Giving the evil eye a closer look

The Face
November 5, 1999

Daniel McNeill takes a quotation from Cicero as the epigraph to his anatomy of the face. "Everything is in the face", and The Face: A Guided Tour , contains a breath-taking assembly of facts and figures.

Humans blink 15 times a minute, meaning we lose 23 minutes every waking day. We have more facial muscles than any other animal and display a new facial expression every half-second. The evil eye is the most widespread superstition on earth and for centuries many criminals believed that murder victims retained an image of the killer's face on their retinas.

The contours of the face and its constituent parts (anatomy, expression, singularity and beauty) are mapped out in four sections. McNeill raises some fascinating questions. What is the relationship between self and face?What is beauty and why cannot science measure its effects (and feels it needs to)? If good looks bring happiness and prosperity, what will happen in the faceless intimacy of "cyberchat"? Why is learning a quality invisible in faces? How and why do cultures condition tears?

(Darwin observed that the

English wept less than the

Mediterraneans.)

The book's strength lies in is its readability and scope. The first chapter asks: "Why have a face? (When we don't strictly need one)" and makes us think about aspects of the face that do not usually get a look in.The third chapter, "Emblems of the self", brings together material on mirrors, portraits, icons, masks, veils and fans.

However, this range can also be a weakness. Subject matter goes largely unreferenced and McNeill's choice of touchstones is eclectic: Pliny, Ovid and Cicero jostle with Jane Eyre and The Phantom of the Opera. A similar juxtaposition of centuries and cultures is characteristic of the thematic material and the book's encyclopaedic range tends to blur the historical focus.

So, in the fourth chapter we read: "The eyes are supremely expressive. Pliny the Elder said, 'No other part of the body supplies more evidence of the state of mind.' Jane Eyre muses, 'The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter - often an unconscious but still faithful interpreter - in the eye.' Gerty MacDowell's soul is in her eyes. Explorer/scientist Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) noted that the tribes in Central Africa often rifled graves for eyeballs, seeking to 'secure "the man that lives in your eyes" for service in the village'."

The occasional proscriptive recommendation accords oddly with the literary and documentary material: "the best current remedy (for acne) is probably isotretinoin, sold as Acutane or Roaccutane ..."

Meanwhile, McNeill's omissions are equally surprising: there is little mention of the influence of physiognomy; and no speculation about negative face issues and taboos. Scant reference is made to photography, film or fine art. McNeill does discuss the impact of face research on forensic science and medicine. But the scientific detail of the book is as selective as its literary references. For example, there is little on the technology now routinely used in archaeology and forensic science to reconstruct the faces of the dead, and the ethical questions raised by the use of human remains for historical construction and scientific research.

McNeill mentions Paul Ekman's research on face recognition, and makes reference to related work on face perception by Vicky Bruce and Andy Young whose most recent book, In the Eye of the Beholder: The Science of Face Perception, accompanied an exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in 1998.

But there is no mention of other ground-breaking British research in facial recognition and perception such as that by Alf Linney at University College, London, who is researching whether faces can be used for identification in the way fingerprints are, or Richard Kemp and Nicky Trott on dynamic mug shots and E-fits.

Nevertheless, The Face: A Guided Tour is an oddly compelling read. In Sartre's novel Nausea (1938), Roquetin remarks: "Obviously, there are a nose, two eyes and a mouth. But none of it makes sense." McNeill has gone some way to answering such doubts. He admits, however, that the face remains "a genetic variation of baffling purpose".

Sandra Kemp is professor of English literature and cultural theory, University of Westminster.

The Face: A Guided Tour

Author - Daniel McNeill
ISBN - 0 241 14028 5
Publisher - Hamish Hamilton
Price - £16.99
Pages - 374

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