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Like many other cities in America, Lima has its own archaeological museum. Learned Peruvians, French and German excavators, poor peasants from the mountains – all show nowadays a keen interest in recreating the history of civilizations which existed in the Western Hemisphere before the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The centre of interest has shifted. Discoveries now being made in America arouse the same public curiosity as did, in their day, the Assyrian excavations and the finding of Tutankhamen's tomb. Diggings undertaken in sandy stretches of the Peruvian desert are revealing mummies between five and ten centuries old, wrapped in cloaks of the most exquisite texture and colouring. The dry particles composing these arid dunes have preserved the cloth, which looks as glossy as if it had only just left the unknown hands and primitive loom of its native weaver. But neither mummies nor cloth can compare with the museum's eighty thousand pieces of pottery. Until the Europeans arrived, the Indians made clay figures of animals, birds, flowers and men. They achieved technical perfection. The thin layer of terracotta, covered with enamel, has withstood the action of time. The work is the living expression of an age-old spirit.
Clay represented for those earlier peoples poetry, the theatre, and books. It was the natural vehicle for the expression of their genius. In clay the artist depicted with one bold stroke the proud heads of warriors, or the loving, submissive brow of the Indian woman. In his representation of old people, the irony and malice of the ceramist have the same corrosive effect as has the hand of time, when it wrinkles and shrivels up the skin. It is unlikely that sculptors of our own day will be able to put greater meaning into their work. These old artists of Peru had some magic quality in their finger-tips. They combined poetry with realism superbly. In a design showing two doves or the head of a llama they could convey the rhythm of a subtle gracefulness with a delicacy which has never been surpassed in the decorative arts. When representing scenes of daily life, they showed man engaged in all his crudest activities with a frankness – ingenuousness – of expression which no present-day artists have ever ventured to use.
Four centuries ago, this culture came to a standstill. Then began the colonial epoch, introduced by the Spanish sovereigns in the name of Christianity. Little by little, the fruits of a new culture began to take shape. They have not yet reached maturity. For instance, it is impossible to find in Peruvian ceramic art of today works as perfect as the old ones, or which reflect so faithfully the life of a people. Nevertheless, those forgotten nations which entrusted their innermost poetic dreams to the care of so fragile a material as clay continue to live. The humble, unknown potter can never have imagined that the frail vessel on which he stamped a woman's fugitive smile would remain floating above the current of the centuries and be turned into a message from his then isolated and remote native land
a message of wonder to our modern world which he must have been quite unable to envisage.
This provides an excellent lesson. It shows us that there is something about culture which is immortal. Today we can get to know a lost world, simply by looking at pieces of pottery in a Lima museum, just as we can make contact with other worlds in the gilded halls of the Cairo museum, or among the ancient stones of Yucatan, China or Rome. Learned men labour to determine the number of dead civilizations. But are they really dead ? Is it not rather we who are deaf to the voices of the remote past?
Emerging from their libraries, archaeologists point to some place in Asia, Africa, America, the islands of the Pacific or the Indian Ocean and say 'Underneath those sandy wastes, or among those mountains lies a buried city.' Then, for example, the University of Chicago sends out a party to those dry, deserted regions, once green and well-watered and with wealthy cities like those of the Assyrians, with their gay and noisy festivities, hanging gardens, famous bridges, and soldiers who frightened kingdoms into submission by covering the backs of their camels with dark skins so as to make them resemble hosts of elephants. And the explorers start digging, and discover monumental bulls with human heads and curly beards ... and history is born again.
It is born again in action. Forgotten paths are revealed to modern art. The thread is picked up again. The artist who modelled some fabulous bull begins to inspire the twentieth century
painter, sculptor, or mere visitor to the Chicago Museum. How deep these remote influences penetrate, how strong the impression they leave, it is hard to calculate. There have been times when they have proved decisive. The taste for collecting antiques, coins, statuettes, parchments and literary and artistic fragments from the Greek world impelled the fifteenth century Italians forward upon the road leading to the Renaissance. Today, in IndoSpanish America, the museums of Lima, Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia and Colombia are magic schools where nations which have remained dumb for the last five hundred or thousand years recover their speech.
The great Mexican painters of our day Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and José David Siqueiros strike us as geniuses of great originality because of their idea of covering the walls of the more important public buildings with frescoes illustrating Mexican history. Nevertheless, they have wielded their brushes in obedience more to native tradition than to their own original powers of invention. Similar frescoes cover the walls of public or religious buildings in Teotihuacan or Yucatan. They were painted by artists of the sixth or eighth centuries. Nowadays, this process is being repeated.
Today the civilized structure of the world is menaced. At any moment the democratic order which we have been striving to establish on this earth may break like an eggshell. During the past thirty years, one-man governments have arisen in many countries, some of which are among the most cultured in the world. Sometimes these dictatorships have been transitory; sometimes they have tended to take root. Every tiine one of these dictatorships seizes power in a country, that country's culture seems in danger of annihilation. And yet, amid all the instability characteristic of human undertakings, there is something which hitherto has remained unchanged and unchanging: culture. It can be checked; rising generations can be cut off from it; it is even possible to turn back to a primitive era in search of a starting point for another, newer culture. But neither by destroying cities, burning books, or massacring peoples has it ever been possible to
bring about the total disappearance of a culture.
Culture will defend itself even in a black-out. Its vitality springs, not from any particular man of genius, but from the uninterrupted flow of generations of men across the centuries. It is historical continuity that gives man's brief passage on this earth a resonance transcending the limits of his mortal life. Political systems can change. France passed from government by feudal chieftains to government by absolute monarchs, and thence to the radicalism of the Republic, to the Consulate, to the Empire, and then to another Republic. These events, so far as they have affected her culture, have merely had the interest-value of experiments. Culture, which is an ethereal message of the spirit, floats above the most violent upheavals, or remains hidden in the shadows for generations, patiently awaiting the opportunity of claiming its right to live.
In a certain sense, culture is the only thing we leave behind to testify to our pilgrimage on this earth. And when culture has struck deep roots, has acquired a consciousness of its own, it becomes immortal. Those clay vessels of the ancient Peruvians are, without a shadow of doubt, immortal. Culture can even jump from one civilization to another, spanning intervening epochs, and evading the law of the conquerors, who in the end are themselves conquered by the very peoples they thought they had subdued.
In guarding culture, we are guarding that foretaste of immortality to which alone man by his own works, can aspire. And it is an immortality worthy of the name; for it represents enrichment of spirit, increase in stature.
'Who,' asks Toynbee, 'have been the great benefactors of the living race? Confucius and Lao-Tse; Buddha and the Jewish prophets; Zoroaster, Jesus and Mahomet; and Socrates. None of them was the child of any of the civilizations existing today, Confucius and Lao-Tse belonged to one of the earliest civilizations of the Far East, which disappeared centuries ago; Buddha to one of the earliest civilizations in India, now obliterated; Hosea, Zoroaster, Jesus and Mahomet to the extinct Assyrian civilization; Socrates to the extinct Greek civilization ...'
We are living today under the divine inspiration left floating throughout the world by marvellous civilizations, before they sank into the depths. The Greeks were able to talk about their
‘immortal gods though they realized the ephemeral, transitory nature of their political empire, of their 'civilization'. And if the Peruvians have left us their pottery as a material record of worlds which existed before Columbus, yet the rhapsodies of the Greeks, which remained floating in the atmosphere, have, by their very immaterial quality, proved the more lasting. A conqueror cannot reduce these to potsherds. The soul which disappears steals back again through a chink in the door of memory. There lies the best part of culture.
But is there today a universal admiration for culture? Or does some sinister menace attend it? Is the world paying this essence of our being the respect due to it? Let us recall the incident, already well-known, which ciosed the last chapter in the life of Don Miguel de Unamuno.
Don Miguel was, in Spain, the university the whole university. He was Salamanca. All the passion for life and knowledge which since the Middle Ages had inspired this city built in stone, lit up by the flame of learning, was depicted in the face of that professor of Greek, who, while teaching Greek, taught Spanish. As Rector of the University, dramatist, poet, essayist, controversialist and talker, he was, for Spaniards, at once a symbol and an incarnation of the written and spoken word. His life was one of struggle. He faced all comers, after the style of Socrates, mortifying them in turn; for he considered his rôle in life to be that of a gadfly preventing the herd of his fellow-citizens from taking a quiet siesta. For this he suffered exile. And then, towards the very end of his life, he returned one afternoon to the university, as one who should feel under an obligation to put things to a final test. From the raised platform on which the old man, firm as a rock, presided over the academic ceremonies, he surveyed a mixed assembly of professors in their robes, uniformed students, military men, bishops and diplomats. When the official speeches came to an end, Unamuno said a few words about Spain his Spain. He desired she should be varied and united, in her fine old spirit of federal autonomy, with all the different parts of her body in activity. His words were a sudden blaze of faith.