THE ROLE OF APPEARANCES

FOR exoterism, appearances have little importance, unless it be that Revelation and Tradition concern themselves with them to a certain degree; for pure esoterism, on the contrary, appearances have all the importance that results from their nature on the one hand, and from the nature of man on the other. For an absurd appearance is an error, and many errors in history would have been avoided, if one had not created a framework of appearances that favoured them, and made them appear precisely as truths or at least as very venial sins. Certainly, it is the spirit that counts, not forms, when the alternative arises; in normal conditions it arises seldom, and in any case the primacy of the spirit does not require falseness on the part of forms, to say the least. Perfect virtue includes everything that is within our reach, just as the total truth includes everything that is.

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When 3 is multiplied by 4, the product is 12; it is neither 11 nor 13, but expresses exactly the conjugated powers of the multiplicand and of the multiplier. Likewise, metaphorically speaking, when the Christian religion is multiplied by Western humanity, the product is the Middle Ages; it is neither the age of the barbarian invasions nor that of the Renaissance. When a living organism has reached its maximum of growth, it is what it should be; it should neither stop short at the infantile state nor should it grow on indefinitely. The norm does not lie in hypertrophy, it lies at the exact limit of normal development. The same holds good for civilizations.

If we compare St Louis and Louis XIV, we could of course confine ourselves to saying that they represent different ages, which is either a truism or an error; it is a truism to assert that every man lives in his own age, and it is an error to declare that the difference between the two French kings, or more precisely between the worlds in which they live and which they incarnate, is only a difference of time. The real difference is that St Louis represents Western Christianity in the full development of its normal and normative possibilities, whereas Louis XIV represents something entirely different, namely that substitute for religion, or for Christendom, which calls itself “Civilization”; admittedly, Christianity is still included in this but the emphasis is elsewhere, namely on the titanesque and worldly humanism, which is strangely hostile to virgin nature, following the example of ancient Rome.

Outward forms are criteria in this regard. It is either false or insufficient to allege that St Louis wore the costume of his period and that, mutatis mutandis, Louis XIV did the same; the truth is that St Louis wore the dress of a Western Christian king, whereas Louis XIV wore that of a monarch who was already more “civilized” than Christian, the first epithet referring, needless to say, to “civilizationism” and not to civilization in the general sense of the word. The appearance of St Louis is that of an idea which has reached the fullness of its ripening; it marks, not a phase, but a thing accomplished, a thing which is entirely what it ought to be.(1) The appearance of a king of the Renaissance or of the age immediately following is the appearance, not of a thing, but of a phase — nor yet even a phase, but an extravagant episode; whereas we have no difficulty in taking seriously the appearance not only of a St Louis, but also of a Pharoah, an Emperor of China, or for that matter, a Red Indian chief, it is impossible to escape an impression of ridiculousness when confronted by the famous portraits of certain kings. These portraits, or rather these poses and these accoutrements, which the portraits so humourlessly and pitilessly fix, are supposed to combine all imaginable sublimities, some of which cannot in fact be fitted together into a single formula, for it is impossible to have everything at one and the same time; the hieratic and as it were incorporeal splendour of a Christian emperor cannot be piled up on top of the paradisal naked splendour of an ancient hero.

St Louis, or any other Christian prince of his time, could figure amongst the kings and queens — in the form of columns — of the cathedral of Chartres; the later kings — those more marked by an invading worldliness — would be unthinkable as sacred statues.(2) Not that all the princes of the Middle Ages were individually better than those of the Renaissance and later ages, but this is not the question; it is a question exclusively of demeanour and dress in so far as these are adequate manifestations of a norm that is both religious and ethnic, and thus of an ideal which allies the divine with the human. The king, like the pontiff, is not merely an official, he is also, by reason of his central position, an object of contemplation, in the sense of the Sanskrit term darshan: to benefit from the darshan of a saint is to be penetrated by his appearance in all its unassessable aspects if not also by the symbolism of his pontifical robes, as the case may be. St Louis is one of those sovereigns who spiritually incarnate the ideal which they represent so to speak liturgically, whereas the majority of the other medieval princes represent this ideal at least in the second way which, let it be said once more, is far from being without importance from the point of view of the concrete intelligibility of the royal function, whose undertones are both earthly and heavenly.

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When one compares the different European costumes over the centuries, one is struck by the irruption of worldliness that occurs towards the end of the Middle Ages, and one is astonished that believing men, supposed to fear God, could have been to such a degree dupes of their vanity, their self-satisfaction, their lack of critical sense and spiritual imagination, or indeed dignity. Female dress, whether that of princesses or simply that of ordinary women, retains its sober beauty up to the end of the 14th century approximately, then becomes complicated, pretentious and extravagant, — with certain intermittent exceptions, often very sumptuous be it said, — to reach, in the 18th century, an inhuman limit of inflatedness and perversity; then, after the French revolution, one returns to ancient simplicity, but thereafter there is a slide into new excesses, whose more or less democratic spirit does not prevent complication and grotesqueness, in short, a worldly pretentiousness deprived of all innocence. As regards male dress, it also undergoes an almost equally sudden decline in the 15th century: it loses its religious character and its sober dignity and becomes affected, — “courtly”, if you will — but in any case tainted with narcissism, or else it becomes simply fantastical, so much so that the men of those times, if they do not look like dandies, make one think of court jesters. All this is explained in part by the unrealistic and clumsy scission between a religious world and a secular world, the latter never having been integrated normally into the religion, whence the Renaissance on the one hand and the Reformation on the other. The specifically worldly character of male dress subsequently becomes even more accentuated and gives rise, throughout history and in the same way as female dress, to an unbalanced lurching between contrary excesses, ending with the sort of barbarous nothingness that prevails in our own age.(3)

In saying this, we know only too well that visual criteria are devoid of significance for the “man of our time”, who is nevertheless a visual type by curiosity as well as from an incapacity to think, or through lack of imagination and also through passivity: in other words he is a visual type in fact but not by right. The modern world, slipping hopelessly down the slope of an irremediable ugliness, has furiously abolished both the notion of beauty and the criteriology of forms; this is, from our point of view, yet another reason for using the present argument, which is like the complementary outward pole of metaphysical orthodoxy, for, as we have mentioned elsewhere in this connection, “extremes meet”. There can be no question, for us, of reducing cultural forms, or forms as such, objectively to hazards and subjectively to tastes; “beauty is the splendour of truth”; it is an objective reality which we may or may not understand.(4) One may wonder what would have become of Latin Christianity if the Renaissance had not stabbed it. Doubtless it would have undergone the same fate as the Eastern civilizations: it would have fallen asleep on top of its treasures, becoming in part corrupt and remaining in part intact. It would have produced, not “reformers” in the conventional sense of the word — which is without any interest to say the least — but “renewers” in the form of a few great sages and a few great saints. Moreover, the growing old of civilizations is a human phenomenon, and to find fault with it is to find fault with man as such.

Be that as it may, we should like to point out here that the chronic imbalance that characterizes Western humanity has two principal causes, the antagonism between Aryan paganism and Semitic Christianity on the one hand, and the antagonism between Latin rationality and Germanic imaginativeness on the other.(5) The Latin Church, with its sentimental and unrealistic idealism, has created a completely unnecessary scission between clergy and laity, whence a perpetual uneasiness on the part of the latter towards the former; it has moreover, without taking account of their needs and tastes, imposed on the Germanic peoples too many specifically Latin solutions, forgetting that a religious and cultural framework, in order to be effective, must adapt itself to the mental requirements of those on whom it is imposed. And since, in the case of Europeans, their creative gifts far exceed their contemplative gifts — the role of Christianity should have been to re-establish equilibrium by accentuating contemplation and canalizing creativity, — the West excels in “destroying what it has worshipped”; also the history of Western civilization is made up of cultural treacheries that are difficult to understand, — one is astonished at so much lack of understanding, ingratitude and blindness, — and these treacheries appear most visibly, it goes without saying, in their formal manifestations, in other words, in the human ambience which, in normal conditions, ought to suggest a sort of earthly Paradise or heavenly Jerusalem, with all their beatific symbolism and stability. The Renaissance, at its apogee, replaces happiness with pride; the baroque reacts against this pride or this crushing coldness with a false happiness, cut off from its divine roots and full of a bragadoccio that is both exaggerated and frenzied. The reaction to this reaction was a pagan classicism leading to the bourgeois ugliness, both crude and mediocre, of the 19th century; this has nothing to do with the real people or with a popular craftsmanship that is still authentic, and which remains more or less on the margin of history and bears witness to a wholesomeness very far from all civilizationist affectation.(6)

As for the modern world, it represents a possibility of disequilibrium which could not fail to be manifested when its time was ripe; the metaphysical inevitability of a phenomenon should not prevent us from declaring what it is in itself, nor does it authorize us to take it for what it is not, especially since the truth is by definition constructive, either directly or indirectly. Even what seems to be the most hopelessly ineffective truth, though it cannot change the world, will always help us in some way or other to remain, or to become, what we ought to be in the face of God.

1 The appearance of Clovis or Charlemagne might be that of a perfect Germanic type or of a perfect monarch, but it could not epitomize Western Christendom in an age when its constituent elements were as yet uncombined and had not yet interpenetrated.

2 The column statues of Chartres have, like an iconostasis, the value of a criterion of formal orthodoxy: no exhibition of individualism or of profanity could find a place amongst them.

3 What we say of clothes holds good equally for interior fittings, especially furniture. It is hardly credible that the same men that made the marvels of sober majesty that are gothic and nordic furniture, could have creat ed and tolerated the lacquered and gilded horrors of the courtly and bourgeois furniture of the 18th century; that the noble and robust gravity of the works of the middle ages could have given way to the miserable affectation of later works; in short, that utility and dignity should have been replaced by a hollow, trivial and flaunting luxuriousness.

4 What is admirable in the Orthodox Church is that all its forms, from the iconostases to the vestments of the priests, immediately suggest the ambience of Christ and the Apostles, whereas in what might be called the post-Gothic Catholic Church too many forms are expressions of ambiguous civilizationism or bear its imprint, that is, the imprint of this sort of parallel pseudo-religion which is “Civilization” with a capital C: the presence of Christ then becomes largely abstract. The argument that “ only the spirit matters” is hypocrisy, for it is not by chance that a Christian priest wears neither the toga of a Siamese bonze nor the loin-cloth of a Hindu ascetic. No doubt the “ cloth does not make the monk”; but it expresses, manifests and asserts him!

5 From the point of view of spiritual worth, it is contemplativity that is decisive, whether it is combined with reason or with imagination, or with any kind of sensibility.

6 Popular art moreover is often the vehicle of primordial, especially solar, symbols, and one finds it in peoples very far removed from one another, sometimes in forms that are identical down to the last detail.