Egypt (part II)

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The temple, which sums up Egypt, has the categorical force of the primitive syntheses which knew no doubt, and by that very fact expressed the only truth we know as durable—that of instinctive life in its irresistible affirmation. Formed by the oasis, the Egyptian soul repeated the essential teachings of the oasis on the walls and in the columns of the temple. It shaped the granite of the temple into rectangular masses which rose in a block to the hard line of the angles, with the profile of the cliffs, with the straight-lined course of the river, with the hot sap that made the palm trees tower over the fields of emerald, of gold, and of vermilion. Dogma, which is a step, an ancient certitude confined within formulas open to our senses for the repose of our spirit, assumes invincible power when it is submitted for the adoration of the multitudes in a garb in which they find again their true life, their familiar horizons, and the very material of the places where they pass their lives and whence their hope is born. The priest can make his house of the dogma, which the desire of men has materialized. He can insure his power by installing the god in the smallest, darkest, most secret retreat of the edifice. The worshiper will accept it, if he recognizes the visible face of his accustomed existence in the thousands of other mute gods that border the rigid avenues leading to the giant pylons, that people the courts and the porticos, and that are men mingled with the monsters of the oasis and the desert, lions, rams, jackals, cynocephali, and hawks. Amid the thick columns, laid low to-day by conquerors and covered by the waters and by sand, or still lifting the formidable discloated skeletons of the hypo-style halls high above the desert, he will find himself. He will recognize his monotonous palm groves, his strange woods, his thickets with open spaces, the straight, thickset trunks of his trees with heavy crowns and opulent, pulpy fiber, crushed between the hardened mud of the ground and the vertical rays of the sun. The columns have the gathered thrust, the rough-grained roundness of the palm trees and the short, flattened surface of their tops. Leaves of lotus assembled into bouquets, leaves of the papyrus, palms, and rows of dates swell the capitals with the compact and powerful life of tropical vegetation. On looking beneath his feet he will see again the water lilies, the lotus, the heavy plants, the flora of the fecund river where moor hens and ducks thrive, as well as fish and crocodiles; he will perceive the lizards, the snakes, the uraeus, that warms itself on the hot sand where the red-brown elytra of the scarabs sow bits of metal. And when he raises his eyes it will be to divine, below the familiar constellations that sow the blue space, the birds of the solitudes, the slender ibis, the vulture, the symbolic hawk suspended on rigid wings between the sky and the desert. Everywhere, on the heights of walls, columns, obelisks, everywhere—living script will flower for the joy of his senses, in painted bas-relief, in hieroglyphic inscriptions. Its opaque emeralds and its somber turquoises, its burnt reds, its sulphur, and its gold will repeat to him the science, the literature, and the history which his ancestors were so long in making with their blood, their bones, their love, their memory, and the fearful or charming forms which accompanied them.
Entrenched behind this formal, language, the priest may surround his action with a mystery by which he profits. He knows much. He knows the movements of the heavens. He arranges his temple as an observatory, protected by lightning conductors. He possesses the great principles of geometry and triangulation. But his science is secret. All that these people know of it is revealed by certain tricks of spiritualism and of magic which mask the sometimes puerile and often profound meaning of the occult philosophy which the hieroglyphs and the symbolic figures are meant to eternalize on the face of the desert.

The Pharaoh, the human form of Osiris, is the instrument of the theocratic caste—which overwhelms him with power so as to domesticate him. Below it and him, with some intermediaries, officers, chiefs of cities or of villages, governors armed with their batons, is the multitude. For a few hours of repose in the burning night, on the ground of hardened mud, for bread and water, they have nothing but the life of the enslaved plowman or reaper, mason or stonecutter—forced labor and blows. A hundred generations are used up to build the pyramids, men are broken at tasks beyond the strength of man, women are deformed before their age because they have been too miserable and have borne too many children, children are turned aside and warped before birth under the weight of a servitude centuries old. A frightful nightmare. In the far background there is the bare hope of future metamorphoses, a troubled and flickering light for the poor man who will have no tomb.

How is it that, in this hell, the Egyptian did not seek and find the dangerous consolation of absolute spiritualism? The living desire is stronger than death. Naturalistic and polytheistic from its origin, his religion retained the love of the form upon which we base our hope. His statues gave to mystery an indestructible skeleton, and he never adored his gods save under animal or human forms. The surroundings in which he had to live did not permit him to become absorbed in unrestrained contemplation. The daily struggle for bread is the surest of positivist educations. As a matter of fact, nature is ungrateful in Egypt. It is only by incessant effort and thanks to resources constantly renewed, in their ingenuity and courage, that the Egyptian learned to utilize to his profit the periodical excesses of the Nile. He had to put into practice a study, centuries old, of the habits of the river, of the consistency and the qualities of the mud: he had to undertake formidable works, dikes, embankments, artificial lakes, irrigating canals, the cutting of sandstone and of granite; he had to continue these works ceaselessly and begin them again to prevent them from being buried under the deposits of the river, from being swallowed up and disappearing. The pyramids reveal the incomparable power of his engineers. And if the hardness of his life turned his mind toward death, at least during his passage over the earth he left the impress of a profound genius for geometry.

A strange people, expressing, in theorems of basalt, the most vast, the most secret, the most vague aspirations of its inner world! The spirit of Egypt is absolute and somnolent like the colossuses stretched out on the stone of its tombs. And yet, outside of the mystery of ever-renewing life, forever like itself in all epochs, under all skies, there is nothing that is not human and accessible to our emotion in the radiant silence which seems to well up from these motionless figures with their definite planes. The Egyptian artist is a workman, a slave who works under the baton like the others; he is not initiated into the mystic sciences. We know a thousand names of kings, of priests, of war chiefs, and of city chiefs; we do not know one name of those who have expressed the real thought of Egypt, that which lives forever in the stone of the tombs. Art was the anonymous voice, the mute voice of the crowd, ground down and observing within itself the tremor of the mind and of hope. Sustained by an irresistible sentiment of the life it was forbidden to spread out, it allowed that sentiment to burn—with all the power of its compressed faith—into depth.

It is not true—startling and illuminating as are the metaphysical intuitions that, with their power, the priestly castes pass on through time, in Egypt as in Chaldea—it is not true that the mysterious images which symbolize these intuitions owe to them their beauty. With the artist, instinct is at the beginning of everything. It is life, in its prodigious movement wherein matter and mind merge without his thinking of disuniting them, that lights the spark in him and directs his hand. It is for us to disengage from the work of art its general signification as we disengage it from sensuous, social, and moral life, which it sums up for us in a flash. The Egyptian artist followed certain ideas, more often restrictive than active, which the priest dictated to him. When the priest demanded that a lion with a human head be cut in granite, or a man with the head of an eagle and open hands through which the flame of the spirit seemed to pass into the world, he jealously kept to himself the occult meaning of the form and the gestures, and the sculptor drew the enthusiasm which made the material quiver from the material alone and from the faith he had in the myths he animated. If the monster was beautiful, it was because the sculptor was living. The profound occultist counted for nothing in it, the naïve artist for everything.

We know really only what we have learned by ourselves, and personal discovery is our sole source of enthusiasm. The highest generalizations have started with the most obscure and strongest sentiment, to purify themselves step by step as they rise to intelligence. They are open to the artist who must, logically and fatally, take his course toward them. But the faculty of giving life to the language in which philosophers communicate these generalizations to us is not logically and fatally imparted to the intellectual. The generalization is never a point of departure, it is a tendency; and if the artist had begun with occultism, his work would have been condemned to the stiffness of death. Now, even when stiff as a cadaver, by the will of the priest, the Egyptian statue lives through the love of the sculptor. Only human evolution proceeds in a block, and the instinct of the artist accords with the mind of the philosopher in order to give to their abstract or concrete creations the same rhythm which expresses a general need felt in common.

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