Shortly after graduating from Oxford, Max Beerbohm wrote "Diminuendo," in which he says goodbye to his readership and reveals his plans to live a quiet life in the countryside. Although this piece is dripping with satire, the reader can discern Beerbohm's sensibilities and true feelings behind the feigned tone in the essay.
Even the name of the piece is telling. The word "diminuendo" describes the opposite effect of a crescendo, a gradual reduction of force and volume. Pair the title with Beerbohm's description of the bygone era of Oxford, his claim about feeling outmoded and more comfortable in the earlier "Beardsley period," and his recognition of new writers, "younger men, with months of activity before them, with fresher schemes and notions, with newer enthusiasm," and a pattern begins to emerge.
These statements made in jest nonetheless indicate the Beerbohm believed he was writing in an era of transition. The sincere and serious-minded voices of cultural commentators like John Ruskin were growing fainter and fading out, a diminuendo of an outmoded style. The future of criticism is in flippant, clever prose that leaves moral imperatives, historical precedent, and an earnest mentality aside (a sentiment loudly and deliberately proclaimed by Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest.)
When Beerbhohm says, "It was, for me, merely a problem bow I could best avoid "sensations," "pulsations," and exquisite moments" that were not purely intellectual. I would not attempt to combine both kinds, as Pater seemed to fancy a man might," Beerbohm highlights the growing trend of combining intellectual pursuits and worldly pleasure. By deftly making an esthetic and strictly moral life seem ridiculous and unbearably boring, Beerbohm makes a convincing case for decadence, hedonism, and aesthetics.
1. Beerbohm's satire is largely dependent on his audience's familiarity with the context in which he's writing. How much does satire depend on context, and how well does "Diminuendo" communicate Beerbohm's point today?
2. Why did Beerbohm chose to structure this essay as a farewell speech? Was it an effective way of writing? How else could he have approached this piece to get the same effect?
3. John Ruskin opens "Traffic" with the following introduction:
My good Yorkshire friends, you asked me down here among your hills that I might talk to you about this Exchange you are going to build: but earnestly and seriously asking you to pardon me, I am going to do nothing of the kind. I cannot talk, or at least can say very little, about this same Exchange. I must talk of quite other things, though not willingly; — I could not deserve your pardon, if when you invited me to speak on one subject, I wilfully spoke on another. But I cannot speak, to purpose, of anything about which I do not care; and most simply and sorrowfully I have to tell you, in the outset, that I do not care about this Exchange of yours.
Max Beerbohm opens "Diminuendo" thus:
In the year of grace 1890, and in the beautiful autumn of that year, I was a freshman at Oxford. I remember bow 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, one morning soon after, I went into Ryman's to order some foolish engraving for my room, and there saw, peering into a portfolio, a small, thick, rock-faced man, whose top-hat and gloves of bright dog-skin struck one of the many discords in that little city of learning or laughter. The serried bristles of his moustachio made for him a false-military air. I think I nearly went down [left the university] when they told me that this was Pater.
In what ways do the writers' tones differ?
4. Did any piece or cultural movement in particular inspire Beerbohm to write this essay?
Last modified 22 April 2009