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Beards: A Fierce Defense

Bergdorf Goodman Essay

8 31 2011


The beard has a noble tradition among French painters, Russian novelists and Union generals. It also has a shoddier tradition among petty dictators, out-of-work actors and un-starred chefs. Beyond traditions, though, the beard is an essential expression of man’s nature. But for best results, nature should be carefully cultivated. The triumphant beard must tread the gallant side of the line that separates the heroic growth of Edouard Manet from the disheveled shrubbery of Joaquin Phoenix.

Above all things, the beard is a show of generous temperament. A man has a faceful of hair, and he rightly wants to share it with the world. Or perhaps he just doesn’t feel like shaving. Regardless, a beard is something that most men feel compelled to try at least once, like vegetarianism. And some find that, like going steak-less, one month is the right length of time. Others, however, step into the bearded breach, let it prosper and never look back.

A good beard suggests a man who’s comfortable with himself and his achievements—perhaps he’s earned tenure, a genius grant or taken up residence at Yaddo. Perhaps he’s a seafarer and just captained a ship around the Cape of Good Hope and the seas were too rough for a safe shave. The reverse beard, of course, is that which implies a lack of focus and effort. This is the man who is still scrivening his dissertation on Eastern philosophy, extolling the virtues of composting or leading a minor religious sect. In other cases, the sudden arrival of a beard may imply an unpleasant reversal of fortune, a man going to seed after his girlfriend has moved out or his job has been exported. You envision him living in a state of semi-squalor, surviving on Chinese takeout and watching Charlie Rose with the sound off because he can’t find the remote.

Yet regardless of type, bearded men are a band of brothers. They feel an innate connection with Tolstoy, Matisse and Melville. They may once have resorted to swordplay, but now they’re more comfortable with wordplay. That’s important, because growing a beard inevitably involves heated discussions with loved ones and even defenses of nature itself. This is the real reason bearded men are forced together: the wanton judgments cast upon them—particularly by wives and girlfriends—who do not care to see or feel a man who, in their view, closely resembles a bear emerging from hibernation. But the issue of beards is fundamentally an issue of nature, and each man must ask himself if he should tame it, civilize it, or embrace it unapologetically. A bearded man should look at home dining at an Uptown restaurant, not like he killed his food with a bow and arrow.

And another question: How do you explain the beard’s arrival to your mother? When my mom first saw my beard, she smiled and asked through her teeth how long this was going to last. It was as if I’d brought a Rockette home for Christmas. I made up an answer: three months. I’d forgotten about the exchange when my phone rang three months later to the day. It was my sister, who got right to it: “Mom wants to know if it’s gone yet.” It was not. My mom, fearful of the truth, had forced my sister to make the call. That was three years ago. I have not bought shaving cream since.

Yes, the bearded man is brave—not because he lives in the woods, though he is, perhaps, at home there—but because he resists the tender voice of the woman in his life when she whispers: “Please shave, I want to see your face.” Disregard this. The bearded man is too astute to fall for the rhetoric of false flattery. But a beard must have time to establish itself. To be safe, the beard is best grown far from the company of the fair sex. Like on fishing trips to Montana. Or aboard the Pequod.

Lesser men crumble under the withering daily insinuations about whether it makes you look old (nonsense, just sagelike) or larger than before (fie! a man in full). Do not underestimate what people will do to keep you from fulfilling your facial destiny. Better to trek across Nepal without your razor and return home in grizzled triumph.

The fully bearded man tends to be tolerant. He knows that not all men can acquire sufficient beard density to partake in Civil War reenactments. He understands that some men sprout but a modest facial garden of wispy grasses while he boasts a thriving forest of lush grandeur. But even in the fervor of this growth, the bearded man should not leave his pride unkempt. On the contrary, he must cultivate a shape that suits his personality while paying homage to his bearded heroes. He is not averse to shampoo to keep his facial flock in order, and he knows that having his beard trimmed professionally is a fine pleasure. Above all, he aspires to a beard that conveys an easy sense of formality, which he rightly views as a cultural victory against long odds.

The beard may present the appearance of certitude, but it also represents wisdom and the long view. The bearded man is fearless, but he never forgets that he is more than his beard—it frames his face but never defines the man. He knows it is there not to hide his flaws but to reveal his essence. That’s why he’s never afraid to go under the blade. He’s reassured by the fact that, like the tide, the beard always returns. BG

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David CogginsDAVID COGGINS is a regular contributor to Art in America and Artnet.  His work has also appeared in Interview, Modern Painters, The Huffington Post and The Wall Street Journal.  He is currently working on a book for Taschen.  In addition, he’s our in-house scribe and usual tumblr contributor.