No Distinguishing Marks

In 1897 Max Beerbohm wrote a charming little bon mot entitled ‘The Happy Hypocrite.’ The titular character was a shocking, shameless dandy. He enjoyed a graceful, debauched life.

Until he fell in love.

However, she was a strong-minded innocent and repulsed by his approaches, by his face made ugly by a dissipated life. The man she marries, she declared, must have the face of a saint.

Distracted, this dandy found a very specific artist, an architect of masks. He had one made with the face of an angel, and it was molded to his face. He searched out his love once more, unrecognized and beautiful. They married.

But a woman from this rake’s past approached him and demanded that he remove his painted visage. Reluctantly he did and was amazed – along with his former mistress – to find that contentment and true love had wrought a remarkable change on his face. It was now indistinguishable from the mask.

Similarly, the street sign stood engulfed – it too was indistinguishable. It was obliterated by a curling garden that climbed like parasitic filigree, lissome and hungry. The steel marker was devoured, its banner threatened by a graffiti of roses and jasmine. Never had there been such a bower of vandalism, never had there been such delicate destruction.

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But this was not a hostile takeover. Rather, it seemed as if the metallic defenses of the city’s indicator welcomed the latticework of vines and the starry, chaste flowers. It must have been a ticklish business, feeling the tiny green movements and blossoms as fragrant as a boudoir.

The ascending growth dripped chlorophyll onto the cut and perforated metal. Butterflies visited to feast, dappling the structure with frost from their illustrated wings. The sign, blinkered by a bouquet of leaves and petals, had succumbed to a higher power.

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And perhaps, in the fullness of time, the invasive borders will be cut away. But the unknown gardener will be confounded, for he will find that the sign will have vanished, the street doomed to anonymity. All that will be left would be a single green sapling.

Maybe that is the way of all cities, to be replaced by networks of forests. Perhaps it is their destiny, to return to their earthly dominions, to dissolve into the twisting labyrinths of their fertile homes.

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5 responses to “No Distinguishing Marks

  1. I’ve not heard of “The Happy Hypocrite,” but the first thing that came to mind was the song: “Put on a Happy Face.” The second thing that came to mind was: this is why children are taught to be nice, and polite — to behave as they should — no matter how they are feeling. Even if the gift is ghastly, it’s the right thing to do to say, “Thank you.” And so on.

    I once saw an old, wooden out building covered with trumpet vine. It was thick beyond belief. One day, the urge toward tidiness overtook the owners, and they trimmed and cut and hacked it all away. Not long after, the old building collapsed.

  2. It is amazing how quickly mother nature reclaims her raw materials after humans neglect the things they’ve built from them…

  3. shoreacres – I recommend the book highly! I think that putting on that happy face really does have the same effect – even though you don’t in any way mean it, that look of cheerfulness sort of permeates your heart and mind. It then is rather hard to battle back to your former state of irritability.

    Poor old building. Just like someone dissolving upon retirement.

    Barbara – Mother Nature surely does try to keep her house intact. We should glory in her decorations.

  4. The story you retell reminds me of The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde. But yours is more beautiful… with an opposite ending from that of Wilde’s. A thoughtful post, dripped with meaning. Have enjoyed your writing style and descriptions of what could have been just mundane, ordinary things, unnoticeable.

  5. i love the burlesque flyer. wonder if i met an of those lovely ladies at Burlesque Hall of Fame.
    Great story (article?) with great pics!

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