Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Hummings from the Beehive: On Faces

Thoughts sundry, scrambled, and sometimes silly.


Upon getting to the campus chapel for 10:30 Mass the other morning, I realized that I had left my mantilla in my room. I wound up just draping my long pashmina scarf over my head and laying it over my shoulder instead. As I sat in the pew, waiting for Mass to begin, it occurred to me that anyone sitting behind me would be clueless as to who I was, since the scarf completely concealed my hair. (According to my friends, my most distinguishing feature is my hair, which is dark, very curly, and can easily be spotted from across a room.) Someone would have had to have been very familiar with my form, gestures, etc., in order to recognize me from behind. And not only that – I could pull the scarf forward far enough to block out my peripheral vision. That way, I didn't have to distract other people, and other people didn't have to distract me (said the timid, antisocial homebody within).

I realized how comfortable I was, curled up in this little shell of anonymity. I began to wonder why I don't wear a scarf during Mass more often. Thoughts began to run through my imagination: what would life be like if we all wore big helmet-mask things when we went out - gear that completely obscured the head and face? Or even if I was the only one wearing a helmet-mask-thing? So concealed, I'd be able to get away with all sorts of things. Maybe. I imagined myself going out into the center of the busy cafeteria and breaking out into ridiculous dance moves, or whistling at cute boys in passing, or watching silly Asian dramas on the internet in public. And best of all, I wouldn't have to worry about eye contact with strangers – all those moments which are sometimes exciting, sometimes scary, sometimes both. I could people-watch without shame in public places! It would be awesome! I would be free. I would be safe.

And...I would be pretty lonely, because no one would really know me. After a while, perhaps I would not even know myself.

[and I would look pretty silly, but this is not the point.]

I'm very much an introvert. A crowd of strangers often has the same effect on me that a tiny closet does on the claustrophobe. But I'm always hesitant to call myself “shy”: it's more like I can be super bashful because I generally think other people are amazing, and I'm afraid of disappointing them. A pretty universal fear, although no doubt different personality types respond to it in different ways. But regardless of individual social habits, haven't we all, at one time or another, experienced the urge to cover our faces and run away, whether it be from one “other”, or from a whole sea of “others”?

Here, C. S. Lewis' great allegorical novel, Till We Have Faces, inevitably comes to my mind. In this retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche, our narrator is Orual, Psyche's unattractive older sister. Throughout the near-entirety of the book, she utters grumbling accusations against 'the gods'; “especially the god who lives on the Grey Mountain”, who has spirited away her beloved Psyche in order to make her his bride. At the climax of the story, when Orual at last stands before the court of the gods to read her little book of complaints, it is as if she is truly hearing herself for the first time:

“The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered.”... “When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

Ultimately, Lewis uses the motif of the face to represent a means of focused and mature communication – and, when it comes to the Divine, the means of any communication, period. Knowledge of self is necessary before knowledge of other can be possible. Only when one hunkers down and gets serious about his identity can sincere and meaningful communication with the other begin.

To reference one of the best animated features to ever come out of Disney: Nala certainly enjoys running around with Simba in the jungle and playing around in the water with him, etc., but she is also confused and frustrated by how he has changed. “Why can't he be the king I know he is, the king I see inside?” Since Simba has totally rejected his true identity as king, his methods of communicating with the girl (lioness?) he loves are limited to flirtation and physical affection. When she challenges his decision to run away from himself and his responsibilities, he reacts with childish defensiveness.

But ok, I'm done analyzing children's cartoons.

Now consider this: if I do not accept my true identity, as well as (a) the responsibility that comes with living it, and (b) the vulnerability that comes with revealing it to others, then I am safe; but I am also essentially powerless, for, ultimately, I cannot love properly. If I hide my face behind a mask, and choose to identify myself with it – whether out of self-loathing, the desire to please others, the desire to conform, or whatever else - then I cannot love; I can only lie. I can only engage in empty, twisted actions. The human person was created to love. But before he can do what he was made to do, he must be who he was made to be. I think of (oops, not really done with children's cartoons) the eerie spirit called “No-Face” in Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away: without the anchor of identity, he's aimless, reckless, gluttonous, deceptive – and, as he says to Chihiro: “I'm lonely, I'm lonely!”

Now, to be completely honest, neither ancient Greek gods nor anthropomorphic lions nor masked Japanese spirits play a substantial role in my day-to-day life. How can all this be applied to me, along with any other socially awkward girl out there?

Like this: by always striving for wonder, gratitude and sincerity in our interactions with other people. In the end, I'm thankful for the thrill of intimacy that comes with the glance of every stranger, even when it is accompanied by awkwardness or self-consciousness. I'm glad for the gift of the other, as strange as he or she always is, even after years of familiarity: always strange, but always beautiful. Most of all, I am thankful to have been given a face – a part of my identity through which the microcosm of my soul can bridge the gap into your own. Who can quite explain the magic magnetism of eye contact? It is the simultaneous consciousness of two people that “I am looking into his eyes, he is looking into mine, we both know it, and we both know that the other knows.” What happens when we dare to really look? Every time is an opportunity precious as gold: the human face unfolds to reveal what lies beyond. Let's take every opportunity. Let's dare to look. Let's resolve to live out the common human vocation to know the other, and to be likewise known by him.


Image: "The Baleful Head" from Edward Burne-Jones' Perseus Cycle. Interesting note from commentary I once read on the painting: Perseus is showing Andromeda Medusa's reflection in the (pool? birdbath's?) surface, because obviously, Medusa is so ugly that she'll turn ya to stone if you look at her directly, even when she's dead. Also obvious is the fact that Perseus is checking out the object of his budding affections to see how impressed she is. But if you look into the water's surface and follow Andromeda's eyes, you'll see that she's not looking at Medusa at all. She's just as engrossed in Perseus as he is in her. GAH SO MANY FACES AND EYES AND GLANCES AND MEANINGS.

and FEELINGS, for this Pre-Raphaelite-obsessed girl.

Thanks for reading, all.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent blog post, Olivia! I appreciated the reference to "Till We Have Faces," a remarkable book!