I was looking at my face in a window the other day when it suddenly occurred to me that I have some questions. Have you ever heard a recording of your voice and wondered who it was –or at least why it doesn’t sound at all like you’d expected? Perhaps I’m among the last of my generation that still has a need for mirrors, but it struck me that I don’t look at all like I used to –or at least like the picture of my avatar that I have pretended is still me on Facebook all these years. Everything is in the right place, of course, and I can still see the resemblance, but there it all seems to come to a dead end… Sorry, I didn’t mean to use the D word.
Anyway, nothing appears to change from day to day -maybe that’s where I tripped up. And yet, like peeling layers off an onion, something has. So is it still me? I have nothing particularly recognizable on my face; I’m pretty standard issue. I want to know just what has changed and why that still allows me to be identified as me. O wad some Power the giftie gie us To see oursels as ithers see us as Robbie Burns wrote, although probably not referring to our physiognomies; I take him as a more agape kind of guy.
I know I’m not the same person I was when I signed up for the job -I wear glasses now, and braces straightened my teeth enough so individual members could be identified should they ever find themselves adorning a warning bulletin in a post office somewhere- but that’s hardly the point. A face is more than teeth –although I think they help the mouth out a lot.
I suppose part of my problem is an existential one: what is a face, and for heaven’s sake, why is it? Sure it’s the front of the head, but so what? It has eyes, a nose and a mouth –usually in that order- and only one of them comes with a spare part- but is that it? I mean just because you stack a few items in one area, how does that make it more special than a shelf in a grocery store? Let’s try for some objectivity here, otherwise things could degenerate into little more than a kind of defend-your-parts regionalism.
I don’t wish to denigrate parts, you understand –but each is nothing more or less than a cog in larger wheel, and to single one out as special destroys the group dynamics, the cohesion. I am the sum of all my parts, and I am troubled if society tries to confine me to my face. The mouth talks, the nose breathes –pretty important stuff to be sure, but certainly no reason to privilege them just because they usually hang out together. Yes, I’d miss my nose, but then its absence would likely identify me as easily as the presence of any wart, or gaping cave-like nostrils on an intact snout would. My point? Uhmm… Oh yes, if absence is an identifier as well as presence… maybe that which could be either is more like punctuation –a place-holder- than a marker of facehood… Okay, it’s a stretch…
I see the mouth in the same way, really. It’s great to have one, but let’s not go overboard or anything. You know, it talks, it eats -and if it gets lucky, maybe finds another mouth. And there’s no question that it is certainly more convenient for stuffing food into it than the nose. But let’s face it (sorry), if it wasn’t on the face, it’d be somewhere else that we’d probably find pretty quickly at dinner time.
No, the fact that the mouth and nose both wound up in the same place as the eyes, is somewhat of a Darwinian tease I think. The eyes made the face a popular gathering spot for the other two, because ex utero they allowed the face to see where it was going. I mean you’d be more likely to lose a few teeth if the mouth had been allotted a position on the shoulder, eh? And if the nose decided to hang out on the abdomen, or maybe the back, it would always be struggling for fresh air under a shirt -and anyway, how would you ever wipe it?
But there are elephants in the room. And what sags and pumples up around them? Who are the changeless masters of constancy compared with whom the surrounding detritus is but a second thought -parts gathered together in a vertical huddle for protection? Who are the Guardians of the face -the bouncers who decide who gets in and who has to stand in the rain? The eyes! Maybe they are the face… They tell the hands where to put the food. It’s the eyes who point the nose in the correct direction. They are the sine qua non of our identity; they are what allow us to identify, in fact.
In a way, then, it’s the eyes that snitch when things around them change. They’re the kids that always sit in the front row in class; they’re the goodie-goods that smile at the teacher in ways the back row could never dream. As Romeo said: Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye than twenty of their swords.
But, what am I struggling to say? That the face is only a convenient storage shed for exaptations that would otherwise have lived out their miserable little lives somewhere else? A bulletin board that has been allowed to deliver different messages over the years? Is the face even me?
Whoa… When I think this deeply about the issue, perhaps it doesn’t matter that I’ve changed. There’s still a me that stands behind what yet remains. I suppose I should finally throw away the after-shave I won at Bingo and take down that profile I made up for the senior’s online dating site. I suspect I’ve already had my last fling. I must stand and shrug with Shakespeare’s Henry V: My comfort is that old age, that ill layer-up of beauty, can do no more spoil upon my face.
And anyway, who is the face…?