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Rant #191
(published September 9, 2004)
Men as Aesthetes
by H.L. Mencken

Men show no such sagacious apprehension of the relatively feebleloveliness of the human frame. The most effective lure that awoman can hold out to a man is the lure of what he fatuouslyconceives to be her beauty. This so-called beauty, of course, isalmost always a pure illusion. The female body, even at its best isvery defective in form; it has harsh curves and very clumsilydistributed masses; compared to it the average milk-jug, or evencuspidor, is a thing of intelligent and gratifying design—in brief, anobjet d'art. The fact was curiously (and humorously) display duringthe late war, when great numbers of women in all the belligerentcountries began putting on uniforms. Instantly they appeared inpublic in their grotesque burlesques of the official garb of aviators,elevator boys, bus conductors, train guards, and so on, theirdeplorable deficiency in design was unescapably revealed. A man,save he be fat, i.e., of womanish contours, usually looks better inuniform than in mufti; the tight lines set off his figure. But awoman is at once given away: she look like a dumbbell run over byan express train. Below the neck by the bow and below the waistastern there are two masses that simply refuse to fit into a balancedcomposition. Viewed from the side, she presents an exaggerated Sbisected by an imperfect straight line, and so she inevitably suggestsa drunken dollar-mark. Her ordinary clothing cunningly concealsthis fundamental imperfection. It swathes those impossible massesin draperies soothingly uncertain of outline. But putting her intouniform is like stripping her. Instantly all her alleged beautyvanishes.

Moreover, it is extremely rare to find a woman who shows even themodest sightliness that her sex is theoretically capable of; it is onlythe rare beauty who is even tolerable. The average woman, until artcomes to her aid, is ungraceful, misshapen, badly calved andcrudely articulated, even for a woman. If she has a good torso, sheis almost sure to be bow-legged. If she has good legs, she is almostsure to have bad teeth. If she has good teeth, she is almost sure tohave scrawny hands, or muddy eyes, or hair like oakum, or no chin.A woman who meets fair tests all 'round is so uncommon that shebecomes a sort of marvel, and usually gains a livelihood byexhibiting herself as such, either on the stage, in the half-world, oras the private jewel of some wealthy connoisseur.

But this lack of genuine beauty in women lays on them no practicaldisadvantage in the primary business of their sex, for its effects aremore than overborne by the emotional suggestibility, the herculeancapacity for illusion, the almost total absence of critical sense ofmen. Men do not demand genuine beauty, even in the mostmodest doses; they are quite content with the mere appearance ofbeauty. That is to say, they show no talent whatever fordifferentiating between the artificial and the real. A film of facepowder, skilfully applied, is as satisfying to them as an epidermis ofdamask. The hair of a dead Chinaman, artfully dressed and dyed,gives them as much delight as the authentic tresses of Venus. Afalse hip intrigues them as effectively as the soundest one of livingfascia. A pretty frock fetches them quite as surely and securely aslovely legs, shoulders, hands or eyes. In brief, they estimatewomen, and hence acquire their wives, by reckoning up purelysuperficial aspects, which is just as intelligent as estimating an eggby purely superficial aspects. They never go behind the returns; itnever occurs to them to analyze the impressions they receive. Theresult is that many a man, deceived by such paltry sophistications,never really sees his wife—that if, as God is supposed to see, her,and as the embalmer will see her—until they have been married foryears. All the tricks may be infantile and obvious, but in the face ofso naive a spectator the temptation to continue practising themis irresistible. A trained nurse tells me that even when undergoingthe extreme discomforts of parturition the great majority of womencontinue to modify their complexions with pulverized talcs, and togive thought to the arrangement of their hair. Such transparentdevices, to be sure, reduce the psychologist to a sour sort of mirth,and yet it must be plain that they suffice to entrap and make fools of men, even the most discreet. I know of no man, indeed, who iswholly resistant to female beauty, and I know of no man, evenamong those engaged professionally by aesthetic problems, whohabitually and automatically distinguishes the genuine, from theimitation. He may doit now and then; he may even preen himselfupon is on unusual discrimination; but given the right woman andthe right stage setting, and he will be deceived almost as readily as ayokel fresh from the cabbage-field.

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