Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 18.djvu/358

This page has been validated.

been exerted or risen into conscious prominence only, it would seem, in the relation of primeval courtship and wedlock. He must have been already endowed with a sense of beauty in form and symmetry, a sense which, in spite of its wide expansion and generalization in subsequent ages, still attaches itself above every other object, even with Hellenic or modern sculptors, to the human face and figure. He must also have been sensible to the beauty of color and luster, rendered faintly conscious in the case of flowers, fruits, and feathers, but probably attaining its fullest measure only in the eyes, hair, teeth, lips, and glossy black complexion of his early mates. And he must have been moved, as Mr. Darwin argues, by musical tones and combinations, though chiefly in the form of human song or rhythm alone. In short, the primitive human conception of beauty must, I believe, have been purely anthropinistic—must have gathered mainly around the personality of man or woman; and all its subsequent history must be that of an apanthropinization (I apologize for the ugly but convenient word), a gradual regression or concentric widening of aesthetic feeling around this fixed point which remains to the very last its natural center. By the common consent of poets, painters, sculptors, and the world at large, the standard of beauty for mankind is still to be found in the features and figure of a lovely woman.

Probably primitive man admired his pre-glacial Phyllis or Neæra, admired himself, and perhaps also admired his fellow-man. So far as I can learn, there are no savages so low that they do not discriminate between pretty squaws or gins and plain ones, between handsome men and ugly ones. Our own children appear to me to make the distinction among their playmates from a very early age. And, in both cases, I am satisfied that their judgment in the main agrees with our own.[1] But it does not seem likely that primitive man took much notice of scenery, of organic beauty as a whole, or even very largely of beauty in flowers, berries, butterflies, and shells. Yet there was an obvious link, a simple stepping-stone, by which nascent aesthetic feeling might easily pass from the one stage to the other. That link is given us in the love for personal decoration.

Not only does every unsophisticated man wish to find a pretty mate, but he also wishes to look to advantage in her eyes and those of his rivals. Similarly, every woman wishes to look pleasing toward all men. The most naked savages take immense pains with their fantastic coiffures. Even birds display their beauty to the best advantage, and sing in emulation with one another till their strength fails them. But birds and mammals generally go no further than this: man can take one step in advance, and add to his natural beauty, or conceal his

  1. I noticed in Jamaica that the negroes generally considered as pretty negresses the same women as we should ourselves have selected among them; and many persons who have traveled among various savage races, and whom I have had an opportunity of questioning, confirm this general conclusion.