In the center of the chair was an enormous Head, without a body to support it or any arms or legs whatever. There was no hair upon this head, but it had eyes and a nose and mouth, and was much bigger than the head of the biggest giant. As Dorothy gazed upon this in wonder and fear, the eyes turned slowly and looked at her sharply and steadily. Then the mouth moved, and Dorothy heard a voice say: “I am Oz, the Great and Terrible. Who are you, and why do you seek me?”
~ from “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, by L. Frank Baum
Getting ahead by seeing faces
I approach the life history of an idea through one very strange but persistent visual image which repeats throughout time. Looking for universal meanings within symbols can be a dangerous game. It is easy to sacrifice the gritty particulars of history in order to draw larger archetypal patterns. Never-the-less, I believe one can see a pattern stretching across time and place in the ways that human beings have used this image to bridge conceptual gaps. In this four part entry (based on a paper given at the James Young Memorial Colloquium University of California, Riverside in 2010) I look at the human head, separated from the body and transposed into a liminal sign. I use liminal in its broadest sense- to describe the place of a threshold, or that which marks a threshold. The concept of the liminal is derived from the work of anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983) and has been increasingly used by historians and cultural critics in the past two decades.
I see the disembodied head performing this liminal function in three capacities: as a portal, as an oracle and as a vehicle. In each case the human head becomes an anthropomorphic device (an analogical object of familiarizing) for connecting the human to the non-human. In our desire to extend ourselves beyond the normal limits, we human beings have taken our most physically self-identifiable part- our heads- and allowed them to manifest at the place where the human ends and the non-human begins. The disembodied head appears then as a beckoning (though sometimes terrifying) bridge over breaks in the spectrum of normal experience.
Anthropomorphism is the basis for understanding how the disembodied head can come to be “the symbol for” or “actual object of” that which joins together human and non-human. In his ground-breaking book “Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion” Stewart Guthrie argues that human religions originate from and persist out of the human drive to anthropomorphize nearly everything. Inhuman things are laden with human characteristics as we negotiate our way through our physical existence. Humans create bodies for things that have no bodies, or assume that the “bodies” of things are similar to our own.
The anthropomorphizing of cosmic forces is illustrated in the myths of the world. In his Theogony the Greek poet Hesiod describes Earth (Gaia) and Heaven (Ouranos) as a mating pair of giant bodies, producing a variety of beings mortal and immortal.
Then Eros… made Earth seethe with such fertility that on her own she brought forth a male companion to satisfy her desires. He was Ouranos the immense sky, who would arch above her body, covering from end to end and showering her with fruitful rain. ~ Theogony (for the full translation of the coupling and “divorce” of Earth and Sky see Zeus: A Journey Through Greece in the Footsteps of a God)
Gaia suffers the pains of child-birth and the rages of a mother who has lost her children when their father forces them back into her womb because they are monsters. Ouranos suffers the ultimate defeat when he is castrated and banished by his sons to fulfill Gaia’s vengeance. The sacred blood of his severed genitals becomes the source of more monsters (including volcanoes) and even Aphrodite!
In the medieval Norse sagas known as the Eddas we begin with another male female pair: the frost giant Ymir and his cow Audhumbla. While Ymir dozes, the cow licks a block of ice. Soon a giant head is revealed. Buri, the first god, is awakened by the cow’s friendly tongue. Buri begets the pantheon who overthrow Ymir. Ymir’s corpse is then utilized as the building material out of which the gods make earth- his great hollowed-out skull becoming the vault of heaven.
The giving of human faces to celestial bodies is a constant trope in the broad-sheets and almanacs of early modern Europe. Despite later transformations of celestial understanding in the following centuries (Johannes Kepler’s denial that the planets had any sort of consciousness and Galileo’s later discovery that the lunar terrain was mountainous) the printers continued to portray sun, moon and sometimes stars with smiles or frowns for a popular audience.
In his 1902 film “A Trip to the Moon”, French magician and film-pioneer George Méliès gave us the image of a rocket landing in the moon’s eye. In the next scene the perspective shifts and we see the astronauts emerging from their ship to witness the earth hovering in the sky above them. Strangely it has no face. Scientific reality has triumphed. We have moved from the imagery of the popular broadsheet showing the satelite as a big head to an actual landscape. The Man in the Moon is a joke. Not all of our contemporaries are laughing however.
In 1976 a NASA photograph of the Cydonian hills of Mars showed what could be construed to be a giant stone face. Despite the fact that new photographs in 1998 reveal the face to have been an anomaly created by the shortcomings of older technology, conspiracy-themed texts circulate among fringe enthusiasts. Ray Bradbury’s Martian mythos of a long lost Martian race has been read as logos- a literal possibility. The face on Mars is the remnant of a once great, but now extinct civilization, that, surprise, surprise, must have been human-like. If monumental stone heads (such as those of Olmec Mexico or of the Easter Islanders) are found on other worlds then we must have cousins (or ancestors) on those far-off interplanetary shores.
The anthropomorphizing of geologic features is just as ocular as it is psychological. For the old idea sometimes referred to as the doctrine of signatures (that visual resemblances between various things- especially plants and diseases- tie them together through invisible sympathies) is certainly based in the pattern-making tendencies of the human brain. (See Douglas Hofstader’s Stanford lecture “Analogy as the Core of Cognition”). The face/head has been used as a map to chart the personality, predilections and tendencies of the human being for centuries. The landscape too (having been imagined by our ancestors as the body of a primordial being) is often read as a body. Resemblance is one of our most powerful ways of connecting what we encounter in the phenomenal world. (In Semiotics the meaning generated by resemblances is called iconicity.)
In the Shaitan Zhiga Plateau of Uzbekistan we find a cluster of colossal grotesquely shaped stones. Geologists haven’t yet determined whether or not these are the products of erosion, of humans or both. The Uzbek name of the site translates as “Satan’s Helmut”. There is something not quite right about stones that resemble faces. The boundary between human and inhuman has been crossed through the force of a shocking resemblance. The likeness is too close for comfort, illustrating Freud’s theory of the uncanny with remarkable clarity. (See Rob McMinn’s short slideshow on Freud’s concept.)
The anthropomorphic landscapes of the late Renaissance are an example of philosophic ideas about man’s relationship to the inhuman expressed in painting. This particular genre signals two Humanistic streams, one classical the other Biblical: First, man is the center of all creation and is being slowly perfected- summed up in the famous “Oration on the Dignity of Man” by Pico della Mirandola, and second, that man is the steward of the earth and made out of the earth, summed up in the creation story found in the book of Genesis. In both cases the world exists for mankind. Man is the teleological end-point towards which the material world is moving.
This genre, half landscape, half portrait, is a manifestation of the artist’s talents and a hallmark of his age. The careful rendering of geologic and floral forms, the attention paid to perspective, shows that he has grasped the Renaissance mode of delineating space. The clever, calculated collapse of this landscape into a human face reveals the belief that man is the microcosm, a body like a map on which the interlocking systems of nature are inscribed.
Seeing human faces in the clouds, the landscape or the other biological kingdoms reminds us of the imagination’s capacities to connect us to our surroundings. The topic of “hidden faces” in art and visual culture is worth mentioning. Leonardo DaVinci encouraged his pupils to exercise their fancies in this way:
“If you look at walls that are stained or made of different kinds of stones you can think you see in them certain picturesque views of mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, plains, broad valleys, and hills of different shapes. You can also find in them battles and rapidly moving figures, strange faces and costumes, as well as an infinite number of things.”
This capacity is known among art historians as “The Arcimboldo Effect” after the mannerist artist made famous by witty conceptual, conglomeration-portraits of the seasons, elements and certain professions. (see the book of the same name by Pontus Hulten)
To see ourselves, where we are not present, to find a sister or brother being in to the materials of the world is like a coalescing magic- the gathering together of disparate parts to experience a unified wholeness. As Mark C. Taylor reminds us in his review of the Hulton text , the philosopher Wittgenstein once declared: “Suddenly I see the solution of a puzzle figure. Where previously there were branches now there is a human form.”
To be cotinued in…
A History of the Disembodied Head II.): Portals and Passageways