Saturday, November 21, 2015

Max Beerbohm and the next ice age


    As I read through old copies of the NYROB, occasionally I am impressed enough by some reviewer’s comments to order the book he has reviewed.  Some time ago I read a review of a book about Max Beerbohm.  He is remembered today primarily because for his sketches, but according to the article which I don’t have near me at the moment, he was a very fine essayist albeit in a minor scale.  I was interested enough to order some of his essays.
    I began reading one of his very slender books of essays, but my attention wavered and I set it aside.  Yesterday I received Beerbohm’s More.  My copy was published by an agency that calls itself “Forgotten Books,” and up at the top of the cover one sees “Classic Reprint Series.”  Upon opening the book I read “1 month free reading at – By purchasing this book you are eligible for one month membership to forgottenbookscom, giving you unlimited access to our entire collection of over 700,000 titles via our web site and mobile apps.  To claim your free month visit:  Offer is valid for 45 days from date of purchase.  Terms and conditions apply.”
    That introduction seemed ironically appropriate to Beerbohm’s essay “Actors” in which, Beerbohm argues that when one criticizes an actor one perforce criticizes him, as opposed to criticizing the work of an painter or a writer.  Then after discussing the jealousy and emotional outbursts one sees actors display, Beerbohm writes “Other artists can afford to wait.  It is not only that they, as men who work not in the actual presence of the public, value praise less highly; it is also that their art will endure.  For them the immediate verdict is not irrevocable.  Time turns their rude public into a polite posterity.  But it is ‘now or never’ with the actor. . .”
    “‘Into the night go one and all.’  But the gods are not ruthless.  They have been kind to these players.  We need not weep.  In their day, these players are blest supremely.  What other artists, save singers, can match their laurels?  Their art dies with them, but I think that in the immediateness, the correctness of their fame, they are supremely recompensed.  Great writers, great painters, must needs suffer many years of insult or neglect.  Most often, when the tardy paean is sung in their honour, they are too old or too bitter to be gratified by its sound.  Nor is the paean, even if they still care to hear it, so loud and so near as to the actor. . . When Mr. Whistler puts the finishing touches to a paper-lithograph, soever exquisite, even Mr. Joseph Pennell does not clamber upon the window-sill and throw in a bouquet.  Yet may both Mr. Meredith and Mr. Whistler be accounted lucky.  Artists, not less than they, have died without honour, consoled only by the sure knowledge that their work will survive gloriously.  There work does, indeed, survive, but it is not immortal.  Even the writings of William Shakespeare will perish in the next ice-age.  The whole history of this world is but as a moment in eternity, and happy is that man whose fame is the accompaniment of his own life.  Such a man is the actor.  Do not grudge him his honours.  Do not blame him for his love of them.  Ponder my formula, ‘and, look you!  Mock him not!’”

COMMENT: Beerbohm published More in 1899 when he was, and since he was no more than 28, but if my vague recollection of the review I am too lazy to go look for is of any value, he determined at an early age that he would never be a great writer or great anything else, but he enjoyed life performing well in a minor key.  And in this article we may see him assuaging his lack of greatness by denigrating great writers by weighing them against eternity.  “Even the writings of William Shakespeare will perish in the next ice-age.”  Now, to denigrate Beerbohm in turn, I am quite sure the writings of Shakespeare will survive the next ice age.  Even Beerbohm’s comment that the actors art never survives is no longer true although some of the early films were neglected and have been lost, many have been preserved, even digitized (but probably some better form), and we may assume that preservation will outlast the next ice-age. 
    An archaeologist could quite conceivably a hundred thousand years from now might excavate a city on Mars and discover in an underground tomb a digitized copy of and read this very essay by Max Beerbohm and laugh.

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