"The prejudice was due to the tristful confusion man has made of soul and surface"

In his "Defense of Cosmetics," Beerbohm travesties sage writing in an effort to ridicule the 1890's Decadent debate. Not simply perpetuating the sage tradition, Beerbohm employs the conventions of sage writing — acts of interpretation, the creation of ethos — in a patently self-conscious way. In England of the 1890s, the Decadents maintained that "all art, surely, is a form of artifice" (Beckson, Aesthetes and Decadents, 162); with this credo in mind, Beerbohm enhances his satiric effect by drawing attention — through parody — to his literary technique. Beerbohm advances his "Defence" by showing the consequences of a Decadent philosophy which challenges any essential, necessary relationships between particular historical conjunctures (perceived social crises) and their literary devices (sage writing) — between "soul and surface." If all art is artifice and no literary voice can be "symbolic of any age" (Wilde in Beckson 192), then all that remains is parody, paradox, equivocation, and a sort of detached, mischievous relationship to the real. Although drawing on the conventions of sage writing, Beerbohm differs from the original sages in his inconsistent relationship to the text and an unearnestness that stems from an unclear personal investment in the satire he undertakes.

Like the original sages, Beerbohm's speaker identifies the signs of his times in discovered social practices which he casts as symbolic of his age. After describing his society's newfound preoccupation with gambling — "the dice box," "hazard," "roulette," "baccarat" — the speaker identifies the true symbol of his era: "the love for cosmetics...that other great sign of a more complicated life" (Beckson 49). He then establishes his sign of the times as prevalent and thus legitimate: "We need but walk down any modish street and peer into the little broughams that flit past, or (in Thackeray's phrase) under the bonnet of any woman we meet, to see over how wide a kingdom rouge reigns" (ibid).

But in contrast to the sages, the speaker sees his set piece — "the love of cosmetics" — not as a herald of society's falling away from sacred principles, but instead as a welcome sign of a returning to lost values — — values denigrated by the Victorians and their "sancta simplicitas:" "The old signs are here and the portents to warn the seer of life that we are ripe for a new epoch of artifice...[This is] a time of jolliness and glad indulgence" (48, 50). Unlike Thoreau — for whom the slaying of John Brown signifies a society out of touch with its constitutional ideals — Beerbohm's speaker extols the "revival of cosmetics" for the "boons innumerable" which it promises to "conjure:" making "fair the ugly," eliminating the "tristful confusion between soul and surface," perfecting "women's strength," halting women's march towards political power (sic), destroying the crudely sentimental "old properties that went to bolster up the ordinary novel," ending "the season of the unsophisticated," taking the "sting" out of matrimony, and most grandly, advancing England "at one bound to a place in the councils of aesthetic Europe." By identifying a sign of the time but mobilizing it in a non-traditional way, Beerbohm simultaneously parodies the techniques of sage writing and — by wresting the sage genre from its traditional historical context — displays, in practice, the consequences of viewing all art as artifice.

Beerbohm embellishes his satire of the Decadent debate with an introduction and conclusion which seize and shake the conventions of traditional sage writing. The traditional sage writer has faith in the forcefulness of satiric words and writes as if by moral compulsion: at the opening of "A Plea for Captain John Brown," Thoreau says that he does not "wish to force my thoughts upon you, but I feel forced myself," in part by the need to be "just." In the first paragraph of "Traffic," Ruskin similarly says that he "must talk of quite other things" than those to which he agreed beforehand, "though not willingly." Ruskin's willingness to speak solely on subject matter he "cares about" and Thoreau's deliberated decision to express himself reveals these sages' belief in their writing's capacity for reform; if they did not, choice of subject matter — or the decision "to force my thoughts upon you" or not — would be of little importance.

In flagrant disregard of the earnestness of his predecessors, Beerbohm's speaker begins his "Defence of Cosmetics" with the ribald "Nay, but it is useless to protest," thereby undercutting one of the sages' guiding principles. Cutting deeper, Beerbohm's speaker nonchalantly dismisses the sages' very raison d'être: No "satire, however splendidly bitter, has changed by a little tittle the known tendency of things." Unlike the sages, who speak against contemporary society to reform it, Beerbohm's anti-sage makes himself a willing slave to his age, insisting moreover that "the times can perfect us, not we the times, and so let all of us wisely acquiesce" (48). Here, while parodying the sages, Beerbohm implies a subtle critique of the political apathy following from the Decadents' "secernment of soul and surface." If as Wilde's Vivian contends, "art never expresses anything but itself" (191), then art will descend to self-referential parody and pastiche, with no material political value of the kind the sages champion.

Beerbohm's speaker closes his "Defence" with an orgiastic scene of salvation reminiscent of early, nineteenth-century sage writing, yet he sprinkles his description with grotesquely ironic morsels that end up undermining his final message. Early nineteenth-century English sages would often begin their tracts in a tone of angry despair and culminate with a promise of heavenly bliss should society avert some impending crisis. For instance, Carlyle ends his attack on mechanization in "Characteristics" with a lofty promise of limitless human potential:

Behind us, behind each one of us, lie Six Thousand Years of human effort, human conquest: before us is the boundless Time, with its as yet uncreated and unconquered Continents and Eldorados, which we, even we, have to conquer, to create; and from the bosom of Eternity there shine for us celestial guiding stars (61-62)

At the close of his "Defence of Cosmetics," Beerbohm's speaker mocks this kind of heavy-handed verbiage with a description of salvation by rouge that crumbles as he presents it:

The white cliffs of Albion shall be ground to powder for loveliness, and perfumed by the ghost of many a little violet. 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's lovely face. Even the camels shall become ministers of delight, giving their hair in many tufts to be stained by the paints in her colour-box, and across her cheek the swift hare's foot shall fly as of old. We shall spill the blood of mulberries at her bidding....Artifice, sweetest exile, is come into her kingdom. Let us dance her a welcome! (62-3)

Although his personal stake in the issue is unclear, Beerbohm's speaker draws attention to the potentially cruel relationship between cosmetics products and the natural world; he thereby illustrates metaphorically the natural sacrifices which artifice exacts. Even if for no other reason than to unearth a contradiction for intellectual consideration, the speaker suggests that one cannot disconnect artifice from the real — "surface" from "soul" — in any simple way.

Because of Beerbohm's mischievously insincere position within the text, he has the hardest time imitating the sage-writing convention of ethos, or the creation of credibility. (Beerbohm certainly did not persuade his contemporary critics of his interpretive mastery.) Traditional sage writers built ethos by establishing a coherent network of definitions and interpretations that all somehow led back to the beliefs of a supposedly rational, consistent author. Beerbohm's personal investment in his "Defense of Cosmetics" is unclear: he could be attacking the Decadents' worship of artifice; he could be mocking the pretension of those who argue against artifice; he could be unearthing paradoxes and contradictions in the Decadents' platform as a self-indulgent academic exercise; he could be mocking the intellectual laziness which a belief in artifice encourages. From this position of authorial instability, Beerbohm can only cultivate ethos by showing his sophistication and ability to manipulate the codes and conventions of traditional sage writing. Beerbohm creates a sort of meta-level ethos by parodying the ways in which the sages before him created ethos: the quotations of Latin poetry, the capitalization of ideals ("Artifice," "Demos"), the use of definitions ("Drama is the presentment of the soul in action"), the appeal to history ("Archigenes, a man of science at the Court of Cleopatra, and Criton at the Court of the Emperor Trajan"), the display of specialty knowledge ("So various in its materials from stimmis, psimythium and fuligo to bismuth and arsenic"), the refutat


Victorian Web Overview Aesthetes & Decadents Max Beerbohm

Last modified 1992