Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Face, Vanity and Presence

The Márai moves on and now, at last, it is the ex-maid's turn to speak, and speak she does, very vigorously. But more of that another time. I want to think about the face here. It springs out of the Facebook site where I have been sticking old (some very old) and some very new pictures of myself, partly out of curiosity and partly out of the joke of the site being called Facebook.

There are few things more curious than one's own face. And I do mean curious. not engaging or handsome or valuable or anything. Just curious. Just now I was writing something about it in poem form, but it is somewhat down the Ted Hughes 'Crow' line, and possibly too close. So it is not a good or proper or freestanding poem exactly, or I don't think so at any rate. This was it

A Man Without a Face

There once was a man without a face.
He could not grasp it.
He could not imagine it.
He could not see it.

He swam through the air faceless,
Like a bladed instrument,
Like a swatch of cloth,
Like stone rolling uphill,
Like a cloud seeking itself in a pond,
Like a likeness without a mirror,
Like a word,
Like a shout,
Like breath,
Like nothing on earth.

Am I nothing on earth? - he felt his tongue asking.
Am I feather, or stone, or leaf? - his eyes asked searching the horizon.
Am I all fingers and thumbs?
All arms and legs?
All bone and no dog?
All wind and no chest?

He ached in the depth of his eyes.
He hurt in the caves of his ears.
His heart dragged in him.
His liver and kidneys and pancreas
And all his unnumbered organs
Were faceless and unnumbered.

What is it to be faceless? God asked,
Since Gods are not given to imagining.

Here take my face, said God.
There’s nothing behind it.
I’ve faces enough. It is yours

Yes, Hughes like, which is a shame. But let's forget that for now (I could feel the ghost of Hughes pulling me one way). It is about knowing nothing, or next to nothing, about one's face as an object. I am generally surprised when I see mine in a photograph, in much the same way as I am when I hear myself recorded. It is, I know, a form of self, but it's the least known, partly because it is an effect: the effect of the way it moves through the air, turns this way and that, forms a smile, a grimace, a frown or a blank. We cannot see or feel our presence as others see and feel it. We lack certainty.

But how much effort people put into 'looking their best' for photographs (mea culpa)! It is as if we wanted posterity to fancy us, or respect us, or be taken in by us. We want to project the face into a position of love and power.

When I touch my face it feels as strange as if I were handling some exotic object. It is neither nice or nasty. It's just that part of myself that is most registered by the world but which I myself can never register. When I look at myself in the mirror I am 'pulling a face'. There are things I want to see there. Grimacing won't do. I know that's just as much of a cheat. When someone catches me in an informal shot, when I am speaking say, I am vaguely horrified. There I am frozen in a stillness I am never aware of, one I don't own. I want to own myself. I am a moving object that wants to freeze certain aspects of my movement and hold it in eternity or at least some kind of odd temporal space.

Odd. Odd. Decidedly odd, all of it. It is not vanity. I do not admire my face. I don't even think well of it. But I know it's there, accompanying me everywhere.


And I see my father's ninety-two-year-old face and recall his earlier faces. As I do so a vast in-betweenness, an enormous gulf opens up and I feel myself faintly falling into it. I suppose that gulf is time. I suppose his face is the clock on which an individual time might be measured. But I can't even find the ruler, the chronometer. I can only see my own absence, widening somehow. I think I must be prepared to call that absence 'love' - love for him, this shrinking, shifting of face.


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