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The Physiology Of Vanity Post by :empower Category :Essays Author :Myrtle Reed Date :November 2011 Read :1753

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The Physiology Of Vanity

(Sidenote: Conceit and Vanity)

"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!" It is the common human emotion, the root of the personal equation, the battling residuum in the last analysis of social chemistry. There is a wide difference between conceit and vanity. Conceit is lovable and unconcealed; vanity is supreme selfishness, usually hidden. Conceit is based upon an unselfish desire to please; vanity takes no thought of others which is not based upon egotism.

Vanity and jealousy are closely allied, while conceit is a natural development of altruistic virtue. Conceit is the mildest of vices; vanity is the worst. Men are usually conceited but infrequently vain, while women are seldom afflicted with the lesser vice.

Man's conceit is the simplest form of self-appreciation. He thinks he is extremely good-looking, as men go; that he has seen the world; that he is a good judge of dinners and of human nature; that he is one of the few men who may easily charm a woman.

The limits of man's conceit are usually in full view, but eye nor opera-glass has not yet approached the end of woman's vanity. The disease is contagious, and the men who suffer from it are usually those whose chosen companions are women.

Woman's vanity is a development of her insatiate thirst for love. Her smiles and tears are all-powerful with her lover, and nothing goes so quickly to a woman's head as a sense of power. She forever defies the Salic law--each woman feels that her rightful place is upon a throne.

(Sidenote: The One Object)

The one object of woman's life is the acquirement of power through love. It is because this power is freely recognised by the men who seek her in marriage that her vanity seldom has full scope until after she is married.

(Sidenote: The Destroyer)

After marriage, a great many women begin the slow process of alienating a man from his family, blind to the fact that by lessening his love for others, they add nothing to their own store. The filial and fraternal love is not to be given to anyone but mother and sisters--they have no place in a man's heart that another woman could fill. The destroyer simply obliterates that part of his life and offers nothing in its place.

The achievement sometimes takes years, but it is none the less sure. Later, it may be extended to father and brothers, but they are always the last to be considered.

It is most difficult of all to break the tie which binds a man to his mother. The one who bore him is not faultless, for motherhood brings new gifts of feeling, sometimes sacrificing judgment and clear vision to selfish unselfishness. It is only in fiction and poetry that such love is valued now, for the divine blindness which does not question, which asks only the right to give, has lost beauty in our age of reason and restraint.

He had thought that face the most beautiful in all the world--until he fell in love. Now he sees his mother as she is; a wrinkled old woman, perverse, unreasonable, and inclined to meddle with his domestic affairs. The hands that soothed his childish fretting are no longer lovely. Inattention to small details of dress, which he never noticed before, are painfully evident. The eyes that have watched him all his life with loving anxiety, shining with pride at his success and softening with tenderest pity at his mistakes, are subtly different now. He wonders at his blindness. It is strange, indeed, that he has not realised all this before.

(Sidenote: The Awakening)

To most men the awakening comes too late if it comes at all. Only when the faded eyes are closed and the worn hands folded forever; when "mother" is beyond the reach of praise or blame, her married boy realises what has been done. With that first shock comes bitterest repentance--and he never forgives his wife. Many a woman who complains of "coldness" and "lost love" might trace it back to the day her husband's mother died, and to the sudden flash of insight, the adjustment of relation, which comes with death.

The comic papers have made the mother-in-law a thing to be dreaded. She is the poster attached to the matrimonial magazine which inspires would-be purchasers with awe. Many an engaged girl confides to her best friend that her fiancé's mother is "an old cat." She usually goes still further, and gives jealousy as the cause of it.

No right-minded mother was ever jealous of the woman her son chose for his wife. But she has seen how marriage changes men and naturally fears the result. The altar is the grave of many a boy's love for his mother. Neither of the women most intimately concerned is blind to the impending possibilities; it is only man who cannot see.

(Sidenote: One in a Thousand)

There are some girls who realise what it means, but they are few and far between. One in a thousand, perhaps, will openly acknowledge her debt to the woman who for twenty-five or thirty years has given her best thought to the man she is about to marry.

Is he strong and active, healthy and finely moulded? It is his mother's care for the first sixteen years of his life. It is the result of her anxious days and of many a sleepless night, while the potential man was racked with fever and childish ills. His chivalrous devotion to the girl he loves is wholly due to his mother's influence. His clean and open-hearted manliness is a free gift to her, from the woman now characterised as "an old cat."

It is seldom that the mother receives credit for his virtues, but she is invariably blamed for his faults. Too many women expect a man to be cut out by their pattern. The supreme mental achievement is the ability to judge other people by their own standards, and a crank is not necessarily a person whose rules of life and conduct do not coincide with our own.

(Sidenote: The Thirst for Power)

To this thirst for power may be traced all of woman's vanity. It is commonly supposed that she dresses to please others, but she often values fine raiment principally because it shows how much her husband thinks of her. If a man's coat is shiny at the seams and he postpones the new one that his wife may have an extra hat, she is delicately flattered by this unselfish tribute to her charm.

From a single root vanity spreads and flowers until its poisonous blooms affect all social life. A woman becomes vain of her house, her rugs, her tapestries, her jewels, horses, and even of the livery of her footman. The things which should be valued for their intrinsic beauty and the pleasure-giving quality, which is not by any means selfish, soon become food for a vice.

She gradually grows to consider herself a very superior person. She is so charming and so much to be desired, that some man works night and day in his office, sacrificing both pleasure and rest, that she may have the baubles for which she yearns.

It is not far from absolute self-satisfaction, in either man or woman, to generous bestowal of enlightenment upon the unfortunate savages who linger on the outskirts of one's social sphere.

In the infinite vastness of creation, where innumerable worlds move according to the fiat of majestic Law, there lies one called Earth. There are planets within reach of the scientific vision of its inhabitants that are many times larger. There are some which have more moons, more mountains and rivers, longer days, and longer years. Countless suns, the centres of other vast planetary systems, lie in the inconceivable distances beyond.

(Sidenote: A Mote in the Sun)

In the midst of this unspeakable greatness, Earth swings like one of the motes which a passing sunbeam illumines. Upon this mote, one fifth of the inhabitants have assumed supreme knowledge and understanding, given them, doubtless, because of their innate superiority. This preferment, also, is theirs by the grace of an infinitely just and merciful God.

The other four fifths are supposedly in total darkness, though the same heavens are over their heads, the same earth under their feet, and though the light of sun and moon and the gentle radiance of the stars are freely given to all.

There are the same opportunities for development and civilisation, but they have not received The Enlightenment. To them must go the foreign missionaries, to teach the things which have been graciously given them on account of their innate superiority.

(Sidenote: Narrowing Circles)

Man's life is a succession of narrowing circles. He admits the force of the heliocentric idea, for it is the sun which gives light and heat. Then the circle narrows, almost imperceptibly, for, of all the planets which circle around the sun, is not Earth the chief?

This point being gained, he is inside the geocentric circle. Earth is the centre of creation. Sun, moon, and stars are auxiliary forces, bountifully arranged by the Giver of all Good for Earth's beauty and comfort. Of all the creatures who share in this, is not man the most important? Thus he retreats to the anthropocentric circle.

(Sidenote: By Strength of Mind and Arm)

Man is the centre of organic life, and it is easily seen that his race is far superior to the others. Their skins are not the same colour, their ships are not so mighty, their cunning with weapons is infinitely less. His race is dominant by strength of mind and arm.

The dark-skinned races must be taught civilisation, with fire and sword, with cannon and bayonet, with crime and death. They must be civilised before they can be happy. The naked savage who sits beneath a palm tree, with his hut in the distance, while his wife and children hover around him, is happy only because he is too ignorant to know what happiness is.

In order to be rightly happy, he must have a fine house, carriages, and servants, and live in a crowded city where tall buildings and smoke limit one's horizon to a narrow patch of blue. He must struggle daily with his fellows, not for the necessaries of life, but for small pieces of silver and bits of green paper, which are not nearly as pretty as glass beads.

The savage, unaccustomed to refinement, stabs or beheads his enemy. Civilisation will teach him the uses of poison, and that putting typhoid germs into the drinking water of an Emperor is much more delicate and fully as effectual.

(Sidenote: The Sublime Egotism)

From this small circle, it is only a step to the centre and to that sublime egotism which has been named Vanity.

Man repeats in his own life the development of a nation. He progresses from unquestioning happiness to childish inquiry and wonder, from fairy tales of princes and dragons to actual knowledge; through inquiry to doubt, through faith to disbelief, through civilisation to decay.

He is not content to let other nations and others races pursue their normal development. He insists that the work of centuries be crowded into a generation. And in the same manner, the growth and strivings of his fellows call forth his unselfish aid. Having infinite treasures of mental equipment, gained by superior opportunity and wider experience, he will generously share his noble possessions.

(Sidenote: Personal Vanity)

It is personal vanity of the most flagrant type which intrudes itself, unasked, into other people's affairs. There are few of us who do not feel capable of ordering the daily lives of others, down to the most minute detail.

We know how their houses should be arranged, how they should spend and invest their money, how they should dress, how they should comport themselves, and more definitely yet do we know the things they should not do. We know what is right and what is wrong, while they, poor things! do not. We know whom and when they should marry, how their children should be educated and trained, and what servants they should employ.

We know for what pursuit each one is best fitted and how each should occupy his spare time. We know to what church all should go; what creed all should believe. We know what particular traits are faults and how these can be corrected. We know so much about other people that we often have not time to give due attention to ourselves. We neglect our own affairs that we may unselfishly direct others, and sometimes suffer in consequence, for nobody but a lawyer makes a good living by attending to other people's business.

(Sidenote: Theoretically)

Theoretically, this should be pleasing to each one. Every person of sense should be delighted at being told just what to do. It would relieve him from all care, all responsibility; the necessity for thought, planning, and individual judgment would be wholly removed.

The musical student would not have to select his own instrument, his own teacher, nor even his own practice time. Every author would know just how and when to write, and in order to become famous, he need only act upon the suggestions for stories and improvement of style which are gratuitously given him from day to day, by people who cannot write a clear and correct sentence. This thing actually happened; consequently it is just the theme for fiction. This plot, suitably developed, would make the nations sit up, and send the race by hundred thousands to the corner bookstore.

The cares incident to selecting a wardrobe would be wholly removed. Every woman knows how every other should dress. Her sure taste selects at a glance the thing which will best become the other, and over which the Unenlightened may ponder for hours.

(Sidenote: A Common Vanity)

There is no more common vanity than claiming to "know" some particular person. We are "all things to all men." The two who love each other better than all the world beside, have much knowledge, but it is not by any means complete. "Souls reach out to each other across the impassable gulfs of individual being." And yet, daily, people who have no sympathy with us, and scarcely a common interest, will assume to "know" us, when we do not fully know ourselves, and when we earnestly hide our real selves from all save the single soul we love.

To assume intimate knowledge of the hundred considerations which make up a single situation, the various complexities of temperament and disposition which the personal equation continually produces in human affairs, of the imperceptible fibres of the web which lies between two souls, preventing always the fullest understanding, unless Love, the magician, gives new sight--amounts to the proclamation of practical Omnipotence.

(Sidenote: "I Told You So")

There is no position in life which is secure. No complication ever comes to our friends, which our advice, acted upon, would not immediately solve. If our most minute directions are not thankfully received and put into effect, there is always the comforting indication of superiority--"I told you so."

And when the jaded soul revolts in supreme defiance, declaring its right to its own life, its own duties, its own friendships, and its own loves, there is much expressed disgust, much misfortune predicted, and, saddest of all, much wounded vanity.

The dominant egotism forbids that anything shall be better than itself. No success is comparable to one's own, no life so wisely ordered, and there is nothing so sad as the fame attained by those who do not follow our advice.

Adversity is commonly accepted as the test of friendship, but there is another more certain still--success. Anyone may bestow pity. It is fatally easy to offer to those less fortunate than ourselves; whose capabilities have not proved adequate, as ours have; but it requires fine gifts of generous feeling to be genuinely glad at another's good fortune, in which we cannot by any possibility hope to share.

(Sidenote: Advice)

Advice is usually to be had for the asking. In the case of a corporation attorney or a specialist, there is a high value placed upon it, but it is to be freely had from those who love us, and, strangely enough, from those who do not.

It is one of the blessings of love, that all the experience of another, all the battles of the other soul, are laid open for our better understanding of our own path. But there is a subtle distinction between the counsel of love and that of vanity. The one is unselfishly glad of our achievements, taking new delight in every step upward, while the other passes over triumphs in silence and carps upon the misfortune until it is not to be borne.

From the intimate union of two loving souls, Vanity is forever shut out. Jealousy dare not show her malignant face. These two are facing the world together, side by side and shoulder to shoulder, each the other's strength and shield.

Success may come only after many failures; the tide may not turn till after long discouragement and great despair. But in the union with that other soul, so gently baring its inmost dream that the other may understand, defeat loses its sting.

(Sidenote: The Sanctuary of that Other Soul)

Ambition forever beckons, like a will o' the wisp. When realisation seems within easy reach, the dream fades, or another, seemingly unattainable, mockingly takes its place. But in the sanctuary of that other soul, there is always new courage to be found. Long aisles and quiet spaces lessen the fever and the unrest. Darkness and cool shadows soothe the burning eyes, and in the clasp of those loving arms there is certain sleep.

Vanity cares for nothing which is not in some way its own, and it is perhaps an amorphous vanity, as carbon is akin to a diamond, that makes a hard-won victory doubly dear.

There are always sycophants to fawn and flatter, there are hands that will gladly help that they may claim their share of the result, but that realised dream is wholly sweet in which only the dreamer and the other soul have fully believed. Failure, even, is more easily borne if it is entirely one's own; if there is no one else to be blamed.

(Sidenote: The Bitter Proof)

"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." So spake the prophet in Jerusalem and the centuries have brought the bitter proof. Vanity has reared palaces which have vanished like the architecture of a mirage. Vanity has led the hosts against itself.

Where are Babylon and Nineveh; the hanging gardens and the splendour of forgotten kings? Where are Cæsar and Cleopatra; Trianon and Marie Antoinette? Where is the lordly Empire of France? Is it buried with military honours, in the grave of the exiled Napoleon?

Vanity's pomp endureth for a day, but Vanity itself is perennial. Vanity sets whole races of men in motion, pitting them against each other across intervening seas.

One woman has a stone, no larger than a pea, brought from a mine in South Africa. Vanity sets it proudly upon her breast and leads other women to envy her its possession, for purely selfish reasons. One woman's gown is made from a plant which grows in Georgia and she is unhappy because it is not the product of a French or Japanese worm.

One woman's coat is woven from the covering of a sheep, and she is not content because it has not cost a greater number of silver pieces and more bits of green paper, besides the life of an Arctic seal, that never harmed her nor hers.

Vanity allows a tender-hearted woman, who cannot see a child or a dumb brute in pain, to order the tails of her horses cut to the fashionable length and to wear upon her hat the pitiful little body of a song-bird that has been skinned alive.

Vanity permits a woman to trim the outer garments of the little stranger for whose coming she has long waited and prayed, with pretty, fluffy fur torn from the unborn baby of another mother--who is only a sheep. Vanity permits a woman to insist that her combs and pins shall be real tortoise-shell, which is obtained from the quivering animal by roasting it alive before a slow fire.

(Sidenote: All is Vanity)

"Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!" The mad race still goes on. It is insatiate vanity which wrecks lives, ruins homes, torments one's fellows, and blinds the clear vision of its victims. It harms others, but most of all one's self.

(Sidenote: The Conqueror)

There is only one place from which it is shut out--from the union with that other soul. Great as it is, there is still a greater force; there is the inevitable conqueror, for Vanity cannot exist side by side with Love.


(The end)
Myrtle Reed's essay: Physiology Of Vanity

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