1. Physiognomy as Character
On the other side of Minneapolis from where I live stands the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which houses among its various collections a portrait, Francisco de Goya’s Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta, from 1820. Goya was in his old age when he painted this particular canvas and had recently recovered from an illness during which Dr. Arrieta had cared for him. The painting acknowledges his gratitude with an inscription at the bottom, which in translation reads, “Goya gives thanks to his friend Arrieta for the expert care with which he saved his life from an acute and dangerous illness which he suffered at the close of the year 1819 when he was seventy-three years old. He painted it in 1820.”
Dr. Arrieta stands to Goya’s right, by the side of the bed, supporting the painter and holding a cup of water or medicine for him to drink. The doctor’s face is brightly lit, as if coming out of the darkness, and his face expresses professional forbearance. He looks downward, not at Goya himself—as a doctor, he has seen all this before—and his intelligence and strength of character are visible on his face. This is in contrast to his patient, Goya, whose eyes are shut in pain (a painter presenting himself with his eyes shut is a singularly disturbing image), his expression half in darkness, as if the darkness were eating away at him. His mouth hangs half-open; the bedclothes appear to be slightly soiled. Goya’s left hand tugs in a cramped gesture at the bedsheets, a characteristic movement of the dying. The painter presents himself in extremity, as an unheroic person transformed by his sickness, fading into obscurity.
This is the painting’s foreground. However, very dimly in the background and not easily seen in reproductions of this self-portrait is the presentation of the painter’s subjective world: three demons residing in that darkness, those who haunted Goya during his illness. As the museum catalogue points out, these devils became a distinctive feature of his work after 1788. Without the demons, there is no Goya. The viewer can’t have the foreground without the background, the visible without the seemingly invisible, the light without the shadow. In this struggle Dr. Arrieta brings not only his attention to Goya but also, more abstractly, illumination, without which any painter is helpless. He stands with his back to the demons and their punishing subjectivity as a kind of shield.
The only reason I bring Goya’s painting up at all is that I was forced to think about it and the evolution of literary and painterly portraiture generally when I was commenting on a particular scene in a story by a student of mine, some months back, during a conference. The scene my student had written involved two characters. The woman in the scene was giving some bad news to the man. I mentioned in passing that I didn’t really know what the guy looked like, and I was curious to know how he was reacting—perhaps, I suggested, the writer might want to describe the expression on the man’s face.
“I can’t do that,” the student said, reluctantly but firmly.
“Why not?” I asked.
There was a pause, as the student—a thoughtful person—tried to explain. He had come up against a wall of some sort. Finally he said, “It’s too hard.” I was about to say to him that that was really no excuse, that the entire process of writing naturally brings everybody up against what is too hard to do and therefore has to be done, when he interrupted my thoughts by saying, “Besides, no one does that anymore.”
Ah, I thought, now that’s interesting. In the practice of any art, there are some procedures and practices that artists sometimes forget how to do through neglect or distaste or their inability to concentrate their imaginative forces. My student seemed to be saying that everyone his age had forgotten how to describe faces. Or else they were uncomfortable doing so because of a problem inherent in such descriptions. Something had been given up. The temper of the times resisted it. That particular skill had fallen off the shelf. If it has indeed dropped away from the repertoire of what fiction writers are able to do, we have entered a rather interesting moment in the history of consciousness and of fiction-writing.
Before we learn to read words, most of us have started to learn how to read faces, beginning with the mother’s or the primary care-giver’s face. Most studies of child development posit the age of sixteen weeks as the stage when the infant is able to smile back when someone smiles in his or her direction. By twenty-eight weeks, most infants are already picking up cues from the faces they see, smiling back when smiled upon, frowning when frowned at. By thirty-two weeks the infant may well start crying at the sight of strangers.
An older child’s ability to read a face may be, at the most basic level, a survival skill. Particularly in an unstable environment, a child’s ability to “read” anger or indifference on the face of an adult may mean the difference between a hot meal and a beating. The more unstable the family, the more a child may need to develop skills in reading faces and gestures just to pull through. These are skills that most of us, of course, never quite give up. In social gatherings, in meetings, and at all stages of love and courtship and trouble, we usually look closely at the faces that we encounter. Everything of importance is to be found there. When you are in a strange location where the people are unknown to you, you are likely to go back to early habits of reading faces, expressions, gestures, in the hope of discovering both character and social subtexts. The face is where you start. Sometimes that is where you stay.
The idea that a person’s character is visible in the face has an old and somewhat odd history. As an idea, it has always been debated from the ancient Greeks onward into the Renaissance. When we look at a person’s face, do we think that we are seeing that person’s character? Until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, most people thought so. But in these considerations, the beauty or ugliness of a face became a problem that had to be solved. Beautiful people, our reason tells us, do not always have beautiful souls or characters. But sometimes, looking upon beauty, we lose our reason and give to beauty a nobility or depth it does not possess. In his essay “Of Physiognomy,” from 1588, Montaigne writes that nature often does an injustice to noble people by clothing them in ugliness; nevertheless, he says, a beautiful soul is usually visible if one looks closely and steadily enough. To the beautiful falls the right of command, he observes, quoting Aristotle, although he adds that this situation is not always just. He then goes on to say that there is an art to distinguishing faces, the kindly ones from the simple ones, the severe from the rough.
In any case, he continues, we should give up our vanities and be straightforward in our expressions (in both senses). Frankness is the best defense, since it disarms others. “I owe my deliverance to my face,” Montaigne observes at one point, meaning that his unguardedness has saved him in more than one difficult situation. The pure soul will show itself in the face and in one’s actions. Adornments and masks will always fall away, he suggests, and your face will give you away in those moments of helpless spontaneity, so you might as well be straightforward and unadorned and artless in your speech and actions.
What gives Montaigne trouble is the ubiquity of social masks in human interactions. It troubles his particular form of humanism. Almost three hundred years later, Walt Whitman, in Democratic Vistas (1871) writes that in the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy after the Civil War, commerce in American cities had produced an epidemic of unnaturalness and the insincerity of the business class, in which the confidence man, the trickster, and the seductress would thrive. This change is particularly noticeable in public faces. Life has become a theater and there are actors everywhere. Why? Because in a business environment, Whitman asserts, trust is always in jeopardy, and the natural is traded in for the artificial because the natural is the fool’s position. The exchange of large sums of money often defeats sincerity. Wealth puts people on their guard, behind fences and masks, facial neutrality or unreadability. The result is that America breeds its own fakery, with fake aristocrats, false smiles, and phony art; art, in this environment, Whitman says, is “sophisticated, insane, and its very joy is morbid.” To fend off “ruin and dejection” Whitman calls for a “cheerful simplicity,” but he does not say how to obtain it. A certain form of innocence, having been lost, has been lost forever, though Whitman can still remember it and summon it, as if it might come back. “Everywhere,” he says, sounding like an Old Testament prophet surveying the ruination, there is “an abnormal libidinousness, unhealthy forms, male, female, painted, padded, dyed, chignoned, muddy complexions, bad blood.…”
And Whitman had never seen MTV or the Fashion Channel. What he had seen was professional masking at work in a mass society. What is bound to arise in a culture of this type is literature about knavery and deceit, particularly deceitful charm, from The Confidence-Man, through Adventures of Huckleberry Finn up to The Day of the Locust and The Great Gatsby and beyond them, into our time, a period sometimes described as post-humanist, and which, I am going to suggest, may have become post-face.
We have to return at this point to what is at stake and how to define it, particularly in cultures where faces are mechanically reproduced (on TV or in movies or magazines), commodified, and socially constructed—one would not expect a “cheerful simplicity” to be apparent on Courtney Love’s face, nor would we probably welcome it there. It may appear on the president’s face, but that is another story, one involving cynical and predatory arrangements. The performer brings a dazzling exterior to whatever show the show happens to be; we, in turn, the viewers, bring to the performance our postmodern arsenal of epistemological skepticism, our irony, our cynicism, our ability to be in on the joke, our occasional wish, knowing there is no “center” anyway, to be swept away. We avoid being fooled by never making a move toward belief unless there is that massive shift in which the totally artificial locates itself in the now-vacated category of the “authentic.” Reality, whatever it may be, (and the word itself may fall under a form of Derridean erasure) reality is what will take place somewhere else, perhaps in the tropics, if it takes place at all. Reality occurs where manual labor is still performed.
The topic I am dealing with is too large, and too inclined to polemics, probably, to be dealt with sensibly. Because I am concerned with literary representations of the face in a period following the engrained theoretical epistemological skepticism of Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan, I suspect that the problem of the face is really the problem of humanism and what to do with it in a mass society dominated by manipulative mechanical reproduction. In ordinary life people continue to scan the actual faces of others as much as they ever did. Indeed, our lives are full, sometimes too full, of the information that faces bring to us, from the political realm outward. The problem has to do with how we continue to represent faces in literature and elsewhere, and how we present such information. The problem also has to do with whose faces we put into our stories, and whose faces we read. Some faces we see often, others not at all. We are permitted, even compelled, to see the face of certain public figures almost every day, but we are not particularly encouraged to see the faces of many others, whom we can describe as the dispossessed, the disinherited, and the vanquished. Perhaps, at some times, we don’t want to see those faces at all because of the demands they place on us. In this way, a literary question quickly becomes a political one.
When we examine a face, what are we looking for? First, as I’ve already noted, we are trying to get some idea of a person’s character. This idea, that a person’s basic character can be glimpsed from that person’s face, is rare in contemporary American fiction, with some notable exceptions. We have, in a large-scale but tacit social agreement, given up the idea that you can glimpse a person’s character from that person’s physiognomy, though secretly we may believe that you still can.
Why this is so is complicated by the ubiquity of the actor, as prophesied by Whitman. When I say “famous face,” you probably think of Humphrey Bogart, or Garbo, or Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper or Cary Grant. Maybe you think of a politician’s face on TV. The portrait of the face, in other words, has been usurped by films and TV just as portraiture was usurped by photography. These faces are usually those of actors. Most of the faces we see on television or in the movies are those of people who are, in effect, playing roles. The face, in this case and in many others, is one weapon in the armory of commerce, a weapon, at its worst, to fool the suckers. We are so used to the idea of everyday masks now that we don’t give the matter a second thought. Of course George Bush is faking that smile. Who could possibly think otherwise?
The other reason we may have given up the effort to locate a person’s character based on that person’s appearance is that the history of racism and the history of disability studies have mostly invalidated this entire epistemological project. Anyone these days is completely justified in feeling squeamish in judging a person’s character on the evidence of how that person looks. People are usually not, after all, what they appear to be at first. The game of deducing a person’s character from that person’s appearance is an old pastime with racists and with those who seek an advantage over the poor or the ugly, the disabled, or any underrepresented minority.
When a new character is introduced in a book, as a rule we all want to know, at least vaguely, what that person looks like. Dickens, for example, tells us immediately. But now, in the twenty-first century, we are more likely to be interested in the clothes or the body language than in the face. We are likely to be extremely suspicious of generalizations based on facial descriptions, particularly concerning beauty or its absence, thanks to the effects of plastic surgery, Botox, and the general unreliability of cosmetic appearances. We know that a person’s clothes and body language may be a sign of artifice, but now the face and the rest of the body may be completely “engineered,” as well. For that reason we are likely to be suspicious of any literary passage in which a character’s outward appearance is described, despite our curiosity. The contemporary French novelist Michel Houellebecq has made the point in The Elementary Particles (2000) and elsewhere that sexual relations have been converted into yet another form of competitive capitalism, an extension of the battlefield into erotic struggles for dominance. In these struggles, the hapless contestants feel the pressure to visit plastic surgeons on the one hand, or gyms and spas on the other, to beautify themselves, so as not to become losers.
Contemporary critical theory has put everyone on notice to beware of the gaze, any gaze. For the most part, readers will tend to get impatient with any lengthy introductory descriptions of facial or physical attributes (except in genre fiction such as romance novels, some historical novels, detective novels, and pornography, where such descriptions still thrive); irony, a form of self-protection, will trump sincerity in contemporary readers of mainstream fiction, however, almost every time.
Conclusions based on physiognomy and professions of beauty just don’t seem plausible anymore; they have acquired a creepy voyeuristic overtone. They seem inaccurate. Even those of us who grew up reading the novels of Thomas Hardy, for example, may cringe, a bit, at this introductory description of Thomasin, from The Return of the Native, a novel published in 1878:
A fair, sweet, and honest country face was revealed, reposing in a nest of wavy chestnut hair. It was between pretty and beautiful. Though her eyes were closed, one could easily imagine the light necessarily shining in them as the culmination of the luminous workmanship around. The groundwork in the face was hopefulness; but over it now lay like a foreign substance a film of anxiety and grief. The grief had been there so shortly as to have abstracted nothing of the bloom, and had as yet but given a dignity to what it might eventually undermine. The scarlet of her lips had not had time to abate, and just now it appeared still more intense by the absence of the neighboring and more transient colour of her cheek. The lips frequently parted, with a murmur of words. She seemed to belong rightly to a madrigal—to require viewing through rhyme and harmony.
One thing at least was obvious: she was not made to be looked at thus.
The transactions in this description are weird. Thomasin, who is sleeping, is being looked at by Diggory Venn and by Thomasin’s mother, but a third person, the author, also seems to be in the room, and his floating perceptions comprise the substance of the text. The effect is that of a dependable spy standing near the main characters and making certain declarations about her. When Eustacia Vye enters the novel a couple of chapters later—she has, the narrator tells us, “the raw material of a divinity”—the description of her face alone goes on for three pages. This is narratively courageous and narratively antique. Like the narrators of eighteenth-century English novels, Hardy’s storyteller is not afraid to pass on what he believes or to make himself a presence in the implied staging of the novel. The description of Thomasin is particularly notable because emotional assertions are being made about her that the reader can’t substantiate. She hasn’t yet done anything on the stage of the novel, and the effect of clinical description—she’s sleeping and therefore helpless—doubles the discomforting effect of a lingering gaze fixed upon a woman.
Narratively, this is a world we have lost. Yet as a reader I find myself in a guilty position with this description, and not only because I read it first in high school, when I gladly accepted the narrator’s invitation to fall in love with his imaginary character. The air we breathe in that scene has the musty quality of the inside of a museum, but in 1963, to a fifteen-year-old reader new to Hardy, it didn’t. Actually, I still admire the bravery of the portrait and am unwilling now to give it an ahistorical correction. But few mainstream writers would describe a character this way now because the entire form of the commentary would provoke suspicion or sarcasm.
Even in Hardy’s own time, his descriptive excesses were privately castigated by Henry James, among others. Writing to Robert Louis Stevenson about Tess of the d’Urbervilles, James argued that the “abomination of the language” was only equaled by the author’s oversized reputation for style. “Pretty smells and sights and sounds” was how he condescendingly characterized Hardy’s fiction. James’s own introductory remarks on his characters’ faces are much more circumspect. When Isabel Archer is first introduced in The Portrait of a Lady, she gets no more than this sentence, as a dog is barking at her feet: “Bunchie’s new friend was a tall girl in a black dress, who at first sight looked pretty.” That’s it. The reader has to wait for a lengthier description. In James, as in life, you don’t get the full sense of the person at first glance. Only the minor characters get lengthier initial close-ups, for example, that of Lord Warburton, whose American face, his physiognomy, reflects a “contented shrewdness.” We have not arrived at the grotesque, but we are getting there, by stages.
By the 1920s or 1930s, analysis of character in Anglo-American fiction through physiognomy was almost over, with few exceptions, the portraiture of the grotesque being among them. In Edith Wharton, William Faulkner, Nathanael West, Richard Wright, and Flannery O’Connor, the faces described at length are often in the realm of the unsightly, as if only ugliness could be truly honest. In English fiction in the mid– to late–twentieth century, there is a lingering belief in character that can be made visible by physiognomy; this tradition includes Iris Murdoch and Anthony Powell and seems to have something to do with longstanding assumptions about class, that a person’s character is still discernible from outward appearances. But in America, it’s as if grotesque faces are always expressive, even before any expression happens to appear on them. Without clear class distinctions, the only trustworthy appearances are those bodied forth by losers. They, at least, are not putting on an act.
In Gatsby, there is something fraudulent about Daisy Buchanan’s beauty, whereas Wilson’s hollow-eyed ugliness is absolutely genuine. Furthermore, because grotesque visages resist readerly irony, they serve as constant ongoing ironic commentaries on their opposites, the intolerably unreal or the untouchably beautiful. Often these grotesque creatures of fiction are, themselves, lookers, compulsive gazers, voyeurs. Popeye, in Faulkner’s Sanctuary, from 1931, is a kind of touchstone of Southern gothic facial anti-ornament. Like many characters in Faulkner defined by self-disgust, he stares, as if he himself were a novelist taking careful notes on a scene and had died in the effort but lived on in a kind of zombie trancelike existence. “His face had a queer, bloodless color, as though seen by electric light; against the sunny silence, in his slanted straw hat and his slightly akimbo arms, he had that vicious depthless quality of stamped tin.” And, two paragraphs later, “Across the spring Popeye appeared to contemplate him with two knobs of soft black rubber.”
Popeye, with his rubberized eyeballs and industrialized face, is not so far away from Flannery O’Connor’s description of Hazel Motes sitting on the train in the opening chapter of Wise Blood (1962). Hazel’s eyes are “the color of pecan shells and set in deep sockets… he had a nose like a shrike’s bill… his hair looked as if it had been permanently flattened… [the eyes’] settings were so deep that they seemed… almost like passages leading somewhere….” As it turns out, Hazel Motes’s face is difficult if not impossible to read. No one in the novel can read that face or decipher it. Even by the end of the book, with Hazel’s eyesight removed with the spiritual discipline of applications of lye, Mrs. Flood, his landlady, is still trying to see what his face or his eyes might have to say about him once he is safely dead. But—O’Connor seems to insist on this—in his spiritual privacy, Hazel Motes is unreadable by anyone on Earth, and his eyes are still black tunnels that she cannot enter.
Saul Bellow is one of the last holdouts for a tradition of literature portraiture that goes back to Dickens and Henry Fielding and what I’d call the “identity-theme” in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English novel. Like many English novels whose titles derive from the names of their main characters (Tom Jones, Moll Flanders, Emma, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield), Bellow’s novels often present us with a name—Herzog, Augie March, Ravelstein, or Mr. Sammler—of a character whose complexities will be dramatized at length in the novel named after him. Bellow, like Dickens, is a quick-sketch artist of minor characters, and though these sketches sometimes approach caricature, as in another American identity-theme novelist, Sinclair Lewis, they usually do not arrive there. For the main character, Bellow does a full-length portrait, including the clothes. Bellow holds to the assumption that you can tell who a person is simply by looking at him (or her) carefully enough. Here is Valentine Gersbach, from Herzog (1964):
Valentine was a dandy. He had a thick face and heavy jaws; Moses thought he somewhat resembled Putzi Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s own pianist. But Gersbach had a pair of extraordinary eyes for a red-haired man, brown deep, hot eyes, full of life. The lashes, too, were vital, ruddy-dark, long and childlike. And that hair was bearishly thick. Valentine, furthermore, was exquisitely confident of his appearance. You could see it. He knew he was a terribly handsome man. He expected women—all women—to be mad about him.
As we know from reading James Atlas’s biography Bellow (2000), the real-life victims of Bellow’s portraiture squirmed to read their faces and characters described on the pages of his novels, but disinterested observers often remarked on their accuracy. Bellow’s good and bad characters are always revealed by their faces; the shrewd observer watches them closely enough to observe the mask falling away every time. There’s a predatory gaze in Bellow, a feeling of the necessity of watching others. Bellow’s novels are full of con-men and intellectual rogues—you have to watch these people in order to get the drop on them. If you don’t watch them, they’ll prey on you.
Often the Bellow-observer will make a claim about another character that seems dubious, even in retrospect. In Humboldt’s Gift (1975), for example, the narrator, Charlie Citrine, says of a woman, “You could tell from her eyes that she had slept with too many men.” This is the kind of claim that Bellow’s narrators usually get away with, and they do it simply by sheer verbal narrative authority. At this point you might doubt Citrine’s reliability, and you’d be correct. Bellow’s novels negotiate their way through a landscape of large characters, characters who make a difference, who are not overpowered by the systems of which they are a part, and nearly always when a facial portrait appears in a Bellow novel, it is an assessment: that is, it begins with physiological details, moves into character appraisal, and ends with an idea of what that person is worth, in sexual or financial or artistic or purely human terms.
The character or narrator who makes these assessments is usually shrewd and worldly. You cannot be a nice person and also judge peoples’ characters based on their faces. That requires a kind of cruelty, an ability to say what no one else is willing to say. That is a form of bravery, and Bellow’s fiction is always brave in this manner.
But there are signs everywhere of the end of what I would call the physiognomy-tradition, in the reluctance of American writers to extrapolate character from what a person looks like, as Bellow does. In writers like Don DeLillo, there is the additional suggestion that the individual face simply has no importance anymore, that it is the basis of an antiquarian humanism based on unsound ideas about individualism. If there are no real individuals left, why bother describing their faces? You will have to find something else to describe. Here is a passage from Mao II, from 1991: “He knew the boy was standing by the door and he tried to see his face in words, imagine what he looked like, skin and eyes and features, every aspect of that surface called a face, if we can say he has a face, if we believe there is actually something under the hood.”
In this passage the face has become the proving ground for what remains of the wreckage of humanism in a mass culture where disguise has become a norm. The “hood” Delillo is referring to is the ski-mask hood pulled over the face of a terrorist, meant to disguise an identity. However, when the hood is raised, the face is still in question—it is not even a face, just a “something,” a vague object among other objects with a vague referent. In DeLillo we enter a world where we cannot really know much of anything, particularly about other people. Other people may have some sort of individual reality, but it is not very likely to appear on their faces or to be visible anywhere else.
The problem of seeing a face, of acknowledging its reality, its connection to a human being who has a separate identity from ours, leads to the problem of obligation, which makes many people uncomfortable. Obligations are often unpleasant and difficult to discharge. This is a point made repeatedly by the contemporary French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas in his meditations on the face. If I understand him correctly, Levinas argues that the face is the unique physical presence that provokes the subject’s obligations to the Other. The face is not abstract. There would be, by implication, always the necessity therefore to see the face of my enemy, to acknowledge it, and all those to whom I wish to deny a face; my humanity requires such a recognition, particularly in moments of social crisis.
This imperative applies, in a functionally less ethical way, in any social interaction witnessed and dramatized in a novel. We may talk about “faceless” crowds, but the minute we begin to talk about “faceless” fiction or “faceless” characters, particularly in social situations, we are talking about a near-impossibility. In much recent fiction, such as Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me (2001) or Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved (2003) there is considerable concentration on what remains of the face, and of what remains of mutual obligation in a narcissistic and psychopathic culture. If the face has turned into a mask, then it is probably our obligation as writers to describe that mask as carefully as we can.
2. Expression as Social Subtext
This morning I take my car to the shop for an oil change. The guy who checks the car in is wearing a white shirt and gray cotton pants. His hair is cut fairly short, and he has the bulky body of a former high school or maybe college football player and part-time auto mechanic. He sports a trim blond goatee. He looks respectable, though respectable only recently. The collar of the white shirt seems too tight on his neck. He has a crisp manner of speech and a habit of moving his head back when he finishes a sentence. He looks directly at me when he asks me a question. I don’t have to take his measure, but it is my habit and I do so anyway. But what I really notice about the guy is not his face but the thick index finger on his right hand, because on this finger there is a small tattoo of a screaming skull with hair flying.
Like most people these days, I’m likely to get an initial sense of who a person is not from his face but from his accessories. What has been emptied out of the face now often appears in the tattoos. Actually, none of my observations make any difference at all if our interaction goes smoothly, if my car’s oil is changed and I pay the bill. If there’s no tension, no plus or minus, then who cares what anybody looks like? Only when tensions arise, when we fall in love or are threatened or coerced, do faces and clothes and tattoos and personal details begin to count.
Such tensions begin with social uneasiness of the sort we all have felt at various times in the company of people we do not entirely trust. Then they start to escalate, especially when we are attracted to someone or feel physically or psychically threatened. The more confined the dramatic space, the more likely it is that facial expressions will become important. One of the greatest writers—perhaps the greatest—of social uneasiness is Marcel Proust, for whom social anxiety is an endlessly renewable narrative resource. Proust is equally good on smugness and social unconcern, but his comic sense is most likely to appear whenever a character’s fears give himself away, as in his description of Dr. Cottard, in Swann’s Way, in the translation by Moncrieff, Kilmartin, and Enright:
Dr. Cottard was never quite certain of the tone in which he ought to reply to any observation, or whether the speaker was jesting or in earnest. And so by way of precaution he would embellish all his facial expressions with the offer of a conditional, a provisional smile whose expectant subtlety would exonerate him from the charge of being a simpleton, if the remark addressed to him should turn out to have been facetious. But as he must also be prepared to face the alternative, he dared not allow this smile to assert itself positively on his features, and you would see there a perpetually flickering uncertainty, in which could be deciphered the question that he never dared to ask: “Do you really mean that?” He was no more confident of the manner in which he ought to conduct himself in the street, or indeed in life generally, than he was in a drawing-room; and he might be seen greeting passers-by, carriages, and anything that occurred with a knowing smile which absolved his subsequent behaviour of all impropriety, since it proved, if it should turn out unsuited to the occasion, that he was well aware of that, and that if he had assumed a smile, the jest was a secret of his own.
In this example we’re not being offered the whole of Dr. Cottard’s face, but only his smile. Cottard’s face has been segmented, and in this process his nervous smile has come to define him. Insecurity is his social essence. It’s a Cheshire Cat maneuver. What is characteristic substitutes for character; the smile suffices, because Dr. Cottard’s worries about appearing to be stupid and naive in mixed company trump everything else about him. One feature of a character’s face viewed at the right moment and from the right angle reveals the necessary subtext, the subterranean worries; it’s as if the nervous smile is the corridor to the unsaid. Such moments do not define an entire character and are not meant to. We don’t get physiognomy as an index to character. Instead, these moments define a position or stance in a tense social interaction. We’re not talking about character anymore, but social behavior patterns.
Paula Fox is one of our contemporary masters of such moments. Andrea Barrett in her introduction to the novel The Widow’s Children (1976) has justly described Fox’s fiction as Proustian. The opening section of Fox’s novel is full of these dramatic stagings in which parts of the face give a sense of what’s going on underneath, which is usually dire. At the beginning of that novel, the situation is this: Clara, an insecure daughter, is going to a hotel for drinks with her wickedly indifferent mother Laura, Laura’s alcoholic husband Desmond, her brother Carlos, who is gay, and Laura’s friend (but not lover) Peter Rice, a downcast book editor. Laura, we later discover, is holding on to a secret: Her own mother, Alma, has died the day before.
The tension in the scene is remarkable. Everyone is trying to relax, but, thanks in part to Laura’s diabolic cleverness and too much alcohol and a concatenation of secrets, everyone in the room is keyed up, spiteful, and affrighted. There is an air of untamed, free-floating maliciousness, which can descend on anyone at any time. It is like a cocktail party of savagely clever and malevolent dragons.
You might think that facial expressions are dramatically free of the settings in which they appear, but no. What the opening of Paula Fox’s novel emphasizes here is that facial expressions become most important when the dramatic spaces have collapsed or become agonizingly confined. There’s nowhere else to look. All the other important information has been removed, and we are inside the social novel, with a vengeance. With the crowding of characers, you are forced to see people close-up and to look straight at them minute after minute in a no-exit setting, a terribly confined space, like the hotel room of this opening section, or a bus, or a jail cell—any place where people have managed to get themselves confined and cannot, for one reason or another, get themselves out. You parse their faces so closely under such grievously tense circumstances that the faces themselves start to show the strain, and then begin to be segmented.
In The Widow’s Children examples of segmented faces proliferate, with a particular concentration on eyes and mouths. Laura looks at her husband with “mirror eyes.” Clara arrives at the hotel and is greeted by Desmond’s “wasted smile.” When Laura and Carlos look at Clara, she has the impression of “two eagles swooping toward her,” with the same “deep set eyes above massive lid folds,” of something “not quite human in the eyes above their smiling lips.” Desmond has a black mustache and “lips like old rubber bands.” When Peter Rice enters the book, he is given an almost old-fashioned entrance, suitable for his old-fashioned courtliness: “His thin hair was gray, his features narrow, and from behind his glasses, his pale blue eyes gazed out mildly. He gave the impression of being clean and dry as though he been pressed between two large blotters which had absorbed all his vital juices.”
As the scene continues, we begin to notice all the details about faces latched on to details about gestures. We also get details about the exact manner in which things are said, from whispers to strangled shouts. This is a fully staged novel. That is, the staging in it is so detailed that you could cast it, block out the actors’ movements, and indicate the directions for line-readings from the narrative alone, but the emphasis on the staging is meant to emphasize not just the surface but the subtext and the sense of claustrophobia. The details about faces and gestures begin to pile up: Laura’s cheek, when Peter embraced her, had been “dry, powdery. It was what he had come to desire, all things dry, ash, dead leaf, stone.” Facial expressions start to be compounded and mixed: Desmond has on his face an expression that was both “truculent and timid,” and Laura, in an angry moment, has eyes “crinkled with laughter.” Peter’s face, in a moment of panic, “looked oddly stretched, as though he were holding it in front of him with taut hands.” Clara feels her own face contorting into a “hideous smile of malice.” Readers who are particularly attentive might notice how often, in these descriptions, the eyes contradict the lips; the face itself forms a sort of expressive double negative, hideous smiles or cheerful frowns.
Paula Fox seems to know more than any other contemporary American writer about the dangerousness of facial signals—how subtexts can be loaded onto something as initially innocent as a smile, how a smile can transform, in a moment, into a seizure of malice, as with Laura’s smile in a frightening close-up, “the three plump cushions of her lips, the large, somewhat dingy teeth, and behind them the quivering mucosity of her tongue.”
Last year during a visit that Paula Fox made to the University of Michigan MFA program in writing, one of the graduate students asked her, speaking of this scene in The Widow’s Children, how it was that she had learned to write with such intensity about the seemingly small details of a scene. Where, the student wanted to know, had she learned to employ this effect of hyper-attention to faces and gestures? She replied that it was more than a writerly technique. She had been an unwanted child, she said, handed from one foster parent to another, and had never been sure where her next meal would come from. When she was in her mother’s presence, she never knew whether she would be exiled without dinner or fawned upon or have a drink thrown at her. “It made me watchful,” she said. “My habit of watchfulness went into that book.”
Fiction once began with the face, with the act of observation of the faces of others. Does it still? It’s arguable. I can imagine a skeptic wondering what difference it makes whether writers describe faces or not. Does anything of importance really hang in the balance? Who cares? Does it make any difference to the operations of the world? Who cares about the face anymore? Is reading the face a continuing survival skill, as Paula Fox suggested, and if so, for whom?
As it happens, both inside literature’s examples and outside of them, the face continues to be where we are answerable to our emotions and to our obligations. If Levinas claims that the face is where acknowledgment and obligation start and the face is never abstract, some adults eventually lose that particular skill quite willingly nevertheless. The face of the other becomes inconvenient. Under these circumstances, the faces of the innocent, the vanquished, the weak, and the lost don’t have to be looked at or their humanity acknowledged. Why bother with them? They’re losers.
At the present historical moment our obsession with beauty has become pernicious and ideological. Montagine would tell us that ugly unphotogenic people may be tender and wise persons whose presence we require in the stories of our lives. In any moment of love or betrayal, tension and threat, sorrow or depression or grief, or even moments of political decision, at what do we look, if not the face? What, or whom, do we recognize there?
If we do not see the Other, do we still count ourselves as civilized? If so, on what basis? The small person must by necessity learn to read the face of the large person, to survive. But the strong are under no necessity to acknowledge the faces of the weak; if they do so, it is for the sake of recognizing something of humanity in those who might otherwise be invisible.
A final question: If we take away the face, then where is the story? Maybe in the clothes, or the weapons, or the cars, and the explosions and the shoes, and the swimming pools and the sex and the firepower and the situation, in a kind of reproduction of the glittering surfaces and the beasts of commerce that feed on them. But if the story is going to be a story about persons who have been granted their humanity, who can live and die with all their attendant angels and devils lurking in the background, people, in short, with those archaic things called souls, it probably cannot do without that something—let’s call it a face and not be embarrassed about it—that lies underneath the hood.