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About faces

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, September 22, 2005

“At fifty,” said Orwell, “every man has the face he deserves.” I suspect he was unconsciously quoting Edwin Stanton, who a century earlier had come to the same conclusion and phrased it only slightly differently: “A man of fifty is responsible for his face.”

When it comes to quotations, the rule is, to whosoever that has, more will be given, and since Stanton only seems to have produced one other memorable pronouncement (after Lincoln’s assassination it was Stanton who said, “Now he belongs to the ages”), Orwell is sure to continue to get the credit for this one too.

But what exactly did he mean? Well, obviously he wasn’t suggesting that when we hit fifty, beauty will be redistributed according to merit. If that were true then Mother Teresa would have spent her autumn years looking like Miss Yugoslavia.

Surely what Orwell meant was that when we are young our faces are just something given to us, like the color of our eyes or hair, but past a certain age our faces bear the marks of the lives we have lived. Laughter and worry have left their marks around the mouth and on the brow, and heartache, contentment and self-indulgence all declare themselves in ways that we can see, even if we cannot always say how.

Our moral choices are eventually recorded too, which is why the poet John Masefield’s description “his face was filled with broken commandments” is so strangely evocative and why we instinctively know that the man it refers to is old.

Joseph Conrad said that the task of the writer was “before all, to make you see.” Before making the reader see, the writer must learn to see himself. This is why, Flannery O’Connor once explained, many writers take up painting; learning to paint well involves learning to see what things look like rather than what we assume they must look like.

Most fiction does not so much fail at Conrad’s task as fail to attempt it. If you find yourself with time to kill at an airport bookstore and flick through the contents of the fiction section you will encounter a succession of men with square jaws and chiseled cheekbones and women with full lips to match their full figures. These stock descriptions aren’t really descriptions at all – they are trigger phrases to indicate which characters are supposed to be glamorous objects of fantasy. Writing this way is like taking pictures with a camera lens smeared with Vaseline, and has much the same purpose.

But vivid, original description is not found only in works of high literature. My favorite description of a face comes from Red Dwarf by Grant Naylor: “When she smiled, her eyes lit up like a pinball machine when you win a bonus game.”

Some people do not suit their faces, which is a strange state of affairs, but no stranger than the fact that some people do not suit their names. There is a portrait of Byron as a young man in Trinity College, Cambridge (where he was a student) in which he is painted in profile and bears an uncanny resemblance to the rubber-faced British actor Rowan Atkinson, which is not at all how I had pictured the man who Lady Caroline Lamb famously described as mad, bad and dangerous to know.

In the half-century since Orwell’s death we have seen the birth of the age of plastic surgery. Personally I find cosmetic plastic surgery, of the sort by which age is disguised as youth, deeply unsettling. At a certain age, faces should look lived in, like houses. To me the nipped and tucked wrinkle-free faces of celebrities are like houses that are kept (with professional assistance) so immaculately free of clutter that they give the eerie impression that no one lives there at all.

In New York there is a shop that sells what it calls “True Mirrors,” which unlike a normal mirror don’t reverse left and right and so show us our faces the way that other people see them. Actually, you don’t need to go to New York to try this; you can get the same effect by putting two mirrors at right angles and looking at the reflection of your reflection. It’s an unsettling experience. For one thing, most of us are less symmetrical than we are prone to imagine, and while True Mirrors doubtless make for an interesting conversation piece, they are more than a little unsettling.

But then again, if Orwell is right then all mirrors will be true mirrors, in time.

Peter Wicks is a graduate student in the philosophy department. At various times in his life, he has been told that he resembles Dave Foley, Billy Boyd and his mother. Peter can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.