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An essay by Richard Le Gallienne

The Persecutions Of Beauty

Title:     The Persecutions Of Beauty
Author: Richard Le Gallienne [More Titles by Le Gallienne]

All religions have periods in their history which are looked back to with retrospective fear and trembling as eras of persecution, and each religion has its own book of martyrs. The religion of beauty is no exception. Far from it. For most other religions, however they may have differed among themselves, have agreed in fearing beauty, and even in Greece there were stern sanctuaries and ascetic academes where the white bosom of Phryne would have pleaded in vain. Christianity has not been beauty's only enemy, by any means; though, when the Book of Martyrs of Beauty comes to be written, it will, doubtless, be the Christian persecutions of beauty that will bulk largest in the record--for the Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty have been warring creeds from the beginning.

At the present moment, there is reason to fear, or to rejoice--according to one's individual leanings--that the Religion of Beauty is gaining upon its ancient rival; for perhaps never since the Renaissance has there been such a widespread impulse to assert Beauty and Joy as the ideals of human life. As evidence one has but to turn one's eyes on the youth of both sexes, as they rainbow the city thoroughfares with their laughing, heartless faces, evident children of beauty and joy, "pagan" to the core of them, however ostensibly Christian their homes and their country. In our time, at all events, Beauty has never walked the streets with so frank a radiance, so confident an air of security, and in her eyes and in her carriage, as in her subtly shaped and subtly scented garments, so conspicuous a challenge to the musty, outworn, proprieties to frown upon her all they please. From the humblest shop-girl to the greatest lady, there is apparent an intention to be beautiful, sweet maid, and let who will be hum-drum, at whatever cost, by whatever means. This, of course, at all periods, has been woman's chief thought, but till recently, in our times, she has more or less affected a certain secrecy in her intention. She has hinted rather than fully expressed it, as though fearing a certain flagrancy in too public an exhibition of her enchantments. It has hardly seemed proper to her heretofore to be as beautiful in the public gaze as in the sanctuary of her boudoir. But now, bless you, she has no such misgivings, and the flower-like effect upon the city streets is as dazzling as if, some fine morning in Constantinople, all the ladies of the various harems should suddenly appear abroad without their yashmaks, setting fire to the hearts and turning the heads of the unaccustomed male. Or, to make comparison nearer home, it is almost as startling as if the ladies of the various musical comedies in town should suddenly be let loose upon our senses in broad daylight, in all the adorable sorceries of "make-up" and diaphanous draperies. I swear that it can be no more thrilling to penetrate into that mysterious paradise "behind the scenes," than to walk up Fifth Avenue one of these summer afternoons, in the present year of grace,--humming to one's self that wistful old song, which goes something like this:

The girls that never can be mine!
In every lane and street
I hear the rustle of their gowns,
The whisper of their feet;
The sweetness of their passing by,
Their glances strong as wine,
Provoke the unpossessive sigh--
Ah! girls that never can be mine.

So audacious has Beauty become in these latter days, so proudly she walks abroad, making so superb an appeal to the desire of the eye, thighed like Artemis, and bosomed like Aphrodite, or at whiles a fairy creature of ivory and gossamer and fragrance, with a look in her eyes of secret gardens; and so much is the wide world at her feet, and one with her in the vanity of her fairness--that I sometimes fear an impending _dies irae_, when the dormant spirit of Puritanism will reassert itself, and some stern priests thunder from the pulpit of worldly vanities and the wrath to come. Indeed, I can well imagine in the near future some modern Savonarola presiding over a new Bonfire of Vanities in Madison Square, on which, to the droning of Moody and Sankey's hymns, shall be cast all the fascinating Parisian creations, the puffs and rats, the powder and the rouge, the darling stockings, and all such concomitant bewitcheries that today make Manhattan a veritable Isle of Circe, all to go up in savage sectarian flame, before the eyes of melancholy young men, and filling all the city with the perfume of beauty's holocaust. At street corners too will stand great books in which weeping maidens will sign their names, swearing before high heaven, to wear nothing but gingham and bed-ticking for the dreary remainder of their lives. Such a day may well come, as it has often come before, and certainly will, if women persist in being so deliberately beautiful as they are at present.

It is curious how, from time immemorial, man seems to have associated the idea of evil with beauty, shrunk from it with a sort of ghostly fear, while, at the same time drawn to it by force of its hypnotic attraction. Strangely enough, beauty has been regarded as the most dangerous enemy of the soul, and the powers of darkness that are supposed to lie in wait for that frail and fluttering psyche, so precious and apparently so perishable, are usually represented as taking shapes of beguiling loveliness--lamias, loreleis, wood nymphs, and witches with blue flowers for their eyes. Lurking in its most innocent forms, the grim ascetic has affected to find a leaven of concupiscence, and whenever any reformation is afoot, it is always beauty that is made the first victim, whether it take the form of a statue, a stained-glass window, or a hair-ribbon. "Homeliness is next to Godliness," though not officially stated as an article of the Christian creed, has been one of the most active of all Christian tenets. It has always been easier far for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a gloriously beautiful woman. Presumably such a one might be in danger of corrupting the saints, somewhat unaccustomed to such apparitions.

In this Christian fear and hatred of beauty the democratic origin of the Christian religion is suggestively illustrated, for beauty, wherever found, is always mysteriously aristocratic, and thus instinctively excites the fear and jealousy of the common people. When, in the third century, Christian mobs set about their vandalistic work of destroying the "Pagan" temples, tearing down the beautiful calm gods and goddesses from their pedestals, and breaking their exquisite marble limbs with brutish mallets, it was not, we may be sure, of the danger to their precious souls they were thinking, but of their patrician masters who had worshipped these fair images, and paid great sums to famous sculptors for such adornment of their sanctuaries. Perhaps it was human enough, for to those mobs beauty had long been associated with oppression. Yet how painful to picture those golden marbles, in all their immortal fairness, confronted with the hideousness of those fanatic ill-smelling multitudes. Wonderful religionists, forsooth, that thus break with foolish hands and trample with swinish hoofs the sacred vessels of divine dreams. Who would not

rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn,--
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

One can imagine the priest of such a violated sanctuary stealing back in the quiet moonlight, when all the mob fury had passed away, seeking amid all the wrack of fallen columns, and shattered carvings, for any poor fragments of god or goddess at whose tranquil fair-ordered altar he had ministered so long; and gathering such as he might find,--maybe a mighty hand, still the hand of a god, albeit in overthrow, or some marble curls of the sculptured ambrosial locks, or maybe the bruised breast of the goddess, white as a water-lily in the moon. Then, seeking out some secret corner of the sacred grove, how reverently he would bury the precious fragments away from profane eyes, and go forth homeless into a mysterious changing world, from which glory and loveliness were thus surely passing away. Other priests, as we know, more fortunate than he, had forewarnings of such impending sacrilege, and were able to anticipate the mob, and bury their beautiful images in safe and secret places, there to await, after the lapse of twelve centuries, the glorious resurrection of the Renaissance. A resurrection, however, by no means free from danger, even in that resplendent dawn of intelligence; for Christianity was still the enemy of beauty, save in the Vatican, and the ignorant priest of the remote village where the spade of the peasant had revealed the sleeping marble was certain to declare the beautiful image an evil spirit, and have it broken up forthwith and ground for mortar, unless some influential scholar, or powerful lord touched with "the new learning," chanced to be on hand to save it from destruction. Yes! even at that time when beauty was being victoriously born again, the mad fear of her raged with such panic in certain minds that, when Savonarola lit his great bonfire so subtle a servant of beauty as Botticelli, fallen into a sort of religious dotage, cast his own paintings into the flames--to the lugubrious rejoicings of the sanctimonious Piagnoni--as Savonarola's followers were called; predecessors of those still gloomier zealots who, two centuries later, were to turn England into a sort of whitewashed prison, with crop-headed psalm-singing religious maniacs for gaolers. When Charles the First

bow'd his comely head
Down, as upon a bed,

at Whitehall, Beauty also laid her head upon the block at his side. Ugliness, parading as piety, took her place, and once more the breaking of images began, the banishment of music, the excommunication of grace, and gentle manners, and personal adornments. Gaiety became penal, and a happy heart or a beautiful smile was of the devil,--something like hanging matters--but happy hearts and beautiful smiles must have been rare things in England during the Puritan Commonwealth. Such as were left had taken refuge in France, where men might worship God and Beauty in the same church, and where it was not necessary, as at Oxford, to bury your stained-glass windows out of the reach of the mob--those

Storied windows richly dight
Casting a dim religious light,

which even the Puritan Milton could thus celebrate. Doubtless, that English Puritan persecution was the severest that Beauty has been called upon to endure. She still suffers from it, need one say, to this day, particularly in New England, where if the sculptured images of goddess and nymph are not exactly broken to pieces by the populace, it is from no goodwill towards them, but rather from an ingrained reverence for any form of property, even though it be nude, and where, at all events, they are under the strict surveillance of a highly proper and respectable police, those distinguished guardians of American morals.

It is worth while to try and get at the reason for this wide-spread, deep-rooted, fear of beauty: for some reason there must surely be. Such instinctive feelings, on so broad a scale, are not accidental. And so soon as one begins to analyse the attitude of religion towards beauty, the reason is not far to seek.

All religions are made up of a spiritual element and a moral element, the moral element being the temporary, practical, so to say, working side of religion, concerned with this present world, and the limitations and necessities of the various societies that compose it. The spiritual element, the really important part of religion, has no concern with Time and Space, temporary mundane laws, or conduct. It concerns itself only with the eternal properties of things. Its business is the contemplation and worship of the mystery of life, "the mystery we make darker with a name."

Now, great popular religions, designed as they are for the discipline and control of the great brute masses of humanity, are almost entirely occupied with morality, and what passes in them for spirituality is merely mythology, an element of picturesque supernaturalism calculated to enforce the morality with the multitude. Christianity is such a religion. It is mostly a matter of conduct here and now upon the earth. Its mystic side does not properly belong to it, and is foreign to, not to speak of its being practically ignored by, the average "Christian." It is a religion designed to work hand in hand with a given state of society, making for the preservation of such laws and manners and customs as are best fitted to make that society a success here and now, a worldly success in the best sense of the term. Mohammedanism is a similar religion calculated for the needs of a different society. Whatever the words or intentions of the founders of such religions, their kingdoms are essentially of this world. They are not mystic, or spiritual, or in anyway concerned with infinite and eternal things. Their business is the moral policing of humanity. Morality, as of course its name implies, is a mere matter of custom, and therefore varies with the variations of races and climates. It has nothing to do with spirituality, and, in fact, the best morals are often the least spiritual, and _vice versa_. It will be understood then that any force which is apt to disturb this moral, or more exactly speaking social, order will meet at once with the opposition of organized "religions" so called, and the more spiritual it is, the greater will be the opposition, for it will thus be the more dangerous.

Now one begins to see why Beauty is necessarily the bugbear, more or less, of all religions, or, as I prefer to regard them, "organized moralities"; for Beauty is neither moral nor immoral, being as she is a purely spiritual force, with no relations to man's little schemes of being good and making money and being knighted and so forth. For those who have eyes to see, she is the supreme spiritual vision vouchsafed to us upon the earth--and, as that, she is necessarily the supreme danger to that materialistic use and wont by which alone a materialistic society remains possible. For this reason our young men and maidens--particularly our young men--must be guarded against her, for her beauty sets us adream, prevents our doing our day's work, makes us forget the soulless occupations in which we wither away our lives. The man who loves beauty will never be mayor of his city, or even sit on the Board of Aldermen. Nor is he likely to own a railroad, or be a captain of industry. Nor will he marry, for her money, a woman he does not love. The face of beauty makes all such achievements seem small and absurd. Such so-called successes seem to him the dreariest forms of failure. In short, Beauty has made him divinely discontented with the limited human world about him, divinely incapable of taking it seriously, or heeding its standards or conditions. No wonder society should look upon Beauty as dangerous, for she is constantly upsetting its equilibrium and playing havoc with its smooth schemes and smug conventions. She outrages the "proprieties" with "the innocence of nature," and disintegrates "select" and "exclusive" circles with the wand of Romance. For earthly possessions or rewards she has no heed. For her they are meaningless things, mere idle dust and withered leaves. Her only real estate is in the moon, and the one article of her simple creed--"Love is enough."

Love is enough: though the world be a-waning
And the woods have no voice but the voice of complaining,
Though the sky be too dark for dim eyes to discover
The gold-cups and daisies fair blooming thereunder,
Though the hills beheld shadows, and the sea a dark wonder
And this day draw a veil over all deeds passed over,
Yet their hands shall not tremble, their feet shall not falter;
The void shall not weary, the fear shall not alter
These lips and these eyes of the loved and the lover.

Those who have looked into her eyes see limitless horizons undreamed of by those who know her not, horizons summoning the soul to radiant adventures beyond the bounds of Space and Time. The world is so far right in regarding beauty with a sort of superstitious dread, as a presence almost uncanny among our mere mortal concerns, a daemonic thing,--which is what the world has meant when it has, not unnaturally, confused it with the spirits of evil; for surely it is a supernatural stranger in our midst, a fairy element, and, like the lorelei and the lamia, it does beckon its votaries to enchanted realms away and afar from "all the uses of the world." Therefore, to them also it brings the thrill of a different and nobler fear--the thrill of the mortal in presence of the immortal. A strange feeling of destiny seems to come over us as we first look into the beautiful face we were born to love. It seems veritably an apparition from another and lovelier world, to which it summons us to go with it. That is what we mean when we say that Love and Death are one; for Death, to the thought of Love, is but one of the gates to that other world, a gate to which we instinctively feel Love has the key. That surely is the meaning of the old fairy-stories of men who have come upon the white woman in the woodland, and followed her, never to be seen again of their fellows, or of those who, like Hylas, have met the water-nymph by the lilied spring, and sunk with her down into the crystal deeps. The strange earth on which we live is just such a place of enchantment, neither more nor less, and some of us have met that fair face, with a strange suddenness of joy and fear, and followed and followed it on till it vanished beyond the limits of the world. But our failure was that we did not follow that last white beckoning of the hand--

And I awoke and found me here
On the cold hill's side.

[The end]
Richard Le Gallienne's essay: Persecutions Of Beauty