ax Beerbohm refuses his reader an easy understanding of where he is coming from. In "Defence of Cosmetics" (text; 1894) and "Diminuendo" (text; 1896), Beerbohm parodies the beliefs of Aesthetes and Decadents by using several techniques characteristic of sage writing. Because he manipulates these techniques to create a more strikingly initimate relationship with the reader than do earlier sage writers, Beerbohm cannot be labeled a traditional sage; however, his writing's effectiveness owes much to the style developed by, notably, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Thoreau. Like these sages, he writes in a time when society is changing — when aesthetic, cultural, and political values are in a state of flux. In order to comment on these changes with authority and to maintain a certain superiority over his audience, Beerbohm relies on various aspects of sage writing: invoking the past, comparing the real with the illusory, performing acts of interpretation, and giving definitions. Although he takes advantage of these techniques, he also distances himself from sage writing by putting them to new use. His subversion of the form lies in his ability to mock the form at the same time he is mocking his subject matter. These two levels of parody are interrelated, each serving to complement the other. In combining subtle derision of his literary predecessors with a more obvious attack on the contemporary trends of aestheticism and decadence, Beerbohm makes it difficult to grasp his exact relationship to either one. In some respects he is both an aesthete and a sage writer, yet he manages to avoid clear categorization as either, suggesting that writers rely on literary and social constructions even as they explode them.
In "Defence of Cosmetics," the speaker praises makeup, and artifice in general, as an appropriate refusal to accept one's natural state. His encouragement of society's current tendency towards artifice (and away from "the fetish Nature") invokes the Decadents' common assumption that nature is random, cruel, Godless, and bereft of meaning. According to the Decadents, to be "unnatural" signifies self-improvement, a positive strike against the base anonymity of nature. The speaker introduces his support for artifice from a prophetic, "signs of the times" perspective common to the sage: "The old signs are here and the portents to warn the seer of life that we are ripe for a new epoch of artifice" (48). Yet just before this visionary call he has noted,
No martyrdom, however fine, nor satire, however splendidly bitter, has changed by a little tittle the known tendency of things. It is the times that can perfect us, not we the times, and so let all of us wisely acquiesce.
Such a resignation contradicts the sage's usual assertion that people can change their situations — that people must change them. Ruskin, for example, urged his readers sincerely in "Traffic" to abandon the Goddess of Getting-on. In this case, Beerbohm's speaker maintains the sage-like stance of prophecy and even uses the common sage device of authoritative definition ("It is the times that can perfect us"), yet he admits that satire (implicitly, any kind of writing) cannot make people turn the tide of history. Moreover, he prophesies not doom but a glorious Age of Artifice, reversing the usual warning against impending catastrophe and instead urging readers to celebrate current trends. He modifies the sage technique further by immediately following his prophecy with an ironic contrast: "Are not men rattling the dice-box and ladies dipping their fingers in the rouge-pots?" This alerts the reader that perhaps the speaker's grave tone is not altogether earnest. If ladies' applying rouge exemplifies the "new epoch," how seriously can this epoch be taken? When on page 54 the speaker hails "the secernment of soul and surface" as a consequence of "the universal use of cosmetics," the tenuous connection between the metaphysical and the fashionable undermines the gravity of the sage-like assessment. Later he remarks that although the advance of artifice may cause England to "lose her martial and commercial supremacy, we patriots will have the satisfaction of knowing that she has been advanced at one bound to a place in the councils of aesthetic Europe" (60). Such a prediction, calmly dismissing the importance of martial and commerical supremacy, thwarts the reader's common sense so that the speaker may frame the situation in a new way. However, unlike sages who defamiliarize accepted beliefs in order to reveal their corruption, Beerbohm here leaves artifice open to suspicion; rather than showing that commerce and the military are not important, he has caused the reader to question why England would want to reign over "the councils of aesthetic Europe." This too suggests a lack of earnestness, an indication that the author is not addressing the reader at an honest level.
The essay's double authorities — Beerbohm and his narrator --emphasizes this lack of earnestness. Unlike Ruskin's "Traffic," in which Ruskin offers ideas almost certainly his own, "Defence of Cosmetics" uses a first-person viewpoint that is not necessarily Beerbohm's. The frequent use of "we" appears to identify the narrator with the audience, yet when he says "we find that it is absolutely true," the reader cannot be certain whose notion of truth he is supposedly agreeing with: is it Beerbohm's? If not, why does the author place a created narrator between himself and the essay's argument? The intended audience is, clearly, all-male, evidenced by such phrases as "if [women] touched not thought, which is theirs by right, at any rate they refrained from action, which is ours" (51). Sage writers frequently purport to empathize with the audience; the difference here is that Beerbohm's speaker identifies with readers, not necessarily Beerbohm himself. This exempts the author from direct responsibility for the ideas presented — for example, the misogynistic representations of women. Whereas the sage traditionally appears to have significant investment in the so-called truths he discusses, Beerbohm is free to parody because he does not claim commitment to these truths. By exaggerating the narrator's enthusiastic, dedicated voice, he separates himself from that voice and constructs a level of satirical criticism below the surface earnestness.
Throughout the essay, Beerbohm's use of dramatic, almost epic, language to describe makeup ("Artifice will claim not another victim from among her worshippers" ) juxtaposes style and subject matter, mocking the self-indulgent authority assumed by sage writers. He integrates his prose's hyperboly with literary devices used by Decadents and Aesthetes: drawing imagery from artificial objects in order to emphasize their separation from nature, and stretching these images to an acute extreme for so-called shock value (GPL, "Decadence and Decadents of the 1890s"). When the speaker predicts that
the white cliffs of Albion shall be ground to powder loveliness, and perfumed by the ghost of many a little violet [and] the fluffy eider-ducks, that are swimming round the pond, shall lose their feathers, that the powder-puff may be moonlike as it passes over loveliness' lovely face (62-63).
The idea of grinding a magnificent cliff into facial whitener comes off as slightly ridiculous; the whimsical sound of "loveliness' lovely face" suggests that killing ducks to make powder-puffs is not really necessary. Consequently, the Decadents' aspiration to rule nature for the sake of artifice appears dubious. Beerbohm has used their own technique against them, just as he has parodied the arrogant self-importance of sage-writing by discussing cosmetics in overly elegant, pseudo-sympathetic language.
We can see his descriptions of ladies donning makeup as set-pieces, offered as material for an act of interpretation; however, his use of symbolical grotesques departs from that of earlier sages because Beerbohm subverts the validity of his general conclusions. For instance, the final paragraph sums up his interpretation of makeup as an artifice that has "returned among us" to herald "times of jolliness and glad indulgence" (63). The passage assumes the same rhetorical, quasi-Biblical tone as the closing of Thoreau's "Slavery in Massachusetts." However, instead of reinforcing the alleged gravity of his subject, the speaker says, "Let us dance and be glad, and trip the cockawhoop!" The word "cockawhoop" weakens any pretence to seriousness and ends the essay on a comical note.
In "Diminuendo," Beerbohm draws on Ruskinian methods of establishing ethos, or sympathetic credibility. His distinctly individual first-person voice, relation of personal experience, and admissions of weakness ("I went into Ryman's to order some foolish engraving" ) create a humbler, more accessible identity. Beerbohm uses self-deprecation to parody the "false self-diminishment" and "fabricated humbleness" of sage writers ("Beerbohm and the Victorian Sage," Michelle Lynn '93, Intermedia). He contrasts the falsely humble tone with statements like, "I suppose it was when at length I saw [Walter Pater] that I first knew him to be fallible" (67). The speaker, a college freshman, has decided confidently after looking at the famous professor that Pater (a known Aesthete) is fallible. After witnessing such discrepancies in tone, the reader is unsure whether to trust the speaker (who, in this essay, is more clearly Beerbohm himself); does this suggest that sages might not be fully worthy of trust?
The speaker, opposing the Aesthete's position, advocates instead a contemplative retirement from passionate life, moving to a place where "nothing happens," and rejecting Pater's belief that "To burn always with this hand, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life" ("A Definition of Aestheticism," GPL, Intermedia). Preferring tranquil intellectualism to the physical world of sensory, aesthetic experience, he scorns the ability of Art to make his life happy. His criticizes Pater's prose — "even then I was angry that he should treat English as a dead language (67) — as well as decadence in general. Implicitly, if a mere child can discern faults in the prose, it cannot be splendid, and if decadence is equated with immaturity ("in those more decadent days of my childhood") it must be an ill informed, transitory phase. This airy dismissal of Pater works to delegitimize Aestheticism, which he represents, yet on another level it also defrauds the speaker. Can an inexperienced student really make these judgments with any validity?
The speaker insists that he can, blaming his rejection of Aestheticism on the fact that it bears little relevance to reality: "That abandonment of one's self to life, that merging of one's soul in bright waters, so often suggested in Pater's writing, were a counsel impossible for today" (69). True to the sage, he suggests a "falling away" of society from great traditions: "Had civilization made beauty, besides adventure, so rare?" (Ibid.) By using two tenses, first charting past disillusionment then describing his present response to it, the speaker claims authority of experience; he has seen, he has judged, and now he lives out his conclusions. Like the sage who tells people what they already know in order to emphasize the innovation of what he knows, the speaker proves he has encountered other options and rejected them. Using another sage technique, he invokes the glories of the past, protecting himself from accusations of outmodedness by saying, "To be outmoded is to be a classic ... I have acceded to the hierarchy of good scribes and rather like my niche" (73). These techniques in fact serve to mock the speaker's own stance. Despite his precocious ideas, it remains that he is not yet twenty-five, and to decide he can "have no part in modern life" implies a dangerous case of hubris. When he writes, "Credo junioribus (I believe in younger people)," the effect can only be comical; he himself is a "younger person." His credibility begins to dissolve. Does this mean that Aestheticism, the object of his derision, retains worth because he is not qualified to deride it?
Beerbohm does not provide simple answers to such questions. Although "Diminuendo" parodies the untimely arrogance of its young philosopher, the speaker's criticism of Pater remains biting; the points he raises seem salient despite their obvious presumptuousness. Possibly Beerbohm intends to question Aestheticism as well as to mock his speaker's martyr-like withdrawal from the aesthetic, passionate world. The essay's title, which means "a gradual reduction of force and loudness," implies that the argument against Aestheticism grows weaker as its opponent retreats into contemplation and observation; it does not follow, however, that there is no argument against it. Beerbohm's stance in "Defence of Cosmetics" is also somewhat unclear: is he a true sage writer, or does he merely appropriate sage-writing techniques in order to critique Decadence and to forge a new position for the writer using elements of the old style? In neither essay does he conclude with his own vision of societal improvement; rather, he focuses his energies on the art of parody. With social and artistic values floundering in transition at the time he is writing, Beerbohm steps outside the confusion in order to comment on its contradictions and, as he said in a letter to Reggie Turner, "strike new notes" in a his readership without having to commit to a defined position. In this way Beerbohm resembles Tom Wolfe more than Ruskin or Carlyle because he leaves the reader without a strong sense of "what to do" about what has been satirized. Instead, Beerbohm seems to celebrate the parody itself, considering sage-writing techniques an opportunity to mock his predecessors while using their methods to mock Aesthetes and Decadents.
Last modified 1992