In fact, the beauty we affect is aggressively spiritual, and in so far as beauty is demonstrably physical we dismiss it with disdain. Our ideal, indeed, might be said to consist in a beauty which is beautiful in spite of the body rather than by means of it; a beauty defiantly clothed, so to say, in the dowdiest of fleshly garments—radiantly independent of such carnal conditions as features or complexion. Our ideal of figure might be said to be negative rather than positive, and that “little sister” mentioned in Solomon’s Song would bring us no disappointment.
We are often heard to say that beauty consists chiefly, if not entirely, in expression, that it is a transfiguration from within rather than a gracious condition of the surface, that the shape of a nose is no matter, and that a beautifully rounded chin or a fine throat has nothing to do with it—indeed, is rather in the way than otherwise. We point to the fact—which is true enough—that the most famous beauties of antiquity were plain women—plain, that is, according to the conventional standards.
We also maintain—again with perfect truth—that mystery is more than half of beauty, the element of strangeness that stirs the senses through the imagination. These and other perfectly true truths about beauty we discover through our devotion to the one face that we love—and we should hardly have discovered them had we begun with the merely cherry-ripe. It is with faces much as it is with books. There is no way of attaining a vital catholic taste in literature so good as to begin by mastering some difficult beautiful classic, by devoting ourselves in the ardent receptive period of youth to one or two masterpieces which will serve as touchstones for us in all our subsequent reading. Some books engage all our faculties for their appreciation, and through the keen attentiveness we are compelled to give them we make personal discovery of those principles and qualities of all fine literature which otherwise we might never have apprehended, or in which, at all events, we should have been less securely grounded.
So with faces: it is through the absorbed worship, the jealous study, of one face that we best learn to see the beauty in all the other faces—though the mere thought that our apprehension of its beauty could ever lead us to so infidel a conclusion would seem heresy indeed during the period of our dedication. The subtler the type, the more caviare it is to the general, the more we learn from it. We become in a sense discoverers, original thinkers, of beauty, taking nothing on authority, but making trial and investigation always for ourselves. Such beauty brings us nearer than the more explicit types to that mysterious threshold over which beauty steps down to earth and dwells among us; that well-spring of its wonder; the point where first its shining essence pours its radiance into the earthly vessel.