Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Face

One of the fascinating parts about life in the metropolis of New York City is how seldom people look you in the eye. Everyone walks about with face glued to phone or pointed at the ground. If you walk about with head held up, as I do out of equal parts propriety, pride, curiosity, and contrarianism, the moment you lock eyes with someone will be a moment of revelation. Some people immediately look away, a few smile, and some ignore or pretend to ignore you. There's always that sense, though, that when you see someone's face that you've truly seen them, that is, some essential aspect of them.

For example, if two people walk down a hallway, the only two present, each can ignore the other in full and obvious knowledge of that other's presence. Yet should they meet face-to-face, some acknowledgement is required. Similarly, a celebrity whom everyone knows by a thousand movies will shield his face from a candid shot and a defendant in a trial about which everyone has read will hide his face coming out of the courthouse. This is of course illogical, for everyone can put the preexisting image of face together with other knowledge, and yet we hide ourselves. What does the face reveal which we hide out of shame?

Something about the human visage is rife with meaning and truth. It can store in the mind of the viewer seemingly every memory of that person. One glance and all thoughts rush forth, hence both the affection and aversion which a face can elicit. I can languor over one image in my mind forever and yet be so soured by the sight of someone that I avoid seeing even the tiniest little picture of that individual. This dual capacity to trigger both good and bad always reminds me of a line from Cicero's De Officiis, Book I, in which he reflects on the sad sight of a lesser owner dwelling in a house once owned by a great man:
O domus antiqua, heu quam dispari dominare domino!
What a sadness it is, how pitiful, to look at a face and think of how good a person used to be. It is not only discomfiting, but odiosus as Cicero says, to look upon someone, or oneself, and hold in your mind some thought of their or one's own failing. How much more does the deed, whether a mere misdemeanor or dastardly offense, seem to have wounded none more than the doer himself. The wrong seems to cling to and mortify the face as Socrates said it did the soul.

A fable tells the story of a lion who, chasing another, stumbled upon a well. Gazing in he saw his reflection, dove in, and died.
Saepe furiosi plus sibi quam aliis nocent.
How vulnerable, too, the face. How easily can a smile vanish, or wide-eyed joy turn to fear. Philosophers have often wondered just what makes something beautiful and I wonder whether fragility plays perhaps a small part in our estimation of the beautiful. Delicate objects seem to welcome us as they trust our presence not to hurt them, and for that trust we are rewarded with some deeper insight. The affinity is such that we hope authentic the suspected origin of our word delicate in Latin's delicere, to entice, and delico, to reveal. In contrast, who is not put off by a poker face or a concrete facade?

It is beauty alone which seems to reveal to us a nature which otherwise prefers to hide. How fortunate then that it is something we can see in each other.

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