The Cost of Beauty
you would say at first guess, is like genius; it is above
cost and without price. It is, in the outward and manifest
world of appearance, what genius is in the inward and
spiritual world of imagination. Each in its own realm
is the miraculous phenomenon of perfection, exhibited
in the midst of a multitude of imperfections, arousing
our wonder and enthusiasm to heights beyond the usual;
so that around beauty or genius we are always ready to
form the rudiments of a cult, to invest it with something
of reverence, to begin to make it an object of worship.
Indeed our attitude toward it has the elements of a religious
feeling, and implies a tacit belief in its divine origin,
as we express it [Page 103].
Into our limited view, surrounded
everywhere by restrictions and laws, beauty and genius
come as supra-legal apparitions, compelling allegiance,
stimulating joy, exciting reverence. They are, it seems
to us, messengers and envoys extraordinary, accredited
with intimations from the unknown, to which we gladly
give ear. They embody and foreshadow those traits of winning
loveliness toward which we aspire; they already are what
we would be, – our aspirational and ennobled selves.
One glimpse of beauty, one hint of genius, is sufficient
illumination for a single day, – yes, perhaps for
a lifetime, as we simple mortals are constituted. How
old a story that is, wherein some loved form of beauty,
early known and lost, has served as the enduring inspiration
for a lifelong human experience! And how often we have
heard of the trend of a character changed utterly by a
single thought, a single gleam of genius!
Small wonder, then, if we have
come near to making genius a demigod and beauty a [Page
104] divinity. It is on the basis of this superhuman
conception that our regard for them has been fostered.
In a more modern, scientific aspect,
what are we to say to the appearance of beauty manifest
to the sense, of genius revealed in thought? Merely that
they are the natural outcome of natural law, in no way
more miraculous than the imperfect and tentative commonplace
world about us. But how, in that case, is my enthusiasm
to be retained, my devotion and respect to be held? It
is a trite enough question. There is no fear that revelations
of new knowledge can make the further unknown seem paltry
or familiar. Once let us accept reverence for law in place
of a reverence for the supernatural, as it was called,
— once let us acquire the habit of free belief in
place of the habit of credulous timidity, and the borders
of wisdom will seem infinite; the horizon of wonder will
enlarge at each step of knowledge; and what we see will
appear even more wonderful than we could faintly imagine
[Page 105]. We shall come to think of
beauty as the complete realization of some typical thought
under the restraint of law; and of genius as the partial
manifestation of thought itself under a like restriction.
Beauty, then, and genius will
seem no longer priceless; their value will be very definite.
It will appear that they are produced under the most exact
and exacting operations of the great economy of nature.
We shall see that they have been priced at an enormous
cost, just as we knew they could be sold for a song, –
beauty the most perishable and fleeting of things, genius
the most volatile and imponderable; this we knew; but
we supposed they came as easily as they went. Ah, no!
far from that.
You find some object of art, some
beautiful thing the hands of man have fashioned, and ask
what it cost. Here is a wooden tobacco-box made by a Japanese
artist generations ago. You mark the loving care expended
on it; you see it never could have been created by rule
[Page 106]; you notice how the humble
love of the craftsman utilized every grain and knot of
the wood, how he accommodated his talent to the unyielding
exigencies of the material, yet in the end compelled it
to serve his expressional need; it is nothing short of
a masterpiece of genius. And what do you think it cost?
Love, devotion, restraint, self-denial, endurance, fidelity,
patience, faith, humility, diligence, serenity, scrupulous
living, and an untarnished mind. Do you recall the years
of ungrudging privation, of unquestioning toil, that made
that inspiration of beauty possible? Or here is a modern
binding, not remarkable perhaps, yet bearing evident traces
of loving craftsmanship. Do you know how long the binder
must sit at his bench before he can learn to master the
cunning gold for tooling and edges? A friend of mine asked
an old gilder the other day how long it would take to
learn his art. “Well,” he answered, “some
can learn it in five years, and some never learn it.”
More patience, more devotion, more love and faith [Page
Yes, all art, the product of genius,
comes of toil. And the previous question behind that,
– the explanation of natural beauty and genius itself.
The first spring flower, or the first bluebird in the
orchard; are they the creations of a moment, the inspiration
of nature on the instant? Think of the endless unrecorded
history implied in that word evolution, – the ages
of endurance, of failure, of submission, of tentative
and countless variation, of changing type and perishing
order, and this one frail individual emerging at last,
to hang in the sun for so brief a heart-beat! Your Easter
lilies cost more than a voyage from Bermuda. To bring
them to perfection the earth must swing like a pendulum
in space, and the sun and moon operate the machinery of
the tides for more aeons than we know [Page 108].