JMC : Philosophy of Literature / by Brother Azarias

Chapter V.
Architecture and Literature.

ARCHITECTURE is also symbolic of an epoch. Its relations with literature are of a most intimate character, and it will be often found a correct guide in determining the spirit of an age or people. The variety and conflict of opinion in a representative author may render it difficult to catch the prevailing tone of the society in which he moves, whereas the expression of a building is one, and therefore unmistakable. The same national genius inspires both the literature and the architecture, and, in consequence; both express the same spirit. Hegel says "Nations have deposited the most holy, rich, and intense of their ideas in works of art, and art is the key to the philosophy and religion of a people."

Of the early architecture of the Hindus, and indeed of the whole Aryan family in the first stages of its existence, we cannot speak. "The Aryans," says Fergusson, "wrote books, but they built no buildings. Their remains are to be found in the Vedas and the Laws of Menu, and in the influence of their superior intellectual power on the lower races; but they excavated no caves, and they reared no monuments of stone or brick that were calculated to endure after having served their original and ephemeral purpose."{1} Their gods were the elements of nature; their temples, the woods, which were so many chapels in the vast cathedral of earth, capped by the immense dome of heaven, beyond which was seated their supreme deity. From the Turanian race they learned how to build, but with such modifications as the peculiar bent of their genius suggested. Thus, that grand monolith at Ellora, the Kailasa temple -- rich, airy, massive -- is characteristic of the same genius that inspired the Ramayana, of some of whose myths it contains representations.{2} By no other people could it have been constructed. It indicates the same luxuriant imagination that breathes in their various philosophical systems. The ancient Indians were so absorbed in thought that all things else were secondary. "The Hindus were a nation of philosophers. Their struggles were the struggles of thought; their past, the problem of creation; their future, the problem of existence."{3} The doctrine of metempsychosis shaped their whole life. With that ever present to their minds, they worked and acted and lived with the view that their future existence might be superior to their present one. The future alone was real for them. The present was maya -- mere illusion.

With Egypt is it particularly true that her architecture reveals her spirit, for it is the chief document she has left us; and in it we read her history, her manners, her customs, her advancement in letters, science, and civilization. Her monuments are her books. In them she wished to perpetuate herself. "People truly singular and unique in history," exclaims Rosellini, "who have employed every means to perpetuate themselves whole and entire down to the latest posterity!"{4} Now, through the whole range of her architecture, in the mathematical accuracy of the construction of the pyramids, in the subserviency of ornament to correctness of detail, by which there is no mistaking a head of an early period for one of a later, or one of foreign origin for a native-born, on her monuments. and finally, in the astrological zodiacals that adorn her later temples, and point to the constellations pending over their dedication as at Esnah and Dendara, there is evidently traceable the scientific spirit that made Egypt from the remotest antiquity the land of insight into the mysteries of nature -- the land of Chemi{5} -- the land, pre-eminently of scientific lore. Hence it is that while Egypt had a literature of her own -- and that varied and voluminous -- it was subservient to her art and industry; little of it remains beyond the fragments existing on her monuments. Her primary conception was scientific, and that gave life and being to all else. Her spirit still lives in her monuments. Through them we know her people as they lived and acted from the remotest times prior to Moses, prior to Joseph, prior to Abraham.

Though Greece received her architecture from Egypt, as she did her alphabet from Phoenicia still all her structures have a characteristic phase that marks them as Grecian. The grace and symmetry pervading column, frieze, and architrave

"The whole so measured true, so lessen'd off
By fine proportion, that the marble pile
. . . light as fabrics looked,
That from the magic wand aërial rise" -- {6}

partake of the innate beauty of her language, and symbolize that harmony in her spiritual and physical development which produced a corresponding harmony in her poetry and her sculpture, and made Greece supreme in the expression of physical beauty.

The spirit of childlike faith that inspired the ennobling legend of the Holy Grail, and built up the Summa, and impelled those eight Crusadal waves to wash out with their blood the desecration to which had been subjected the places sanctified by their Saviour's presence when on earth -- that same beautiful spirit breathes in the Gothic cathedral, with its graceful spires lost in their heavenward direction, its sombre aisles inspiring awe and adoration rather than melancholy or gloom -- the whole diffusing through the soul a feeling of prayerfulness.

Architecture has been called "frozen music," and better still, "the poetry of repose." It were more correct, if not equally pointed, to consider it the stone embodiment of a people's genius -- a grand hieroglyphic, which, when rightly deciphered, reveals the spirit in which a people thinks and works. "So true is this," says Victor Hugo, "that not only every religious symbol, but even every human thought, has its page inscribed in this immense book, which is also its monument."{7}

Let us test this criterion by applying it to our own age. In architecture we have nothing new, nothing essentially different from that of other times; instead, we find a conglomeration of various styles -- Grecian, Byzantine, Gothic -- jumbled together with no unity of plan, and therefore without the characteristic spirit that inspired any of them; for we lack the strong natures and simple faith of the mediaeval ages; we seem to possess but a small share of that sense of symmetry and the beautiful so common among the Greeks, as we have almost totally disregarded our physical training, the great school in which they cultivated that taste; and therefore be the style Grecian or Gothic, it has lost its meaning for us.

And in literature? Let us see. We make strong efforts to revive the classical spirit, forgetful that as a people living under an entirely different order of things, and breathing the purer atmosphere ef Christian principles, even when professing to ignore Christianity, we are out of all tune with those ideas and ways that gave life and being to paganism. In like manner we love to sing again of Arthur and the Round Table, and to restore the legends of the Middle Ages to their pristine splendor. It were well could we only recall the simple faith and earnestness of those times, and drive out that sceptical spirit that chills the noblest aims of life and gnaws at the vitals of our civilization. Not that we wish to return to those days. We enjoy blessings that they knew not; and for them we thank the Giver of all good things. The present has its own function in the great chain of the ages. An epoch may partially mar the views of the unchanging Presence that presides over the march of society. But He knows how to wait. He patiently abides His time to set things to right, when man's perverse will turns them aside from their true path. Centuries are but as moments with Him to whom all past and future are a continual present

But these mediaeval legends never come home to the hearts of moderns with that realizing force with which they were accepted by the people whose thoughts and aspirations they represent. You admire the Parcival of Wolfram von Esehenbach; you scan its construction with critic's eye; you are in rapture over descriptions simple, beautiful as the ideal in the poet's mind; but you smile at the spirit of credulity running through the poem; your criterion of epic construction is shattered by such an opening as this:

"Wo Zweifel nah dem Herzen wohnt,
Das wird der Seele schlimm gelohnt."{8}

But here is the inner soul -- the essential life -- of the poem. Not considering it as such, you have been dissecting a corpse. This horror for doubt runs through all mediaeval literature. You find it in Dante. It is the "open sesame" by which he enters the world of spirits

"Qui si convien lasciare ogni sospetto,
Ogni viltà convien che qui sia morta."{9}

You find it partially reproduced in Tennyson. Launcelot encounters two lions at the entrance to the enchanted towers of Carbouck. He speaks:

"With sudden-flaring manes
These two great beasts rose upright like a man;
Each gript a shoulder and I stood between;
And, when I would have smitten them, heard a voice,
Doubt not, go forward; if thou doubt the beasts
Will tear thee piecemeal

To such language as this the critic of to-day is inclined to say, "Words! words I" but had the poet omitted it, he would have raised a mere skeleton in resuscitating the legend; for there would be no trace of the spirit that gave it life and being.

To be more than notional, to be felt and almost instinctively appreciated as a matter of course, the expression -- the predominant idea of a literary work -- its vivifying principle -- must include directly or indirectly the expression of the spirit of the age in which it is written.

Looking to other departments of literature, we perceive that the test still holds. In history, our knowledge of oriental languages, hieroglyphics, and cuneiform inscriptions has rendered us more critical; and we have not been altogether unsuccessful in rehabilitating certain epochs in the far past.{11} Fiction is more universally read now than at any other era in literature; but fiction is only the drama in prosaic detail. In journalism we are pre-eminent. It is today, among human agencies, the greatest power on earth for good as well as for evil; but its impressions are as fleeting as time, and, like those of time, are generally traced in ruin. Thus we find that our age is in literature what it is in architecture -- an age of comparative study, and in consequence an age of patchwork and reconstruction.

{1} History of Architecture, vol. ii., p. 449.

{2} See Fergusson's History of Indian and Eastern Architecture, p. 335.

{3} Max Müller, History of Ancient Sanscrit Literature, p. 31.

{4} "Popolo veramente singolare ed unico nelle storie, per avere ogni opera usato a conservarsi fino nella più tarda posterità tutto intero." -- I Monumenti dell' Egitto, Mon. del Culto.

{5} Whence our chemistry.

{6} Thompson, Liberty, ii.

{7} Notre Dame de Paris, liv. v., chap. ii.

{8} When doubt takes up his dwelling by the heart,
With pain and woe he'll make it sorely smart. -- Parcival, i, 1-2.

{9} Here all suspicion needs must be abandoned,
All cowardice must needs be here extinct. -- Inferno, iii. -- Trans. -- LONGFELLOW.

{10} Holy Grail.

{11} The names of Mariette-Bey, Lenormant, Rawlinson, Sayce, Bunsen, Lepsius, Niebuhr and Mommsen here recur.

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