WHAT is pagan ecstasy? What is the meaning of that deathless passion that has come to flower in the sublime art of Rodin and Matisse?
It is this: The perception of the mystery of surfaces; the delirious delight of touch; the transports of joy bred of the melodies of motion; the worship of Venus for the sake of her divine body, that body that is a love-canticle of mystic lines and shadows.
And again it is this: The adventure of the mind in matter; the adventure of the senses in air, water and sunlight; the deliria of creation; the divinizing of the sensual and the materializing of the sensuous.
The Pagan Spirit in art, that eternal renaissance of Passion and Beauty, dethroning in its wild Dionysian frenzy all the anemic gods of renunciant impotents, skirts the coasts of strange lands, houses itself in unfamiliar moods, forages on all men’s thoughts. It mints the gold and silver of daily experience in the smithies of its passionate will, and forth from those molds come the things of nameless beauty that Phidias, Leonardo, Rodin and Matisse have given us.
The Pagan Spirit pillages life and marauds on the last secrets of the Ineffable God—the Ineffable God of open spaces, the God of light and laughter, the God of color and sex, the God that halloos his invitation from every line and pore and witching curve of woman’s body.
The miraculous! There is nothing but the miraculous. The miraculous does not happen now and then. The miraculous is—ask Rodin whether he believes in miracles and his answer would be: “Am I not alive?” The pagan attitude, then, assumes the miracle of beauty and life. It opens its eyes on the universe with wonder, amazement and childish delight graven there.
All matter is haunted. Everything that is is a perpetual miraculous epiphany. Winter is the womb of springtime. Withered branches with the ice glittering upon them hold latent within them the perfumed rose. The atom is a tiny house with many ghosts. Sunlight on my shoe is inexplicable. The joy that comes to me from the bodies of nude women is religious. Sunlight is haunted; else how came this world to be?
So the souls of those great wonder-working magicians, the great artists, stand swathed in this sense of elemental mystery, translating, with brush or chisel, all things back to their private, original glamour, and with the witchcraft of this holy pagan innocence unwinding the cords of complexity that use and wont and the emasculating Christian virtues have wound round and round the Holy Ghost of Beauty.
By the mechanism of the association of ideas we generally ally the word “paganism” with the words “ancient Greece.” But that admirable flowering of the human spirit—those few centuries wherein Mind and Matter played the impenitent prodigal with its own native inheritances—was no isolated phenomenon. Paganism is the instinct for liberty. It is a tendency, not a bundle of opinions. A “pagan movement” is always a “new movement.” It is always a rebellion against dogmas, codes, conventions, dry-rot morality and the professional instinct. Every artist who sees in a new way is a pagan. Monet and Manet and Boecklin and Rodin and Matisse and Walt Whitman and Wagner and Richard Strauss were pagans. It is the deep, procreant spirit that wages war against all forms of death. The pagan spirit is the red blood of our dreaming, and its products spring from the loins of our æsthetic rapture.
There is always a renaissance somewhere in the world. The human spirit will not long be set in limits. It will invite pain, but it never invites immobility. The pagan spirit calls the dead from their tombs and blasts the sight with its supernal vistas. It may be sudden epiphany of a Nietzsche in philosophy, a Whitman in poetry, a Wagner in music, or a Rodin in sculpture, but it is always a murderous and creating Force—murderous in that it batters at the rotting ramparts of the orthodox gods; creative in that it brings to the human race a new gospel.
This spirit takes for its loom the whole visible and invisible universe, and weaves with the golden thread of its dreams the mighty tapestries of Art. It conjugates the things seen with the eye and the things touched with the body in all their moods. It transfigures and rejuvenates a staled world. Only one thing it is not—it is not “moral.”
And thus forever and forever will this divine spirit recur. Always somewhere in the world there is being birthed a human revenant of the Great God Pan, who comes to finger his immortal pipe, to jettison his fulness of joy over an outworn world, to spill into the golden matrices of art his hyperborean chant.
If the divine erotic Sappho was a pagan, so was the austere Epicurus. In our day Rodin and Anatole France, Goethe and Keats, Swinburne and D’Annunzio stem from Olympus. Rabelais and Montaigne left records that smug gentility has not yet found the means of annulling. And now we hear the parochical piffle about Rodin and Matisse, and the little dry cough of prudery is heard in the land. And Philista passes in obese seriousness before the products of the masters of the age. And the lazarus-rattle of the leper, Hypocrisy, is heard at the door. And those midwives of mediocrity, the art critics and art editors, croon and mumble their nothings.
But over all reigns Aphrodite; and look at that kissprint on the breast of Rodin—it is where the divine goddess kissed him!
Benjamin De Casseres.
Source: Camera Work, April-July 1911, No. 34-35, pp. 13-14