Wednesday, October 10, 2007

written all over my face

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my brit lit class is reading dr. jekyll + mr. hyde, so i'm online looking for general, rather basic info on physiognomy for tomorrow’s class.

i'm using stevenson’s story as a pretext for examining victorian ideas about the human soul—linking christian moral thinking with the not-yet-developed science of psychology.

physiognomy, or the practice of ‘reading’ a person’s face + skull formation as indicators of the person’s character, is an ancient practice, dating back to the greeks, 5th c. b.c.e.

by the 14th century, in chaucer’s england, certain ‘findings’ in physiognomy were well known, so the poet could be certain his readers recognized the wife of bath’s gap-teeth + her ‘mark of venus’ (visible birthmark) as sure signs of her lewdness.

as a pseudo-science, physiognomy capitalizes on our prejudices even today—+ stevenson uses it as moral shorthand in his mystery story—good-looking jekyll personifies goodness + innocence, ugly hyde personifies evil + vice.

in the nineteenth century, physiognomy had two areas of importance: to help police ‘identify’ criminal types in the rounding up of suspects + to support racist notions that white anglo-saxon protestants were morally + intellectually superior to africans, jews, + the irish.

(if you saw the film europa, europa, you probably remember the schoolteacher who proudly confirms the aryan superiority exemplified in a student’s nose, brow, + ears, though, unbeknownst to him, the student is jewish.)

charles dickens, too, relied on physiognomy to ‘flesh out’ (literally) the eccentricities of some of his characters, though sometimes he worked against these physical stereotypes. +, later, oscar wilde used it, albeit with some irony, as the basis for his novel the picture of dorian gray.

here are some of the ‘signs’ of criminality a good nineteenth-century physiognomist could detect (many of which figure into stevenson’s descriptions of mr. hyde):

--narrow, receding forehead
--small but protruding ears
--thin eyebrows
--mongoloid eyefolds
--small, icy eyes
--hawklike or flat nose
--prominent cheekbones
--jutting jaw
--well-defined philtrum (between the nose + upper lip)
--patchy beard + baldness
--thick, dark skin
--scars, freckles, pockmarks

obviously, some of this typology survived well into the twentieth century (witness the dick tracy comics, for example) + even today (in the identification of desirable racial traits + in hollywood typecasting).

later, eugenicists proposed that selective human breeding, based on such physical characteristics, could eventually rid society of all vestiges of poverty, vice, + crime. hitler's scientists sought breakthroughs in this very area of science, in order to perfect + preserve law + order.

this dubious history, associated with quackery + racism, overshadows current research into the bioengineering of 'designer babies,' beautiful, intelligent, disease-free infants, + no doubt 'straight' in all respects, for the discriminating parent.

‘hyde was pale + dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity + boldness, + he spoke with a husky, whispering + somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing + fear with which mr. utterson regarded him. … “…god bless me, the man seems hardly human! something troglodytic, shall we say? …. is it the mere radiance of a foul soul that thus transpires through, + transfigures, its clay continent? the last, i think; for, o my poor old henry jekyll, if ever i read satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend.”’
--robert louis stevenson, the strange case of dr. jekyll + mr. hyde, 1886

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