Where We Are
This essay was written way back in 2001 or 2002 for a really great class by Kate Hale Wilson at the University of Wisconsin--Eau Claire. Now, under our stay-at-home order, I have been missing seeing those faces dear to me face to face, and I remembered it.
The first day of class we do a mnemonic exercise to learn the names of class members. The first person, a young woman with blond-purple hair, tells everyone her name. The student next to her, in a Packer T-shirt, must repeat her name and say his own. The third person begins at “Purple-blond,” says Packer Fan’s name, and then his own. As this name chain forms and reinforces link by link, everyone is paying close attention, not only those yet to give their own name but also those who already have. Several of the students crane their necks and shift in their seats to get a better look at each person as each new name is announced. They follow each subsequent recitation by looking at the face of each named link, like a silent choir following the ball bouncing from lyric to lyric. “Oh, wait, where am I?” someone stumbles, then starts over, name-face-link by name-face-link, trying to overcome a kind of blindness.
At the end of class that day, I have only just met them. I have markered most of them for reference somewhere in the recesses of my gray matter. “Here is someone you know somehow.” It takes several classes and chance meetings in other contexts—the hallway, the library, the foot bridge—to begin to know them at all. And even at the end of the semester, though I am familiar with many faces, I still have only begun to know any of them. But the recognition of their faces keeps the possibility open for more.
Douglas R. Hofstadter, in his essay “Reductio Expansioque Ad Absurdum” expands on the idea of face as reference, but in a broader sense. After first describing the scene of a woman driving then colliding with a deer, whose antler pierces her skull, he represents the same scene from ever smaller and smaller scales—the level of the antler horn, the level of neurons, the level of cells, the level of RNA, and the level of electrons. Then, after a brief funeral back at the “normal” level, he zooms out to the level of solar system and galaxies.
He is like a tour guide through alien lands, by necessity relying on terms we are familiar with, or at least their connotations—the deer horn’s “violent path toward the glass,” a cell “obediently” resumes rapid firing, a “team of neurons that didn’t usually communicate with this team,” slowing cell functioning “like the clicks of a winding-down music box,” and stars that are “unperturbed.” At times he must resort to concocting appropriate terminology—a “loud-growing roar,” “freezing-in-place.”
As we leave the woman’s face as we know it, I struggle for reference points to help me understand, much like a traveler in a foreign country. But the reference points are there, thanks to Hofstadter. When, in the second scale the antler pierces the woman’s skull, and Hofstadter reports it as, “splintering and cracking audibly,” a shiver goes through me. It is almost a stronger reaction than to the first straight-forward telling. The retellings after that incite less of that sort of reaction from me, but they still illicit a reaction. It is a sense of spaces opening up, in fact revealing the spaces inherent in what we had just been considering solid. It is like the new freedom to move around that one feels when suddenly (or gradually, I suppose, but it often feels like suddenly) presented with new, relevant perspective. It is a journey from considering this woman (or myself) as the one, as the focus, the most important, to perceiving a greater oneness, and all these only the parts, the almost incidental aspects of it. Hofstadter takes us from “stopped firing altogether” to “eventually stopped,” which somewhat ironically leads to the minister’s words “peace and rest and joy.” And then, once he has us held there, he takes us back out to the foreign familiar “cycle rhythmically and periodically around its mother nucleus.” He has torn off our comfortable reference to face, as if it had been a mask to show us the real, living face.
Joseph Epstein, in his essay “About Face,” tries too to grapple with face as mystery. He talks about the face as something readable, something able to telegraph personality, potentiality, passion. He is right and he is wrong at the same time, and he knows it. Faces can be read but not in totality, and not often literally. The face is living, and even organic with the heart, mind, soul. But still mystery. Often, I have been sitting at a table, people behind me talking, and overhearing their conversation, turned upon leaving to see they in fact looked quite different than I had pictured them. I think, also, we come to love a face more once we love a person. Sorry, Hollywood and Madison Avenue.
Antonio R. Damasio, in “Face Perception without Recognition” discusses a medical situation in which some people lose the ability to recognize faces. What a tragedy that must be. Yet he reports, “There is persuading evidence that at a nonconscious level, faces of relatives, friends, self, generated strong psychophysiological responses clearly different from the weak or non-existent responses to faces unfamiliar to the subject.” There is still reference at some level, some scale. I read recently about a study where subjects looked at photographs of several individuals, including the person the subject said he or she was in love with. Some physiologic reaction that was considered good for one’s health was much stronger when viewing the loved one (endorphins?).
The other day I was walking out of the women's restroom and another older student recognized me and exclaimed, “Hello! How is school going?” I answered, “Fine! How about for you?” But I did not recognize her, and my thoughts swirled, trying to find her face, trying to find her.