The Simple Beauty
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
SOME persons may protest in the name of the aesthetic against the organization of the simple life. Or to oppose us by the theory of useful luxury, the providence of business, great nourisher of arts and ornament of civilized societies. We wish to answer them in advance by a few brief remarks.
Doubtless the reader has perceived that the spirit which animates these pages is not the spirit of utilitarianism. It would be an error to think that the simplicity which we seek had anything in common with that of sordidly avaricious misers and the spirits narrowed by false rigors. For the first the life is simple and cheap. For the others it is a wan and vegetative existence, where the merit consists in depriving oneself of all that smiles, shines, and charms.
It does not displease us that those who have much wealth should put their fortune in circulation instead of hoarding it, and thus cause commerce to thrive and the fine arts to prosper. After all, they draw an excellent benefit from their privileged situation. What we are fighting against is the stupid prodigality, the egotistical use of riches and the search for the superfluous by those who need, before all, to take care of the necessary. The luxury of a Maecenas could never have the same influence on society as would that of a vulgar pleasure-seeker, who astonishes his contemporaries by the extravagance of his life and the folly of his expenditures. The same term here designates very different things. To sow money is not all ; there are ways of sowing it which ennoble men, and others which debase them. To sow money, besides, means that they are abundantly supplied. As soon as the love of the sumptuous life takes possession of those of limited means, the question changes singularly. And what strikes us in these times is the rage to spend their means among those who should take care of it. That munificence is a social benefit, we accord willingly. That it may be even sustained, that the prodigality of certain rich ones is like a drain-pipe destined to carry off the overflow, we will not even try to contest. We will state only that there are too many people who use the waste-pipe, while it would be to their interest—and is their duty—to practice economy. Their luxury and their love of it are a private misery and a public danger.
Now for the useful luxury.
We wish to explain ourselves now on the aesthetic side of the question. Oh, very modestly, and without stepping on the ground belonging to the specialists. By a too common illusion people consider simplicity and beauty as two rivals. But simple is not synonymous with ugly, no more than luxurious, overweighted, sought for, and costly, is the synonym of beautiful. Our eyes are wounded by the brilliant spectacle of a striking beauty, dressed in vulgar taste ; of a venal art, or a luxury, without grace or mind. Richness allied with bad taste often makes us regret that they have so much money to bring forth such a prodigious quantity of works of low class. Our contemporary art suffers from a lack of simplicity, as well as our literature: too many ornaments added, flourishes turned, and imaginations tormented. Rarely in the lines, the forms or the colors is it given us to contemplate that simplicity allied to perfection, which imposes itself on the sight as evidence imposes on the mind. We need to bathe our-selves again in the ideal purity of the immortal beauty which puts its signet on the great works, and one sole ray of which values more than all the pompous exhibitions.
However, that which we have most at heart here is to speak of the ordinary aesthetics of life, of the care which we should put into the ornamentation of our habitations and ourselves, to give to existence that lustre without which it has no charm. For it is not' indifferent that man has or has not care for this necessary superfluosity. That is what we meet if he puts soul into his life. Far from considering as a useless preoccupation that which causes us to embellish, care for, idealize, I think that we should entertain it as far as possible. Nature itself gives us the example, and the man who affects to despise this fragile ray of beauty, with which we ornament our rapid days, will be setting aside the intentions of Him who put the same care and the same love to paint the ephemeral flower that He gave to the eternal mountain.
But we must not fall into the gross temptation which makes us confound true beauty with that which has but the name. The beauty and the poetry of existence hold the sense we give them. Our houses, our table, and our toilet should translate our intentions. To put those intentions in them we must first have them. He who possesses them knows how to display them by the most simple means. One does not need wealth to give grace and charm to one's habitation and costumes. It is enough for that to have taste and kindness. We touch here a very important point for each person, but which, perhaps, will interest women in a greater measure than it will men.
Those who wish to see women dress themselves in coarse material, to wrap their bodies in vestments whose flat uniformity reminds us of bags, do violence to their most sacred nature, and completely misconstrue the spirit of things. If garments were intended only as a protection against the cold or wet, a wrapping-cloth or an animal's skin would suffice. But it means much more than that. Man puts his full self into all that he does; he transforms the things of which he serves himself into signs. Costume is not a simple covering; it is a symbol. It attests that in the richness of the flowery national and provincial costumes, and those worn by men of our ancient corporations. Dress, also, has something to tell us. The more it contains of the senses the more valuable it is. That it may be really beautiful, it must announce good things—things personal and true. Put all the money in the world on such a one—if there is such a one—without affinity with the one who wears it, she is but a mask, and an extraordinarily ridiculous bundle. The excess of the mode, in causing the feminine person to completely disappear under her purely conventional ornaments, detracts from her principal attraction. It results that this abuse of many things, which women find pretty, wrong their beauty as much as the purses of their husbands and parents.
What would you say of a young girl who, to express her thoughts, used the most carefully chosen terms, exquisite even, but repeated textually from a manual of conversation? What charm could this borrowed language have for you? The effect of toilettes, well made in themselves, but which are seen on everybody else, is exactly the same.
I do not resist the temptation of citing here a passage from Camille Lemonnier, who supports my idea:
"Nature has put a charming art in the fingers of woman, which she knows by instinct, and which is all her own, as silk is to the worm, or lace to the agile and clever spider. She is the poet, the artist of her grace and her candor; she is the spinner of the mystery in which her taste of pleasing is dressed. All the talent which she puts to her desire to resemble man in the other arts will never be as valuable as the wit and treasure in the scrap of stuff which she makes for herself.
"Very well ; I wish that that particular art were otherwise honored. As education consists in thinking with one's mind, in feeling with one's heart, in explaining the little personal things, the intimate self, latent, but which, on the contrary, they turn back or level in view of conformity, I would that the young woman apprentice, the mother of the future, should be early the little aesthete of the toilette, her own dresser, she who one day will be the dresser of her children, but with taste and the gift of improvisation to personify herself in this chief work of feminine personality, a robe—without which woman is nothing more than a bundle of rags."
The dress that one makes oneself is nearly always the one that becomes one best ; in any case, it is the one that gives you the most pleasure. That is what most women forget too often. The working woman and the peasant commit the same error. Since they all dress themselves from the ready-made stores, where they sell very doubtful imitations of the best styles, grace has almost disappeared from popular costumes. And yet, is there in the world anything which has the gift of pleasing more than the fresh appearance of a young working girl, or a young girl from the fields, dressed in the mode of their country, and beautiful in their simplicity only?
These same reflections may be applied to the mode of arranging and decorating one's habitation. If there are toilettes which reveal a whole conception of life, hats which are poems, knots which are cocardes, there are also arrangements of the house which, in their way, speak to the mind. Why, under the pretext of embellishing our houses, do we take away from their personal character which always has its value? Why make our rooms like those of hotels or the parlors in railway stations, by force of making the uniform type of official beauty predominate there?
What misery it is to go through the houses in a city, cities, or a country, or the countries of a vast continent, and find everywhere certain identical forms, inevitable, identical, irritating by their multiplicity. How much aestheticism would gain by simplicity! Instead of this luxury of little notions, flotsam from the sea, all those pretentious but insipid and banal ornaments, we should have an infinite diversity. Treasure-trove happily combined would strike our eyes. The unforeseen in a thousand forms would cause us to rejoice, and we would find again the secret of painting a tapestry, an old piece of furniture, the roof of a house, and that seal of human personality which gives to certain antiques an inestimable value.
Let us continue, and' pass on to things still more simple. I wish to speak of the small details of the housekeeping that many young persons of these days find so little poetic. Their scorn of material occupations, the modest cares which a home demands, come from a very common confusion, but one none the less dreadful. This confusion consists in thinking that poetry and beauty are in things where they are not. There are distinguished occupations, graceful, such as the cultivation of literature, the playing of the harp; and coarse occupations, unpleasant, such as blacking shoes, sweeping rooms, or watching the kettle on the fire. Puerile error ! Neither the harp nor the broom has anything to do with the affair ; all depends on the hand which holds them and the spirit that animates that hand. Poetry is not in things; it is in us. We must impress it upon the objects as the sculptor imposes his dream on the marble. If our lives and our occupations remain too often without charm in spite of their external distinction, it is because we have not known how to add it. The height of art is to give life to that which is inert, to tame that which is savage. I would that our young girls would apply them-selves to develop in themselves the essentially feminine art, to give soul to things that have none. The triumph of womanly grace lies in that work. Woman alone knows how to put into a house that I know not what, whose virtue caused the poet to say : "The roof grows gay and laughs." They say there are no fairies, or that there are no more, but they do not know what they are talking about. The original model of the fairies, sung by the poets, they found, and still find among those amiable mortals who know how to knead their bread with energy, mend the holes with kindness, care for the sick while smiling, put grace in a ribbon, and put their mind into a fried dish.
It is very certain that the culture of the fine arts has something moralizing, and that our thoughts and acts become impregnated at length by that which strikes our eyes. But the exercise of the arts, and the contemplation of their products, are privileges reserved to a few. It is not given to every one to possess, to understand or to create beautiful things. But there is a kind of human beauty which can penetrate everywhere : the beauty which is born in the hands of our wives and our daughters. Without that beauty, what is the most ornate home? A cold habitation. With it the poorest home is animated and lighted. Among the forces capable of ennobling and transforming wills, adding to happiness, there is perhaps not one with a more universal usage. It knows how to make valuable by means of the poorest instruments, and amidst the worst difficulties. When the room it small and the family purse meager, the table modest, a woman who has this gift finds the means of causing order, neatness and decorum to reign there. She puts care and art into everything she undertakes. To do well what one has to do is not in her eyes the privilege of the rich, but the right of all. It is for that that she employs it, and that she knows how to endow her home with a dignity and a pleasantness which the more fortunate homes, where everything is left to mercenaries, never attain.
Life thus understood does not delay in revealing it-self rich in unknown beauties, in attractions, and intimate satisfactions. To be oneself, to realize in one's natural surroundings the kind of beauty that belongs to it, that is the ideal beauty. As the mission of woman grows in depth and meaning, she will have learned thus to put her soul into things, and to give to that soul kindness as an outward symbol of these agreeable and delicate proceedings to which the most brutal of beings are sensible. Would this not be better than to desire what they have not got, and apply their desire to the clumsy imitation of strange ornaments?