the feeling of prehistory

“Inside a ruined temple the broken statue of a god spoke a mysterious language. For me this vision is always accompanied by a feeling of cold, as if I had been touched by a winter wind from a distant, unknown country. The time? It is the frigid hour of dawn on a clear day, towards the end of spring. Then the still glaucous depth of the heavenly dome dizzies whoever looks at it fixedly; he shudder and feels himself drawn into the depths as if the sky were beneath his feet; so the boatman trembles as he leans over the gilded prow of the bark and stares at the blue abyss of the broken sea. Then like someone who steps from the light of a day into the shade of a temple and at first cannot see the whitening statue, but slowly its forms appears, even purer, slowly the feeling of the primordial artist is reborn in me. He who first carved a god, who first wished to create a god. And the I wonder if the idea of imagining a god with human traits such as the Greeks conceived in art is not an eternal pretext for discovering many new sources of sensations.

The artists of the middle ages never succeed in expressing this feeling. This feeling, this sacred shudder of the artist who touches a stone or a fragment of wood, who polishes it, touches it, caresses it, with sacred feeling that the spirit of a god resides within it. Rare is the modern painter or sculptor who creates while gripped by such a joy. And yet I cannot otherwise conceive a work of art. Tought must so deatch itself from all human fetters that all things appear to it anew – as if lit for the first time by a brilliant star.

[Pages 2 and 3 of the manuscript are missing. Only the conclusion remains.] […] of prehistory is taut in me like a vibrating string: at once the string of a bow that can launch a shaft into the cerulean depths, and the string of a cithara that can awaken a new and unfamiliar song.

[…] One of the strangest and deepest sensations that prehistory has left with us is the sensation of foretelling. It will always exist. It is like an eternal proof of the senselessness of the universe. The first man must have seen auguries everywhere, he must have trembled at each step he took.

The wind rustles the oak leaves: it is the voice of a god wich speaks, and the trembling prophet listens, his face bent towards earth.

Thinking of the temples dedicated to the sea gods, built along the arid coasts of Greece and Asia Minor, I have often conjured up those soothsayers tending to the voice of the waves receding from that ancient land. I have pictured them head and body wrapped in a chlamys, waiting for the mysterious revealing oracle. So also I once imagined the Ephesian meditating in the first light of dawn under the peristyle of the Temple of Artemis of the hundred breasts.

And I think still of the enigma of the horse as a sea-god: I imagined him once in the darkness of a temple rising on the seashore, the talking, oracular steed that the god of the sea gave to the king of Argos. I imagined him fashioned in marble as clear and pure as a diamond, crouching on his hind legs like a sphinx, in his eyes and in the movement of his white neck all the enigma and the infinite nostalgia of the waves.

What is the trembling that the mystic priest feels as on a storm night he draws close to the sacred oak?”


Giorgio de Chirico, Writings From Early Manuscripts (1911-1915) in Hebdomeros [1992; Flammarion].

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