The Cost of Beauty



    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 107].
    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].