Sunday, December 1, 2013

ADVENT 12/1, Phillip Lopate on A Little-Known Gem by Max Beerbohm

The sometime-caricaturist, drama critic and novelist Maxx Beerbohm once declared: “What I really am is an essayist.” By 1920, Beerbohm had hit his stride, publishing his best essay collection, And Even Now, that year. (With mock conceit, he had titled his youthful, thin debut The Works of Max Beerbohm. Thereafter, he tagged each subsequent gathering of essays with an afterthought—More, And Even Now, Yet Again—like a postscript apology for still taking up the reader’s time.) And Even Now especially should be singled out as one of the most consistently superior essay collections published in the twentieth century. “More of a personal manifesto than any of its predecessors,” noted his biographer, David Cecil, it included some of his most famous, frequently anthologized essays, such as “Going Out for a Walk,” “Laughter,” How Shall I Word It?,” “Hosts and Guests,” and “No. 2, The Pines.”

Tucked among these was one of his funniest essays, “Quia Imperfectum,” which, I feel, has been unjustly neglected. Perhaps the Latin title put people off: it means “Because Imperfect.” Beerbohm, though usually self-mocking when it came to his intellectual range, prided himself in his schoolboy mastery of Latin, which he considered essential “to the making of a decent style in English prose.” By giving this piece a Latin title, he was perhaps flattering his cultivated, English quarterly readers’ presumably classical education. Or maybe he was making fun of that snobbishness, since the subject of the essay turns out to be the unachieved, the imperfect, and the monstrously tony.

The essay begins with a leisurely preamble: “I have often wondered that no one has set himself to collect unfinished works of art. There is a peculiar charm for all of us in that which was still in the making when its maker died, or in that which he laid aside because he was tired of it, or didn’t see his way to the end of it, or wanted to go on to something else.” One may note a few things in this opening: the straightforward clarity of the first sentence, followed by the slyly complicated, diminuendo spiraling of the second, from the most dignified explanation for the piece being left unfinished, death, to the less dignified fatigue, confusion and finally boredom. The universalist assertion (“all of us”) temporarily unites Beerbohm with his readers, noteworthy because he will just as often push us away with his contrarian singularity.

He then rambles through some examples of works left incomplete, from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” to the statues Michelangelo never got around to finishing in the Baptisery, to Racine’s abandoned play, Asquith’s plan for the reform of the House of Lords, Leonardo’s St. Sebastian, etc. There is some hint of raillery in these paragraphs, at least a provocative lack of respectful tone in speaking of these geniuses, but we don’t know where he is going with this yet: we don’t see that it is meant to set the stage for where he turns next, his takedown of Goethe.

At the bottom of Page 2 he lights on his main focus, “a certain huge picture in which a life-sized gentleman…” etc. New paragraph: he starts to have some fun: “The reader knits his brow? Evidently he has not just been reading Goethe’s Travels in Italy. I have.” He is no longer in league with the reader, but cheekily one-upping him. He continues: “Or rather, I have just been reading a translation of it, published in 1883 by George Bell & Sons. I daresay it isn’t a very good translation (for one has always understood that Goethe, despite a resistant medium, wrote well—an accomplishment which this translator hardly wins one to suspect). And I daresay the painting I so want to see and have isn’t a very good painting. Wilhelm Tischbein is hardly a name to conjure with, though in his day, as a practitioner in the ‘historical’ style, and as a rapturous resident in Rome, Tischbein did great things, big things, at any rate.” “The word “rapturous” is a mischievous tipoff: Beerbohm keeps puffing up these historical figures, then pulling them down. He has dropped his superiority toward the reader for not having been in the midst of reading Travels in Italy, and is now colluding with the poor, puzzled, intimidated but (deep-down) skeptical average person who wonders if all these artists are really what they’re cracked up to be. A self-professed little man and minor writer himself, Beerbohm is saying, in effect: Don’t be intimidated! I am going to take you by the hand and show you what assholes they really are.

He starts by zeroing in on Goethe’s vanity. “Goethe has more than once been described as ‘the perfect man’…. But a man whose career was glorious without intermission, decade after decade, must sorely try our patience.” He enumerates: “he was never injudicious, never lazy, always in the best form—and always in love with some lady or another just so much as was good for the development of his art, but never more than that by a tittle.” Of course this is unfair, but the irreverence is tonic.

He then mocks Goethe’s unquestioning acceptance of a flunkey’s dedication as his due: “Men of genius are not quick judges of character. Deep thinking and high imagining blunt that trivial instinct by which you and I size people up. Had you and I been at Goethe’s elbow when, in the October of 1786, he entered Rome and was received by the excited Tischbein, no doubt we should have whispered in his ear, ‘Beware of that man. He will one day fail you.’ Unassisted Goethe had no misgivings.” Beerbohm loves to play the seductive game of bonding with his readers’ “trivial instinct,” while mocking the grandiose self-confidence of larger-than-life figures. “Goethe, you may be sure, enjoyed the hero-worshipful gaze focused on his from all the table of the Caffé Greco.” He also has fun mocking the opportunistic painter (“Pushful Tischbein!”) who latches on to the great writer and starts to paint his portrait in the hopes it will lead to some juicy commissions.

The rest of the essay plays out as a narrative, with Beerbohm quoting from the surviving letters and diaries and speculating as he reads between the lines. The flunky abandons the great man, preferring to chase some beauty. “Incredible!” Beerbohm writes with mock-astonishment. “We stare aghast, as in the presence of some great dignitary from behind whom, by a ribald hand, a chair is withdrawn, when he is in the act of sitting down.” One can almost hear Beerbohm giggling spitefully in the background as the condescending Goethe gets his comeuppance, but what makes the essay so effective is the tone of formal propriety and scholarly historical research maintained throughout. So much of Beerbohm’s humor is based on vocabulary and levels of diction, ranging from archaic to modern, always with am ironic whiff of parody that is difficult to pinpoint but apparent nonetheless.

Lord Cecil, his attentive biographer and anthologist, summarized Beerbohm’s approach thus: “Irony is its most continuous and consistent character; an irony at once delicate and ruthless, from which nothing is altogether protected, not even the author himself. Ruthless—but not savage: Max could be made angry—by brutality or vulgarity—but very seldom does he reveal this in his creative works. His artistic sense told him that ill-temper was out of place in an entertainment, especially in an entertainment that aspired to be pretty as well as comic. His ruthlessness gains its particular flavor from the fact that it is also good-tempered. On the other hand it is not so good-tempered as to lose its edge. Max’s irony is never that sort of ‘kindly’ irony that softens and sentimentalizes. His artistic sense tells him that softness, as much as savagery, would destroy the clear bright atmosphere needed for his entertainment to take place.”

In short, though his thoughts might disconcert, his formal shaping of each essay still aimed to give pleasure, and succeeded. So he rounds out this particular piece with some appropriate further musings on Goethe’s conceit and the charm of artistic incompletion. The essay, as we know, is a form that resists airtight perfection and invites impurities or digressions, so Beerbohm may also be commenting self-reflexively and even approvingly on his chosen métier. The irony is that, as Virginia Woolf remarked: “Mr. Beerbohm in his way is perfect…and then, as if one could swallow perfection and still keep one’s critical capacity unsated, one looks about for something more….For a second he makes his own perfection look a little small.” Still, perfection is not such a bad thing. Quia perfectum.


Phillip Lopate's most recent books are Portrait Inside My Head (the fourth collection of his personal essays) and To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction.  He directs and teaches in the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University.

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