Thursday, 4 February 2010


In Rilke's The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge there is a passage about faces - I quote here from Stephen Mitchell's translation, one I like very much.

Have I said it before? I am learning to see. Yes, I am beginning. It's still going badly. But I intend to make the most of my time.

For example, it never occurred to me before how many faces there are. There are multitudes of people, but there are many more faces, because each person has several of them. There are people who wear the same face for years; naturally it wears out, gets dirty, splits at the seams, stretches like gloves worn during a long journey. They are thrifty, uncomplicated people; they never change it, never even have it cleaned. It's good enough, they say, and who can convince them of the contrary? Of course, since they have several faces, you might wonder what they do with the other ones. They keep them in storage. Their children will wear them. But sometimes it also happens that their dogs go out wearing them. And why not? A face is a face.

The next paragraph is about those who change their faces too often and too fast. The last one is worn through in a week, has holes in it, and then, little by little, the lining shows through, the non-face, and they walk around with that on.

The third and fourth is about a particular derelict woman on the corner of the rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, who has her face in her hands, but his movement startles her and she sits up frightened, pulls out of herself too quickly, too violently, so that her face was left in her two hands. I shuddered, says Rilke's Brigge, to see a face from the inside, but I was much more afraid of that bare flayed head waiting there, faceless.


No one is faceless, of course. Yesterday I was walking down the high street in W, just where the pavement narrows and there is room for a car to pull in and wait. Sitting in the driver's seat was a woman. She was clearly very old but had dyed her hair black or was wearing a wig, a little Audrey Hepburn-ish wig. Her face was thin and fine boned. It wore an enigmatic, childish expression, between a smile and a squint. She wasn't looking at anything particular, but seemed lost in herself. She was an exotic, an extra out of some film noir such as Sunset Boulevard. My eyes were stuck to her face for a second - I am aware of the awkwardness of that phrase but it seems appropriate. I couldn't quite let go of her, and held her for what would have been longer than was decent in the open street, if she had noticed me. She was on the other side of age, as if she had fallen through the mirror and had found herself a child again, but with the same body and the same face. Maybe her strange smile was a sign of her sheer astonishment that this could be at all, that such a thing could happen to her.

Today, in Norwich, I passed the man who has been on the same spot every day ever since we moved to Norfolk almost sixteen years ago. He is a well known local character and has been noted in diaries here and there. He is a busking derelict. All he has is a monkey hand-puppet and an ancient ghetto-blaster on which he plays forgotten, or semi-forgotten, pop tunes. As the music plays he simply waggles the hand with the monkey on it. His own body is loose, loose and floppy as the monkey's. He spends the whole day there - in sun, in snow, in driving rain. It is more than a little surprising that he is still alive. But the reason I mention him is because, later that day, I walked to the bus station and suddenly there he was ahead of me, exchanging remarks with a couple of people, one derelict like himself, the other a bus employee. They seemed to be larking with him. And the oddest thing about this was not him - nor them - but me. I had never imagined the man living somewhere a bus ride away. I had never imagined him with his ghetto blaster and monkey puppet travelling anywhere. His face? It was Rilke's idea of the non-face glimpsed through the lining. Almost unfocusable. But a real face all the same, even in its non-face way. It was the face of a man with a name.

And lastly, today, having got off the bus in W, I passed a very young woman, maybe no more than nineteen. Quite pretty, blonde, short haired. But the way she was walking and something about her face, was much older: older in the way a child looks older, not the way an old person actually looks old. It was as if, under the young face, you could already see the ghost of the older one waiting to show through, the walk of the old woman preparing itself several years in advance in the walk of the young one. For a second I thought of the old woman in the car and put them next to each other, almost transposing one over the other. It was a touch unheimlich - disturbing. Then it was gone. Both of them were gone. There was nothing in the least macabre about this. It was just a passage of time enacted between two women, with the busker in the middle.

Then, of course, there is my own face and whatever it shows, to whomsoever it shows what they think it shows. I sometimes look at it with real curiosity. It's not vanity - I don't think much of it in terms of beauty - but it is, undeniably, there, and it does hold an interest. My interest, at least. Then it's gone. I am not aware of it as I type.

And my mind goes back to when I was about seventeen and thinking grand metaphysical thoughts, wondering which part of my physical self was 'it' - the thing I was. If I lost a finger or had it cut off, would the finger be me, or what was left? Or an arm? Say I lost both arms? Both legs too? Were those lost parts not me - the 'it' - the thing I was? How far can we go before there is nothing left? What is the meaning of the balance in which most of the actual body is missing but the small part that remains still functions? Consider the heads in the basket at the guillotine? Is it the head or the body that is the self, the 'it', the thing that you meet, really meet, as in dreams? Adolescent speculations.

Maybe it is the face, the eyes above all, the thing that looks out at you through them. Maybe that is the thing we encounter in the street, in the car, at the afternoon bus-station, the whole thing moving between face and non-face, just as mine is moving, and always has moved, between the two.


Gwil W said...

You have the eye of the true artist.
It is about what moves between the face and the non-face. 'The twitch of the nostril' as R S Thomas called it in one of his poems, yes, but there's an invisible side to all this too. I think it has to do with energy fields.
The faces in the guillotine basket are more like wax dummies in Tussaud's - they are faces and yet they are not. The thing that moves between the face and the non-face has gone. A kind of presence is missing, and this is even if the eyes are closed. The face of the man asleep changes at the time of his death. It becomes ridiculous.
It is as if the mask has fallen away to reveal the ridiculousness behind it. The mask which took a lifetime to paint on, brush stroke by brush stroke, where is it now? Is that it? This ridiculous wax dummy image.
When cutting my nails I still tend to look closely at the debris and contemplate it and wonder about my connection to my bits and pieces...

Gwil W said...

Our face is also our badge of honour. Membership of the human club wwe want to represent, to be in, even to fight for. The face often shows which flock of sheep we think we belong to for decorate or hide our faces accordingly. In the Nazi period, as an example, millions of faces suddenly sprouted the famous toothbrush moustache. Before that it was the Kaiser mutton chops...

Gwil W said...

From 'The Gap in the Hedge' (R S Thomas) I wish to share this classic sketched description of a Welsh hill farmer's face. So much in so few words. So wonderfully rare.

That man, Prytherch, with the torn cap,
I saw him often, framed in the gap
Between two hazels with his sharp eyes,
Bright as thorns, watching the sunrise,
Filling the valley . . .
Or was it a likeness that the twigs drew
With bold pencilling upon that bare piece of sky? For he's still there
At early morning . . .