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Max Beerbohm's essays reflect the complex influence that the sages had on later writers. Although Beerbohm uses some of the sage's techniques in order to parody the sage, he uses them himself to make his own points. The writings of the Victorian sages such as John Ruskin and Thomas Carlyle deal with problems of their society and the ways the audience should react to change them. Common techniques of the sages include the establishing of ethos, an initial attack followed by an identification with the audience, and the use of prophecy.

Beerbohm draws on Ruskin's methods of creating ethos, which include relating personal experiences and admitting personal weaknesses. Both serve to humanize the authors for their audiences. Similarly, Beerbohm writes "Diminuendo" in the first person. Beerbohm's use of this technique shows the influence that the earlier sages have on his writing; he is not parodying them by using it.

In contrast, when he uses, self-mockery, another technique for creating ethos, Beerbohm pokes fun at the false self-diminishment of the sage writers. For example, in "Traffic" Ruskin uses pseudo-qualifying phrases such as "it seems to me", "perhaps", and "I think" when in actuality he is fully set in his opinions; with his self-questioning he manipulates his audience into believing him. Beerbohm plays with this technique in the opening of "Diminuendo": "I remember how my tutor asked me what lectures I wished to attend and how he laughed when I said that I wished to attend the lectures of Mr. Walter Pater. Also I remember how . . . I went into Ryman's to order some foolish engraving for my room" (Beckson, Aesthetes and Decadents, 67).

He writes this essay only six years after the events supposedly occurred; his self-mockery attempts to poke fun at the fabricated humbleness of the early sages. Using just one technique of the sage writers, Beerbohm both parodies them and shows the influence they have had on his writing.

The relationship that the authors build with their audiences, another characteristic of the sages, also influences Beerbohm's writings. The sages generally begin by attacking their audiences, at first alienating them, then regain their respect by including themselves as part of the audience. Ruskin, for example, begins "Traffic" by saying, "I do not care about this Exchange of yours . . . because you don't; and because you know perfectly well I cannot make you" (Ruskin, p. 233). He proceeds to insult his audience, then justifies himself: "You don't like to be asked such rude questions. I cannot help it" (Ruskin, p. 239). Ruskin uses this technique to shock his audience into paying attention to what he has to say. He then follows this shocking statement by reassurance:

I know that none of this wrong is done with deliberate purpose. I know, on the contrary, that you wish your workmen well; that you do much for them, and that you desire to do more for them, if you saw your way to such benevolence safely. I know that even all this wrong and misery are brought about by a warped sense of duty, each of you striving to do his best; but, unhappily, not knowing for whom this best should be done. (Ruskin, pp. 247-248)

Though it appears condescending, this identification with the audience is necessary so as not to alienate them completely.

Beerbohm does not specifically use this technique, but it influences his writing nevertheless. Unlike Ruskin, Beerbohm identifies himself with his audience throughout "A Defence of Cosmetics". For example, instead of "I" and "you", he uses "we" throughout, including himself in every aspect of the artifice discussed: "In fact, we are all gamblers once more, but our gambling is on a finer scale than it ever was." (Beckson, Aesthetes and Decadents, 49) The sages influence Beerbohm's identification with his audience; in this case he is not parodying them, he simply draws on their techniques.

Beerbohm's use of the prophectic warning to society derives from the sages. In "Traffic," for example, Ruskin warns his audience: "Continue to make that forbidden deity your principal one, and soon no more art, no more science, not more pleasure will be possible. Catastrophe will come; or, worse than catastrophe, slow mouldering and withering into Hades" (Ruskin, p. 249). This threat is reminiscent of the Doomsday prophecies of the Old Testament. Carlyle also prophesies, but in a different way. His writing about the problems of Machinery in 1829 make him prophetic; in "Signs of the Times" he prophesies not about Doomsday, but of better days to come:

To us who live in the midst of all this, and see continually the faith, hope and practice of every one founded on Mechanism of one kind or other, it apt to seem quite natural, and as if it could never have been otherwise. Nevertheless, if we recollect or reflect a little, we shall find both that it has been, and might again be otherwise. The time is sick and out of joint. Many things have reached their height; and it is a wise adage that tells us, 'the darkest hour is nearest the dawn.'

The Victorian sages try to sound like Old Testament prophets in part because they hope that their audiences will accept statements made in a prophetic tone; once they hear the voice of Doom, they revert to their church-going mindset and passively absorb what they are told. Like Ruskin and Carlyle, Beerbohm prophesies in his essay "A Defence of Cosmetics". He sounds more than faintly like an Old Testament prophet when he writes, "The old signs are here and the portents to warn the seer of life that we are ripe for a new epoch of artifice." (Beckson, Aesthetes and Decadents, 48) The irony of this prophecy appears in its subject. Instead of predicting doom, like Ruskin, or a better world to come, like Carlyle, Beerbohm predicts an age of artifice, a time of fanciful indulgences. He again refers to this prophecy later in the essay: "And, in like manner as one has seen the limbs of a murdered thing in lively movement, so we need not doubt that, though the voices of those who cry out for reform be very terribly shrill, they will soon be hushed. Dear Artifice is with us" (52). Furthermore, the end of the essay is one long prophecy about the things that will come in the age of artifice. The subject tips off the reader that Beerbohm is mocking the sages.


Victorian Web Overview Aesthetes & Decadents Max Beerbohm

Last modified 1990