In "Diminuendo," Beerbohm contrasts two radically different approaches to life, subtly mocks both of them, and ultimately favors a life of intellectual isolation over a life of decadent pleasure. By giving several examples of opposites, Beerbohm makes full use of hyperbolic juxtaposition, which serves to both satirize and polarize ideas. The first pair of opposites that he presents contrasts the lives of most Oxford freshmen, who revel in "wine and song and wreaths of smoke," with Beerbohm's more ascetic freshman experience. He goes on to flesh out the hyperbole by describing the pleasure-oriented lifestyle of the Prince of Wales:

He has danced in every palace of every capital, played in every club. He has hunted elephants through the jungles of India, boar through the forests of Austria, pigs over the plains of Massachusetts. From the Castle of Abergeldie be has led his Princess into the frosty night, Highlanders lighting with torches the path to the deer-larder, where lay the wild things that had fallen to him on the crags. He has marched the Grenadiers to chapel through the white streets of Windsor. He has ridden through Moscow, in strange apparel, to kiss the catafalque of more than one Tzar.

Beerbohm responds to this description of the Prince's indulgences filled with active seeking, with a description of his own planned life filled with active receiving. Here, Beerbohm fleshes out the other end of the hyperbole. He intends to retire to a quiet, uneventful suburb, where he can

look forth and, in my remoteness, appreciate the distant pageant of the world. Humanity will range itself in the column of my morning paper. No pulse of life will escape me. The strife of politics, the intriguing of courts, the wreck of great vessels, wars, dramas, earthquakes, national griefs or joys; the strange sequels to divorces, even, [173/174] and the mysterious suicides of land-agents at Ipswich-in all such phenomena I shall steep my exhaurient mind.

Although Beerbohm shows a strong preference for "a most pleasant little villa," he distances himself from his assertions by subtly exaggerating, and — hence, subtly mocking — the idyllic lifestyle he simultaneously upholds. He expresses his desire to live in an utterly boring place where "nothing happens" and "the inhabitants who do anything go away each morning and do it elsewhere." Eccentric and absurdly specific as his desires may be, we may conclude that Beerbohm highly values the intellectual life, even at the risk of isolation and exile.

Questions

1. Why does Beerbohm occasionally turns to self-deprecation ("how he laughed when I said that I wished to attend the lectures of Mr. Walter Pater,""some foolish engraving for my room," etc.) in this essay? What and who is he satirizing by using this technique? Combined with the subtle satirizing of the opposing lifestyles, this self-satirizing serves to distance Beerbohm from the topic at hand. Why would he want to distance himself so?

2. N. John Hall's biography Max Beerbohm: A kind of a life discusses Beerbohm's seemingly ambiguous attitude toward Oxford, explaining that

The truth is he was not at all disillusioned; he was delighted in Oxford, the city and its university. Whenever he mentions Oxford in his later writings, private or public, the special enchantment the place engendered is immediately apparent ... In a word, he loved the place ... the gloomy solitariness hinted at in the essay was altogether fanciful. [19]

Why, then, would Beerbohm describe Oxford as "only remnants" in a "riot of vulgarity" and declare that Oxford "had lost its charm and its tradition?" What purpose does he serve by expressing his disappointments with Oxford, when in reality he was quite fond of it? How does this discrepancy relate to the Decadent characteristics of artifice and ennui?

3. With regards to his impressions of London, Beerbohm describes: "Around me seethed swirls, eddies, torrents, violent cross-currents of human activity. What uproar! Surely I could have no part in modern life." Compare Beerbohm's initial fascination and later dismissal of London with Pip's attitudes toward London in Great Expectations. Why is this a recurrent theme in Victorian literature?

4. Beerbohm's tone is more personal and less outwardly satirical in "Diminuendo" than in "A Defense of Cosmetics." Why does he create such a difference in tone? Does he address the same audience in both essays?

References

Hall, N. John. Max Beerbohm: A kind of a life. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.


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Last modified 22 April 2009