|As a young writer, Truman Capote chronicled the international social scene and published some of his first works of fiction in Harper's BAZAAR. In celebration of The Early Stories of Truman Capote, out this month from Random House, we present one of the author's most famous essays, originally published in the magazine.|
|Elliott Erwitt- Magnum Photos/ Trunk Archive|
This essay originally appeared in the October 1959 issue of Harper's BAZAAR:
From the journal of a Mr. Patrick Conway, aged 17, during the course of a visit to Bruges in the year 1800: "Sat on the stone wall and observed a gathering of swans, an aloof armada, coast around the curves of the canal and merge with the twilight, their feathers floating away over the water like the trailing hems of snowy ball-gowns. I was reminded of beautiful women; I thought of Mlle. de V., and experienced a cold exquisite spasm, a chill, as though I had heard a poem spoken, fine music rendered. A beautiful woman, beautifully elegant, impresses us as art does, changes the weather of our spirit; and that, is that a frivolous matter? I think not."
With the two swans adrift on these pages, appears a cygnet, a fledgling of promise who may one day lead the flock. However, as is generally conceded, a beautiful girl of twelve or twenty, while she may merit attention, does not deserve admiration. Reserve that laurel for decades hence when, if she has kept buoyant the weight of her gifts, been faithful to the vows a swan must, she will have earned an audience all-kneeling; for her achievement represents discipline, has required the patience of a hippopotamus, the objectivity of a physician combined with the involvement of an artist, one whose sole creation is her perishable self. Moreover, the area of accomplishment must extend much beyond the external. Of first importance is voice, its timbre, how and what it pronounces: if stupid, a swan must seek to conceal it, not necessarily from men (a dash of dumbness seldom diminishes masculine respect, though it rarely, regardless of myth, enhances it), rather from clever women, those witch-eyed brilliants who are simultaneously the swan's mortal enemy and most convinced adorer. Of course the perfect Giselle, she of calmest purity, is herself a clever woman. The cleverest are easily told; and not by any discourse on politics or Proust, any smartly placed banderillas of wit; not, indeed, by the presence of anypositive factor, but the absence of one: self-appreciation. The very nature of her attainment presupposes a certain personal absorption; nonetheless, if one can remark on her face or in her attitude an awareness of the impression she makes, it is as though, attending a banquet, one had the misfortune to glimpse the kitchen.
To pedal a realistic chord—and it must be sounded, if only out of justice to their cousins of coarser plumage—authentic swans are almost never women nature and the world have at all deprived. God gave them good bones; some lesser personage, a father, a husband, blessed them with the best of beauty emollients, a splendid bank account. Being a great beauty, andremaining one, is, at the altitude flown here, expensive: a fairly accurate estimate on the annual upkeep could be made—but really, why spark a revolution? And if expenditure were all, a sizable population of sparrows would swiftly be swans.
It may be that the enduring swan glides upon waters of liquefied lucre; but that cannot account for the creature herself—her talent, like all talent, is composed of unpurchasable substances. For a swan is invariably the result of adherence to some aesthetic system of thought, a code transposed into a self-portrait; what we see is the imaginary portrait precisely projected. This is why certain women, while not truly beautiful but triumphs over plainness, can occasionally provide the swan-illusion: their inner vision of themselves is so fixed, decorated with such clever artifice, that we surrender to their claim, even stand convinced of its genuineness. And itis genuine; in a way the swan manqué is more beguiling than the natural: after all, a creation wrought by human nature is of subtler human interest, of finer fascination, than one nature alone has evolved.
A final word: the advent of a swan into a room starts stirring in some persons a decided sense of discomfort. If one is to believe these swan allergics, their hostility does not derive from envy, but, so they suggest, from a shadow of "coldness" and "unreality" the swan casts. Yet isn't it true that an impression of coldness, usually false, accompanies perfection? And might it not be that what the critics actually feel is fear? In the presence of the very beautiful, as in the presence of the immensely intelligent, terror contributes to our over-all reaction, and it is as much fright as appreciation which causes the stabbed-by-an-icicle chill that for a moment murders us when a swan swims into view.