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

The Threads that Tie Us to Objects

Black Friday has come and gone, so has Black Monday, and still there are nearly three weeks left of holiday shopping. When I have a chance to slip out unnoticed, off I go alone in search of presents for my wife and children. Yet as I enter a store, am I so solitary? When I walk down the aisles, invisibly my family hovers beside me, and I imagine my daughter shaking her head and frowning, or my son grinning, as I pick through possible presents and consider whether the object I hold in my hand might produce a happy ending when finally unwrapped. Where can I find the gift that will be genuinely welcomed?

Evidence of this search for just the right connection is what James Elkins speaks of in his book The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing. As he points out, it’s easy to identify a person who is silently weighing the aptness of a purchase:

“The threads that tie us to objects are invisibly fine, and normally we scarcely notice their little tugs and pulls. But the webs of vision are there nonetheless. All those familiar gestures of shoppers—bending forward for a closer look and then straightening up, raising the eyebrows, tilting the head to one side, stepping back to think, sighing, shifting weight from one foot to the other, crossing the arms, sighing, scratching the head—those are signs that they are already caught in the web.”

The crowds in a department store all share these unconscious gestures, the signs of the inner drama of gifting: the desire to get it just right, to please the ghostly presences of friends and family who nudge us with their imagined advice. And those objects we contemplate are not passive either. As Elkins observes,

“I begin to wonder if shopping isn’t like being hunted. Instead of saying I am the one doing the looking, it seems better to say that objects are all trying to catch my eye, and their gleams and glints are the hooks that snare me. A harmless display case of watches becomes a forest of traps, a dangerous place for my eyes. Every shining dial and silver band is a barb, a tiny catch just the size of my eye. Perhaps shoppers are like fish who like to swim in waters full of hooks.”

I remember my distant glory days of pouring through the racks of LPs in a record store (remember those?), working my fingers through the alphabetically labeled bands until something new caught my attention: some obscure group’s latest record, or a singer I’d never heard of but whose album cover held a certain promise. The arrestingly explosive front cover of an album by a then unknown band named Led Zeppelin encouraged me to glance at the other side and discover that Jimmy Page, lately of the Yardbirds, was the guitarist for this new group. Hmmm, this might be worth buying, I thought. What drew me to those bins of LPs was the promise of surprise. Yet often I did know what I was looking for. That’s when one turns from hunted to hunter.

“Shopping is also hunting,” Elkins states. “After all, I am the one who decides to go shopping, and normally I’m on the lookout for something in particular: I’m hunting for it and trying to pick it out of the thousands of objects that I do not want . . . In this way of looking at things, the watches are all camouflaged: each is almost identical to the next, and the one I want is somewhere among them. Like a leopard hunting in the jungle, I can look at a tangle of leaves, vines, and flickering lights and pick out just half of the pupil of a frightened deer.”

What adventure awaits me in these next few weeks! I prowl the aisles, circle the store displays with a posse of invisible companions, who add their familiar spoken inflections to my inner voices as I search for and in turn am searched by potential gifts, a hunter transforming to prey back to hunter back to prey, all within a few short steps through a forest of holiday cheer.

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December 7th, 2010 by admin