The Dusk of Mankind (part IV)

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There is to be, indeed, during this slow, irremediable wasting away of the Greek idea, some moments where the decline is arrested, some startled gestures revealing a momentary return of vitality; occasionally a few green shoots come from the old transplanted tree. Nothing dies without a struggle. Upon coming into contact with newer races, the Hellenic genius, ashamed of its decay, attempts a vigorous return to itself here and there, and if it does not bring the gods back to earth, it sees, living on the earth, a few heroic forms around the flourishing cities and the illumined bays. To follow its infiltrations through the Latins of northern Italy and the Latinized colonies of the valley of the Rhone is rather difficult, the more so because, from the origins of Greek civilization, Magna Graecia had not ceased to cultivate thought, to cut marble, and to cast bronze. Paestum in its swamps, and the temples of Sicily on their soil of lava and sulphur, where the herds of goats wander amid the cactus, bear witness to the fact that a collective power reigned. It was triumphant over wars, it defined the idealism of the race even more than it did the character of the cities. The evolution of the Hellenic desire had been everywhere the same. Magna Graecia had bared its goddesses to discover the woman in them at the same moment that Praxiteles had. But perhaps it had grown soft more quickly, as if submerged in voluptuous and enervating, luxury. Southern Italy was richer than Greece, more fertile, less rugged, and more generously supplied with orange trees, with flowers, and with breezes. The beautiful statues of Capua have the fluidity of perfumed oils and the polish of the skin of courtesans; they are without any strength of their own, their modeling melts and flows like wax. Rome had little trouble in subjecting those who lived among them.

But it happened that at the contact of Roman energy the Greek element recovered a certain dignity. For two centuries, approximately, from the period when Greece, not yet conquered, but already resigned, sent artists to Rome, until the period when, entirely vanquished, she furnished only panderers, sophists, and rhetoricians—from the "Seated Pugilist" to the "Hercules of the Belvedere"—there was a strange union of the violent Latin strength and the Hellenic mind, purified and made subtle by the approach of death. And from this marriage came fruits at once so tart and so ripe that before them Michael Angelo could have recognized—and did recognize—his power. These are singular works, like full green oaks that have been struck by lightning. We do not know whether they are Roman, because of the hilly modeling, the exaggerated expressiveness of the projections, and the tense brutality; or Greek, because of the mastery that fixes all these qualities in coherent form, that draws forth and distributes the spirit of the form. The accord between the inner life of the recreated organism and its mode of meeting with the light on its surface is complete. In these works instinct is dominated by intelligence, and must follow wherever and however intelligence directs it. It was surely Latinized Greeks in Sicily who dug out from the rocks, which look toward the sparkling sea, those marble amphitheaters where the shepherds sat beside the gods. It was Latinized Greeks who built and decorated Pompeii. It was Latinized Greeks, saturated with that concrete poetry which the French soil infuses in those whom it nourishes, who built Aries and Nîmes and surprised those beautiful women at the bath as they crouch on one leg which flattens under the weight of the torso, with its soft breasts, the fat fold at the belly, and the hollow in the small of the back, where the shadow moves with the undulating surface. At Rome itself, under Augustus, with the Roman copyists all around him, Pasiteles founded a Greek school. And it was in Rome, under his leadership and as an evident reaction against Asiatic sculpture, that the Greek sculptors attempted an impossible return to Archaic austerity. [I believe that the famous throne of Venus (of the Museo Nazionale in Rome), the central element of which serves as the headpiece to the Introduction to this book, and which has heretofore been attributed to the fifth century, must be restored to this school, of which it would be the masterpiece. Not to mention the place where it was discovered, not to speak of the nude figure in it—which, by the way, is inferior to the rest of the work—and which the artists of the fifth century would not have ventured to use, there are some strange details in it like the pillows, a certain negligence of style, a certain fashionable elegance, a certain technical cleverness, a spirit more elegant and refined than grave, a mixture of exquisite culture and voluntary naiveté, a shade of literature very far from the force and the austerity of the predecessors of Phidias.] Everywhere else, in Attica, in Asia, and in the Islands, Hellenism reacts in only a negative way against the sea of sentimentalism that arises from the depths.

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