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An essay by Max Beerbohm

A Parallel

Title:     A Parallel
Author: Max Beerbohm [More Titles by Beerbohm]

The club-room looked very like the auditorium of a music-hall. Indeed, that is what it must once have been. But now there were tiers of benches on the stage; and on these was packed a quarter or so of the members and their friends. The other three-quarters or so were packed opposite the proscenium and down either side of the hall. And in the middle of this human oblong was a raised platform, roped around. Therefrom, just as I was ushered to my place, a stout man in evening dress was making some announcement. I did not catch its import; but it was loudly applauded. The stout man--most of the audience indeed, seemed to have put on flesh--bowed himself off, and disappeared from my ken in the clouds of tobacco-smoke that hung about the hall. Almost immediately, two young people, nimbly insinuating themselves through the rope fence, leapt upon the platform. One was a man of about twenty years of age; the other, a girl of about seventeen. She was very pretty; he was very handsome; both were becomingly dressed, with evident aim at attractiveness. They proceeded to opposite corners of the platform. At a signal from some one, they advanced to the middle; and each made a hideous grimace at the other. The grimace, strange in itself, was stranger still in the light of what followed. For the young man began to make passionate protestations of love, to which the girl responded with equal ardour. The young man fell to his knees; the girl raised him, and clung to his breast. His language became more and more lyrical, his eyes more and more ecstatic. Suddenly in the middle of a pretty sentence, wherein his love was likened to a flight of doves, a bell rang; whereat, not less abruptly, the couple separated, retiring to the aforesaid corners of the platform and sinking back on their chairs with every manifestation of fatigue. Their friends or attendants, however, rallied round them, counselling them, cooling them with fans, heartening them to fresh endeavour; and when, at the end of a minute, the signal was sounded for a second tryst, the two young people seemed fresher and more eager than ever. This time, most of the love-making was done by the girl; the young man joyously drinking in her words, and now and then interpolating a few of his own. There were four trysts in all, with three intervals for recuperation. At the fourth sound of the bell, the lovers, stepping asunder, repeated their hideous mutual grimace, and disappeared from the platform as suddenly as they had come. Their place was soon taken by another, a more mature, and heavier, but not less personable, couple, who proceeded to make love in their own somewhat different way. The lyrical notes seemed to be missing in them. But maturity, though it had stripped away magic, had not blunted their passion--had, rather, sharpened the edge of it, and made it a stronger and more formidable instrument. Throughout the evening, indeed, in the long succession that there was of amorous encounters, it seemed to be the encounters of mature couples that excited in the smoke-laden audience the keenest interest. It was evidently not etiquette to interrupt the lovers while they were talking; but, whenever the bell sounded, there was a frantic outburst of sympathy, straight from the heart; and sometimes, even while a love-scene was proceeding, this or that stout gentleman would snatch the cigar from his lips and emit a heart-cry. Now and again, it seemed to be thought that the lovers were insufficiently fervid--were but dallying with passion; and then there were stentorian grunts of disapproval and hortation. I did not gather that the audience itself was composed mainly of active lovers. I guessed that the greater number consisted of men who do but take an active interest in other people's love affairs--men who, vigilant from a detached position, have developed in themselves an extraordinarily sound critical knowledge of what is due to Venus. `Plaisir d'amour ne dure qu'un moment,' I murmured; `chagrin d'amour dure toute la vie. And wise are ye who, immune from all love's sorrow, win incessant joy in surveying Cythara through telescopes. Suave mari magno,' I murmured. And this second tag caused me to awake from my dream shivering.

A strange dream? Yet a precisely parallel reality had inspired it. I had been taken over-night--my first visit--to the National Sporting Club.

The instinct to fight, like the instinct to love, is a quite natural instinct. To fight and to love are the primary instincts of primitive man. I know that people with strongly amorous natures are not trained and paid to make love ceremoniously, in accordance to certain rules laid down for them by certain authorities, and for the delectation of highly critical audiences. But, if this custom prevailed, it would not seem to me stranger than the custom of training and paying pugnacious people to hit one another on the face and breast, with the greatest possible skill and violence, for the delectation of highly critical audiences. I do not say that a glove-fight is in itself a visually disgusting exhibition. I saw no blood spilt, the other night, and no bruises expressed, by either the `light-weights' or the `heavy- weights.' I dare say, too, that the fighters enjoy their profession, on the whole. But I contend that it is a very lamentable profession, in that it depends on the calculated prostitution of good natural energies. A declaration of love prefaced by a grimace, such as I saw in my dream, seems to me not one whit more monstrous than a violent onslaught prefaced by a hand-shake. If two men are angry with each other, let them fight it out (provided I be not one of them) in the good old English fashion, by all means. But prize-fighting is to be deplored as an offence against the soul of man. And this offence is committed, not by the fighters themselves, but by us soft and sedentary gentlemen who set them on to fight. Looking back at ancient Rome, no one blames the poor gladiators in the arena. Every one reserves his pious horror for the citizens in the amphitheatre. Yet how are we superior to them? Are we not even as they--suspended at exactly their point between barbarism and civilisation. In course of time, doubtless, `the ring'will die out. For either we shall become so civilised that we shall not rejoice in the sight of painful violence, or we shall relapse into barbarism and go into the mauling business on our own account. Our present stage--the stage of our transition--is not pretty, I think.

[The end]
Max Beerbohm's essay: Parallel