“The Love of Beauty” is collected in Bishop’s That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, and you can read the story free online at the Weird Fiction Review.
Near the middle of the night, Seaming dithered in front of the brick arch – formerly a minor gate in the old city wall and now a decoration in a lane. If there existed a main entrance to the Ravels, it was that arch. It stood only half a furlong from the glitz of Cake Street, but the short distance marked a change of register from the demimonde to the underworld proper. Behind the gaudy theatres and beer halls the streets became dark, the buildings closely pressed, the walls bare of signs, posters, paint – of everything except light-absorbing soot.
Seaming smoked a cigarette, a last procrastination, while a polka spinning down from a loft somewhere invited him to head back, spend the rest of the night with friends, and let that be that.
Act as if you belong, she had told him, and you’ll be safe enough.
“The Love of Beauty” is one of the ur-Etched City stories in Bishop’s collection. Though none of The Etched City‘s characters appear here (unlike the Gwynn-centric “The Art of Dying”), Bishop, in playing out an alternative ending to Beauty and the Beast, here stages some of the central questions and themes that are later enacted between the artist Beth and her duellist-muse Gwynn: the exercise of power and choice by traditionally passive female archetypes; and the ability of art to remake reality, especially through alchemical modes like transfiguration, refinement, and, conversely, the generation of hybrid forms. There are also echoes of Gwynn and the Rev’s amiable debates over the baseness (or not) of humanity’s desires and capabilities: the Decadent hypothesis advanced by several of the characters in “Beauty” is that art simply represents an opportunity for humans to indulge to the maximum their sensual desires, under the guise of exercising “their highest and holiest faculties.”
I read this past summer a biography of John Singer Sargent, and couldn’t help thinking of him on this reread of “Beauty” – self-effacing, determinedly apolitical, fiendishly talented but only timidly experimental, ultimately a bourgeois sensualist, he rhymes rather well with the character of Seaming. Seaming is a traditionalist and idealist, a wan foil to the morbid recklessness of ideas brandished by the rest of the cast. It’s his idealism that invests his art with alchemical potency, but leaves him defenseless against the revelation of a world activated by animal desires. Seaming’s moral universe is incompatible with the notion that the animal might be sublime.
If “Beauty” is Bishop’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” (a connection I also didn’t think of till this read, but which now seems blindingly apparent), Seaming is also easily the analogue of the sincerely anguished painter Basil Hallward, while his poet friend Stroud is on hand to dispense ego-puncturing witticisms as the resident Lord Henry. The Wilde connection is also made easy by the rotting Victorian setting of “Beauty” – I find this story to have a more traditional dark fantasy aesthetic (meaning “Gormenghast” by “traditional,” I guess) than the sort of Symbolist wasteland in “Art of Dying,” or the steamy colonial landscape of Ashamoil.
There’s a peculiar emptiness to the physical setting of “Beauty.” The danger implicit in Beauty’s warning of “you’ll be safe enough” to Seaming prior to his entry into the Ravels never manifests as expected. The Ravels that Seaming encounters is a leashed menace: thickly eerie, but empty. There’s a sense that it’s been locally vacated in order to furnish a space where this particular allegorical drama can take place: Seaming is reserved as victim for spiritual threat, rather than physical. (It’s also a tempting interpretation that Seaming is simply below the notice of whatever is happening in the rest of the Ravels.)
The story unspools with a swift, morbid grace. Scene-setting and backstory feel much lengthier than the actual “action:” Seaming’s interview with Beauty and the Beast, and his completion of the Beast’s portraits. My one dissatisfaction with the story is that balance between build-up and dissolution, the way that the story seems to begin to slip away too swiftly during the turning-point of the interview. This creates a decided aesthetic effect – undercutting melodrama, and Seaming’s weak attempts at harvesting it. (See also the end of the journalist in “The Art of Dying.”) But there’s a larger sense of off-kilter narrative construction: as intriguing as it is, the teasing about the dangers of the Ravels perhaps belongs to a different story; and then, having found its narrative center, the remainder of this story proceeds a little too impatiently to its conclusion. The facts of the case of this Beauty and Beast are revealed in a few paragraphs of very direct exposition, and there’s a coy refusal to show any of Seaming’s artistic process. Somewhere along that stretch, I keep thinking, something could have been lingered over just a bit longer.
For those reasons, “The Love of Beauty” has never rung to me with the assurance of Bishop’s best work. But it is, in addition to being a rich philosophical playground, as thickly beautiful and infuriatingly witty as usual.