Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/October 1882/Physiognomic Curiosities I
By FELIX L. OSWALD, M. D.
IF the proper study of mankind is man, it is a remarkable circumstance that the most important departments of that study are still alloyed with such an excessive percentage of spurious elements, and that their exponents persist in identifying their interests with the defense of those apocryphal parts of their doctrine. Hygiene, in the legitimate sense of the word, is simply the art of avoiding sins against the Health laws of Nature, but the proposition to omit therapeutics (poison-mongery, as Dio Lewis used to call it) from the curriculum of a medical college would provoke a worse storm of protest than the first attempt to divorce astronomy from astrology. In points of ethics conservatism is a more than professional duty, yet the Rev. Mr. Freekirk, as well as Bishop Highchurch, and Rabbi Tabernacle, is tolerance in person till you question one of his mythological tenets. Phrenology, or the art of deducing mental characteristics from physical indications, would have been recognized as a true science if its apologists had not wasted their efforts in the propaganda of their craniological crotchets.
Pliny, and his countryman Campanella, already observed that the art of interpreting the features of the human face is a universal one, practiced by unformulated but well-understood rules, ever since man tried to fathom the soul of his fellow-man. "Every one," says Addison, "is in some degree master of that art which is generally known by the name of Physiognomy, and naturally forms to himself the character or fortune of a stranger from the features of his face. We are no sooner presented to any one we never saw before, but we are immediately struck with the idea of a proud, a reserved, an affable, or a good-natured man. For my own part, I am so apt to frame a notion of every man's humor or circumstances by his looks, that I have sometimes employed myself from Charing Cross to the Royal Exchange in drawing the characters of those who have passed by me. I can not recollect the author of a famous saying to a stranger who stood silent in his company, 'Speak, that I may see thee.' But with all submission I think we may be better known by our looks than by our words, and that a man's speech is much more easily disguised than his countenance." Even in their present crude and incoherent condition the rules of this art of symbol-reading have a far greater interest than those of our dogmatic skull-systems, which, besides minor confirmations, lack the important one of the vox populi. There is a deep meaning in the humorous remark of Professor Vogt, that, "if the tenets of Spurzheim were founded on fact, instinct would have taught us long ago to finger the occiput of a suspicious stranger instead of scrutinizing his face"; and the study of a phrenological bust somehow obtrudes the idea that a good deal of this cranial topography was suggested by verbal analogies, such as the location of our higher faculties in the attic of the skull while the baser propensities occupy the basement, or George Combe's conception that an elongated head must denote sagacity—anglicè, "long-headedness." Lavater's, Winckelmann's, Cuvier's, and Dr. Redfield's observations, on the other hand, are often indorsed by a multitude of analogous impressions which social studies or self-examination has left in our minds.
The comparison of modern physiognomic theories with the opinions of the ancients suggests many curious reflections, and may frequently serve to confirm one of those semi-conscious notions of our own which we derive from experience but neglect to "formulate." "Whitish hair, which at the same time is soft and thin," says Baron Cuvier, "denotes a feeble organization, a temper yielding and easily alarmed. It is commonly combined with an oval face and gently rounded head. Such heads are never found in the descriptions of malefactors. Black, frizzled hair the ancients considered as a sign of a savage disposition." Who is not at once reminded of the timid, flaxen-haired inmates of our infirmaries and orphan asylums, and, on the other hand, of the "black, frizzled hair," BO often combined with a bowie-knife and horse-pistol in the make-up of a prominent border ruffian? And is it not confirmed by national as well as individual characteristics, that prominence of the canine teeth indicates pugnacity, or. as Dr. Cams terms it, "the love of overcoming"? The Bedouin Arabs and the Arizona Apaches have such teeth, and the physiognomies of Western hunters and teamsters and West Indian smugglers show that they are developed by adventurous pursuits.
If the experience of mankind is competent to interpret facial indications, some of the "propensities" and "perspectives" which Spurzheim lodges in the back rooms of his pan-sensorium must have a penchant for changing their quarters. "Firmness," for instance, which he locates in the posterior part of the upper head, undoubtedly manifests itself in the prominence of the chin. "Draw a face in profile," Bays Winckelmann, and observe how timidity or its opposite can be expressed by the shape of the lower jaw. Let the chin be receding, and your profile can be made to express pusillanimity and feebleness of character, even to the degree of imbecility. Then, without changing: any upper line of the profile, combine it with a prominent chin, and it will exhibit firmness. Exaggerate the prominence, and you can intensify that expression to one of obstinacy and ferocity. That such contrasts are less striking: in living faces owing to the circumstance that we take in the expression of all features at a single glance, without analyzing the complex effect."
Have we not here a positive criterion, a rule without an exception? Does it not occur to us, on after-thought, that all warlike, aggressive nations have such projecting chins, while the weak or degenerate ones are more or less chin-less? In their classification of the North American aborigines the Spaniards distinguish between Indios mansos and Indios bravos (tame and savage Indians). The former comprise the different agricultural tribes of Central and South America, ignorant but harmless creatures, who subsist on a vegetable diet; the latter the carnivorous savages of the North, who divided their time between hunting and warfare. In their physical characteristics these various tribes of the American autochthones could hardly be distinguished, if it were not for a slight variation in the color of their skins and a very mark difference in the shape of their chins. Our redskins have chins, though they can not emulate those of the Indo-Germanic race: the Indians of Mexico and South America have none. In the profile of a vegetarian Indio from the neighborhood of Vera Cruz, the lower jaw recedes in a sharp line from the mouth to the throat, so that his nose, though not excessive in size, becomes ridiculously prominent. Obstinacy with a projecting chin and shrinking timidity with a receding one are here strongly contrasted, and the study of individual faces proves Winkelmann's rule to be almost, if not altogether, infallible. Can Professor Fowler point out a corresponding difference in the shape of the posterior skull? "Amativeness," too, may or may not affect the bones above the nape, but Theophrastus, Galen, Delia Porta, Lavater, Dr. Redfield, and all portrait-painters, agree that it is disclosed by the eyelids, especially the lower ones.
Lavater and other critical students of the human face have shown the fallacy of some popular notions—for instance, the connection of a high forehead with superior intelligence—but also that generally received opinions differ less in different nations and ages than should be supposed; and it is surprising of what minute symptoms even the ancient nations have taken cognizance.
There is, indeed, hardly a facial muscle that has not been suspected of betraying mental peculiarities. "A forehead loaded with wrinkles" Aristotle supposes to indicate a gloomy, morose, and overbearing disposition, and furthermore thinks that, if these wrinkles are massed over the eye, it denotes cruelty. According to Galen, a depression in the center of the forehead announces a melancholy temper or a recollection of an awful crime, though he admits that physical excesses may produce the same effect.
"Vertical incisions in the bone of the forehead," says Lavater, "belong exclusively to persons of uncommon capacity and to independent thinkers." Perpendicular wrinkles he holds to be the emblems of wrath, because such furrows are formed in the paroxysm of that passion. If the forehead is crowded with horizontal wrinkles, it may indicate ferocity or severe mental application, but their entire absence can only be the effect of a cheerful disposition.
"If the frontal bone is convex," says Huart, "it indicates an undeveloped mind; all infants have such foreheads, and, under the influence of culture, the curve gradually disappears." Winckelmann indorses this notion, and thinks that the more straight lines the forehead exhibits the more judgment it will indicate, but at the same time so much the less sensibility. Wrinkles lengthwise between the eyebrows, Huart interprets as a sign of habitual melancholy reflections, and he, as well as Lavater and Redfield, believes that the prominence of the bone immediately above the eyebrows denotes aptitude for long-continued mental labor. "If asked what a low forehead denotes," Dr. Cams remarks, "I should say a vigorous scalp, or a predominating lateral development of the skull, but certainly not a low degree of intelligence"; and Horace went so far as to celebrate a frons tenuis as a sign of an ingenious mind.
"Gently arched eyebrows," says Campanella, "accord with the modesty and simplicity of a virgin; rough, irregular ones are the signs of ungovernable vivacity," and Dr. Redfield adds that on this point the physiognomists of all nations agree. If the hair of the eyebrows is thin or begins to fall out, Dr. Haller regards it as a sure symptom of failing vitality; very heavy eyebrows, on the contrary, he takes to be a mark of redundant potency and reserved strength. "Eyebrows which join each other," Lavater remarks, "were considered among the ancients as a sign of a fallen character," but he himself inclines to Goethe's opinion that they denote energische Sinnlichkeit, which does not exactly mean sensuality, but rather active vigor of all the senses. The deficiency or abundance of eyebrow-hair he holds to be a physical rather than mental symptom, but owns that he "never saw a profound thinker, or even a man of a firm and judicious mind, with slender eyebrows, placed very high."
As to the eyes themselves, opinions differ to a rather perplexing degree. Their protuberance Gall, Lavater, and Fowler hold to be a mark of a retentive memory and language, i. e., fluency of speech, while Winckelmann and the Latin sages consider it as a sign of stupidity. A large eye the Greeks admired as the token of a large soul, but Gall and Dr. Carus see in it nothing but a large share of curiosity. The horizontal extension of the eye, if abnormal, Lavater suspects to be an indication of a designing mind; Redfield of excessive caution.
Their color, too, has been interpreted in very different ways. The ancients of Southern Europe, of course, preferred their own black eyes, and depreciated every lighter shade as sickly or even unnatural; but already, before their final subjugation by the Goths, they had learned to make an exception in favor of a blue iris, and we are told that, at last, even the dandies of the Roman capital envied the bright blue eyes and brown locks of Alaric. Gray and light blue, according to Le Brun, indicate coldness, but a German rhymed proverb calls a blue eye a pledge of good faith, and associates a gray one with deceitfulness. Brown, according to the same doggerel, bespeaks love of fun and mischievous merriment, while Spurzheim informs us that he found that color generally combined with a good-natured disposition. Only in regard to red eyes all nations and doctors agree: they are a sure sign of staminal weakness and degeneration.
In a treatise on physiognomy, the nose deserves a special chapter. "There is infinite expressiveness in every bone and every muscle of that prominent organ," says Sir Charles Bell, and proceeds to give us a long list of "indications," which may be summarized in the general remarks that he considers a long and pointed nose a sign of foxy slyness, a broad, short one a mark of a plain, practical mind, and Calmuck nostrils a symptom of frog-like stupidity. Redfield, too, locates "inquisitiveness" at the tip of the nose, and critical acumen in the next neighborhood, and quotes Aristotle, who speaks of the critical resources of a powerful and pointed proboscis.
In Seneca's language, an Athenian nose is a synonym for wit; and Horace introduces a wide-awake individual as a homo enunctissimæ naris, a man whose nasal ducts are in first-rate working order. Plato records his respect for a man with a royal nose, an article of which he himself was a little short, though not to such a distressing degree as his master Socrates. Caesar, Trajan, and the Abassides had such noses; also Henri Quatre and the founder of the Hapsburg dynasty. Rudolph von Hapsburg, though a righteous man and of peaceful disposition, so aggravated the German nobility by the size of his nose that his election to the imperial dignity gave general offense, and even men who had favored his nomination on account of his brilliant record were scandalized after meeting him face to face. But the emperor's judicious administration soon made his face so popular that he was besieged by portrait-painters, and once exclaimed in dismay: "God help me! Every fool who can draw a big nose wants to take my likeness!"
The Latins called such men nasones, and Ovid's influential family carried that name as a patronymic. Large hooked noses, according to Cuvier, Lavater, and Pernetti, indicate aggressiveness, love of conquest, and acquisitiveness, and their views are certainly supported by the abnormal development of those propensities among the ancient Romans and modern Jews. "When the aggressive instincts of the ancient Italians were suppressed," says Pernetti, "their noses shrunk to their present dimensions; exceptional individuals who have preserved the martial spirit of our ancestors are also conspicuous for their vigorous noses." The family of Napoleon must have preserved these characteristics in all their pristine vigor; his nose was as aggravating as his policy, and the shape of his chin was a triumph for Winckelmann's theory.
But, after all, such noses are preferable to the other extreme, the blunt hoggish snouts of the Calmucks and Southern Russians. A nez retroussé, a back-turned nose, the great Frederick considered as unpardonable in a soldier or any adult male of the Caucasian race, and was as proud of his own classic profile as of his best campaign. "God made the Roman, and man made the snub," says Dr. Wells, and Lavater demands a straight or down-turned nose as a sine qua non of a good face. "I never can look at a pug-nose without painful emotions," says he; "it makes it so sadly probable that our race has degenerated. I am sure Adam was not cursed with such a feature."
With a flat nose Gall associates sensuality and a groveling disposition; Dr. Redfield, also, want of energy and even of self-respect. But Zopyrus, the Athenian Spurzheim, went so far as to denounce a bulbous nose as a sign of a semi-bestial origin, and informed Socrates that one of his ancestors must have been guilty of an inhuman mésalliance of some sort, and that the shape of his nose "implied a tendency to drunkenness, theft, brutality, and lasciviousness"! It might be interesting to know what Zopyrus would have said about such noses as Gortchakoff's or ex-Senator Morrissey's, or the still greater deformity which made the face of Edward Gibbon a phenomenon.
The portraits of Socrates, in spite of that defect, exhibit a face that might pass for intelligent and manly, if not for beautiful, in our days; but, in contrast with the living models of our classic statuary, the Mongolism of his features may have appeared more glaring. The Grecian profile, indeed, has always remained the beau-idéal of perfect beauty. "The proof that the straight profile constitutes beauty," says Michael Angelo, "is furnished by the effect of the deviating profile. The stronger the inflection of the nose the further the face deviates from its perfect form. The Grecian nose is the most human of all features; all other noses are a compromise with animalism."
These noses, as a national type, have utterly disappeared. According to Francisco Diaz, a Portuguese historian and philosopher of the eighteenth century, the last remnant of the favored race inhabited a district northeast of Cadiz, which neighborhood their Grecian ancestors had settled some two thousand years ago. They were peaceful tillers of the soil, but their adherence to the unitarian dogmas of Mohammed involved them in the fate of the wretched Moriscoes, who were expelled by order of the Rey Católico. We shall not look upon their like again.
The muscles about the mouth are mapped out like a town-chart by Dr. Carus, and for not less than eleven "qualities" he provides lodgings in that neighborhood. Love has the under lip all to himself, but four of his relatives, clemency, pity, the love of children, and benevolence, are crowded together in the narrow dell between the mouth and the chin. Five more inhabit the upper lip and the place below the nose, while cheerfulness has reserved seats in the corners of the mouth. Tumid lips must be a sure sign of sensuality, since nearly all physiognomical authorities insist on that thesis, and even Winckelmann, who commonly has an opinion of his own, is here, at least, neutral. He admits it to be a suspicious sign, but believes that after it has once become hereditary, as among certain African and South Asiatic tribes, it denotes merely a sanguine temper. But, if the upper lip protrudes so far upward that it fails to cover the teeth, the indication is even more unfavorable; it then means lasciviousness and stupidity combined. The habit some children have of keeping the mouth constantly open is also ominous of future imbecility, if we may believe Dr. Haller. Dr. Redfield's observation about prominent canine teeth has already been referred to; deformed (because decayed) teeth may indicate indolence (as implying a neglect of sanitary precautions), but are often hereditary, like weak lungs and short-sightedness. Short and white teeth in adults, as Lavater says, are frequently combined with uncommon bodily strength, and visible interspaces between the front teeth are a favorable omen of longevity.
That the art of mind-reading is yet in its infancy is sufficiently demonstrated by some of the "general rules" which, modern as well as ancient, physiognomists have recorded as the result of careful observation.
"The smallest heads," says Aristotle, "are generally stored with the largest share of sense, and the same rule applies to other extremities. If the hands and feet are small in proportion to the size of the trunk, it betokens a refined mind, a noble ancestry." Lavater would trust only to first impressions. "If I begin to analyze features," he confesses, "I am biased by my prejudices, and persuade myself to consider a head a bad one because it exhibits features which my pet theory objects to. But there are laws of compensation which assert themselves in the tout ensemble impression."
"In many faces I have seen an habitual expression which at first puzzled me," says Kant, "but I have found that by mimicking that characteristic look my mind involuntarily turns in the direction of that person's predominating passion, and thus furnishes me a key to the problem."
"How is it," asks Dr. Haller, "that crafty and designing persons use to keep one, or sometimes both eyes, half shut? and that only children and animals are honest enough to meet your glance with perfect unconcern? To other features I look for pathological indications, but the eye alone is the mirror of the mind."
Lord Byron, in matters of that sort perhaps a better observer, seems to have formed quite a different view. "Hold on, let me see the jaw," he called out, when Shelley's body was removed from the beach of Spezzia—"I can recognize any one by the teeth with whom I have talked. I always watch the lips and mouth: they tell what the tongue and eyes try to conceal."
"Let a beginner draw a head," says Le Brun, "and the face will always bear an expression of stupidity; never one of malignity or wickedness. Is not here an important hint? Stupidity, as expressed in mind or body, is incongruity, while in a scoundrel the mental machinery may be well arranged and very efficient, though working in the wrong direction. Mental turpitude can rarely be discovered in the features; mental derangement—which all foolishness more or less amounts to—very easily."
The comparison of some special rules reveals even stranger contradictions. Buffon, who himself loved a well-stocked larder, accepts embonpoint as a safe sign of mental health. "Crazy people," he informs us, "are always haggard; harmony of the mental and moral faculties is favorable to the development of fat." Redfield, with the same plausibility, demonstrates the exact reverse. "Only stupid brutes accumulate fat," says he, "oxen, sheep, and swine. Mental activity stimulates our torpid organs, but a sluggish brain induces physical inertia and fatty degeneration. . . . Dr. Swift," he adds, "was lean as long as he applied himself to letters; he afterward lost the main part of his reason and then became plump again." "A fat, short neck," says Pliny, "announces a mind ferocious," but Sir Charles Bell distinctly tells us that it indicates good-natured laziness and love of a good table. But the difference in national standards of beauty is still more astounding. We know that Dr. Fowler's lectures made high foreheads so fashionable that New England exquisites spared no pains to promote their rapid development—not even those involved in the removal of a handful of hair; but the perfumed dandies of ancient Rome and Syracuse were just as anxious to cultivate a frons parva et angusta, which Ovid enumerates among the emblems of perfect beauty. Propertius, too, speaks of the frons brevis, the short forehead of a comely individual, and we are informed by Aristophanes that the ladies of Athens encircled their heads with a black ribbon, so as to make the forehead appear more narrow. "Monstrum in fronte, monstrum in animo" was a Latin proverb which certain political adversaries applied to the enormous forehead of the Dean of St. Patrick.
Galen informs us that "a great belly betrays a vulgar mind," while among the Turks beauty is chiefly a question of avoirdupois; and the Esquimaux, according to the Rev. Hansen, value abdominal prominence as the acme of manly dignity. Torngac, the old man of the sea, the hyperborean Jupiter, they think, will be distinguished among all the heroes and minor deities of his suite by his conspicuous belly and his prominent cheeks. Yankee Doodle seems rather to incline to Galen's opinion, though we have fat men's associations, and German communities where a jolly paunch is a potent element of popularity. The Gaelic mountaineers of the last century thought corpulence disgraceful; and Byron, according to his best biographer, was ultra-Scotch in this respect. "He resolved to keep down to eleven stone or shoot himself," says Captain Trelawney. "I remember one of his old acquaintances saying, 'Byron, how well you are looking!' If he had stopped there it had been well, but, when he added, 'You are getting fat,' Byron's brow reddened and his eyes flashed. 'Do you call getting fat looking well, as if I were a hog?' and turning to me, he muttered: 'The beast! I can hardly keep my hands off him!'"
The Esquimaux, as well as the Chinese and Calmucks, are shocked at the appearance of our noses; the latter speak of a proboscis or pelican's bill, if they wish to refer to the nasal organ of an Englishman, and admire the delicacy of their own stumps. But in mediæval France more than one gifted plebeian found a nez retroussé an obstacle to official advancement, and the preux chevalier valued a vigorous hook as one of his primary insignia nobilitatis. Montaigne, however, ridicules this taste, and suggests that a receipt for elongating noses by artificial means would make the fortune of the inventor: "Quel bonheur de naitre avec un pied de nez!"
We may realize the feelings of a Calmuck mother, who, shocked at the abnormal prominence of her offspring's nose, endeavors to improve his looks by flattening the offensive feature; but it is rather difficult to understand the taste of a lady who commences her toilet by blackening her teeth!—yet this fashion prevails throughout Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli.
It has never been fully explained how we came to be prejudiced against red hair, though Baron Bunsen suggests that it distinguished the aborigines of Northern Europe, whose descendants have survived in Jutland and Connaught, and that at a time when these F. F.'s resisted the inroads of the Indo-Germanic tribes, and every man's hand was against them, the aversion to their national characteristics, red hair and a freckled skin, became an instinct of Norman and Saxon nature. However that may be, the existence of the prejudice can not be denied, and, in certain border districts of Sleswig where yellowish-red hair has become hereditary, the local drug-stores do a rushing business in lead combs, which have been found to change the objectionable tint to auburn. But, when the Venetian Republic was in the zenith of its power, a considerable portion of the internal revenue was derived from a tax on artificial red hair, which had become a staple of commerce, and was bought and substituted for their own raven locks by all the fashionable ladies from Trieste to Fiorenza.
St. Paul asserts that "if a man have long hair it is a shame unto him" (1 Cor. xi, 14), and, with some phenomenal exceptions, our Caucasian contemporaries seem to share his opinion, though only a century ago North America and Western Europe indulged in perukes and pigtails of stately dimensions. But the Grecian aristocrats, from the days of Theseus to the accession of the Macedonian madman, sought to distinguish themselves by the length of their hair, as the Chinese mandarins by that of their finger-nails. When Alexander marched his troops against the Persian Empire, he insisted that his Grecian auxiliaries must submit to a wholesale shearing, as in a hand-to-hand fight their pendent tresses would give the enemy an unfair advantage; and Heinrich Heine is malicious enough to insinuate that the final abolition of the Zopf, the orthodox Prussian pigtail, was prompted by similar considerations. "If the old lady once had you by the Zopf," he says, "all resistance ended in an unconditional surrender."
[To be continued.]