In the poem Nautilus there are these lines:
I couldn’t keep my eyes off the older
woman’s face, as if I were its only beholder,
its sad crumpled beauty, its cabinet
of curiosities. I can scarcely believe my own.
Or yours, how the whole structure is maintained
and holds firm....
Indeed I couldn't. Faces have always bewitched me, older rather than younger faces on the whole. Younger faces are prettier, have charm, have the great pathos of promise, are healthy and full of potential vigour. Some are beautiful and one could love them or imagine loving them. It is just that they are unfinished, waiting to be filled with time.
I am talking chiefly of female faces, though male faces no doubt have similar qualities, but I am for all intents and purposes a heterosexual man and it is women's faces that have imposed themselves on me - it is from the female face I seek response and am delighted when I find it.
Beauty is a hard master. It seems to be an early visitor who stays a while then goes. It arrives in mid-morning, stays for a wonderful lunch, but by mid-afternoon it is looking at its watch. As the song goes, Sometimes it's hard to be a woman, and it's not just because of giving all your love to just one man. The premium on beauty is too high, and the kind of beauty that has the highest street value is necessarily brief. Beauty in men, it seems to me, is somehow tied in with the concept of experience so the boy with the beautiful face is not yet a full being. But the beautiful face of a young woman is taken to be at full.
No doubt that is partly cultural, but we are inside culture not outside it so can never really know. But the woman whose face I was so taken with still carried the memory of lunch and early afternoon. And it would have been a good lunch I thought, and maybe an even better afternoon. Her face was no longer the half-abstract emblem of Beauty but a human face, a point of history caught and traversed. It had seen things and done things, and was vulnerable but still giving out light. And light is what most men want from most women.
A friend sent an old photograph from the early seventies of me via Facebook. 'Doesn't he look handsome....;-)' he writes. It's very strange. The face does look handsome in its way, but it never felt handsome then, nor does the present one now. At not one present moment would it ever have felt handsome. It was always unsatisfactory. More than that, it was always half invisible. I mean quite literally half-invisible since a mirror only shows the viewer half. You could mess around with two mirrors, but getting the sense of that face as a presence would still be difficult. I could never manage it. So every time I see a recent photo it's a bit of a shock, especially when it is taken by someone else when I am unaware. Is that object in space really me?
That object in space is certainly ageing. Not dreadfully. Not dramatically. Most would say it was doing pretty well on the various registers of age. But for me it is impossible. My head is an object in space. Like the moon it has a dark side. It has never been quite comfortable with itself. It has sometimes to check it's still there, that it looks as it expects to look, the same fleeting mask. It is not vanity but apprehension looking back, scrutinising itself. And a kind of disbelief. Not as honest a disbelief as Rembrandt's, not as accepting, but at least it knows what Rembrandt was talking about. That particular object in space looking at itself.