Modesty and Romance
( Originally Published 1931 )
A person can therefore no more promise to love or not to love than he can promise to live long. What he can promise is to take good care of his life and of his love.--ELLEN KEY.
ARTISTS clearly, and poets in veiled language, have in all ages expressed the glory of the naked human body. Before the Venus of Milo in her Paris home, even the empty-headed and ridiculously dressed creatures of fashion stand for a moment with a catch in the throat and a sense that here is something full of divine secrets. One day, when I was doing my reverence before this ancient goddess, drinking in strength and happiness from the harmonies of her curves, a preposterously corseted doll came up to the statue, paused, and said with tears in her voice to the man beside her : "Hasn't she got the loveliest figure !"
If cold marble so stirs us, how much more the warmth and vitality of living beauty ! Any well-formed young man or woman is immeasurably more graceful when free from the clinging follies of modern dress, while a beautiful woman's body has a supernal loveliness at which no words short of a poetic rapture can even hint. Our race has so long neglected the culture of human beauty that a sad proportion of mature men and women are unattractive; but most young people have the elements of beauty, and to them chiefly this book is addressed.
A young man or woman perfectly naked cannot be tawdry. The fripperies, the jagged curves and inharmonious lines and colors of the so-called "adornments" are surmounted, and the naked figure step-ping from their scattered pile is seen in its utter simplicity. How charming even the raggedest little street urchins become when they leave their rags on the bank and plunge into the water !
It is, therefore, not surprising that one of the innumerable sweet impulses of love should be to reveal, each to each, this treasure of living beauty. To give each other the right to enter and enjoy the sight which, most of all sights in the world, draws and satisfies the artist's eyes.
This impulse, however, is, on the part of the woman, swayed by two at least of the natural results of her rhythmic tides. For some time during each month, age-long tradition that she is "unclean," coupled with her obvious requirements, have made her withdraw herself from even her husband's gaze. But, on the other hand, there regularly come times when her body is raised to a higher point of loveliness than usual by the rounding and extra fullness of the breasts. (This is one of the regular physiological results of the rhythmic process going on with-in her, and generally corresponds with the crests of the waves of her natural desire as shown in the charts.) Partly or wholly unconscious of the brilliance and full perfection of her beauty, she yet de-lights in its gentle promptings to reveal itself to her lover's eyes when he adores. This innocent, this goddess-like self-confidence retreats when the natural ebb of her vitality returns.
How fortunate for man when these sweet changes in his lover are not coerced into uniformity! For man has still so much of the ancient hunter in his blood that beauty which is always at hand and ever upon its pedestal must inevitably attract him far less that the elusive and changing charms of rhythmic life. In the highly evolved and cultivated woman, who has wisdom enough not to restrict, but to give full play to the great rhythms of her being, man's polygamous instinct can be satisfied and charmed by the ever-changing aspects of herself which naturally come uppermost. And one of her natural phases is at times to retreat, to experience a profound sex-indifference, and passionately to resent any encroachment on her solitude.
This is something woman too often forgets. She has been so thoroughly "domesticated" by man that she feels too readily that after marriage she is all his. And by her very docility to his perpetual demands she destroys for him the elation, the palpitating thrills and surprises, of the chase.
In the rather trivial terms of our sordid modern life, it works out in many marriages somewhat as follows: The married pair share a bedroom, and so it comes about that the two are together not only at the times of delight and interest in each other, but during most of the unlovely and even ridiculous proceedings of the toilet. Now it may enchant a man once—perhaps even twice—or at long intervals—to watch his goddess screw her hair up into a tight and unbecoming knot and soap her ears. But it is inherently too unlovely a proceeding to retain indefinite enchantment. To see a beautiful woman floating in the deep, clear water of her bath—that may enchant forever, for it is so lovely, but the unbeautiful trivialities essential to the daily toilet tend only to blur the picture and to dull the interest and attention that should be bestowed on the body of the loved one. Hence, ultimately, everyday association in the commonplace daily necessities tends to reduce the keen pleasure each takes in the other. And hence, inevitably and tragically, though stealthily and unperceived, to reduce the keenness of stimulation the pair exert on each other, and thus to lower their intensity of the consummation of the sex-act, and hence to lower its physiological value.
In short, the overcoming of her personal modesty, which is generally looked on as an essential result in marriage where the woman becomes wholly the man's, has generated among our women a tradition that before their husbands they can perform any and all of the details of personal and domestic duties. Correspondingly, they allow the man to be neglectful of preserving some reticence before them. This mutual possession of the lower and more elementary experiences of life has been, in innumerable marriages, a factor in destroying the mutual possession of life's higher and more poetic charms.
And woman's beauty wanes too often more through neglect than through age. The man, with the radiant picture of his bride blurred by the daily less lovely aspects, may cease to remind her by acts of courtship that her body is precious. But many men by whom each aspect of the wives is noted, are often hurt by woman's stupidity or neglect of herself. Women lose their grace of motion by relying on artificial bones and stiffenings, and clog their movements with heavy and absurdly fashioned garments. They forget how immeasurably they can control not only their clothed appearance but the very structure of their bodies by the things they eat and do, by the very thoughts they think.
A wise man once said that a woman deserved no credit for her beauty at sixteen, but beauty at sixty was her own soul's doing. I would that all the world so thirsted for beauty that we molded the whole race into as lovely forms as the Greeks created.
In this respect I am inclined to think that man suffers more than woman. For man is still essentially the hunter, the one who experiences the desires and thrills of the chase, and dreams ever of coming unawares upon Diana in the woodlands. On the other hand, the married woman, having once yielded all, tends to remain passively in the man's companion-ship.
Though it may appear trivial beside the profound physiological factors considered in recent chapters, I think that, in the interests of husbands, an important piece of advice to wives is : Be always escaping. Escape the lower, the trivial, the sordid. So far as possible (and this is far more possible than appears at first, and requires only a little care and rearrangement in the habits of the household) ensure that you allow your husband to come upon you only when there is delight in the meeting. Whenever the finances al-low, the husband and wife should have separate bed-rooms, failing that they should have a curtain which can at will be drawn so as to divide the room they share. No soul can grow to its full stature without spells of solitude. A married woman's body and soul should be essentially her own, and that can only be so if she has an inviolable retreat. But at the same time the custom of having separate rooms should not mean, as it often does, that the husband only comes to his wife's room when he has some demand to make upon her. Nothing is more calculated to inhibit all desire for union in a sensitive wife than the preknowledge of what her husband wants when he comes, however lovingly, to her side. This, and the sense of isolation, have given rise to the objection to separate rooms which some people make. It is true that the use of separate rooms has often presaged a break in the happiness of a marriage, but that is be-cause things are otherwise wrong. Every night, unless something prevents, there should be the tender companionship and whispered intimacies which are, to many people, only possible in the dark. Men, too, are at heart eternally children, and such tender petting as comforts children warms and sweetens a grown man's life. The "good night" should be a time of delightful forgetting of the outward scars of the years, and a warm, tender, perhaps playful exchange of confidences. This is not incompatible with what has been said in the previous chapters, and when this custom is maintained it overcomes the objection some people feel to separate rooms as a source of estrangements.