The Hidden Face

“What we know of the face is a thin mask of frail, interconnected muscle fibers attached to a layer of fat and skin. What we recognize as the emotions and beauty of the face depend entirely on this mat of tissues.” The face is a mat of tissues? Not perhaps the best term to use if considering the profile of one’s beloved, but James Elkins, in his book How to Use Your Eyes, is less interested in romance and more in the nomenclature of emotions: “Because we attend so closely to people’s expressions, the face is full of names. Many skin folds have names, and there is a term for every curve in the ear and each turn of the nostrils.”

“It is interesting to encounter some of the names of facial features, because they turn the face into a kind of map,” Elkins says, yet even the illustration above, crowded with terms, is merely a beginning. There are over twenty-five names, for example, for the various parts of the ear, from the antihelix to the tragicus. Even this picture doesn’t do justice to a full mapping of the ear:

An ear is a fairly inexpressive portion of most faces, of course, but the muscles about our lips and eyes, and our cheeks, allow for the revelation of a world of hidden feeling. According to Daniel McNeill, the author of The Face, the nineteenth century French researcher Guillaume Duchenne developed a novel way of searching for these connections. He collected the heads of victims of the guillotine and attached live wires to the faces, to chart the range of expressions. He had to work fast, too, because death blunts the facial muscles after a few hours.

Modern researchers, McNeill points out, have favored less grisly methods of investigation. They simply filmed interviews with psychiatric patients, and toted up the expressions that rise to the surface of a patient’s face. In one five hour session, the patients revealed nearly 6,000 distinct expressions.

Does the English language have names for all of these? I don’t think so. Especially since many if not most of these expressions are subtle combinations of emotions that we do have words for, various stews of sweetness and calculation and worry and determination, all stirred together. Here we enter the territory of “nameless emotions,” as the film editor Walter Murch so eloquently labels this gray area of language.

So many words for the muscles of our faces, so many more that can’t encompass the emotive combinations those muscles produce as they respond to and reflect the even more complex landscape of human thought.

An inner landscape that is subtler still than the expressions it conducts throughout the day. This is perhaps especially true when in moments of great emotion we express ourselves at the rate of 160 words a minute. This observation combined with another, that the mind within a severed head remains conscious for a minute and a half after decapitation, inspired the fiction writer Robert Olen Butler to write his grim and haunting collection Severance, 62 fictions of 240 words that each express the passionate last gasp of the mind.

I remember in my early teens staring as this image from some history textbook of King Louis XVI’s newly severed head being displayed, seemingly regarding the raucous Parisian crowd, and I’d wondered what Louis might have thought of his celebrating former subjects.

According to Butler, the king’s mind looked mostly inward:

thrash and flurry in the undergrowth a bird a boar a stag the rush of wings of legs I lift a Charleville to my shoulder the musket cool to my hands I squeeze the trigger and feel heavily that half heartbeat of silence and then the cry and the kick of her, the night my bed I shudder the trees nearby I am alone at wood’s edge be a man the king my father says but I am not a man and I feel the beast there invisible in the dark—the beast of Gévaudan—he is far from Paris but he steps from the woods before me a wolf as big as a lion a hundred dead in the countryside he has passed by the animals of the field to savage a man or woman or child and he faces me and he lifts his ragged muzzle to the sky and howls liberty to kill, equality of death, fraternity of beasts and I wake and I am still a child my king’s horsemen are off slogging through the marshes of the Auvergne to find him but he is with me and I am king now and I pass the smoking musket to my man who hands me another and I shoot and shoot again and again and the bird falls and the boar and the stag but behind me is the beast and he seizes me by the head

In Ang Lee’s film Lust, Caution, based on the short story by Eileen Chang, there comes a scene when Mr. Yi—a Chinese collaborator with the Japanese occupation in Shanghai during World War II—reflects alone on the death of his lover, Jiazhi, a death he himself ordered, when it was revealed that she was a spy who had planned for two years to betray him. At the penultimate moment, however, Jiazhi warned him of danger, which allowed his escape and her capture. In the film’s quiet last moments Yi’s face expresses a range of shifting sorrows.

Tony Leung is an accomplished actor, but he isn’t quite able to get across what the author Eileen Chang reveals of Yi’s thoughts in her original short story, thoughts that are much less romantic than what the movie implies:

“He was not optimistic about the way the war was going, and he had no idea how it would turn out for him. But now that he had enjoyed the love of a beautiful woman, he could die happy—without regret. He could feel her shadow forever near him, comforting him. Even though she had hated him at the end, she had at least felt something. And now he possessed her utterly, primitively—as a hunter does his quarry, a tiger his kill. Alive, her body belonged to him; dead, she was his ghost.”

Our faces have evolved for eons in order to speak for us in addition to our words, but our thoughts turn a more supple interior gaze to a secret mirror of our own making, a hidden face whose features fiction writers, poets, and memoirists all struggle mightily to reveal.

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  • 2 Comments

    1. Tahir Majeed says:

      Hi,

      I would like to know the name of the book from which the first image (the image of the facial muscles) has been taken.

      Best Regards,

    2. admin says:

      I can’t remember! But a Google image search for “facial muscles” will get you many similar images.

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