In "A Defense of Cosmetics," Beerbohm satirizes the sage-writer. He interprets a so-called sign of the times — the rise in the use of cosmetics — and utilizes it as a symbol not of an age gone wrong, but an age gone right. The revival of cosmetics, he argues, will make the ugly beautiful; more importantly, it will once and for all eliminate the confusion between "surface" and "soul," "artifice" and "art." In the penultimate passage, Beerbohm forecasts a future in which cosmetics reign. His language is apocalyptic and yet eerily ambiguous:
The White cliffs of Albion shall be ground to powder for Loveliness, and perfumed by the ghosts 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' lovely face. Even the camels shall become ministers of delight, giving many tufts of their hair to be stained in her splendid colour-box. And across her cheek the swift hare's foot shall fly as of old.
Sage-writers often close their essays with scenes of salvation, prophecies of bliss. In what way does this final passage play off of and invert this pattern. To what end?
What is the relationship between art and nature in this passage? In what way do the grotesque images of the passage undercut Beerbohm's promotion of a world where artifice reigns?
Just as Beerbohm closes his essay in a way ironically reminiscent of sage-essays, so too does he open it. Whereas the sage-writers we have read open their essays with testaments of their faith in what they will say — the moral compulsion they feel to say it (Thoreau says that he does not "wish to force my thoughts upon you, but I feel forced myself," likewise, Ruskin similarly says that he "must talk of quite other things though not willingly") — Beerbohm, on the other hand, opens with a seeming dismissal of the sage's role — "Nay, but it is useless to protest." What is the relationship of this introduction to other sage-writer's introductions? How does this introduction pave the way for the rest of the essay? With an introduction like this can Beerbohm have any credibility? Is his position throughout the essay sincere?
Last modified: 16 October 2003