The Ancient Orient (part II)

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The art of northern Mesopotamia inherits from Babylonian art just as Ninevite civilization did from Chaldean society. The language which its artists speak is about the same, for the soil, the sky, and the men are not very different. Only, with the transformation of the social order and the conditions of life, Chaldean positivism has become brutality. The priest-savant has given place to the military chief, who has usurped to his profit and that of his class the temporary command which his companions in hunting and in battle intrusted to him. The king, in Assyria, is no longer, as in Egypt, the figurehead and instrument of the priest; he is the Sar, the temporal and spiritual chief, obeyed under pain of death. The Assyrian astronomer knows Chaldean science, to be sure, but his role is limited to compelling the heavenly bodies to voice the desires and interests of his master. Chaldean star worship, an essentially naturalistic and positivistic religion, has been transformed with the social state. The symbols have been personified just as political power was; the sun, the planets, and fire are now real beings—terrible devourers of men, and the Sar is their armed hand.

This Sar is saturated with hereditary vices, deformed, before he comes to reign, by an autocracy centuries old. He is developed in a frightful solitude by a world of women, of eunuchs, of slaves, officers, and ministers. Luxury and the weight of material life have crushed his heart. He is a sadistic beast. He is enervated with ennui, with indulgence and music, with the smell of slaughter and of flowers. Men are burned or boiled for his gratification; he is shown living flesh which is being torn by the whip or cut by iron, and in which poison is producing lockjaw. His least impulse is expressed by an order to kill. On the bas-reliefs of Khorsabad and Koujoundjik, we may see him methodically putting out the eyes of chained prisoners; we may see his soldiers bowling with decapitated heads. Sennacherib, Sargon, or Assurbanipal orders his scribes to write on brick: "My war chariots crush men and beasts and the bodies of my enemies. The monuments which I erect are made of human corpses from which I have cut the heads and the limbs. I cut off the hands of all those whom I capture alive."

Suffering exists in proportion to sensibility. It is possible that the Assyrian people did not feel the horror of living, since they never felt its real joy as did the Egyptian crowds, which confided to the granite of the tombs the sweetness and poetry of their soul. Killing is an intoxication. By dint of seeing blood flow, by dint of expecting death, one grows to love blood, and everything that one does in life smells of death. Massacre always; battles, and the military tide rising or ebbing to carry devastation round about Nineveh or to turn it back upon the surrounding peoples. Always the swarming of the nameless masses in putrefaction and misery, in the poisonous vapors of the waters and the devouring fire of the heavens.

When this people is not cutting throats or burning buildings, when it is not decimated by famine and butchery, it has only one function—to build and decorate palaces whose vertical walls shall be thick enough to protect the Sar, his wives, his guards, and his slaves—twenty or thirty thousand persons—against the sun, invasion, or perhaps revolt. Around the great central courts are the apartments covered with terraces or with domes, with cupolas, images of the absolute vault of the deserts, which the Oriental soul will rediscover when Islam shall have reawakened it. Higher than these, observatories which are at the same time temples, the zigurats, the pyramidal towers whose stages painted with red, white, blue, brown, black, silver, and gold, shine afar through the veils of dust which the winds whirl in spirals. Especially at the approach of evening, the warring hordes and the nomadic pillagers, who see the somber confines of the desert streaked with this motionless lightning, must recoil in fear. It is the dwelling of the god, and resembles those steps of the plateau of Iran leading to the roof of the world, which are striped with violent colors by subterranean fire and by the blaze of the sun.

The gates are guarded by terrific brutes, bulls and lions with human heads, marching with a heavy step. On the whole length of the interminable walls they herald the drama which unrolls within—the mythological and living hell, the slaughter of men in war, the men falling from the tops of towers into the shower of stones and spears, kings choking lions, the bloody epic whose cruelty is increased by its mechanical expression. These stiff legs in profile, those torsos seen in profile or front view, these arms articulated like pincers—all are resisting, some killing, some dying. And if this life thus formed never attains that silent rhythm which, in Egypt, communicates to it a character of such high spirituality, it gives the ferocious bas-reliefs of the palaces of Nineveh a force so rigorous as to seem to pursue its demonstration by its own impetus.

It is by this burst of life, arrested in a few attitudes—conventional but passionately alive—that all archaisms correspond one with another. Certain writers have tried, by a too easy process of reasoning, to associate the ancient forms of art with the attempts of children. The Egyptians and the Assyrians are supposed to have traced mere sketches of a superior figure, which was to be realized by the Greeks. As in the images made by children, it is true, the eye is seen in front view and very wide, illuminating a face in profile. It is true that the Theban or Ninevite artist satisfied the need for continuity, which the child also shares with all beings and which is the very condition of his logical development; he did so in following—untiringly and willingly—the uninterrupted line of the contours, the definition of the eye by the edge of the lids, and the profile of the face, whose plane flees and floats as soon as it is presented in front view. But it is only in decorative bas-relief or in painting the language of convention—that Egypt and Assyria reveal this inadequacy of technique—which, however, takes away nothing from the force of the sentiment and leaves intact the incomparable conception of mass and of evocative line. Assyrian art and Egyptian art represent a synthetic effort whose profundity and whose power of intuition are such that it is puerile to think childhood capable of anything similar. And when the Egyptian turns to his true means of expression—sculpture—he reveals in it a science which will never again contain so much ardor and mystery, even if the social and moral preoccupations of other peoples animate it with a different life, indeed a freer and more comprehensive life. The art of the old peoples develops itself within itself; it accepts the fixed limits of the great metaphysical systems and thus is prevented from expressing the multiple and infinitely complex relationships between the being in movement and the world in movement. Only political and religious liberty will break the archaic mold, to reveal to man, who is already defined in his structure, his place in the universe.

Assyrian society was particularly far removed from such preoccupations. It was interested only in adventures of war or of hunting in which the Sar was the hero. The walls of his palace declare his glory and his strength. No desire to better life, no moving tenderness. When they did not celebrate a killing they showed a line of soldiers on the march to a killing. When the Assyrians left their burning soil to go down to the sea they saw nothing but the effort of the rowers, they leaned over the waves only to see fish seized by crabs. There was nothing like this in Egypt, which again and again took refuge in that concentration of mind which gives a quality of inner life and a mystery to its art. There is nothing like this even in Chaldea, where we find feminine bodies outlined in a furtive caress. Amid the incessant wars, the invasions, ruins, and griefs, the artist had not the time to look within him. He served his master, and without mental reservations. He followed him in his military expeditions against Chaldea, against Egypt, against the Hittites, and the tribes of the high plateaus. In his train he hunts the onager in the plains, or goes with him to seek the lion in the caverns of the Zagros Mountains. He leads a violent life, full of movement, and not at all contemplative. He recounts it with brutality.

Assyrian art is of a terrible simplicity. Although an almost flat silhouette, one that is barely shadowed by undulations, alone marks out the form—that form is bursting with life, movement, force, savage character. One might say that the sculptor ran a knife over the course of the nerves which carry the murderous energy to the back, the limbs, and the jaws. The bones and muscles stretch the skin to the breaking point. Hands clutch paws, close upon necks, and draw the bowstring; teeth tear, claws rend; the blood spouts thick and black. Only the human face is without movement. Never does one see its surface light up with the dull glow of the Egyptian faces. It is altogether exterior, always the same—hard, closed, very monotonous, but very much characterized by its immense eyes, its arched nose, its thick mouth, its dead and cruel ensemble. It is meet that the king, whose head retains its tiara and its oiled, perfumed, and curled hair and beard, should be calm as he strangles or cuts the throat of the monster, drunk with fury. It is meet that the details of his costume, as well as those of his hairdressing, should be minutely described. The poor artist has to concern himself with pitiful things. He flatters his master, ornaments his garments, and cares for his weapons and war equipment ; he makes his hair glossy; he represents him as being impassible and strong in combat, larger than those who accompany him, dominating without effort the furious beast which he kills. The terrible character of the breasts, the legs, the arms in action, the wild animals rushing to the attack with muscles tense, bones cracking, or jaws grinding, is too often masked by the artist.

What matter? At that time when a man could not free himself he had to assume his share of the servitude. The Ninevite artist comprehended—that is, the one really accessible liberty. He was infinitely stronger than those whose horrible power he had the weakness to adore. The too elegant, the too courageous Sars with their royal ornaments and their trappings, bore us, and that is the revenge of the sculptor. What he loved seizes us—overpowers us. Ask him how he saw the animals: lean horses with thin legs, nervous, drawn heads, with throbbing nostrils; ask him to show you the growling dogs as they pull at their chains, or the bristling lions, or the great birds run through by arrows and falling among the trees. There he is incomparable, superior to all before and after him, Egyptians, Aegeans, Greeks, Hindoos, Chinese, Japanese, the Gothic image makers, and the men of the Renaissance in France or in Italy. Under the palm trees with their rough-skinned fruits he has surprised the beast at rest, its muzzle resting on its paws as it digests the blood it has drunk. He has seen the beast in combat, tearing flesh, opening bellies, mad with hunger and rage. The forces of instinct circulate with blind violence in these contracted muscles, these beasts falling heavily on the prey, these bodies raised upright, with limbs apart and open claws, in these wrinkling muzzles, these irresistible springs, and these death struggles as ferocious as leaps or victories. Never will uncompromising description go farther. Here a lion vomits blood because his lungs are run through by a spear. There a lioness in fury, her teeth and claws out, drags toward the hunter her body paralyzed by the arrows that have pierced the marrow of her spine. They are still terrible when dead, lying on their backs, with their great paws falling idly. It is the poem of strength, of murder, and of hunger.

Even when he puts aside for a day his subjects of battle or the chase, his orgies of murder in the horrible chorus of death clamors and roars, the Assyrian sculptor continues his poem. Almost as well as the sphinxes of the sacred alleys of Egypt, the violent monsters who guard the gates give that impression of animal unity which makes the strangest creations of our imagination re-enter the order of nature. But the statue maker of Nineveh is not content with fixing an eagle's head on the shoulders of a man, a man's head on the neck of a bull. The bull, the lion, the eagle, and the man are merged; we get the body or claws of a lion, the hoofs or breast of a bull, the wings or claws of an eagle, the hard head of a man, with his long hair, beard, and high tiara. Man and lion, eagle and bull, the being has always the potentiality of life; in its brutal and tense harmony it fulfills its symbolic function, and its violent synthesis of the natural forms represents to our eyes the power of the armed animal. As in Egypt, the head of the monster is generally human—an obscure and magnificent homage rendered by the man of violence to the law which man bears essentially within him, the law which says that blind force is to be overcome by the force of the mind.

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