Germany and the Reformation (part IV)

View the scanned original illustrations

Without doubt, man suffers whatever he is and in whatever period he lives. But it is only the faculty or the need for analysis that leads him to look upon life from the angle of pessimism, no longer to see any other direction in it than death, to doubt that his painful effort can serve the men who are to come, or, at least, to give them his aid joylessly and contrary to his heart. This philosophic discouragement, the more surprising when we contrast it with the courage shown by the Germans in the working of the material and in the examination of the world, is common to almost all their thinkers and almost all their artists. The misfortunes of their century do not suffice to explain it. The countries of Germany, in the fifteenth century and at the beginning of the sixteenth, were as prosperous as Flanders or as Italy, and infinitely happier than France, which was torn to pieces, ruined, and bled white by a hundred years of war. . . And yet there is hardly a German engraving, almost no German picture or bas-relief, without the haunting presence of death. The hour-glass is almost always there, or some broken bones. And it is especially in Germany that the "Dance of Death" creaks and shivers among the leaves of the old books of images or on the painted beams of the wooden bridges which the torrents, passing through the old cities, shake upon their piles. Death takes part in all the events of life. A smiling skeleton assists at an accouchement, he joins in the games of the little ones, he chants the nuptial march as he walks before the couple, he helps the miser to count his gold, he urges on the horses of the plowman, he cuts the string by which the blind man holds the dog that leads him, he grasps the bow of the musician, at the anointing of the Emperors he carries the crown or the miter, he stares at his image in the mirror of the coquette, and to the woman in love he plays the final serenade. . . Everywhere he bears witness to the worst of the disasters that can strike a race; he bears witness to intellectual despair.

And how, indeed, should the German find encouragement in the outer world, how should he manage to inscribe in harmonious form the meeting of a universe and a mind harmonious in their organizations? The appearances of the air and of the earth leave floating images in the memory. Now we see mountains unexpectedly jagged, romantic depths with verdure and rocks, now pine woods toward which sloping meadows ascend, following each other and repeating each other with discouraging monotony. Always ill-defined profiles of landscape, a green and red countryside, of a somber green and a somber red—dead colors without transparence, to which the mist with its excessive dullness lends no splendor. Nature is robust, but mournful; varied, but lacking in those masses which unite without effort; it has none of that luminous atmosphere which transforms everything which it envelops. The very flowers that garnish from top to bottom the windows of the poorest homes seem dulled and without perfume.

When the sky is cloudless, nothing attracts or holds one in this picturesque uniformity and nothing leads the eye from one place to another place. When the tattered mists drag along, now masking a forest of which only the phantom of a tree remains visible, now covering the whole river in which one gets glimpses of a fleeting light on the crest of a wave, or again concealing an enormous layer of granite so that a castle seems hung in space, now disarranging the planes, now drowning and dislocating the lines—the eye perceives only what is fragmentary and diffused in the life of nature. If one examines one of those foggy landscapes, whose forms become only too precise when one looks at them from too near by, it takes possession of one's being like an ensemble of sounds rather than an ensemble of objects: a murmur breaks forth, fades away, and is reborn only to die; it is the torrents or the fountains in their vibrant motion, it is the ducks and the geese snuffling about, it is the lowing of beasts, the crack of a whip, the cock crowing with a voice of iron, the hour falling from a bell, dead leaves swept along, the creak of a wheel, the beating of a wing. . .These are no longer images which have been determined, but the indistinct outlines of dreams, obscure enigmas which rise in the brain. When it is no longer possible for the soul to choose the visible elements of a harmony of form, its need for consolation and for a refuge causes it to turn back upon itself and in itself to seek the scattered elements of a harmony of sentiment. And thenceforward, without taking the precaution to subject the sentiment, which carries them away, to the control of the outer world, too ill-defined for them to seize, it is within themselves that men make their choice, and they turn to singing. I have seen young Germans singing as they landed at Venice. They were singing Schumann, turning their backs on the palaces which they had not yet looked at. Going down the Rhine, I have seen German girls singing. They sang the song of Heine at the moment when they were passing the Lorelei, to which they did not give a glance.

The primitive art of the Germanic peoples and of the Scandinavians, descending from the fjords and the forests of the North, was to remain and must remain the form of their moral activity. Music alone escapes the dangers of analysis and gives the illusion of the absolute in its expression of the vaguest ideas in mathematical form. The workmanlike and dreamy nature of the Germans is at ease ill it, because it offers them at once the most precise of means and the most unprecise of ends. Exclusively symbolic, it expresses, through a great soul, the aspiration in which a whole people mingles, and it does so with added power because it has nothing to define and because it makes use of an immense treasury of floating forms, of merging colors, and of the diffused sensations accumulated during centuries in the poetic instinct of this people, throughout the course of its unconscious and repeated contacts with the world. From the Nibelungen to Goethe, a dull torrent of intricate images runs through the German mind, from century to century. It was in this torrent that Dürer bathed. He is a musician, though unaware of it. Despite the finish of his pictures and of his engravings, despite his insistence on making each detail stand out, and despite his prodigious technique, the ensemble does not appear as a distinct form, but as an evocation, as a suggestion of the atmosphere of sentiment. It is a moral sentiment that dominates; everything contributes a little toward imposing it. It is impossible for the German artist-workman to extract a visible general idea from the object which he studies, and the more precise he is the less he succeeds. The general idea exists before the work and wanders confusedly.

When Martin Luther decided upon music as a means of influence at the hour when Dürer was attaining the highest summit of his nature, he was therefore seizing upon the language best fitted to reveal the unknown powers which the German people had been accumulating in itself, without thought of their existence, ever since its industrious cities, from the Rhine to Saxony and from Franconia to the Baltic, had revealed their power. The dissolution, which was taking place in Rome, horrified the conscience of the Germans, incapable as they were of perceiving that in the heart of Italy itself, from Giotto to Angelico and from Masaccio to Michael Angelo, the artists were voicing the protest of the spirit against the abjectness common to all the powers of society which no longer considered themselves in danger. The sensuous beauty of that protest, which the Germans' lack of the plastic sense prevented them from understanding, concealed its moral beauty from them. And in Germany the Reformation took on a character of radical antagonism toward the Renaissance.

Besides, it had good reason. A people can make use only of the weapons offered it by its soil and by its blood. In Italy the movement toward hope had interpreted itself through form and color. Here it was to express itself through sounds and words. The Reformation, from John Huss to Luther, strives for the expansion of man, in another language and under another pretext, but with the same lyricism and the same faith as that of the great Italians. Luther had in him the seething life of the century. He was one of those tumultuous beings in whom, as in a soil vibrant with subterranean forces, the burning lava of the blood sweeps everything along with it in a wave of joy, of enthusiasm, and of pride, with beer and the juice of meats, and possessing an irresistible need to make the flame of the spirit burst from its prison. The violent mind of the Renaissance was in him. And it was predestined that the Renaissance, the great research carried on with uncompromising passion by all the peoples of western Europe together, should take on, in the North, the form that he gave it.

But let us be on our guard. If the crowds, swept along by his words, sang while they followed him, it was because a deep instinct spoke in them; it was that they entered, in spirit, into a vaulted church which their antiplastic genius had been unable to give them for three centuries and which their musical genius erected spontaneously. They were obeying that vague and powerful hope which takes possession of the multitudes when a strong man addresses himself to them to lead them forth to battle. Whereas the theologians believed that they were lifting up the conscience, they were lifting up needs—legitimate and sacred—for liberation and for happiness. The drama, and consequently the revelation of conscience, has for its theater the heart of the hero alone. The heroism of the crowds, if aroused by the words fallen from the lips of the heroes, recognizes less abstract motives, to which the heroes must give the highest expression. In the mass of the German people, there was no question of returning to the teachings of the apostles, but of freeing themselves from the powers in society which were threatening to crush its spirit.

If, in appearance, Germany was prosperous, if the lower middle class of its artisans was slowly heaping up the uncouth but innumerable products of its workmanlike industry, the country people were suffering. The clergy held a third of the soil. Economically, Germany was under the domination of Rome. And Luther perceived that he had been mistaken as to the meaning which the crowd attached to his activity, on the day when, having consented to recognize the authority of the military lords of feudalism because he needed their aid in his struggle against the ecclesiastical lords of feudalism, he had been obliged to aid the Protestant nobility in crushing the miserable people who had been rendered fanatical by his words. The frightful war of the peasants gave to the Reformation its real significance. One class was replacing another in the possession of the soil; it was to stifle the moral life of Germany which for two centuries had been able to manifest itself with almost complete freedom, thanks to the antagonism of interests which set the two classes one against the other. The triumph of Protestantism coincided, through all Germany, with the abdication of its original thought. Nuremberg was extinguished.

No comments: