The Rationalist Passion (part V)

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But it will be without lyricism. Lyricism never comes when the conquest is being prepared, but is born of the conquest itself, when energy attains its summit and catches its glimpse of the future. The Tiers-État, whose average virtues were expressed by Chardin, imagines itself called upon to strain after effect on the eve of triumph, and to demonstrate its virtue. Rousseau, having dreamed of the absolute man, the successful contestant for political power, ingenuously proposes himself as the realization of that man, and around that idea he organizes his morality, his religion, and—unhappily—his aesthetics also. It should be said that everything tended to give him this rôle. He reacts against the dissolution of the class which he claims to dispossess. Although calling himself a follower of Diderot and Voltaire, he reacts against the skepticism of Voltaire and the philosophy of immorality of Diderot. Imagining himself to deal a blow against Christianity, he reacts, in the name of Christianity, against the irreligion of the philosophes and the natural mythology which Buffon and his pupils are preparing to take its place. In reality, what he is claiming to follow is that Cartesian rationalism which, after having organized everything, and then destroyed everything, aspired, when once it was reinforced by Jansenism and by English culture, to reconstruct everything. Finally, the aesthetic and moral decomposition of the century causes him to believe that his victory can be obtained only by reversing its activity in every field. In monuments, furniture, statues, and pictures, a straight bare line will replace the sinuous and overladen line. And the incorruptible man will oppose his rigidity of principle to the amiable cynicism of the lordling of the antechamber and the dilettante of government.

The new order is offered the tool which it demands. For a quarter of a century, Antiquity has been before the minds of men. That way lies Virtue, and there also is Beauty. André Chénier dedicates hymns to David, in whose works Robespierre recognizes the physical expression of that which he himself represents in the moral world; and it is to David that the Convention intrusts the work of organizing Republican aesthetics on the model of the austerity, the pomp, and the stoicism of Rome. His education as a painter and as a man has prepared him to become the Le Brun of the Revolution. As a winner of the Prix de Rome, he finds Rome filled with the fever of archaeology. Less than twenty years before, there had occurred the discovery of the mummified cities, Herculaneum and Pompeii. Piranesi's engravings circulate everywhere and animate the ruins of Rome with a somber and living spirit. Hubert Robert haunts the crumbling walls there, the unequal colonnades, the broken vaults covered by ivy and grass, and all the fields of dead stones where the ground, as its level rises, still gives a glimpse, here and there, of half-buried gods. Joseph Vernet descends from the two emigrants of the great century, Claude and Poussin. Since the time when Vico created the philosophy of History, the very soil of Italy seems to awaken. The tragedies of Alfieri exalt the republican virtues, Beccaria wrests Crime and Punishment from the domination of mediaeval theology. Canova will soon come, to resuscitate his stale heroes and to make a drawing-room propaganda for Davidian doctrines adjusted to the understanding of the ladies of easy virtue, of the diplomats, and the littérateurs. The Germans seek to found a science of aesthetics on the basis of a Greco-Latin archaeology that is insufficiently understood. Winckelmann has just written his History, Lessing publishes a whole volume on the tiresome Laocoön. In France, besides, where Montesquieu, by his Grandeur et Décadence des Romains, pointed the road long ago, where Soufflot is building the Panthéon, where the Encyclopédie has had to search the ancient world through and through, and where Caylus, a man of taste, to whom the artists lent a willing ear, is writing innumerable memoirs on the sculptured stones and the medals, Barthélémy and Volney are recovering from the earth the august cities and their customs; and the reading of Plutarch carves the statues of antiquity in the soul of the young men.

A nephew of Boucher, and loving Fragonard, issuing from them and retaining their imprint, Louis David sees clearly that if their century still kept some reflection of living life, it is to them that it owes it, to them who, after all, represent the direct descent from Watteau and from Rubens. It is in their name that he so harshly combats the Academy, which the Convention suppresses as soon as he demands it. But between them and him there is the distance between the conversationalists and the journalists who prepare the revolution and those who made it. They destroyed; he constructs. As he thinks to rediscover in the Roman marbles the discipline he needs in order to look truth in the face, he goes straight ahead to it, his head down, and his back turned on the men and the things of his time. He does not see that he is falling into the same error as the School which he execrates, and that, jealous of his authority, he is substituting the dogma of the antique for the dogma of the Renaissance.

His whole life, thenceforward, will be a stubborn and laborious collaboration between his nature as an artist and his will as an aesthetician, between the needs of his being and the beliefs of his time. He is a painter, as much as anyone can be. In those of his scenes from history in which the external movement is most closely copied from the ancient statues, in those of his pictures of the ceremonies of his time which are most directly brought back, by their cold, stiff arrangement, to the bas-reliefs of Roman arches, a purple robe, a cushion of blue velvet, a golden embroidery, a plume, or a silk flag, everything connected with his immediate time, such as an accessory impossible to modify as to its material, is painted with the richest, densest, and most opaque splendor. Whenever he is not treating the nude body, the rigidity of the ensembles—always built up from without and by the processes of a technique interpreted according to its appearances and never according to its spirit—is sometimes forgotten before the intensity of the harmonies and the splendor of matter, which by an act of his will he deprives of its fire. One thinks of some Spanish painter of the seventeenth century, Zurbarán, for example, whose monklike severity was no obstacle to his perceiving the thickness of fustian robes, the dense pallor of bread, the sonorous and hard grain of earthen pots, and even a certain silvery palpitation of the sky as it receded to the far horizon. And often he makes us think of some story-teller of our France, robust and truculent, by the way he paints a rosy-faced church singer, or a fat-bellied canon, whom one must search out patiently in the least visible corner of some solemn canvas, but whom La Fontaine would find, and whom Courbet did not fail to see. Almost always his will outstrips his sensibility, but sometimes it is the latter which forces the former to retreat. How many portraits he has left unfinished, intentionally perhaps, the painter in him having been warned by his emotion at the instant when they were attaining their highest degree of power! Doubtless, he had, at such moments, the courage, so rare, of being stronger than one's principles and of halting in time. With their gray and troubled backgrounds and their hesitating pigment, with their expressive vigor and their fidelity, they seem as if suspended between the diffused life in which man's emotional existence begins, and consciousness in which his intellectual empire begins. They live, and yet their life remains between precise limits. They are built like monuments, and yet their surface moves. They breathe force and liberty at one and the same time. It is before them that one understands fully David's chagrin when, in 1816, he saw the marbles of the Parthenon. He felt that his career was a long misunderstanding, a permanent confusion between the truth which he encountered and the life which he had believed himself to be seizing.

He is deserving of respect. To be sure, he did not observe the terrible accent of the scenes in which he was often one of the actors. He did not hear the rolling sound of the wooden shoes as the women of the people marched along the pavement, nor the cannon that were defending the different sections of the city. He did not look at the livid heads on the points of the pikes, nor the red streams of blood. He did not listen to the storm rumbling in the breast of Danton. A member of the Convention, one would say that he did not live the tragedy of the Assembly. He did not feel the grand horror of war, nor shudder to have the archangel before his eyes. No matter. He is deserving of respect. He restored to painted matter the substantiality which it had practically lost, and rehabilitated the religious and passionate spirit with which an artist should approach form and consider structure. He is, like the Revolution itself, practically intolerable in the letter, admirable in its intentions and its spontaneous movements. In his presence, one has the sensation of a people regaining control of itself. Everything before him is talk, frivolity, and gossip. Introduced by Rousseau into artistic activity as the Jacobin was introduced into political activity, he comes, stirs minds, and tries to remake a world on the plane of the will. Grace flees, alas, and the remainder of life which it was dragging with it; but here is strength appearing, and here we catch a glimpse of truth. An abstract truth, outside of space, outside of the movement and the exchanges of life, to be sure, and corresponding to the abstract man. His aesthetics, it is true, resemble those constitutions drawn from Montesquieu and from Rousseau, borrowed from Geneva, London, or Rome, which jostled one another and tumbled over upon one another for ten years, giving France a political support which neither her aptitudes nor her temperament had prepared her to receive. No matter. During those essays at theory, the spirit of the Revolution, the spirit of life, was spreading over Europe with its armies, and mounting in the sentiment of everyone who was noble and strong.

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