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Max Beerbohm utilizes the techniques of the sage writer to parody the sage genre and to mock both sages and their readers. In the spirit of the decadents of the 1890s, Beerbohm creates a satirical piece in which he manipulates devices such as the prophetic voice, symbolical grotesques, acts of interpretation, and the establishment of ethos or credibility. Beerbohm uses the sage's model in an inverted form: he twists the devices in order to mock their inventors. Although Beerbohm's essay's ambiguous layers of irony and insincere persona resist understanding, they seem to indicate a turning point in Victorian prose non-fiction. Whether this change be towards the liberal or the reactionary side of the political spectrum is difficult to discern and perhaps unimportant; the decadents' seem more concerned with separating and elevating themselves from society by criticizing it in a satirical fashion than with the idea of effecting actual changes. The "anti-sages'" failure to propose serious courses of action to rectify the faults they find with society differentiate them from the sages. Parodying the sages' work as Beerbohm does, however, may provide a means to point out the relative ineffectiveness of the sages' preachings and to mock their superior attitudes.

In "A Defence of Cosmetics," Beerbohm plays upon the manner in which Carlyle's "Signs of the Times" is constructed. Beerbohm's personna speaks from a prophetic voice similar to that of Carlyle; in this parody, however, Beerbohm employs the high language to discuss the trivial topic of cosmetics, thus belittling Carlyle's lofty intentions. Beerbohm addresses the intrusion of artifice into his society in an analogous way to that in which Carlyle addresses the evils of mechanization. Says Carlyle, "Were we required to characterize this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it...the Mechanical Age...Nothing is now done directly, or by hand; all is by rule and calculated contrivance." ("Signs of the Times"). By inverting Carlyle's structure and satirically embracing the effects of cosmetics and artifice in general, however, Beerbohm mocks both society and those who criticize it with sage writing: "For behold! The Victorian era comes to its end and the day of sancta simplicitas is quite ended. The old signs are here and the portents to warn the seer of life that we are ripe for a new epoch of artifice" (Beerbohm, p.48). Thus, Beerbohm proposes a welcoming of the return to superficial values in response to Carlyle's dissatisfaction with the loss of spirituality and the sacrifice of process for product. Here, Beerbohm's persona uses the prophetic voice to hail the coming age of artifice and to condemn the mistakes of the past rather than to predict the catastrophes that may ensue from a present situation and to suggest a course of action which may prevent them. He thus successfully parodies the prophetic pattern invented by Carlyle.

Beerbohm also employs the technique of the symbolical grotesque in his satire; however, his examples and interpretations appear so absurdly extreme that they take on the sense of "ironic grotesques." Beerbohm writes, "There need be no martyrs to the cause like Georgina Gunning, that fair dame but infelix, who died, so they relate, from the effect of a poisonous rouge upon her lips...Artifice will claim not another victim from among her worshippers." (Beerbohm, p.62). Beerbohm departs from the usual use of the grotesque: rather than interpret the grotesque as a symbol of the general threat to society that superficiality poses as the sage would do, he labels Georgina an exception to the norm and continues with his agenda of instilling faith in and praising artifice.

The found grotesques, be they from history or mythology, with which Carlyle and Ruskin construct their essays do not escape Beerbohm's wit either. Beerbohm, however, does not use these references as material for critical interpretation as the sages do; rather, they serve as proof with which he backs up his arguments: "But best of all is that fine book of the Ars Amatoria that Ovid has set aside for the consideration of dyes, perfumes, and pomades. Written by an artist who knew the allurements of the toilet and understood its philosophy, it remains without rival as a treatise upon Artifice." (Beerbohm, 61). In "Traffic," Ruskin uses a like reference to launch into a criticism of the mode of thought implied by a book's title. In keeping with his manipulation of the sage's style, Beerbohm here uses a book title to achieve the opposite effect: he justifies his position by aligning himself with a well-known historical figure, rather than placing himself in opposition to and above those he quotes.

Beerbohm makes use of another device common in Ruskin's work, that of anticipating the skeptical reader's response to his assertions and formulating a rebuttal. Here, again, Beerbohm uses the technique satirically, in stark contrast to Ruskin's gently proposed counter-arguments. Ruskin puts words into his readers' mouths cautiously, beginning with "'Nay,' perhaps you answer," or "Now I know you feel as if I were trying to take away the honour of your churches. Not so." ( "Traffic"). Beerbohm, on the other hand, is less subtle: "'Tush,' I can hear some damned flutterpate exclaim..." (Beerbohm, p.57). Beerbohm can afford to speak from such an elitist personna and to belittle his audience because he is engaged in a battle of wits. He does not build up ethos or credibility in the manner that Ruskin does and need not sway the audience into sympathizing; he builds his arguments on parody. Here, he mocks his readers, the sages, and the sages' readers at once with such bluntness, realizing that Ruskin probably thinks of the skeptics in his audience as "damned flutterpates" himself. Furthermore, he positions sages like Ruskin who may be reading the essay as a flutterpates as well, since they would be among the most likely to "tush" him.

Beerbohm further plays upon the tradition of the sage by appropriating the use of broad, general statements about human nature. Whereas a writer such as Johnson uses this technique to point out a minor fault common to the majority of the population, Beerbohm again twists the device, employing it to different ends: his personna uses such statements to encourage his readers to follow him in his pursuit of the artificial. Writes Beerbohm, "The painting of the face is the first kind of painting man can have known. To make beautiful things — is it not an impulse laid upon few? But to make oneself beautiful is an universal instinct." (Beerbohm, p.54). Beerbohm's definition of self-beautification as a societal norm at once corresponds with and opposes the sage-writing tradition: although a sage might have made such a statement, a sage probably would not have portrayed this sort of "universal instinct" in the positive light that Beerbohm's personna does. Here, and throughout the essay, Beerbohm welcomes where the sage laments, and criticizes where the sage praises. His tactics constitute both a reversal and a co-opting of the sages' structure and devices.

"A Defence of Cosmetics" is a piece which is masterfully constructed to invert the established pattern and techniques of sage writing while drawing upon them to parody the sage writers themselves. Like the sages, Beerbohm's personna speaks from a position of superior knowledge, yet he attempts to convince his readers of the positive aspects of the current age of artificiality through the symbolical/ironic grotesque of cosmetics rather than asserting that the ills of society need curing. His assertion is ridiculous, yet his method of argument lacks the obviously, uniformly satirical style of an essay like Swift's "A Modest Proposal." The point of view is difficult to determine; the essay defies categorization in that it almost seems to fit the tradition of sage writing more than it does that of the decadents. In any case, the main intent of the essay seems to be parody of the patterns and devices of sage writing; thus it is no wonder that the piece was misinterpreted and rejected by those who were not completely familiar with these patterns.


Victorian Web Overview Aesthetes & Decadents Max Beerbohm

Last modified 1992