Whiskers in Peace

WAR and whiskers have always alliterated; no defense or explanation need be offered for the poilus. Heroes and fighting men have been bearded since the beginning; in war the razor rusts.

But in peace the beard should be carefully appraised. Why do men wear beards? And in offering the question for sober thought I am revealing an important index of human nature. In running over the names of men whom I have known personally, the bearded and the shaven separate themselves easily. All the bearded have traits in common; the shaven show greater variety of characters, yet they are essentially different from the bearded, despite shaven chins.

It is not easy to express what I feel to be true of bearded men whose traits are so cleverly hidden, or betrayed, by the whisker as almost to defy words. With or without the ‘watery smile,’ the educated whisker is of first importance. The educated whisker is not an unconscious growth; it is willfully cultivated and shows attention. Marks of distinction, upon examination, are sometimes found to reside wholly in the educated whisker; one often feels that the distinguished man, shorn of his beard, would be as commonplace as the rest of us.

A difficulty arises when one puts the very personal question: Is the whisker a sign of irrepressible manliness, or is it merely a decoration, an ornament? Is it, to change Shakespeare slightly, an excrescence of strength? An increment of valor? Judicious observation and experience lead me to think that this is far from being the case. My bearded friends are no braver than the shaven. Indeed — and here one goes deeper into the subject — I have noticed signs of extreme caution, of nervous withdrawal from difficulty, of actual timidity, among bearded men. Not always separable from the beard, however, I have also noticed signs of self-importance, assertion, even pomposity — qualities that not only do not preclude timidity, but are apt to arise from a constitutional sense of fear.

The most terrifying bearded man that I ever knew was an atheist and anarchist. His beard radiated with the violence of his ideas. The safe and sane avoided him, mothers forbade their daughters to receive him at the house. He rebuked church-goers by passing them in jacket and breeches, averting his gaze in contempt for silk hats and the conventional observance of the Sabbath day. He was a dangerous man; no man with such a beard could be persuaded or controlled. I never shared the common opinion, for his uncomfortable doctrines seemed to me to be merely sentimental. Years afterwards I found him married to a gentle Catholic lady, content with a small salary, and wearing two waistcoats, although the day was warm.

I have rather sadly to record the conviction that in so far as beards are supposed to reveal valor, learning, professional ability, wisdom, or virtue, they are far from reliable. So fallacious are they that the more luxuriant and cultivated the beard, the fewer of these prime qualities do I expect to find. This is a hard saying; yet a bit of psychology may justify the contention.

Let us consider the man with retreating chin. He may grow a beard and hide it, or he may frankly shave the exiguous offender, careless whether it recedes or not. The utmost candor may be seen in a shaven chin; and of all the manly, valorous qualities that of candor, downrightness, may be ranked first. The weakness attributed to a retreating chin may be canceled by shaving it. The man who accepts his face as nature gave it to him, braving it to the world without concealment or decoration, must be classed among those with the manly quality. Cartoonists and novelists have waved the weak chin to the limbo of the inefficient and inept. Let the man without the masterful jaw take heart; he has but to shave to show the qualities desired.

Or, with whatever degree of pain, let us contemplate the mobile or protrusive Adam’s apple. Shall a man allow it to divulge its movements up and down, or conceal it with a beard? Upon the decision of this question, essentially a social one, hangs the character of a man. The shaven throat asks no quarter; it bares its incongruities to the irresponsibilities of debutantes, to the ridicule of eager girls. It may disappear in the comfort of a cigarette; it may rise to the exigencies of the misunderstood Filipinos. Meanwhile the bearded man across the mahogany does not betray himself; his girl listens in proud contentment, secretly exulting over the profile of a well-kept beard.

If the beard is cultivated for decoration rather than concealment or disguise, less should be said. The mirror is a woman’s refuge and retreat; only actors and the bridegroom may employ it self-consciously. Yet a mirror is necessary for decoration. The round head requires contrasting contour of beard; the long face will instinctively select one of compensatory nature. Most men recoil from whiskers obviously grown for beauty. Yet few men have been so dull as not to respond to the inspiration of Simon de Vos’s portrait of himself. No man may study that picture, blessing a room where it is hung, without craving some likeness to the painter. The beard seems the distinguishing feature, but the charm lies in the wide sympathy of the eyes, the refinement and sensitiveness of the lips. The eyes would betray the character, were there no beard; but men have grown whiskers from that picture.

With America at peace the warriorbeard, the Continental mark of masculine élan, invites special note. I have in mind two Continental scholars whose beards are Homeric. But upon careful analysis neither shows the initiative of his Yankee congeners. Behind the learning, the dogmatism, the intellectual system, there lurk suspicion and envy. They are at heart afraid — afraid of human nature, of representative government, of the majority, of the crude world outside of books. What a sorry figure is that of the shaven Philistine in the presence of a Homeric beard! Still, discounting face-values, what indurated fibre, as it were, — what finely tempered quality of manhood one may find in the unadorned and undisguised producers of the Commonwealth, fearlessly displaying irregularities, blemishes, and wrinkles of visage in large unconsciousness!