Walter Pater, sage, imparts his wisdom to the reader with eloquent words strung together with intent to tug upon heartstrings and emotions. He alludes to the mythical, biblical and fanastical to conjure feelings of grandeur and elegance. Pater is not attempting to create an artifice to convince the reader of his ideas; he uses the phrases "fantastic reveries" and "exquisite passions" and mentions Leda, St. Anne, and immortal vampires to convey the emotion he feels when gazing upon the Mona Lisa in chapter 6 of The Renaissance.
The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all "the ends of the world are come," and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.
Such artful writing as Pater's is in opposition, in terms of style, to the writing of Max Beerbohm, though they have similar thoughts and intents to convey. Beerbohm creates a satire, in "Defence of Cosmetics." He uses far plainer words and alludes not at all to the mythical or mystical in the below passage. His art is in presenting the reality of a situation to the reader in a way in which he/she is able to see his/her own folly; the folly here lies in believing the artifice of the mask-like quality of cosmetics more important than artfully letting one's character and soul speak for their person.
And, truly, of all the good things that will happen with the full revival of cosmetics, one of the best is that surface will finally be severed from the soul. That damnable confusion will be solved by the extinguishing of a prejudice which, as I suggest, itself created. Too long has the face been degraded from its rank as a thing of beauty to a mere vulgar index of character or emotion. We had come to troubling ourselves, not with its charm of colour and line, but with such questions as whether the lips were sensuous, the eyes full of sadness, the nose indicative of determination. I have no quarrel with physiognomy. For my own part I believe in it. But it has tended to degrade the face aesthetically, in such wise as the study of cheirosophy [study of hands B.] has tended to degrade the hand. And the use of cosmetics, the masking of the face, will change this. We shall gaze at a woman merely because she is beautiful, not stare into her face anxiously, as into the face of a barometer.
My question is this: After having brought up a few of the ways in which the above excerpts differ in style and language, I ask which presentation would be most successful in influencing a reader's mind during the nineteenth century as opposed to the present?
Might Pater's writing, with its classical allusions, provide better basis for authority, or would Beerbohm's satire?
As a comparison how might the essay of Tom Wolfe's, "The Put-Together Girl," contrast and demonstrate a third way of presenting a view of cosmetics and beauty?
Last modified: 12 March 2001