Max Beerbohm’s “Diminuendo” is a satiric essay; the speaker examines his experiences with a sage-mocking first-person perspective. Beerbohm gives the speaker a retrospective tone, which distances him from both the experiences he discusses and the audience to whom he speaks. Ultimately the reader perceives that the speaker is elderly and wise, and so the reader grants him credibility. When the speaker rejects “modern life” and declares himself a “trifle outmoded,” it is clear that Beerbohm is ridiculing the sage:
At the end of term I came to London. Around me seethed swirls, eddies, torrents, violent cross-currents of human activity. What uproar! Surely I could have no part in modern life. Yet, yet for a while it was fascinating to watch the ways of its children. The prodigious life of the Prince of Wales fascinated me above all: indeed, it still fascinates me. What experience has been withheld from His Royal Highness? Was ever so supernal a type, as be, of mere Pleasure? How often he has watched, at Newmarket, the scud-a-run of quivering homuncules over the vert on horses, on, from some night-boat, the holocaust of great wharves by the side of the Thames; raced through the blue Solent; threaded les coulisses! He [169/169] has danced in every palace of every capital, played in every club. He has hunted elepbants 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. For him the Rajahs of India have spoiled their temples, and Blondin has crossed Niagara along the tigbt-rope, and the Giant Guard done drill beneath the chandeliers of the Neue Schloss. Incline he to scandal, lawyers are proud to whisper their secrets in his ear. Be he gallant, the ladies are at his feet. Ennuyé [bored], all the wits from Bernal Osborne to Arthur Roberts have jested for him. He has been "present always at the focus where the greatest number of forces unite in their purest energy," for it is his presence that makes those forces unite. [169/170]
"Ennuyé?" I asked. Indeed he never is. How could he be when Pleasure hangs constantly upon his arm! It is those others, overtaking her only after arduous chase, breathless and footsore, who quickly sicken of her company, and fall fainting at her feet. And for me, shod neither with rank nor riches, what folly to join the chase! I began to see how small a thing it were to sacrifice those external "experiences," so dear to the heart of Pater, by a rigid, complex civilisation made so hard to gain. They gave nothing but lassitude to those who had gained them through suffering. Even to the kings and princes, who so easily gained them, what did they yield besides themselves? I do not suppose that, if we were invited to give authenticated instances of intelligence on the part of our royal pets, we could fill half a column of the Spectator. In fact, their lives are so full they have no time for thought, the highest energy of man. Now, it was to thought that my life should be dedicated. Action, apart from its absorption of time, would war otherwise against the pleasures of intellect, which, for me, meant mainly the pleasures of imagination. It is only (this is a platitude) the things one has not done, the faces or places one has not seen, or seen but darkly, that have charm. It is only mystery — such mystery as besets the eyes of children — that makes things superb. I thought of the voluptuaries I had known — they seemed so sad, so ascetic almost, like poor pilgrims, raising their eyes never or ever gazing at the moon of tarnislied endeavour. I thought of the round, insouciant faces of the monks at whose monastery I once broke bread, and how their eyes sparkled when they asked me of the France that lay around their walls. I thought, pardie [to be sure B.], of the lurid verses written by young men who, in real life, know no haunt more lurid than a literary public-house. It was, for me, merely a problem bow I could best avoid "sensations," "pulsations," and exquisite moments" that were not purely intellectual. I would not attempt to combine both kinds, as Pater seemed to fancy a man might. I would make myself master of some small area of physical life, a life of quiet, monotonous simplicity, exempt from all outer disturbance. I would shield my body from [171/172] the world that my mind might range over it, not hurt nor fettered. As yet, however, I was in my first year at Oxford. There were many reasons that I should stay there and take my degree, reasons that I did not combat. Indeed, I was content to wait for my life.
Beerbohm establishes a credible but ridiculous tone for his speaker, which helps to establish his separation from the reader.
1. Compare the voice in “Diminuendo” with that of Didion in her retelling of the time she spent at a Doors recording session. How does the humor differ?
2.The title of the piece is Italian, and the speaker interjects his reflections with French. What effect does Beerbohm achieve by including multiple languages in his work?
3. Beerbohm was only 26 when he wrote this essay, whose title suggests a gradual diminish. How does his age and the title contribute to the satiric tone?
4. The reader comes to perceive that, because he is ridiculing this sage, Beerbohm does not agree with him regarding the claims the speaker makes. If thought is not “the highest energy of man, what does Beerbohm suggest is?
Last modified 7 March 2011