Saturday, August 30, 2008


. . . it's better not to make gods or demons smile: they don't laugh at the same jokes as us.

-- Jorkens

There's quite a number of facial muscles -- we didn't learn half of them in massage school -- and so far as anyone knows they're all quite useless, except for communicating emotionally with your fellow human beings. Which goes to show how important communicating emotionally is, to us social animals, from a purely cold-blooded, evolutionary point of view. Those who are bad at it tend to not to get to reproduce.

The apologetic email, telling us of our appointments for being photographed, and giving us instructions for how to dress, began "SMILE!" We were to bring a favorite book -- checked out from the library, of course -- to be photographed with.

I had imagined a group photo, but no, these were individual portraits, and the photographer spent the whole day at it. An hour on me alone. I had searched the stacks for a William Blake, but the only copy was a grimy, featureless mustard yellow. So I settled for a rather handsome Yeats.

He took pictures of me with the high library windows marching away behind me. His assistant darted here and there with reflectors. I brandished the book, clutched it, read it. Set a foot on the seat of a chair and rested the book on its back. At one point the photographer said, confounding me utterly, "do things."

Do things? I waved the book, pursed my lips, shrugged. Then I had to laugh, because the perfect line from the book came to my lips, and I recited, "O what am I, that I should not seem / For the song's sake a fool?"

Click. Flash.

After an hour of this, my face was aching. I had a horror, I found, of having the camera look at me and not seeming attentive, and seeming attentive requires quite a bit of exertion by the facial muscles. I tried giving up, breathing through the tension and letting my face relax, but if I succeeded it was only momentarily. The photographer had a whole bag of tricks for eliciting facial expressions from his subject: a sudden calling of my name, quick gestures, nods. I responded to them, willy nilly, even though I knew they were not authentic emotional communications, and I could have resented being played upon, had I not been so interested both in his craft, and in my inability to refrain from responding to it.

So now, of course, I am all curiosity to see such of the photos as I get to see. I don't even know what they're for, but I'm guessing they're for the Foundation's new website; if it's linkable I'll link it.

It is not accidental, I think, that we social mammals are unnerved by animals that are not social. Think of how regularly people remark upon the shark's mirthless smile. We can't help interpreting facial expressions, even when we're dealing with species that don't use them. No shark can smile, whatever muscular apparatus it has around the mouth: to smile you need a limbic brain, the equipment for participating in the emotional experience of another being. But we respond to the smile. It's smiling even though it intends to kill us: what a horrible creature it must be! We are so deeply social that even in danger of our lives, we are almost more outraged by the violation of mammalian emotional decorum than by the fact that we're about to be eaten. If you're going to eat us, we feel, you could at least scowl appropriately! Tigers may be scary (and they are: I'll never forget, at an evening zoo concert, watching a Siberian pace restlessly in the twilight. It gave me gooseflesh. Over millenia, that's been the last sight many a fellow-primate has seen.) But still -- they're just scary, not creepy. A tiger will snarl and bare its teeth as it sinks them into you. That's as it should be. It won't smile.

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