Friday, October 7, 2011

The Man of Fifty Years

I saw an object at the Metropolitan Museum the other day that prompted me to think about the above-mentioned tale by Goethe. It is the beautiful toiletry case above.

As the title telegraphs, a man of fifty, known only as "the Major," learns that his beautiful niece is in love with him. At first he finds this preposterous, but the flattery inherent in such a situation soon has him thinking it not so preposterous at all. At the same time, he is suddenly aware of his advancing years.

Previously he had been perfectly happy with both his person and his servant; now, standing before the mirror, he did not like what he saw. He was no longer able to ignore the grey hairs, and even a few wrinkles suddenly seemed to have appeared. He brushed and powdered more than usual, but in the end he had to leave things as they were. Even the cleanliness of his clothes was no longer satisfactory, as he suddenly noticed lint on his coat and dust on his boots.

His general well-being is really disturbed, however, when a friend comes to visit. This friend, though 10 years older, actually looks younger. An actor who had made his reputation in playing youthful roles, he has continued to maintain his youthful appearance. He criticizes the Major for neglecting his appearance:

It is irresponsible that your temples are already grey, that here and there your wrinkles are beginning to join up and that the crown of your head is threatening to grow bald.

We learn that the secret of his youthful looks is contained in the toiletry case (Toilettenkästchen) that he carries with him at all times, a secret he would be happy to share with the Major if they only had two weeks to spend together. Unfortunately, the friend is leaving the next day. As a compromise he leaves his valet behind, who has been initiated in all the secrets of the art of rejuvenation. The valet procures containers -- Schächtelchen, Büchschen und Gläser -- into which some of the friend's magic potions (Tinkturen, Pomaden und Balsamen) will be kept.

As can be imagined, the make-over is more complicated than it seems at first glance. Already before the Major goes to bed he must put with the valet's ministrations. And then one can't go down to breakfast without a couple of hours of preparation. In the end, the ridiculousness of trying to deny his age becomes apparent when the Major loses a tooth.

The beautiful toilet set here, from 1874, was made in England by the firm of Jenner & Knewstub. It is part of a small display at the Met entitled Thinking Outside the Box: European Cabinets, Caskets, and Cases from the Permanent Collection (1500-1900).

Translation credit: Hesperus Press

No comments: