The Inscrutable Mystery of Faces
by Robert Fulford

(Queen's Quarterly, Summer, 2013)

If you poke carefully at our language, it reveals the past in all its squalor, its ignorance, and its poignant dreams of enlightenment. For instance, when an intellectual of today writes a book such as Lawrence W. Levine's Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, why does he find it convenient to use words referring to facial characteristics? Why do any of us speak of comic books as lowbrow, Proust as highbrow? What in the world is the relationship between a brow and intelligence or taste? Why did I, in youth, learn to dismiss sentimental movies and books as middlebrow, a term of contempt?

Pry those words open, and a wondrously odd passage in cultural history falls out. The answers go back many hundreds of years and take us into the realm of folk culture, the beliefs that everyone knows are true until, in some cases, we learn they aren't. The earth is flat, as any fool can plainly see, and the sun goes around the earth. Who would ever guess otherwise? Not me. In the same way, people have believed for centuries that we can assess the character and intelligence of our fellow human beings by examining their faces. Many still believe it, and (I argue) there are those who maintain that belief unconsciously while thinking that they have rejected it. I have caught myself saying of someone, "Of course he's a con man. He almost has CON MAN stencilled on his forehead." Then I catch myself; in truth, before I knew what he did, and what he said, I would have had no way of knowing whether he was one of nature's liars. His face -- admit it! -- told me nothing by itself. Many years ago I came to know slightly a bearded man who looked to me exactly like the imaginary portraits of biblical prophets I'd studied in a few dozen museums. To this museumgoer his face spoke of probity, intelligence, vision, perhaps even poetry. Then I came to know him a little and discovered he was mean, paranoid, quick to anger, and given to jealousy, a rather ugly fellow to know.

The study of faces amounts to a study of the shaky relationship between evidence and intuition. The Greeks believed they could read faces, and produced poetry on that theme. Aristotle wrote "we shall be able to infer character from features," and no one saw any reason to disagree with him. In fact, we should all be experts in reading faces; we spend much of our lives looking into the faces of friends, relatives, and lovers. It seems to follow that this experience gives us the ability to know by mere observation that one man is evil and another one is not, that this woman speaks the truth and that one doesn't. If we try in vain to understand the face of a familiar friend or enemy we will almost certainly come to think that an answer lies somewhere -- just as many believe God made the world because other possibilities seem even more unlikely. We have infinite confidence in knowledge that should exist but for which there's no proof. Something makes us believe that for every puzzle we will eventually find an answer.

When Western science arrived among us a few centuries ago it naturally continued to explore what could be learned from faces. Thomas Browne (1605-1682), the great physician-philosopher, tried to hoist what we might call "face wisdom" up onto one of the lower plateaus of theology. In his first book, The Religion of a Physician, he used the term physiognomy, which is nowadays defined as "The supposed art of judging character from facial characteristics" the operative word being "supposed." There was no "supposed" in Browne's thinking. He argued that there were certain inspired people who (even if they were unable to read books) could look into faces and see the content of souls. In a later book, Christian Morals, he elaborated on that point: "Since the Brow speaks often true, since Eyes and Noses have Tongues, and the countenance proclaims the heart and inclinations," anyone can see the "Physiognomical" truth. He went farther: "there are therefore Provincial Faces, National Lips and Noses."

Still, those ideas were often dismissed as fraudulent in the Middle Ages, and in the Renaissance they were still in bad odour. Physiognomy sometimes claimed to predict the future: this is what will happen to a man with this face. So Henry VIII outlawed it, as he outlawed palm-reading; they were both the occupations of the criminal class. Leonardo was a sceptic about the claims of physiognomy: "There is no truth in them and this can be proven because these chimeras have no scientific foundation." All this was speculation, of course. But in another century or two eager researchers began trying to turn physiognomy into a legitimate science.

Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801), a Swiss pastor and a friend of Goethe, breathed new life into the subject. He studied Browne, along with other earlier sages, and believed he recognized the truth. Lavater's essays were accompanied by illustrations with heavy-handed captions: "A Face disfigured by Idleness and Debauchery" or "Heads expressing Inhuman Satisfaction, from Voltaire's self-sufficient Sneer, up to an Infernal Grin." Lavater was a true believer: "With secret ecstasy the benevolent Physiognomist penetrates into the interior of his fellow-creature. Thus he judges Man only by himself."

Lavater's books sold across Europe and provoked discussion. Writers were attracted to physiognomic thinking; it influenced the descriptions of characters in Balzac, Dickens, Hardy, and Charlotte Brontë. Oscar Wilde made physiognomy an underlying assumption of The Picture of Dorian Gray and justified the premise with an often-quoted line: "It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible."

Would-be scientists competed to develop proven systems of face wisdom. They enormously expanded what we could see (or believed we could see) by looking at a face. Researchers would measure the faces of criminals and claim they had discovered a fair, objective way to judge the accused in criminal courts. But the statistical evidence gathered in this way tended to be more hopeful than credible. A good many researchers developed the habit of discarding facts that led nowhere and reporting only those that buttressed their theories.

Nevertheless, these widely publicized findings affected conversation, journalism, and literature. The phrase "chinless wonder" became a widespread insult, as applied to young men in Britain who had acquired good positions through nepotism; their recessive chins were assumed to be the result of inbreeding among the upper classes. A man with a chiselled, sculpted mouth, it was reckoned, would turn out to be strong and perhaps dangerous. A small face, with eyes close to each other, suggests a poor character. An aquiline nose (also called a Roman nose or a hook nose), which appears to be curved or bent, indicates vision and intelligence, possibly heroism; aquiline comes from the Latin for "eagle-like."

All this, and much more, the advocates of physiognomy spread around the world. All were rejected in the end, and their occupation has since been routinely classified as a pseudo-science. But it is not dead yet. In the last few years the Economist, Slate, and the New Statesman have all carried sceptical but still respectful reports of experiments that seem to suggest that there might, just possibly, be something that can be rescued from the historic collapse of physiognomy. So far the results are only marginally interesting, but physiognomy has left behind a residue that some scientists find worth exploring. It has also left us the brow question, mentioned above. Dr Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), a German doctor, founded craniology, a would-be science later called phrenology. An appropriately trained person could put his hands on someone's skull, grope around a bit, then judge the subject's intelligence, character, etc. Gall believed that people with large foreheads have bigger brains. (Portraits show that Gall himself had a generous-sized brow.)

As a result, in 1875 "highbrow" became a synonym for intellectual. In 1902 this led naturally to a new word, "lowbrow" In 1949 this curious terminology grew more popular. Russell Lynes wrote a witty article in Harper's, entitled "Highbrow, Lowbrow, Middlebrow," and Life magazine made it famous by running a chart illustrating in cartoons the tastes of the different brow levels in America as Lynes described them. In an accompanying article Winthrop Sargeant, a music critic, declared himself proudly highbrow; one of his highbrow characteristics, he said, was his refusal to smoke any pipe tobacco that stooped to advertising. Those articles inaugurated a parlour game in which readers rated their own brow levels and those of their friends.

There was another contribution to brow theory. Studies of Neanderthals showed they had short necks, ridges on their brows, and sloping foreheads. They were, to be sure, lowbrows. But so, on the other hand, were many prominent modern humans. Winston Churchill and Steve Jobs had similar sloping foreheads, brow ridges, etc.

Whatever the reason, writers came to love the noble brow. They made brows into a characteristic element in literature. For decades books, good and bad, teemed with men and women whose brows were called admirable. Robert Burns, gazing at a portrait of an earl, praised "that noble, dauntless brow." H. Rider Haggard, in She, admired a woman's "great changing eyes of deepest, softest black, of the tinted face, of the broad and noble brow." Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, grew rapturous over a "fair, high-bred child, with her golden head, her deep eyes, her spiritual, noble brow." L.M. Montgomery in The Blue Castle hymned a "noble brow, a straight, classic nose, lips and chin and cheek modelled as if some goddess of old time had sat to the sculptor." This literary cliché has followed us even into the twenty-first century. John Banville in Eclipse has a character refer to "My brand-new father-in-law, a watchful widower with the incongruously noble brow of a philosopher king."

A strange closing chapter of this story was written in Mumbai in 2008. Among the Pakistani killers who conducted a sudden terrorist attack on the city, killing as many people as they could, only one was captured alive, Ajmal Kasab. He was as vicious a killer as the world has known. He had no particular interest in religion or politics but joined the terrorist team because they fed him and paid him a salary. As soon as the Mumbai police gave him food he went over to their side and provided the details of the atrocity. That didn't save him from being hanged, but it left us an interesting anecdote about what we can or can't learn by studying faces.

He was a nice-looking fellow, when he wasn't being dragged around by the police. He was 20 years old, five feet tall, and possessed of an innocent round face. He had bright eyes and apple cheeks. The newspapers called him "the baby-faced killer." A columnist in the Times of India asked: "Who or what is he? Dangerous fanatic or exploited innocent?" Aside from being a monster, he was another proof that faces tell us exactly nothing about the character of individual humans.

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