I’ve been reading a book about provincial life set in the mid 19th century and became curious about the descriptions of peoples’ faces. To me, Byronic locks and a noble chin don’t give me a good picture of someone at all. Maybe that’s because I grew up in a world with pictures and movies and internet and I’m not used to using my imagination. Maybe words are just not the best medium to describe the human face. Maybe it’s because there is more variation in face shape in 21st century California; in 19th century England, most people looked fairly similar, so a description could easily conjure up the type of face that this person might have. But lately I’ve been toying with the idea that description says more about the describer than the described.
To a disturbing extent we see what we want to see. In college I took a class in which we talked about the Portuguese discovery of Africa and America. The most advanced maps that the Portuguese had were based on world travelers, who were fairly accurate about the places they were familiar with, and less accurate about the communities on the periphery. The borders of these maps were full of fanciful monsters (one of whom used his extra large foot as a parasol to shade himself from the African sun). The explorers were so willing to believe that Africans and Native Americans were not human because they were expecting monsters that when they found people who didn’t look like them, they assumed that they must have found these monsters.
On this week’s Culture Gabfest, Stephen Metcalf recommends a genre of poems where the narrator is a person who sees someone else and fills in what they don’t know about them with their own imagination.
What is the best way to describe someone’s face? How do we use other peoples’ faces to project our own beliefs?
“Language gives a fuller image, which is all the better for beings vague. After all, the true seeing is within; and painting stares at you with an insistent imperfection. I feel that especially about representations of women. As if a woman were a mere colored superficies! You must wait for movement and tone. There is a difference in their very breathing: they change from moment to moment.—This woman whom you have just seen, for example: how would you paint her voice, pray? But her voice is much diviner than anything you have seen of her.”
–Middlemarch, George Eliot
Update 1/28: a great description of a face
“To superficial observers his chin had too vanishing an aspect, looking as if it were being gradually reabsorbed. And it did indeed cause him some difficulty about the fit of his satin stocks, for which chins were at that time useful.”
–Middlemarch, George Eliot