Books: The daily mirror's bad news

Expensively shaved, Michael Bywater can face the world. Why do our features fix our fortunes?; The Face: a guided tour by Daniel McNeill Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99, 374pp

There will be time," muses Mr Prufrock, "To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet," and so there is. Even if there is not, we make it. Each morning, no matter how late I may have risen, I go to the bathroom, ply my Super Badger "Chubby No. 3" shaving brush from Geo. F Trumper, strike up a fragrant lather (violet, lavender, West Indian limes) and slice the bristles from my face with a Gillette Mach 3 razorblade whose development cost was in excess of $10 million. The blade rests, not in the serviceable handle provided by Gillette, but in an elegant, Edwardian-style confection of ivory and brass, costing some pounds 45. Afterwards, I apply an astringent sweep of the Bloc Osma, an alum stone from France, followed by one of a collection of soothing balms and skin-foods. Nothing is too good for my face.

If you could see my face, you might wonder why it deserves this treatment, at the expense of my schedule, my deadlines and my breakfast. You might wonder why I run my hand over my freshly shaved-and-salved cheeks, marvelling at their smoothness; why I peer critically at features I have seen over a hundred thousand times, which I have spent, in total, over seven full weeks, 24 hours a day, staring at. What is so special about my face that it demands such adulation, care, time and expenditure?

Nothing at all. My face (although, like all faces, unique and - by people of my own ethnicity, at least - instantly recognisable) is just one among billions, all of which receive similar attentions. This universal self- regard distinguishes us from every other species; and yet in all that time spent before the looking-glass or the shaving-mirror, we never see ourselves as we are. The mirror reverses, not left and right, but front and back; flips us over, moves our face through our skulls and out the other side. Even the most symmetrical face - symmetry being one of the markers of beauty hard-wired into our aesthetic and carnal sensibilities - acquires assymetries of affect: the lopsided grin of Mills and Boon novellas, the quizzical eyebrow, the imbalance in musculature of a system governed by a semi-bicameral brain, even the effects of sleeping on one side. The face we prepare is not the face others meet.

Yet we prepare them all the same. If I do not indulge in my shaving ritual, I feel wrong all day. The condemned man precedes his last cigarette with a final shave, grooming the face that death will smooth for good. I know a woman who decided to kill herself; before she swallowed the pills, she gave herself a facial mud-pack, then did her makeup, eyes, lips and cheeks. The rule, even in articulo mortis is: moisturise, moisturise, moisturise. She made herself up, then unmade her self.

To gaze at one's face in a mirror is like peeping through a window into a parallel universe, one where our own workaday face is an object of devotion, precious and perfectible: a universe where, one day, one's face will come right.

In this book, Daniel McNeill offers a grand tour d'horizon of the face. He ranges from Dracula's teeth to Jenkins' Ear, from the myth of the "Jewish nose" (actually, he points out, uncommon among Jews) to Greek tragic masks. He speculates on the origins and purposes of the blush (why did we develop blushing at a time when we were all black?) and discusses our almost universal inability to fake facial expressions, wondering whether that is why we value and admire actors to the point of obsession. Is it because they can fake it - and, what's more, fake it 20 feet high in close-up on the movie-screen.

McNeill has no thesis. There is no argument here; rather, a recitation of fact and fancy, speculation and folklore, the Botokudo of Brazil with their breast-deep lip-plates, the crocodile-dung face-packs of Roman women, the real cause of wrinkles, the archetypes of beauty, the racism of the eyes and the absurdity of racism itself; laughter and anger, likeness and caricature; the muscles of the face, magic-workers with whimsical names: Risorius, Masseter, Orbicularis oculi, Buccinator. However, McNeill misses the old tale of the medical school dean invited to say grace at a formal dinner. His mind going blank of all liturgical forms, he intoned "Orbicularis oris levator labii superioris et frontalis; mentalis procerus," and everyone devoutly murmured "Amen."

We are drowning in a sea of faces, and most of the ones we notice - brought to our attention by the highly-skilled and highly-paid snake-oil salesmen of advertising companies and media industries - are so unlike our own that they promote a chronic, low-grade self-loathing. In Nineteen Eighty- Four, Winston Smith was faced - "faced"! - with the giant face of Big Brother; the Russians had Uncle Joe Stalin; fallen nations under the Roman yoke were subject to daily exposure to the emperor's face on coins, wall-reliefs and statuary.

To be a despot, first learn to love your own faces. But the faces we see most represent not power, which can be overthrown, but beauty, for whose demise we must await Time's pleasure. One may resent the face of the glowering hegemonist; to resent beauty seems churlish, but who has not secretly hoped that the latest supermodel, the latest hunk, would not one day wake up looking like the rest of us, and know what it's like? Who has not wished, indeed, that Tony Blair's face would not simply fall off altogether so that we'd never have to see that smirk, those little eyes, those damnable teeth, ever again?

And who has not wished that their own face could be different? I know that if I had a better nose, just the one chin, a chiselled jaw-line, piercing blue eyes - well, my life would have been different. How? I do not know. But different; better.

The daily experience of the truly ugly is unimaginable. Kingsley Amis, in Take A Girl Like You, introduced his ugly chemistry-master, Graham. At one point, Graham quotes Shakespeare: "Eternity was in our lips and eyes,/Bliss in our brows bent." It's not a question of jealousy, Graham explains; it's incomprehension. What are they talking about? What do they mean?

Attraction and beauty are not necessarily congruent; yet beauty - symmetry - brings with it favour, delight, luck. We are visual creatures; we wear our beauty, or lack of it, at the forefront of our interactions with the world, exactly where we wear our eyes. We gaze, and see the gaze returned, unlike dogs, who have the delicacy to go behind each other's back to make their judgement.We poor creatures are defenceless against the judging gaze of others, and so we shave, groom our hair, powder our faces and paint our eyes as armour against that searching regard.

The face is a perennial fascination, and so is Daniel McNeill's book. Were he Japanese, he would be said to have gained face. In any case, he can look the world in the eye.

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