over the most compact materials. Its wave flows between the absolute lines of a geometry in movement, it has the balanced undulations that one would call eternal, like the movement of the sea. Space continues the block of basalt or of bronze by taking up from its surface the confused illumination that arises from its depths. The mind of dying Egypt tries to gather together the general energy dispersed through the universe, that it may transmit it to men to come.

And that is all. The walls of stone that inclosed the soul of Egypt are broken by invasion, which recommences and finds her at the end of her strength. Her whole inner life runs out of the open wound. Cambyses may overturn her colossuses; Egypt cannot offer a virile protest; her revolts are only on the surface and accentuate her decline. When the Macedonian comes, she willingly includes him among her gods, and the oracle of Amnion finds it easy to promise him victory. In the brilliant Alexandrian epoch her personal effort was practically nil. It was the Greek sages and the apostles of Judea who came to drink at her spring, now almost dried up, but still full of deep mirages, that they might try, in the unsettled world, to forge from the debris of the old religions and the old sciences a new weapon for the idea. She saw, with an indifferent eye, the dilettante from Hellas visiting and describing her monuments, and the Roman parvenu raising them again. She let the sand mount up around the temples, the mud fill the canals and bury the dikes, and the weariness of life slowly covered up her heart. She did not disclose the true depth of her soul. She had lived inclosed, she remained inclosed, shut like her coffins, her temples, her kings, a hundred cubits high, whom she seated in her oasis, above the motionless wheat, their foreheads in the solitude of the heavens. Their hands have never left their knees. They refuse to speak. One must consider them profoundly and seek in the depth of oneself the echo of their mute confidences. Then their somnolence is awakened confusedly. . . The science of Egypt, its religion, its despair, and its need for eternity—that endless murmur of ten thousand monotonous years—the whole of it is contained in the sigh which the colossus of Memnon exhales at sunrise.

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