Faces of the People

Richard Altick

  • Physiognomy in the European Novel: Faces and Fortunes by Graeme Tytler
    Princeton, 436 pp, £19.10, March 1982, ISBN 0 691 06491 1
  • A Human Comedy: Physiognomy and Caricature in 19th-century Paris by Judith Wechsler
    Thames and Hudson, 208 pp, £18.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 500 01268 7

‘There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,’ said King Duncan in the fourth scene of Macbeth. But there was, and Shakespeare knew this. Almost at the moment he was writing the play, a new law required that anybody who professed ‘a knowledge of phisnognomie’ – one version of the name by which the practice of reading character in facial features was known to the learned – was to be ‘openly whipped untill his body be bloudye’. Obviously, physiognomy was then regarded with some scepticism. But Francis Bacon, the harbinger of modern science, was not among the doubters. He thought physiognomy had ‘a solide ground in nature’ so long as it was not ‘coupled with superstitious and fantasticall arts’ such as astrology and even sorcery, with which, as the Elizabethan prohibition implies, it was often associated.

Charlatanry it may have been, but like some other pseudo-sciences it bore solid credentials from antiquity. Pythagoras and Hippocrates had endorsed it as a formal study, and Physiognomonica, the treatise that was most instrumental in conveying ancient thought on the character-revealing power of the face and bodily bearing, was attributed in the Middle Ages to Aristotle himself. Such ambivalence persisted into the 18th century. Diderot often respectfully alluded to physiognomy in his philosophical writings and applied it in his fictional character descriptions. Sterne, on the other hand, arranged that Walter Shandy’s forthright declaration that ‘there are a thousand unnoticed openings ... which let a penetrating eye at once into a man’s soul’ should degenerate into nonsense, and Fielding differentiated his honest characters, the naive and the stupid, from their victimisers, the hypocritical and fraudulent, according to whether they depended on physical appearance to reveal or conceal the truth.

This, however, was before Johann Caspar Lavater, no charlatan but an eminent Swiss cleric who was a central figure in Zurich’s religious and intellectual life for many years, published his four-volume Physiognomische Fragmente in 1775-78. The Fragmente were a typical 18th-century blend of theology and science which rested on the familiar premise that ‘man is made in the image of God; and since man is a divine creature, it is the physiognomist’s duty to look for the good in him, and to find excuses for the defects.’ But the religious underpinning was largely lost as the Fragmente quickly made their way into the secular atmosphere of Europe through a veritable flood of editions, translations, abridgements and popularised versions. It was their scientific trimmings, and Lavater’s insistence on the observational skills necessary to deduce the inner man from the outer, that turned the study of physiognomy into an intellectual vogue which survived by several decades the twilight of the Enlightenment, eventually becoming a part of everyday thought and life. In 1801 the Gentleman’s Magazine testified that the Fragmente, in translation, ‘were thought as necessary in every family as even the Bible itself. A servant would, at one time, scarcely be hired but the description and engravings of Lavater had been consulted in careful comparisons with the lines and features of the young man’s or woman’s countenance.’

Notwithstanding the weight and elaborateness of those four volumes, Lavater considered the characterological study of the face as being in its infancy. His and his disciples’ hopes that it would develop into an exact science were not fulfilled. For the next century, its indirect influence was to be felt in several other emerging disciplines, among them anthropology, ethnology, psychology and criminology, but as a means of interpreting a person’s moral make-up its authority was usurped by another enormously popular pseudo-science – Gall’s theory of phrenology, which diverted attention from the chin, mouth, nose, eyes, eyebrows, forehead and hair to telltale bumps on the head. Some theorists and practitioners merged the two, as did the popular imagination, but they were actually quite separate studies.

Meanwhile, scores of writers in Germany, France and England added physiognomical principles to their stock of ideas: Goethe, Heine, Herder, Novalis, Jean Paul, Madame de Staël, Stendhal, George Sand. Many English writers, resisting the fanaticism with which phrenology was being promoted (George Combe’s The Constitution of Man, the central manifesto of the cult, sold 50,000 copies between 1835 and 1838 alone), preferred the more plausible and more rationally advanced claims of physiognomy. Hazlitt, commenting that ‘one might as well quote the Koran to a Cossack, as truth to a phrenologist,’ admired the ‘language of expression’ as ‘a kind of mother-tongue at which we learn to become more or less adept’.

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