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The Sacrifice of Images

by Noël Devaulx translated by Edward Gauvin

In the hearts of squares, the palaces were stirring. Columns of rebels were already charging into the mist where streetlamp globes bobbed uncertainly like ripe oranges destined for the children of princes behind silk and diamond panes. Day had not yet unraveled the tangled branches nor the fountains writ their tracery beneath the winter sky. But a rumor had taken hold of those great spaces where the city drew breath: avenues and roundabouts where gods dwelled, broad clearings in the close elms, plazas with reflecting pools where gatherings of stone emote. By all appearances, life went on, trade threatened little by the fever that had seized so many humble folk. None could have foreseen such ardor for slaughter in these good people whose unspoken hatred had ripened over the course of centuries, forming a face closed to kindness. Volunteers climbed toward the cathedral, accompanying their song with the clamor of tumbrels. Clumsily, motorized winches took their places. Ladders soared up and latched onto pinnacles. Like a net tautened by a struggling bird, bundles of rigging hugged the statues atop the highest triforia. Along the river, the broad windows of the national palace opened on a harsh light. Crowds were filling the galleries and some busied themselves by hurling, from the casements, paintings whose frames shattered on the sidewalks. Armed groups coursed through opulent abodes denounced for their works of art. A lone statue in a square drew a crowd like that for a lost child, or a madman. Quarriers soon reduced it to an unthinking bollard. They seemed driven to sledgehammer the faces on the fountains back into the depths of stone. Blazes broke out on the doorsteps of peaceful museums hidden by courtyards. Varnish on old paintings crackled merrily like pinecones in a fire. A powerful joy seized the manufacturers and shopkeepers whose brows buzzed with bills and calendars. Elated by the rioting, children danced in circles. A choice spectacle that exhausted its material on the first day—exhausted it forevermore—was the obliteration of stained glass windows in a fireworks of multicolored ornament. * No doubt the people’s rage sometimes struck master and epigone alike. No doubt searches conducted on the pretext of tracking down images soon took on a different character. Yet soon the visionaries announced that this spontaneous insurgency, arising from the most sensible strata of society, had found support and effective direction, and that its goals had been, in the main, accomplished. An important note, then: sculptures in plaster or bronze that bourgeois mantelpieces or the altars of saints had placed before our eyes daily now received only the odd blow, whereas a monk by a Flemish Old Master, a lemon or an apple by a 17th century French intimist, provoked a rare fury. One imagines Soong porcelain irritated the Tartars in much the same fashion. And indeed, these excesses took a Great Wall as their target: that which the scandalous production of images had traced across the landscape of history. And what if such a wall had unfurled its length under all the heavens, irrefutably separating two races each with their own laws, their way of understanding life, housing, horticulture? Those on one side would have been but vaguely aware of the others’ offensive silence, in the distance, thanks to the stone’s thickness. Their towers, their sooty twilights crisscrossed with explosions, would not have been the target of philosophers’ provocations. What a gratifying spectacle these two races would have provided, carefully preserved as they were from contradiction, even shackled and silent! On one side, still decked out in quaint adornments, nourishing a care for rites and customs, wearing themselves out over the patient union of spirit and matter whose most obvious reward would be an image fallen from the moon, dazed, a stranger among us. And in the other hemisphere, the race of conquerors, roused by the virile joys of domination (is the earth herself not a slave over whose flesh the master holds sway?), always swept beyond their discoveries, beyond the neutron, beyond the farthest nebula, ransacking heights and depths with the same invincible logic the Mongols applied to mastering the steppes, the same irrefutable logic that held the reins of the Golden Horde! As bad luck would have it, things were settled less simplistically: at work, in the streets, even seated at the same table, the so-called seers rubbed elbows with those who might strain their eyes without seeing a thing. But this was all for show: it fooled no one. Without being able to put into facts such an intangible singularity, some seemed to see right through whatever they were doing at the moment, their gazes gone beyond their papers, their machines, their time. And it so happened that the world of images was a site susceptible to this ancient dispute. The man engaged in a specific task, seeming to meet the requirements of a job, seeming to conform to our determinisms—he had been caught, on his inevitable way to factory or office, making a detour to see an exquisite, rustic Virgin still perched on a gable, or spending his off-hours before so humble a subject as a man with a glass in hand or a mist-laden punt in the tall grass. Surprised in the act, he was awkward, paralyzed by his guilty conscience. He proved unable to express, in terms plain and clear to all, the reasons for his attitude. He excused himself on the grounds of the innocence of his pastime without seeing that the insult, the unacceptable, appalling mystery, lay in this very gratuity, this innocence. * At last one day the city was stripped bare. Rubberneckers watched ironically as Memling Virgins, with their faces like peaches, burned. A whole neighborhood still reeked of the bonfire where the consumption of piled tapestries was nearing its grueling end. The smolder was overcoming the final remnants of a pink background where a unicorn’s beard could still be made out. People passed by, holding their noses, kicking at charred remains. They said, surprised, “So that was it?” Others, with a fear not wholly shaken, inspected the wood; the canvas Van Eyck’s brush, or Titian’s, had touched; the plane of stone that Sluter’s tool had turned to skin. Everyone—and not without surprise—recognized the stuff of their everyday experience. If some still doubted their victory, that was because it had happened so suddenly. These age-old idols, suspected of the insidious ambition of invading, little by little, the world of the living, of halting the march of reason—they had shattered so easily, burned so naturally, without the slightest trace! The last doubts would go up in smoke as well. Above all, their misgivings were so naïve, so unconvincing. “Was this,” they asked, “a sign of the gentleness the revolt had destroyed in smashing that Persephone? Wasn’t it, as bad luck would have it, gentleness itself, youth in bloom? That haughty Blessed Mary who seemed to judge, from high atop her column, our most lawful activities, was she but a simple figure of majesty? Wasn’t it majesty itself, rather, that had been reduced to dust and rubble? Don’t you notice anything about men’s faces? Haven’t they lost a certain halo, an ineffable glow reflected from their works?” Nevertheless, spring came and the trees provided men denial in the form of an ingenuous and still irresolute green. The evenings were tepid. Around the city spread a zone of debris white as bones in an abandoned lime quarry. In public landfills, the torsos of goddesses mingled with old shoes; severed hands whose eloquence had shown their intrinsic beauty stirred faintly. Then shadows would draw close, bend forward, shake their heads, and later return to their daily rounds. More worried still, more silent even than a tinker surprised by dawn, these men rooted through the waste like lovers through their memories, seeking a fragment of a face where marble had taken on a fleshly velvet, recalling the blossom of a breast beneath heavy wool, the disbelieving birth of a smile. February, 1948