The French Monarchy and the Aesthetic Dogma (part IV)

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He is surrounded in it by hierarchic gardens graded, from terrace to terrace, as they rise around circular or rectangular basins and lines of decorative baskets, marked by rows of trees cut by straight avenues, and forming an architecture of forests and of fountains wherein the thickets and the spouting water take on regular forms to oblige the world to recognize the order at the summit of which he stands. Everything mounts toward the king, the monumental staircases, the statues of bronze and of marble, themselves occupying, in the distribution of the jets of water and of the cascades, a rigorous hierarchy, and offering their docile material to commands from above. The liquid masses and the trimmed walls of the foliage make vaults, cradles, crowns, and avenues; their solemn hymn lifts up and hovers with a great cold murmur, from the well-raked gravel and from the close-cut grass, to the long, austere façades which align the superimposed windows in three rows. The copper and pewter figures in the sheets of water send the faintest of dull reflections to the clear-cut curtains of boxwood and yew which, with black strokes, unite the russet masses of autumn vegetation with the dark branches of the summer. It is a fragment of the universe stylized like a temple. Garlands of metal and garlands of leaves stretch from tree to tree and from column to column, forming, among the pierced walls of marble and of verdure, theaters where the violins mingle their plaint with the sound of the water. The ballet, ordered like a rite, unrolls its figures of animated geometry to the sounds of a music whose symmetrical grace has the nudity, frail and firm, of the circular colonnades from which the paths radiate. In the evening, fireworks prolong into the darkness the play of the straight lines and of the perfect curves, in order to demonstrate to the mind that the order of life has not changed its direction.

All around Paris, in a radiating crown whose elements are connected by imposing avenues and, here and there, at a greater distance, scattered in the environs of the large cities, the art of the gardens makes of France also, in the general misery of a soil that is scarcely cultivated, a vast system of aristocratic oases wherein the Cartesian order, the Catholic order, the monarchical order, and the aesthetic order express themselves in solidarity and with a rigor well relieved by space, by shining waters, and by verdure, in which appear the luminous notes of statues, railings, and staircases. After all, with the open spaces, regular, square, or polygonal, of Hardouin-Mansard, surrounded by mansions of moderate height, which are related by their bodies, their two wings, their pediments, and their great windows, with the straight street and the road, it is the representative art of this century of will and reason. Everything in it is geometrical, the abstract line, the vast ordered space leading to another space by a corridor bordered by the colonnade of the trees, and the broad roads and clearings, all permitting us to maintain order in the confusion offered by the senses to the brain. The square, the garden, the street, the bridge, and the road are lines drawn by the intelligence between the accidents of terrestrial nature and the mystery of habitations and of forests. The road especially, whose two sections are joined by the bridge—the august bridge, in which the two finest elements of building, the vault and the wall, are fused—the road bordered by the strength, the coolness, the silence, and the regular majesty of the trees, the road covering the earth with its network, and espousing its curves the better to dominate it, the road, a horizontal architecture, is one of the noblest forms of the peoples' faith in themselves. It is a challenge to death, for it is to survive those who trace it and who harden it with stone. It confronts man with man in the marches of war and in the exchanges of peace. It embraces, like arms, the cities which it cradles and presses upon the bosom of the soil. Like arms, it is laden with branches, with sheaves, and with vines. It offers bouquets of parks, of villas, and of gardens. It has the candor of obedience, the firmness of logic, the rectitude of mathematics.

And yet, if the mind desires resolutely to place itself face to face with all this order, which was already being sketched under Henri IV and Richelieu, and which goes on like a straight-lined boulevard, cutting through the confusion of wars, popular revolts, and political disorders, from the Place Royale to the Place Vendôme, something embarrasses it in its admiration and restrains it from loving. It cannot really abandon itself to the abstract intoxication of comprehending, except before the military walls, set up with mathematical rigor by Vauban, to withstand cannonades and assaults. Here, at last, adaptation gains its majesty. The star of stone, of earth, and of water girdles the outer city, crowns the island of granite, and terminates the acropolis, like a thought issuing from them in order to justify them. Reason protects life; there is no question, as in other places, of life being barred in by reason. Form does not consent to subordinate its functions to pure intelligence save when they together express some profound organism growing within the crowds like a bud on a branch. In the French cathedral, the statue, the stained-glass window, and the carved foliage caused the mass to blossom; the spirit came from the depth. Here the spirit comes from without; it is no longer more than a parasite. The extreme abundance of allegory is the first thing to proclaim the propensity toward general ideas of an epoch incapable of discovering them in the forms and of completely expressing them through the means offered by the forms. At Versailles, everything is built abstractly; not a detail issues from a spontaneous volition or from the needs of sensibility. The decorator is not free to play his rôle as he understands it, within the limits set by the direction of the work and by the genius of his chief. The chief, who himself obeys dogmatic and political considerations foreign to the purpose of art, intervenes in every detail to obtain the submission of the artist in everything. And if the ensemble preserves the order of a theorem, it cannot pretend to the abstract limpidity of the theorem, since it works on the plane of life, and therefore breathes a dull sadness. It is a manuscript written in a fair handwriting into which no one has emptied his heart.

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