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Section 8. Of the Ancient Practice of Painting

Edwin A. Abbott (1838-1926)

Section 8.  Of the Ancient Practice of Painting







If my Readers have followed me with any attention up to this point,

they will not be surprised to hear that life is somewhat dull

in Flatland.  I do not, of course, mean that there are not battles,

conspiracies, tumults, factions, and all those other phenomena which

are supposed to make History interesting; nor would I deny

that the strange mixture of the problems of life and the problems

of Mathematics, continually inducing conjecture and giving

the opportunity of immediate verification, imparts to our existence

a zest which you in Spaceland can hardly comprehend.  I speak now

from the aesthetic and artistic point of view when I say that life

with us is dull; aesthetically and artistically, very dull indeed.



How can it be otherwise, when all one's prospect, all one's

landscapes, historical pieces, portraits, flowers, still life,

are nothing but a single line, with no varieties except degrees of

brightness and obscurity?



It was not always thus.  Colour, if Tradition speaks the truth,

once for the space of half a dozen centuries or more,

threw a transient splendour over the lives of our ancestors

in the remotest ages.  Some private individual -- a Pentagon

whose name is variously reported -- having casually discovered

the constituents of the simpler colours and a rudimentary method

of painting, is said to have begun decorating first his house,

then his slaves, then his Father, his Sons, and Grandsons,

lastly himself.  The convenience as well as the beauty of the results

commended themselves to all.  Wherever Chromatistes, --

for by that name the most trustworthy authorities concur

in calling him, -- turned his variegated frame, there he at once

excited attention, and attracted respect.  No one now needed

to "feel" him; no one mistook his front for his back;

all his movements were readily ascertained by his neighbours

without the slightest strain on their powers of calculation;

no one jostled him, or failed to make way for him; his voice was saved

the labour of that exhausting utterance by which we colourless Squares

and Pentagons are often forced to proclaim our individuality

when we move amid a crowd of ignorant Isosceles.



The fashion spread like wildfire.  Before a week was over,

every Square and Triangle in the district had copied the example

of Chromatistes, and only a few of the more conservative Pentagons

still held out.  A month or two found even the Dodecagons

infected with the innovation.  A year had not elapsed before

the habit had spread to all but the very highest of the Nobility.

Needless to say, the custom soon made its way from the district of

Chromatistes to surrounding regions; and within two generations no one

in all Flatland was colourless except the Women and the Priests.



Here Nature herself appeared to erect a barrier, and to plead

against extending the innovation to these two classes.

Many-sidedness was almost essential as a pretext for the Innovators.

"Distinction of sides is intended by Nature to imply distinction

of colours" -- such was the sophism which in those days

flew from mouth to mouth, converting whole towns at a time

to the new culture.  But manifestly to our Priests and Women

this adage did not apply.  The latter had only one side,

and therefore -- plurally and pedantically speaking -- NO SIDES.

The former -- if at least they would assert their claim to be

really and truly Circles, and not mere high-class Polygons

with an infinitely large number of infinitesimally small sides --

were in the habit of boasting (what Women confessed and deplored)

that they also had no sides, being blessed with a perimeter of

one line, or, in other words, a Circumference.  Hence it came to pass

that these two Classes could see no force in the so-called axiom about

"Distinction of Sides implying Distinction of Colour"; and when

all others had succumbed to the fascinations of corporal decoration,

the Priests and the Women alone still remained pure from

the pollution of paint.



Immoral, licentious, anarchical, unscientific -- call them

by what names you will -- yet, from an aesthetic point of view,

those ancient days of the Colour Revolt were the glorious childhood of

Art in Flatland -- a childhood, alas, that never ripened into manhood,

nor even reached the blossom of youth.  To live was then in itself

a delight, because living implied seeing.  Even at a small party,

the company was a pleasure to behold; the richly varied hues

of the assembly in a church or theatre are said to have more than once

proved too distracting for our greatest teachers and actors;

but most ravishing of all is said to have been the unspeakable

magnificence of a military review.



The sight of a line of battle of twenty thousand Isosceles suddenly

facing about, and exchanging the sombre black of their bases for

the orange and purple of the two sides including their acute angle;

the militia of the Equilateral Triangles tricoloured in red, white,

and blue; the mauve, ultra-marine, gamboge, and burnt umber

of the Square artillerymen rapidly rotating near their vermilion guns;

the dashing and flashing of the five-coloured and six-coloured

Pentagons and Hexagons careering across the field in their offices

of surgeons, geometricians and aides-de-camp -- all these may well

have been sufficient to render credible the famous story

how an illustrious Circle, overcome by the artistic beauty

of the forces under his command, threw aside his marshal's baton

and his royal crown, exclaiming that he henceforth exchanged them

for the artist's pencil.  How great and glorious the sensuous

development of these days must have been is in part

indicated by the very language and vocabulary of the period.

The commonest utterances of the commonest citizens in the time

of the Colour Revolt seem to have been suffused with a richer tinge

of word or thought; and to that era we are even now indebted for

our finest poetry and for whatever rhythm still remains

in the more scientific utterance of these modern days.

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