Facial Frontier; The human face can reveal much about a person-- whether they like it or not
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 12 August 2008)

Consider the way a human face speaks with silent eloquence. In the view of Raymond Tallis, an eminent British doctor and a talented writer, the face of a man or woman constitutes "the most sign-packed surface in the universe." Nothing else we see carries more meaning. Every face displays a pattern of dense emotional responses in the present and an archive of its owner's experience in the past. And each one is both unique and mysterious.

In his new book, The Kingdom of Infinite Space: A Fantastical Journey Around Your Head (Yale University Press), Tallis sets out to make his readers into "astonished tourists of the piece of the world that is closest to them, so they never again take for granted the head that looks at them from the mirror." He begins his examination with the face.

Faces, as Tallis sees them, are like texts, crammed with information. A friend of mine used to quote an old literary cliche, "Her face was a study." In recent times, however, faces have changed, making them harder to read. We are developing a face for our era. Botox is one reason.

Botox relaxes facial muscles and makes possible a smoothness where creases might otherwise appear, revealing the face's age. In return, Botox exacts a harsh payment. The user becomes relatively dull-looking, more like a copy than an original. Will we eventually speak of pre-Botox faces as artifacts in a once-loved but now abandoned style, like the Victorian novel?

Newsreader Standard is a considerably older face produced by our civilization. It's the universal mask, more or less the same from Tokyo to Brussels, through which we receive information on TV. By tradition, newsreaders show no emotion, so many of us every day spend time looking at faces that are by intention flat and generic, far from what we would regard (in private life) as human. Trying for an impassive manner, TV news people evoke an English term-- "po-faced," a shortening of poker-faced.

In ordinary life, what people want when they stare at the faces of others is acknowledgement. We want a sense that we exist. Tallis quotes Hegel's view that humans hunger above all for recognition by other humans. Connection is the key. Knowingly or not, we all yearn for it and may fall to pieces without it.

The Kingdom of Infinite Space celebrates routine biological processes that usually slip below the radar of consciousness. That's typical of Tallis. He habitually searches for reality that may be elusive until the right kind of imagination falls upon it.

He's a medical doctor by profession, a philosopher by inclination. In 2006, at the age of 60, he retired as a professor at the University of Manchester. He wanted more time to work on his books, but it's hard to imagine he will be more productive in his new life than in his old. Over three decades, getting up at 5 a. m. to write for two hours before going to the university, he turned out a longish shelf of books on everything from the inanities of postmodern literary criticism to artificial intelligence.

His subjects are life, death and consciousness, plus whatever else falls in his path. Four years ago, in Hippocratic Oaths: Medicine and Its Discontents, he blamed the British government for the erosion of professionalism among doctors, along the way throwing well-aimed rocks at the unquestioning devotees of "alternative medicine," whose fatuous misunderstanding of medicine threatens to corrupt the whole profession. He's a published poet and one of the most incisive essayists in England.

So far as Tallis knows, there's nothing that's uninteresting about the head. After all, a head can sneeze, kiss, laugh, yawn, vomit and cry, sometimes with the owner's permission and sometimes not.

Blushing, for instance, enchants him. Sometimes, unbidden by our consciousness, blood flows to the face, turning it red. Why? Tallis doesn't forget to quote Mark Twain's curt summary, "Man is the only animal that blushes -- or needs to." As Tallis says, "We blush with embarrassment, with shyness, with uncertainty, with a sense of exposure." Blushing is common in children but peaks in adolescence when social anxiety and self-awareness also peak. It results from undesired social attention and heightened self-consciousness. But it is above all a question of self-betrayal. Here Tallis produces one of the metaphors that lighten his pages: "Blushing is a kind of glass-bottomed boat enabling us to look at the depths upon which our ordinary moments float."

That's one of many instances where a system of reflexes takes charge, as if to remind us that its power dwarfs the intentions of human beings who claim to be in control. A more spectacular case is vomiting.

"There can be few experiences so all-consuming as vomiting," Tallis points out. It begins without our consent and proceeds at its own rate, reminding us again that it has us in its grip. It's experienced as a kind of terror, "a shouted reminder that we are embodied in an organism that has its own agenda."

These are among the involuntary functions that are most awe-inspiring. On a lower level Tallis places yawning ("50% of people will yawn within five minutes of seeing someone else yawn").

He also examines willed behaviour, providing detailed data on kissing and possibly the first analysis ever of harrumphing.

Oxford defines a harrumph as an ostentatious clearing of the throat, expressing disapproval. Tallis says it's close to a suppressed bark, typically triggered by a newspaper item about a fashion or trend the harrumpher deplores. "Harrumphs are particularly associated with the idea of a member of the Establishment, whose overweight body provides the perfect instrument for manufacturing it," complete with jowls that shake while the sound emerges.

Few harrumphers practise this favourite tic in private. Like laughing, it's not often a solitary indulgence. (Tallis says we laugh 30 times more frequently when we are with others than when we are alone.)

The harrumph probably deserves more space than Tallis gives it. Is it dying out? Does it express social attitudes only of the old and cranky? I have heard people fail miserably when trying to produce a satisfactory harrumph. All they can manage is a pathetic snort. Harrumphing is no simple matter. There is a rumour they still teach it in the better private schools.

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