Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Reading Faces

When Tyÿ first reads her Tarot cards, Katin mentions how they are based on “symbols and mythical images that have recurred and reverberated through forty-five centuries of human history” (113). This reminded me of Jospeph Campbell’s monomyth, and all that comparative studies have shown of how certain stories, symbols, and narrative structures recur in the myths and legends of different peoples all over the world. Certain symbols are universal, appearing, in some form or another, in almost all cultures. Similarly, facial expressions are often spoken of as a universal language. A smile in one part of the world means the same thing everywhere. The importance of faces is referred to several times in Nova. According to Lorq, “In the face the lines of a man’s fate mapped are” (111) and Katin states, “the subject of the novel is what happens between people’s faces when they talk to one another” (179).

Reading faces is an integral part of communication. As long as the universality of facial expressions holds true, faces should not be impossible to read—but we see in the novel that this is not always the case. Lorq’s scar makes it incredibly difficult to see how he feels or to gauge his reactions. He laughs when others expect him to be angry (114), his puzzlement “looks like rage” (115), and “concern appeared a grin” (121). The people around him are constantly misinterpreting Lorq’s expressions. Even Harvard-educated Katin needs a few moments to “interpret the wrecked face’s agony” (152). At one point, Katin’s attempt at interpretation fails completely. He “tried to translate his visage” but it “was indecipherable” (165).

Scars aside, no one can perfectly control the information communicated by their facial expressions. This applies both to hiding emotions and trying to send subtle messages. When Katin tries to look “reservedly doubtful,” the “expression was too complicated and came out blank” (167). Our facial expressions are not something we think about all the time—that would take constant, unsustainable vigilance. Just in the moment between exchanges in a conversation, there is enough time “for a handful of expressions to subsume the Mouse’s face” (137). Mouse’s face is subsumed by expressions—he does not consciously choose to go through this series of expressions. It happens naturally, without his thinking about.

There are numerous ways this natural form of communication can be disrupted—most obviously, with masks like the ones worn at Prince Red’s party in Paris. Also, when Ruby appears on Vorpis, she is wearing a mist-mask (169) and she puts the mask on again when she attacks Lorq with the nets (172). But machines also play a role in the communication breakdown associated with the inability to read faces. It was Prince’s mechanical hand that scarred Lorq’s face, making it so indecipherable. The sockets are also a factor that divides people. Katin is shocked to learn that a whole group of people on earth, the gypsies, live without sockets. Not having sockets, or even getting them late as Mouse did, sets the gypsies apart from everyone else. This relates to Kai’s post on how technology can alienate people from their own human-ness. Facial expressions are universal, but technology has the potential to create a new Tower of Babel, resulting in misreadings and misunderstandings.


Post a Comment