In "The Pervasion of Rouge," Max Beerbohm satirically praises the increasing popularity of cosmetics use in a style parodying the prophetic writings of Carlyle or Ruskin. The text claims that "to make oneself beautiful is an universal instinct," and it would be pointless and impossible to impede the spread of cosmetics; indeed, the resurgence of makeup in society has many positive correlations, especially for the reestablishment of beauty as something to be appreciated for purely aesthetic reasons:
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 soul. That damnable confusion will be solved by the extinguishing of a prejudice which, as I suggest, itself created. [116/117] 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.
The above passage suggests that the natural state reflects too much unnecessary symbolic information, which diminishes one's ability to appreciate the purely aesthetic qualities of a beautiful face. Thus, the text compares the application and appreciation of cosmetics to that of any greater art, and applies the decadent mentality to its analysis, as well.
1. The above passage suggests that deeper meaning takes away from the capacity to enjoy a beautiful face for its beauty, and that women's use of cosmetics will restore this. This can be considered a manifestation of life imitating art in the fashion of the aesthetic movement, with art existing only for the sake of being art.
How does Beerbohm's satirical stance (and, by extension, his personal views) compare to the convictions of his friend and mentor Oscar Wilde? Consider this passage from the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, published about 3 years before "The Pervasion of Rouge"; Wilde proposes that "those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty." How might Wilde, and other aesthetes and decadents, have received Beerbohm's writing?
2. Near the end of "The Pervasion of Rouge," Beerbohm lists examples of some of the great lengths that people will go to for the sake of cosmetics, and predicts among them a rise in arsenic in cosmetic use: "Arsenic, that 'greentress'd goddess,' ashamed at length of skulking between the soup of the unpopular and the test-tubes of the Queen's analyst, shall be exalted to a place of consummate honour upon the toilet-table of Loveliness." Copper(II) acetoarsenite, an extremely toxic chemical commonly used as rat poison, can also be ground to produce a stunning blue-green pigment (which poisoned many artists).
Although makeup has lost much of its association with immorality and "fallen women," does Beerbohm's satire still ring true to modern readers, considering the popularity of (often dangerous) cosmetic procedures? A recent New York Times article highlighted the popularity of risky illegal injections of industrial-grade silicone as an inexpensive and immediate way to plump up breasts, thighs, and buttocks. Although modern readers would probably agree that the methods of acquiring and using cosmetics as described in "The Pervasion of Rouge" are ridiculous, modern manifestations of these evidently persist. Does this make Beerbohm just as much of a prophet now?
3. How does Beerbohm's tone and style resemble Ruskin's? Consider the following passage from Ruskin's "Traffic" in relation to the above passage from "The Pervasion of Rouge," comparing their voices:
Permit me, therefore, to fortify this old dogma of mine somewhat. Taste is not only a part and an index of morality — it is the ONLY morality. The first, and last, and closest trial question to any living creature is, 'What do you like?' Tell me what you like, and I'll tell you what you are. Go out into the street, and ask the first man or woman you meet, what their 'taste' is, and if they answer candidly, you know them, body and soul.
4. Initial readers of Beerbohm's "The Pervasion of Rouge" apparently did not recognize its satire. Could this be, in part, because of the largely male readership? Might the essay, certainly addressed to men, have been received differently by women readers? Would they be more offended, or less?
Hartocollis, Amemona, and Christina Davidson. "A Cheap, Fast and Possibly Deadly Route to Beauty." New York Times. April 16, 2009.
Paris Green. 6 April 2009. Wikipedia. Accessed 19 April 2009.
Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Mineola: Courier Dover Publications, Reprint 1993.
- Salvation and Sincerity: Satire in Beerbohm's "A Defense of Cosmetics"
- Cosmetics: Artifice or Art?
- A Defence of Cosmetics and the Age of Reproduction
- The Role of Satirist and Aesthete in Beerbohm's "The Pervasion of Rouge"
- Beerbohm's Skin-deep Satire
Last modified 19 April 2009