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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

Woman As A Supernatural Being

Title:     Woman As A Supernatural Being
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

The boy's first hushed enchantment, blent with a sort of religious awe, as in his earliest love affair he awakens to the delicious mystery we call woman, a being half fairy and half flower, made out of moonlight and water lilies, of elfin music and thrilling fragrance, of divine whiteness and softness and rustle as of dewy rose gardens, a being of unearthly eyes and terribly sweet marvel of hair; such, too, through life, and through the ages, however confused or overlaid by use and wont, is man's perpetual attitude of astonishment before the apparition woman.

Though she may work at his side, the comrade of his sublunary occupations, he never, deep down, thinks of her as quite real. Though his wife, she remains an apparition, a being of another element, an Undine. She is never quite credible, never quite loses that first nimbus of the supernatural.

This is true not merely for poets; it is true for all men, though, of course, all men may not be conscious of its truth, or realize the truth in just this way. Poets, being endowed with exceptional sensitiveness of feeling and expression, say the wonderful thing in the wonderful way, bring to it words more nearly adequate than others can bring; but it is an error to suppose that any beauty of expression can exaggerate, can indeed more than suggest, the beauty of its truth. Woman is all that poets have said of her, and all that poets can never say:

Always incredible hath seemed the rose,
And inconceivable the nightingale--

and the poet's adoration of her is but the articulate voice of man's love since the beginning, a love which is as mysterious as she herself is a mystery.

However some may try to analyse man's love for woman, to explain it, or explain it away, belittle it, nay, even resent and befoul it, it remains an unaccountable phenomenon, a "mystery we make darker with a name." Biology, cynically pointing at certain of its processes, makes the miracle rather more miraculous than otherwise. Musical instruments are no explanation of music. "Is it not strange that sheep's guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?" says Benedick, in _Much Ado About Nothing_, commenting on Balthazar's music. But they do, for all that, though no one considers sheep's gut the explanation. To cry "sex" and to talk of nature's mad preoccupation with the species throws no light on the matter, and robs it of no whit of its magic. The rainbow remains a rainbow, for all the sciences. And woman, with or without the suffrage, stenographer or princess, is of the rainbow. She is beauty made flesh and dwelling amongst us, and whatever the meaning and message of beauty may be, such is the meaning of woman on the earth--her meaning, at all events, for men. That is, she is the embodiment, more than any other creature, of that divine something, whatever it may be, behind matter, that spiritual element out of which all proceeds, and which mysteriously gives its solemn, lovely and tragic significance to our mortal day.

If you tell some women this of themselves, they will smile at you. Men are such children. They are so simple. Dear innocents, how easily they are fooled! A little make-up, a touch of rouge, a dash of henna--and you are an angel. Some women seem really to think this; for, naturally, they know nothing of their own mystery, and imagine that it resides in a few feminine tricks, the superficial cleverness with which some of them know how to make the most of the strange something about them which they understand even less than men understand it.

Other women indeed resent man's religious attitude toward them as sentimental, old-fashioned. They prefer to be regarded merely as fellow-men. To show consciousness of their sex is to risk offence, and to busy one's eyes with their magnificent hair, instead of the magnificent brains beneath it, is to insult them. Yet when, in that old court of law, Phryne bared her bosom as her complete case for the defence, she proved herself a greater lawyer than will ever be made by law examinations and bachelor's degrees; and even when women become judges of the Supreme Court, a development easily within sight, they will still retain the greater importance of being merely women. Yes, and one can easily imagine some future woman President of the United States, for all the acknowledged brilliancy of her administration, being esteemed even more for her superb figure.

It is no use. Woman, if she would, "cannot shake off the god." She must make up her mind, whatever other distinctions she may achieve, to her inalienable distinction of being woman; nothing she can do will change man's eternal attitude toward her, as a being made to be worshipped and to be loved, a being of beauty and mystery, as strange and as lovely as the moon, the goddess and the mother of lunatics. What a wonderful destiny is hers! In addition to being the first of human beings, all that a man can be, to be so much else as well; to be, so to say, the president of a railroad and yet a priestess of nature's mysteries; a stenographer at so many dollars a week and yet a nymph of the forest pools--woman, "and yet a spirit still." Not without meaning has myth endowed woman with the power of metamorphosis, to change at will like the maidens in the legend into wild white swans, or like Syrinx, fleeing from the too ardent pursuit of Pan, into a flowering reed, or like Lamia, into a jewelled serpent--

Eyed like a peacock, and all crimson barr'd;
And full of silver moons.

Modern conditions are still more favourable than antique story for the exhibition of this protean quality of woman, providing her with opportunities of still more startling contrasts of transformation. Will it not be a wonderful sight in that near future to watch that woman judge of the Supreme Court, in the midst of some learned tangle of inter-state argument, turn aside for a moment, in response to a plaintive cry, and, unfastening her bodice, give the little clamourer the silver solace it demands! What a hush will fall upon the assembled court! To think of such a genius for jurisprudence, such a legal brain, working in harmony--with such a bosom! So august a pillar of the law, yet so divine a mother.

As it is, how piquant the contrast between woman inside and outside her office hours! As you take her out to dinner, and watch her there seated before you, a perfumed radiance, a dewy dazzling vision, an evening star swathed in gauzy convolutions of silk and lace--can it be the same creature who an hour or two ago sat primly with notebook and pencil at your desk side, and took down your specification for fireproofing that new steel-constructed building on Broadway? You, except for your evening clothes, are not changed; but she--well, your clients couldn't possibly recognize her. As with Browning's lover, you are on the other side of the moon, "side unseen" of office boy or of subway throng; you are in the presence of those "silent silver lights and darks undreamed of" by the gross members of your board of directors. By day--but ah! at evening under the electric lights, to the delicate strains of the palm-shaded orchestra! Man is incapable of these exquisite transformations. By day a gruff and hurried machine--at evening, at best, a rapt and laconic poker player. A change with no suggestion of the miraculous.

Do not let us for a moment imagine that because man is ceasing to remove his hat at her entrance into crowded elevators, or because he hustles her or allows her to hang by the straps in crowded cars, that he is tending to forget this supernaturalism of woman. Such change in his manners merely means his respect for her disguise, her disguise as a business woman. By day she desires to be regarded as just that, and she resents as untimely the recognition of her sex, her mystery, and her marvel during business hours. Man's apparent impoliteness, therefore, is actually a delicate modern form of chivalry. But of course his real feelings are only respectfully masked, and, let her be in any danger or real discomfort, or let any language be uttered unseemly for her ears, and we know what promptly happens. Barring such accidents, man tacitly understands that her incognito is to be respected--till the charming moment comes when she chooses to put it aside and take at his hands her immemorial tribute.

So, you see, she is able to go about the rough ways, taking part even in the rough work of the world, literally bearing what the fairy tales call a charmed life. And this, of course, gives her no small advantage in the human conflict. So protected, she is enabled, when need arises, to take the offensive, with a minimum of danger. Consider her recent campaign for suffrage, for example. Does any one suppose that, had she been anything but woman, a sacrosanct being, immune from clubs and bullets, that she would have been allowed to carry matters with such high victorious hand as in England--and more power to her!--she has of late been doing. Let men attempt such tactics, and their shrift is uncomplimentarily short. It may be said that woman enjoys this immunity with children and curates, but, even so, it may be held that these latter participate in a less degree in that divine nature with which woman is so completely armoured.

How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?

exclaims Shakespeare.

But there is indeed the mystery, for, though its "action is no stronger than a flower," the power wielded by beauty in this world, and therefore by woman as its most dynamic embodiment, is as undeniable as it is irresistible. "Terrible as an army with banners" was no mere figure of lovesick speech. It is as plain a truth as the properties of radium, and belongs to the same order of marvel. Such scientific discoveries are particularly welcome as demonstrating the power of the finer, as contrasted with the more brutally obvious, manifestations of force; for they thus illustrate the probable nature of those spiritual forces whose operations we can plainly see, without being able to account for them. A foolish phrase has it that "a woman's strength is in her helplessness." "Helplessness" is a curious term to use for a mysteriously concentrated or super-refined form of strength. "Whose action is no stronger than a flower." But is the action of a flower any less strong because it is not the action of a fist? As a motive force a flower may be, and indeed has time and again been, stronger than a thousand fists. And what then shall we say of the action of that flower of flowers that is woman--that flower that not only once or twice in history has

... launched a thousand ships
And burned the topless towers of Ilium.

Woman's helplessness, forsooth! On the contrary, woman is the best equipped fighting machine that ever went to battle. And she is this, not from any sufferance on the part of man, not from any consideration on his part toward her "weakness," but merely because he cannot help himself, because nature has so made her.

No simple reasoning will account for her influence over man. It is not an influence he allows. It is an influence he cannot resist, and it is an influence which he cannot explain, though he may make believe to do so. That "protection," for example, which he extends to her from the common physical perils with which he is more muscularly constituted to cope--why is it extended? Merely out of pity to a weaker being than himself? Does other weakness always command his pity? We know that it does not. No, this "protection" is but a part of an instinctive reverence, for which he can give no reason, the same kind of reverence which he has always given to divine beings, to any manifestation or vessel of the mysteriously sacred something in human life. He respects and protects woman from the same instinct which makes him shrink from profaning an altar or robbing a church, or sends him on his knees before any apparition supposedly divine. Priests and women are often classed together, but not because the priests are regarded as effeminately "helpless"; rather because both are recognized as ministers of sacred mysteries, both belong to the spiritual sphere, and have commerce with the occult holiness of things. Also be it remarked that this "protection" is chiefly needed against the brutality and bestiality of man's own heart, which woman and religion alike rather hold in subjection by their mysterious influence than have to thank for any favours of self-control. Man "protects" woman because he first worships her, because, if she has for him not always the beauty of holiness, she at least always suggests the holiness of beauty.

Now when has man ever suggested holiness to the most adoring woman? I do not refer to the professional holiness of saints and ecclesiastics, but to that sense of hallowed strangeness, of mystic purity, of spiritual exquisiteness, which breathes from a beautiful woman and makes the touch of her hand a religious ecstasy, and her very garments a thrilling mystery. How impossible it is to imagine a woman writing the _Vita Nuova_, or a girl feeling toward a boy such feelings of awe and worship as set the boy Dante a-tremble at his first sight of the girl Beatrice.

At that moment [he writes], I say most truly that the spirit of life, which hath its dwelling in the secretest chamber of the heart, began to tremble so violently that the least pulse of my body shook therewith; and in trembling it said these words: "_Ecce deus fortior me, qui veniens dominabitur mihi_. (Here is a deity stronger than I, who, coming, shall rule over me.)"

And, loverlike, he records of "this youngest of the angels" that "her dress on that day was of a most noble colour, a subdued and goodly crimson, girdled and adorned in such sort as best suited with her very tender age." Ah! that "little frock," that sacred little frock we first saw her in! Don't we all know it? And the little handkerchief, scented like the breath of heaven, we begged as a sacred relic! And--

Long after you are dead
I will kiss the shoes of your feet....

Yes! anything she has worn or touched; for, as a modern writer has said:

Everything a woman wears or touches immediately incarnates something of herself. A handkerchief, a glove, a flower--with a breath she endows them with immortal souls.

Waller with his girdle, Donne with "that subtle wreath of hair about his arm," the mediaeval knight riding at tourney with his lady's sleeve at his helm, and all relic-worshipping lovers through the ages bear witness to that divine supernaturalism of woman. To touch the hem of that little frock, to kiss the mere imprint of those little feet, is to be purified and exalted. But when did man affect woman in that way? I am tolerably well read in the poetry of woman's emotions, but I recall no parallel expressions of feeling. No passionate apostrophes of his golf stockings come to my mind, nor wistful recollections of the trousers he wore on that never-to-be-forgotten afternoon. The immaculate collar that spanned his muscular throat finds no Waller to sing it:

A narrow compass--and yet there
Dwelt all that's good, and all that's fair,

and probably the smartest negligee shirt that ever sported with the summer winds on a clothes-line has never caused the smallest flutter in feminine bosoms. The very suggestion is, of course, absurd--whereas with women, in very deed, it is as with the temple in Keats's lines:

... even as the trees
That whisper round a temple become soon
Dear as the temple's self.

Properly understood, therefore, the cult of the skirt-dancer has a religious significance, and man's preoccupation with petticoats is but the popular recognition of the divinity of woman. All that she is and does and wears has a ritualistic character, and she herself commands our reverence because we feel her to be the vessel of sacred mysteries, the earthly representative of unearthly powers, with which she enjoys an intimacy of communication denied to man. It is not a reasonable feeling, or one to be reasoned about; and that is why we very properly exempt woman from the necessity of being reasonable. She is not, we say, a reasonable being, and in so saying we pay her a profound compliment. For she transcends reason, and on that very account is mysteriously wise, the wisest of created things--mother-wise. When we say "mother-wit," we mean something deeper than we realize--for what in the universe is wiser than a mother, fed as she is through the strange channels of her being with that lore of the infinite which seems to enter her body by means of organs subtler than the brain?

A certain famous novelist meant well when recently he celebrated woman as "the mother of the male," but such celebration, while ludicrously masculine in its egotistic limitation, would have fallen short even if he had stopped to mention that she was the mother of the female, too; for not merely in the fact that she is the mother of the race resides the essential mystery of her motherhood. We do not value woman merely, if one may be permitted the expression, as a brood mare, an economic factor controlling the census returns. Her gift of motherhood is stranger than that, and includes spiritual affinities and significances not entirely represented by visible babes. Her motherhood is mysterious because it seems to be one with the universal motherhood of nature, one with the motherhood that guards and warms to life the eggs in the nest and the seeds in the hollows of the hills, the motherhood of the whole strange vital process, wherever and howsoever it moves and dreams and breaks into song and flower. And, as nature is something more than a mother, so is woman. She is a vision, an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace and goodness at the heart of life; and her beauty is the sacred seal which the gods have set upon her in token of her supernatural meaning and mission; for all beauty is the message of the immortal to mortality. Always when man has been in doubt concerning his gods, or in despair amid the darkness of his destiny, his heart has been revived by some beatific vision;

Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.

Woman is our permanent Beatific Vision in the darkness of the world.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Woman As A Supernatural Being