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The Devil's Pool By George Sand Characters: 7399

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

A la sueur de ton visaige

Tu gagnerois ta pauvre vie,

Après long travail et usaige,

Voicy la mort qui te convie.[1]

The quatrain in old French written below one of Holbein's pictures is profoundly sad in its simplicity. The engraving represents a ploughman driving his plough through a field. A vast expanse of country stretches away in the distance, with some poor cabins here and there; the sun is setting behind the hill. It is the close of a hard day's work. The peasant is a short, thick-set man, old, and clothed in rags. The four horses that he urges forward are thin and gaunt; the ploughshare is buried in rough, unyielding soil. A single figure is joyous and alert in that scene of sweat and toil. It is a fantastic personage, a skeleton armed with a whip, who runs in the furrow beside the terrified horses and belabors them, thus serving the old husbandman as ploughboy. This spectre, which Holbein has introduced allegorically in the succession of philosophical and religious subjects, at once lugubrious and burlesque, entitled the Dance of Death, is Death itself.

In that collection, or rather in that great book, in which Death, playing his part on every page, is the connecting link and the dominant thought, Holbein has marshalled sovereigns, pontiffs, lovers, gamblers, drunkards, nuns, courtesans, brigands, paupers, soldiers, monks, Jews, travellers, the whole world of his day and of ours; and everywhere the spectre of Death mocks and threatens and triumphs. From a single picture only, is it absent. It is that one in which Lazarus, the poor man, lying on a dunghill at the rich man's door, declares that he does not fear Death, doubtless because he has nothing to lose and his life is premature death.

Is that stoicist idea of the half-pagan Christianity of the Renaissance very comforting, and do devout souls find consolation therein? The ambitious man, the rascal, the tyrant, the rake, all those haughty sinners who abuse life, and whom Death holds by the hair, are destined to be punished, without doubt; but are the blind man, the beggar, the madman, the poor peasant, recompensed for their long life of misery by the single reflection that death is not an evil for them? No! An implacable melancholy, a ghastly fatality, overshadows the artist's work. It resembles a bitter imprecation upon the fate of mankind.

There truly do we find the grievous satire, the truthful picture of the society Holbein had under his eyes. Crime and misfortune, those are what impressed him; but what shall we depict, we artists of another age? Shall we seek in the thought of death the reward of mankind in the present day? Shall we invoke it as the punishment of injustice and the guerdon of suffering?

No, we have no longer to deal with Death, but with Life. We no longer believe either in the nothingness of the tomb or in salvation purchased by obligatory renunciation; we want life to be good because we want it to be fruitful. Lazarus must leave his dunghill, so that the poor may no longer rejoice at the death of the rich. All must be happy, so that the happiness of some may not be a crime and accursed of God. The husbandman as he sows his grain must know that he is working at the work of life, and not rejoice because Death is walking beside him. In a word, death must no longer be the punishment of prosperity or the consolation of adversity. God did not destine death as a punishment or a compensation for life; for he blessed life, and the grave should not be a refuge to which it is permitted to send those who cannot be made happy.

Certain artists of our time, casting a serious glance upon their surroundings, strive to depict grief, the abje

ctness of poverty, Lazarus's dunghill. That may be within the domain of art and philosophy; but, by representing poverty as so ugly, so base, and at times so vicious and criminal a thing, do they attain their end, and is the effect as salutary as they could wish? We do not dare to say. We may be told that by pointing out the abyss that yawns beneath the fragile crust of opulence, they terrify the wicked rich man, as, in the time of the Danse Macabre, they showed him its yawning ditch, and Death ready to wind its unclean arms about him. To-day, they show him the thief picking his lock, the assassin watching until he sleeps. We confess that we do not clearly understand how they will reconcile him with the humanity he despises, how they will move his pity for the sufferings of the poor man whom he fears, by showing him that same poor man in the guise of the escaped felon and the burglar. Ghastly Death, gnashing his teeth and playing the violin in the productions of Holbein and his predecessors, found it impossible in that guise to convert the perverse and to comfort their victims. Is it not a fact that the literature of our day is in this respect following to some extent in the footsteps of the artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance?

Holbein's drunkards fill their glasses in a sort of frenzied desire to put aside the thought of Death, who, unseen by them, acts as their cup-bearer. The wicked rich men of to-day demand fortifications and cannon to put aside the thought of a rising of the Jacquerie, whom art shows them at work in the shadow, separately awaiting the moment to swoop down upon society. The Church of the Middle Ages answered the terrors of the powerful ones of the earth by selling indulgences. The government of to-day allays the anxiety of the rich by making them pay for many gendarmes and jailers, bayonets and prisons.

Albert Dürer, Michael Angelo, Holbein, Callot, Goya, produced powerful satires upon the evils of their age and their country. They are immortal works, historical pages of unquestionable value; we do not undertake, therefore, to deny artists the right to probe the wounds of society and lay them bare before our eyes; but is there nothing better to be done to-day than to depict the terrifying and the threatening? In this literature of mysteries of iniquity, which talent and imagination have made fashionable, we prefer the mild, attractive figures to the villains for dramatic effect. The former may undertake and effect conversions, the others cause fear, and fear does not cure egoism, but increases it.

We believe that the mission of art is a mission of sentiment and love, that the novel of to-day ought to replace the parable and the fable of simpler times, and that the artist has a broader and more poetic task than that of suggesting a few prudential and conciliatory measures to lessen the alarm his pictures arouse. His object should be to make the objects of his solicitude lovable, and I would not reproach him for flattering them a little, in case of need. Art is not a study of positive reality, it is a quest for ideal truth, and the Vicar of Wakefield was a more useful and healthy book for the mind than the Paysan Perverti or the Liaisons Dangereuses.

Reader, pardon these reflections, and deign to accept them by way of preface. There will be no other to the little tale I propose to tell you, and it will be so short and so simple that I felt that I must apologize beforehand by telling you what I think of terrifying tales.

I allowed myself to be drawn into this digression apropos of a ploughman. It is the story of a ploughman that I set out to tell you, and will tell you forthwith.

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