Before History

View the scanned original illustrations

THE dust of bones, primitive weapons, coal, and buried wood—the old human as well as solar energy—come down to us tangled like roots in the fermentation of the dampness under the earth. The earth is the giver of life and the murderess, the diffused matter which drinks of death to nourish life. Living things are dissolved by her, dead things move in her. She wears down the stone, she gives it the golden pallor of ivory or of bone. Ivory and bone before they are devoured become rough as stone at her touch. The wrought flints have the appearance of big triangular teeth; the teeth of the engulfed monsters are like pulpy tubercles ready to sprout. The skulls, the vertebrae, and the turtle shells have the gentle and somber patina of the old sculptures with their quality of absoluteness. The primitive engravings resemble those fossil imprints which have revealed to us the nature of the shell formations, of the plants and the insects which have disappeared, of turbans, arborescences, ferns, elytra, and nerved leaves. A prehistoric museum is a petrified garden where thee slow action of earth and water on the buried materials unifies the work of man and the work of the elements. Above lies the forest of the great deer—the open wings of the mind.

[The illustrating of this chapter having presented special difficulties, we offer our warmest thanks to Messrs. Capitan and Breuil, on one hand, and to the firm of Masson et Cie., on the other, without whom we should not have been able to carry through our task. The works of Abbé Breuil, most of all, constitute the basis which will henceforth be indispensable for the artistic illustrating of any book devoted to the prehistoric period. It is, thanks to his admirable pastels, that the troglodyte frescoes of Périgord and of Spain have been given back to us in what is most probably their original character.]

The discomfiture which we experience on seeing our most ancient bones and implements mingled with a soil full of tiny roots and insects has something of the religious in it. It teaches us that our effort to extricate the rudimentary elements of a social harmony from animalism surpasses, in essential power, all our subsequent efforts to realize in the mind a superior harmony which, moreover, we shall not attain. There is no invention. The foundation of the human edifice is made of everyday discoveries, and its highest towers have been patiently built up from progressive generalizations. Man copied the form of his hunting and industrial implements from beaks, teeth, and claws; from fruits he borrowed their forms for his first pots. His awls and needles were at first thorns and fishbones; he grasped, in the overlapping scales of the fish, in the articulation and setting of bones, the idea of structure, of joints and levers. Here is the sole point of departure for the miracle of abstraction, for formulas wholly purified of all trace of experience, and for the highest ideal. And it is here that we must seek the measure at once of our humility and strength.

The weapon, the tool, the vase, and, in harsh climates, a coarse garment of skins—such are the first forms, foreign to his own substance, that primitive man fashions. He is surrounded by beasts of prey and is assailed constantly by the hostile elements of a still chaotic nature. He sees enemy forces in fire, in storms, in the slightest trembling of foliage or of water, in the seasons, even, and in day and night, until the seasons and day and night, with the beating of his arteries and the sound of his steps, have given him the sense of rhythm. Art is, in the beginning, a thing of immediate utility, like the first stammerings of speech; something to designate the objects which surround man, for him to imitate or modify in order that he may use them; man goes no farther. Art cannot yet be an instrument of philosophic generalization, since man could not know how to utilize it. But he forges that instrument, for he already abstracts from his surroundings some rudimentary laws which he applies to his own advantage.

The men and youths range the forests. Their weapon is at first the knotty branch torn from the oak or the elm, the stone picked up from the ground. The women, with the old men and the children, remain hidden in the dwelling, an improvised halting place or grotto. From his first stumbling steps man comes to grips with an ideal—the fleeing beast which represents the immediate future of the tribe; the evening meal, de our d to make muscle for the hunters; milk for the mothers. Woman, on the contrary, has before her only the near and present reality—the meal to prepare; the child to nourish; the skin to be dried; later on, the fire that is to be tended. It is she, doubtless, who finds the first tool and the first pot; it is she who is the first workman. It is from her realistic and conservative role that human industry takes its beginnings. Perhaps she also assembles teeth and pebbles into necklaces, to draw attention to herself and to please. But her positivist destiny closes the horizon to her, and the first veritable artist is man. It is man, the explorer of plains and forests, the navigator of rivers, who comes forth from the caverns to study the constellations and the clouds; it is man, through his idealistic and revolutionary function, who is to take possession of the objects made by his companion, to turn them, little by little, into the instruments that express the world of abstractions which appears to him confusedly. Thus from the beginning the two great human forces realize that equilibrium which will never be destroyed; woman, the center of immediate life, who brings up the child and maintains the family in the tradition necessary to social unity; man, the focus of the life of the imagination, who plunges into the unexplored mystery to preserve society from death through his directing of it into the courses of unbroken evolution.

Masculine idealism, which later becomes a desire for moral conquest, is at first a desire for material conquest. For primitive man it is a question of killing animals in order to have meat, bones, and skins, and of charming a woman so as to perpetuate the species whose voice cries in his veins; it is a question of frightening the men of the neighboring tribe who want to carry off his mate or trespass on his hunting ground. To create, to pour forth his being, to invade surrounding life—in fact, all his impulses have their center in the reproductive instinct. It is his point of departure for all his greatest conquests, his future need for moral communion and his will to devise an instrument through which he may adapt himself intellectually to the law of his universe. He already has the weapon—the plate of flint; he needs the ornament that charms or terrifies—bird plumes in the knot of his hair, necklaces of claws or teeth, carved handles for hiss tools, tatooings, bright colors decorating his skin.

Art is born. One of the men of the tribe is skillful in cutting a form in a bone, or in painting on a torso a bird with open wings, a mammoth, a lion, or a flower. On his return from the hunt he picks up a piece of wood to give it the appearance of an animal, a bit of clay to press it into a figurine, a flat bone on which to engrave a silhouette. He enjoys seeing twenty rough and innocent faces bending over his work. He enjoys this work itself which creates an obscure understanding between the others and himself, between him and the infinite world of beings and of plants that he loves, because he is the life of that world. He obeys something more positive also—the need to set down certain acquisitions of primitive human science so that the whole of the tribe may profit by them. Words but inadequately describe to the old men, to the women gathered about, to the children especially, the form of a beast encountered in the woods who is either to be feared or hunted. The artist fixes its look and its form in a few summary strokes. Art is born.

No comments: