The Rationalist Passion (part III)

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The art of the century converses, which is what saves it, while condemning it to a place below the great intuitions that open the spirit to lyricism when it is freed from the necessity for giving pleasure and for killing time. These sharp images, in their thin language, with a wrinkle at the corner of the mouth, or the dimple in a chin, or dilated nostrils, or an upturned nose, succeed in relating what is most furtive—but also most characteristic of the thing itself and of its time—in the inmost soul of a prelate, or a writer, or a man of the court, or a woman of fashion; but there is nothing save their appearance in these images to relate them with the grandly sensual art of plastics, to which psychology makes but a weak appeal. But they bring us testimony of a singularly sincere exchange between him who listens and looks, and him who speaks and acts. Perronneau is not often a painter. But he is always a precise observer, clear and firm in his language, and abandoning nothing without first interrogating it. The faces of those around him pass from his eye to his hand as if his intelligence were a filter retaining everything that is not the expression of the intelligence. La Tour is not an artist. He is a mirror. He does not imagine a new form into which all the elements of the world, magnified, enter at a single bound and raise life to the level of a soul. Of the school of Voltaire, a friend of Voltaire, he criticizes, like Voltaire, with a line exact and dry. When, in his later years, he pretends telling more than he can and more than he knows how to tell, he comes to grief. Meeting the empty mask halfway, the mind is registered by crisp strokes. Under the mask, there is neither form nor matter. The mind stands alone, isolated from the heart, and reduced to the accurately fitted mechanism through which it dissects and classifies. There is nothing but the skin; the bones are lacking; but in the skin, shriveling and grimacing, there is a flash of lightning from the mouth and the eye. People think that this century is material. It is nothing but mind, dried-up mind that twists and consumes and corrodes. All there is of charm and of youth is burned in it, like a moth in the flame of a lamp.

It is mind, and its passion is entirely of the mind. It is a critic, which is why it is not a poet. It is sentimental, which is why it is not plastic. It is declamatory, which is why it is not lyrical. It is sensitive, which is why it is not sensual. It leads a double life. The one demonstrates, the other devotes itself to enjoyment. And when one does no more than demonstrate, one never goes to life to ask it to educate one's desire and make it fruitful. And when one devotes oneself merely to enjoyment, one never turns to the mind to deepen and purify one’s enjoyment. Watteau and Gluck apart, in whom love is mingled with tears, and lips never give themselves save with a deep sob, and an ecstasy of lamentation rises from laughter and song, this century has no love for love. He who loves ideas builds on ideas alone. He talks, and he paints ideas, in an intellectual idiom. He yields himself upon command. His emotion reveals itself only under such circumstances, and apropos of such sentiments. And he who loves women loves them only for the pleasure that he gets from them, forces this pleasure, falsifies it, and ends in aberration. There is no unity. The century analyzes itself to the point of splitting its fibers in two, and lives along two divergent lines, which separate more and more. And so, at about midway, it results in a deviation of sentiment and a monotonous debauch which find no common ground upon which to realize an equilibrium and to liberate from matter—loved in all its aspects and passionately enjoyed—the mind charged with love which is simply its whole essence. It seeks counsel of it in order to purify and ennoble its own self more and more.

Hence, we have on one side Greuze, and on the other Fragonard. The one, who might have expressed, demonstrates; the other, who might have loved, amuses himself. The one bores us a great deal; the other irritates us a little. Moreover, both deceive themselves. That is not nobility, and love is not that. Greuze, whom the good Diderot [His Essais sur la Peinture is a masterpiece], who nevertheless loved painting and even understood it, urges on to render moralizing dramas by means of painting, explores, as soon as he is not watched, the camisole of little girls; weighs with a shining and quickly averted glance the breasts heavy as fruits seen through the shadowy opening of bodices, and surrounds the eyes and the lips of the women with a moist and troubled atmosphere which veils his lubricity. Fragonard, who gives himself up to his work as a painter of bedrooms and boudoirs, and who applies himself to it unrestrainedly, sometimes grows tender at the sight of the soft roundnesses which he discovers, and, in a few triumphant sketches, gives rein to the healthiest sensuality. One forgets the excess of puffy skins, and of trees and rocks blown up like unhealthy flesh, for the sake of a round thigh perceived under a flying drapery, for an undulating and hollow back caressed by the moist penumbra, for a breast stretching and swelling under the arm that enfolds it. Clodion, the sculptor of bacchanales, whose work is associated discreetly with the decoration of the lovers' chamber, or finds a more intimate refuge in the dressing room, or even at the depths of a secret closet, has more of love, of health, of intoxicated freedom. After the flying huntresses and the naiads of Jean Goujon, between the beautiful nymphs of Versailles surprised at their bath by Girardon and the female fauns of Carpeaux, drawn forth from the woods to slip into the fêtes of the cities, to smile, to dance, and to disappear—Clodion’s bibelot, caressed and whirling, affirms that woman, in this too-rascally and too-moral century, is not very different from her sister, the woman of all time, protectress of life, and made for natural love which she attracts and retains by her furtive mystery.

The century had misunderstood her. It had made of her now a philosopher, now a beast of pleasure. One feels her to be superior to these two things in some of those portraits, so often anonymous, or escaping the intellectual emotion of Perronneau, of Drouais, of La Tour, or of Houdon especially, who have given her to us so worthy of being loved under the skepticism forced upon her and under her slightly sad smile. Her generosity takes the place of virtue, she makes tolerance a revolutionary weapon, and never seems more an aristocrat than when she comes out of the gutter. On these faces one sees hovering a native finesse which goes beyond intelligence, a winged nobility which has no need of morality, a living grace superior to beauty. These are the women who, after having read the Nouvelle Héloise, will all go toward Rousseau in a frenzy of eager adoration, to thank him for having restored them to their sex, for having understood that they have a function of sentiment, and for having led them away from the privilege of philosophizing without emotion, and of loving without love. All those ironical pouts swell with loving tears. Why is Watteau no longer there? Gluck arrives, and at once he is understood. Yesterday, everything belonged to reason, everything to science. To-day everything belongs to sentiment. Or rather, rationalism becomes a thing of sentiment and passion. In the name of "nature," gradually recovered by newborn science, and by criticism, which has turned around itself, morality returns to fashion. The immoralist Diderot himself sheds tears before all these beautiful sentiments, and takes Greuze by the collar to drag him to them by force. As happens so often in France, in a few months there is a change of front. Exaggerated negation everywhere arouses the affirmations opposed to it. "Nature" made man good; it is society that mars him. Freed by knowledge of "nature" and of himself, he need now do no more than efface himself, and consent to the Contrat Social. The Protestant spirit, which had been marching on underground since the time of the Jansenists, of Bayle, and of Montesquieu's books, was to burst forth into the daylight with the philosopher of Geneva, and with it, England, her literature, her economic science, and her naturalistic philosophy, enter among us. The French gardens are thrown into confusion so that winding roads may be traced among them, irregular lakes dug there, and trees planted at random on the great lawns. Everyone hastens to the fields, milks his cow in his cottage, grows sentimental over the mother suckling her last-born child, and raises temples to love. The great architecture of France, which, since Descartes, had been continuing on its straight road during those periods of pure abstraction, and was discreetly bathing its elegant logic in the life of fashion and the free grace of the time, gave forth, with the admirable Gabriel, its supreme blossom: buildings of medium size, never too large, almost always small, whose harmony, clear and measured as that of a cantata by Rameau, seems to call upon the trees, the clouds, and all the accidents of space and of the soil to yield to its equilibrium, not to spread themselves forth in too great disorder, not to listen to any excessive impulse, but to accept without constraint the proportion which man gives to all the beautiful things amid which he lives.

The last and, it must be said, one of the most admirable efforts of the collective genius of the race, it is through an apparent reversal of the habitual laws that it appears in this time of rising individualism, which still possesses, however, an impeccable workmanly tradition, and, within a political and moral philosophy held in common, makes its general effort in common. The art of building is the least sensual, the most intellectual, of all. Geometry and logic are profoundly cultivated; the style of ornament is pushed to its most extreme limits of refinement and research; taste is sure; luxury is fervent. Everything needed for the palace, the princely mansion, the pavilion, and the château is here: the last French architecture—by its impeccable measure, its discreet rhythm, its musical proportions, its nervous structure, at once slender and firm, under ornamentation the least apparent and the rarest, with its admirable decision to suppress decorative overloading of the big rooms, and to preserve for them great empty places, spacious as the intelligence, with tall, clear mirrors which raise them and broaden them again—is the essential art of this time. But it will come to an end, almost suddenly, and will make way, with all the accessories which accompany it, for a sentimental form of construction, still logically conceived, which will combat its first principle and entirely ruin it.

At bottom, this is the end of a great aristocracy and the essay at the establishment of another. It was in vain for the one that was dying to deify Voltaire during his lifetime. If it was he who gave its meaning and value to its dissolution; it was also he who killed it, by breaking all the idols which guarded it from dissolution. The impartiality of Houdon penetrated the destroyer seated on the ruins, with his shriveled hands and his infernal laughter, as well as it comprehended the generosity or the obstinacy of the builders—Diderot, welcoming everything and making a confidant of life which flows forward and backward, and passes away, and constitutes itself anew; Rousseau testing all his materials with a suspicious and stubborn attention; and Buffon, with his powerful, round face which tells us of the germination of the myths of the future. The tender women of Trianon and of Versailles will do no more than follow a fashion, or else arrive, too late, at the sentiment of liberation. The palaces crumble, and the work of the artificial cottages does not sufficiently roughen the hands. The elements for the restoration of souls are in those blackest and most swarming quarters which behold the heaping up and the toiling of the men and women of Paris.

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