The Dusk of Mankind (part III)

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Greek art, at the very moment that it was thus breaking up in depth, was scattering over the whole material surface of Hellenic antiquity. After the movement of concentration that had brought to Athens all the forces of Hellenism, a movement of dispersal began, which was to carry from Athens to southern Italy, to Sicily, to Cyrenaica, Egypt, the Islands, and Asia Minor the passion and, unfortunately, the mania, for beautiful things—in default of creative genius. Dilettantism and the diffusion of taste multiply and at the same time weaken talent. It is the Hellenistic period, perhaps the richest in. artists and in works of art that history has to show, but perhaps, also, one of the poorest in power of emotion.

There are few men to listen to the voice within them now, and, in a brief rush of fervor, occasionally to catch from it—like the vigorous sculptor of the Venus of Milo—a very noble, if somewhat dulled and disunited, echo of the hymn to life whose triumphal choir dies out in the past. The adroit and active author of the "Sarcophagus of Alexander" takes the subjects of the old Assyrian sculpture, for lack of its science, and transforms its force and its brutality into somewhat declamatory lyrical movement. The sculptors of Rhodes, especially, seek gesticulating and complicated melodrama in the sensational event and in literature, so that they may be surer to touch popular sentiment, which is beginning its reaction against the skepticism of the philosophers. Others, who cannot see significance in the normal manifestations of life, lure the patron by making their work tell anecdotes for him. We reach the irritating reign of the picturesque little groups. They are still charming sculpture, to be sure, of a learned and witty elegance, but without the naive quality, and already announce monotonous factory work, trinkets, art for the amateur, and those coffins of the artist's dignity, the glass case, the shelf, and the collection.

These undefined currents, dominated by the sentimentalism of the middle classes and the elegant lassitude of the blasé, act one on another, in harmony or in opposition, and follow or push back in every direction the hesitating wave that goes from the shores of Asia to the shores of Egypt, from Pergamos to Alexandria, from the Islands to the three continents. The incessant mixing of the populations of the coasts produces a wild maelstrom in which some waves from the depths, bringing back the violence and heaviness of Asia, arouse the passion of humanity to the point of desperation. But the Greek soul is no longer anything but a foam evaporating on the surface. Man has lost his unity. His efforts to seize it again only plunge him into deeper night. The Altar of Pergamos, the last of the great collective designs that Hellenism has bequeathed to us, is the image of this disorder. Where sobriety had been, there is heavy luxuriance; confusion replaces order; the rhythm grows wild and breathless; melodramatic effort stifles all humanity, and oratorical power becomes emphasis and bombast. The artist, in the abundance of his speech, exhibits the noisy emptiness of his mind. His speech is ardent, without doubt, sumptuous in color, trembling with his clamor and his gesture, but it is a little like a mantle loaded with gold and gems that has been caught by the wind. Scopas had, at least, no fear of open spaces in his groups; he was too much alive; the sap of the primitive had not abandoned him; when he had nothing to say he held his peace. But the sculptor of Pergamos is afraid of those great silences through which the spirit of Phidias, when it left one form to go toward another, glided on its invisible wave. The sense of spiritual continuity is so foreign to him that he does not hesitate to replace it by the factitious continuity of external rhetoric. He fills the backgrounds, stuffs the holes, and chokes up every bit of space that he can find. When a man has little to say, he talks without a stop. Silence bores only those who do not think.

These screams, these imploring eyes, these desperate gestures correspond with the awakening neither of pain nor of pity. Suffering is as old as the mind. The men of the past were not ignorant of the dramas of love, or the dramas of paternity, or the dramas of war, or of abandonment, or of death; but they knew how to gather from them an increase of power. When man loves life he dominates and utilizes pain. It is when he no longer acts that tears rule the world. The lachrymose heroes and the epileptic gods no longer have in them an\thing of the Greek soul; they no longer have anything of the human soul. It escapes through the bellowing mouths, the hair standing on end, the tips of the fingers, the points of the spears, and through the gestures that fritter it away. The world is ripe to adopt the antagonistic dualism that later is to tear civilization to pieces. Here is earth, there is heaven; here is the form, there is the spirit. They are forbidden to rejoin each other, to recognize themselves in each other. Man is to wander despairingly for ten or twelve centuries in the night that falls between them. Already the authors of the melodramatic groups of the "Laocoon," the "Farnese Bull," and the romantic suicides are no longer sculptors, but bombastic play-actors. Feeling, which is to be reborn in the crowds, is dead in the image cutters, who have been domesticated by the powerful. Even their science is dead. The statue maker is hardly more than a diligent anatomist, who follows exactly the relief of the muscles and the dramatized movement that fashion prescribes for his model. Sculpture does not even think of recovering something of the lost paradise through divine irony, for which it is not made. But through irony Lucian of Samosate is to console minds from which pitiless rationalism has driven out faith. The gods have deserted the souls of the artists to dwell in the hearts of stoics, who welcome them without a word.

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