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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October 28th, 2011 by admin

Point of Entry, Point of Departure

The longer I write, the more I’m intrigued by how a word can conceal as much if not far more than it reveals. Yet if regarded with care, any word can serve not as a wall but as a window to what it can’t further express.

One of my favorite books is The Hundred Greatest Stars, by the astronomer James B. Kaler, because he transforms the word “star” from a single encompassing category into something like a prism reflecting the light of a dizzying variety of stellar objects.

Take, for instance, the star V V Cephei. This red supergiant, a mere 2,000 light years away, is so large that its diameter is almost the size of the orbit of Saturn. How big is that? Well, take a look at this humbling comparison with our own star, the sun:

Another star, W Ursae Majoris, is an even closer neighbor, only 160 light years away, which places it practically right across the street from us in the galactic neighborhood. This is a double star system, though with a doozy of a twist—the two stars are so close together that they actually touch as they whirl around each other, forming, in essence, a strange revolving single object:

Kaler’s book is filled with white dwarf stars; double, triple and even four star systems; neutron star x-ray bursters; super magnetic stars; a whole panoply of cosmic difference. After reading his book, I’ve found it impossible to peer up at the night sky and see those scattered grains of light as anything resembling a uniform category. The word “star” now offers the infinite possibilities of the universe itself.

Our universe is a big place, though, so why not take a look at a word that operates on a more intimate level? A smile is among the most common of human expressions, one that cuts across all cultures. Yet the word “smile” implies a singular form that it is not and can never be. As Daniel McNeill observes in his book The Face, smiles “vary like a kaleidoscope. Turn the tube slightly, change a nuance here or there, and a new meaning arises.” Some languages are better at expressing this morphing quality than others. In Japanese, several words take on this challenge: “niko-niko, a smile of peacefulness and content; nita-nita, a smile tinged with contempt; ni, a brief grin; niya-niya, an often unpleasant way of smiling when suppressing joy; ninmari, a smile after achieving a goal; chohshoh, a sneer.”

The task of a writer, it seems to me, is recognizing that any word will take you only so far, that its core definition is simply a first step. Without this understanding, words can actually restrict your vision of the world.

As a teacher, I’ve become weary of the words “beginning” and “ending,” which I feel limit my students’ attempts to learn how to shape a story. Sometimes a young writer’s story will first feature reams of exposition, backstory upon backstory before a scene finally offers the drama we crave, all in the service of “beginning” the story in some chronological fashion. And sometimes that same hypothetical young writer will “end” a story with a flourish that implies, well, that’s that!

Yet there can be no “beginning” to any story, because there will always be a series of events that have come before, and as for an “ending,” the world simply continues on its way regardless of our attempts at closure, doesn’t it?

So I ask my students to think of their first page as the point of entry into an already unfolding narrative, and to think of the last page as their point of departure from that same continuing narrative. Charles Dickinson’s hypnotic short story “Risk” may take place entirely during a single evening while a circle of friends and acquaintances play a game of Risk, but its most central drama concerns the loss of a child that occurred one year earlier. On the other hand, Graham Swift’s story “Learning to Swim,” though it takes place within an afternoon’s half hour at the beach, dramatizes the moment when a child makes his choice of navigation between his two warring parents, a choice that will, the reader assumes, set the structure of the family for many years to come.

Where you enter a narrative and where you exit gives you the shape of the fiction you are trying to call into being. Or, to put it more bluntly, the bullet may be the wider world of your narrative flying along, but the apple is your story.

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February 18th, 2010 by admin