Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Gifts of the Eye

I look at the faces on the bus. If I were to sketch them, I would be drawn ineluctably to one of two things: exaggerating what is striking about them, or downplaying it. Do I admit that she has a big chin? Do I, even, delight in it, allow it to take over my representation as in fact it momentarily takes over my perception? And what are the spiritual consequences of the choice?

She looking over my shoulder, would probably want me to de-emphasize the chin. Because there's the danger of losing the person in the chin. To draw the chin big, is to deny the common humanity. There is an element of cruelty, of dehumanization, in grotesquerie; or there can be. She becomes only a vast chin, cleaving space. All other facts about her dwindle. We all live, after all, in terror of being caricatured.

Still. Isn't there also a subtle cruelty and dehumanization in standardizing, in classicizing, my image? Doesn't it carry the same message, in a way? That she cannot both have a big chin, and be a human being? That I can't simultaneously see her chin and the pilgrim soul in her?

The standardizing impulse tends to win out. We see normalized images of people all day, every day. All over the world people are photoshopping images, to make them more normal, to erase the grotesqueries of the human form. With the result that we view even minor deviations with horror. After a day's immersion in the images presented by TV and magazines, we emerge onto a street of bizarre, deformed human beings. Lopsided faces, bulging asses, duck-footed walks, stubby fingers. Hairs like spines poking from warts, from ears, from noses. Pouches under the eyes, under the chins. Scarred, mottled, wrinkled, patchy skin.

It's my job to touch people, to love them in all their physicality. When the clothes come off so do a thousand little deceptions, sartorial photoshoppings. We have people undress for massage, in the Western tradition, not really so much because clothes hamper our work but because what people want is to lay aside their clothed personalities, to be touched as they are instead of as they present themselves all day.

There's something about touch that undoes the dichotomy. Once I am touching someone's chin, its divergence from the classical simply vanishes. My fingers are finding the exact way the facial muscles lie, how the fascia clings or pulls free. I'm at a level of detail and closeness that renders the classic and the grotesque equally irrelevant. I don't use my eyes much, when I'm doing massage, unless I need to be checking for bruises or injuries. I use my hands, and my fingers don't think someone's chin is big. They don't care about that sort of thing, and when I'm thinking with them, rather than with my eyes, I don't care about it either.

And when the clothes are back on and the lights turned back up, it's what my hands know that I pay attention to, still. The image my eyes present seems both artificial and inaccurate. I don't believe in it any more.

Exaggerating and normalizing are the great gifts of the eye. But they can be poisoned gifts, if you rely on them too much. Especially for perceiving human beings. It's too easy to forget, just looking at people, that if you laid your hands on their bare chests they would be warm, rising and falling with the breath, pulsing with the heartbeat. Every single one of them.

Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.

Note: if you were not on the Hawthorne bus last night at 6:15, (stage left, third seat down) the chin under discussion here is not yours.

Note also: if you were there then, I thought your face was marvelous and wanted to draw it.

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