Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/November 1882/Physiognomic Curiosities II

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636931Popular Science Monthly Volume 22 November 1882 — Physiognomic Curiosities II1882Felix Leopold Oswald



BUT, besides these local ideals (referred to in the preceding number), there is an inteimational standard of beauty which has survived the mutations in other canons of taste. Athenæus mentions the ingredients of a once-famous sea-fish sauce, and the attempt to try his receipt nearly suffocated the courtiers of Queen Christina with nausea and laughter. Petronius, surnamed the Arbiter of Elegance, would be kicked out by any modern publisher of obscene literature. The Greeks admired the knife-grinder music of the tree-cicada, and their own melodies would probably rout an American audience, but we all can appreciate the merits of their sculptured paragons; their Venus would bag the prize-committee of an Alaska squaw-fair, as she captured the stout knight Tannhäuser.

"Beautiful features are the credentials by which Nature introduces her representatives," says Wieland. Beauty is superior fitness, as a Darwinian would say, and in this respect, too, the preeminence of the ancient Greeks was probably the outcome of their general physical and mental superiority to their fellow-men, though they themselves believed in the existence of a chemical pan-cosmetic. In the trial of the arch-quack Cagliostro, it came out that, during the twelve years from 1765-'77, he had realized three million francs from the sale of his "Recipe for Beauty," a recipe which has been more eagerly searched for than the philosopher's stone, or the secret of longevity. Andreas Cisalpinus made the notable discovery that an ointment of crushed locusts and misletoe-juice would treble the charms of the fairest woman. "What must I do to become very beautiful?" the damsel in "Don Quixote" asks the enchanted Moor's head. "Que seas muy honrada—be very continent," replies the head. Paracelsus recommends meadow-dew, gathered in the morning while the May-moon is on the increase; and Montaigne inquires into the habits of the most well-favored tribes of every country, but confesses that the problem is rather an evasive one, the coast-dwellers of Sweden being as distinguished for their comeliness as the highlanders of Aragon, and the Normandy cider-drinkers not less than the Tuscan wine-drinkers. His only general rule, however, still holds good: that out-door dwellers are never wholly ill-favored, nor in-door workers altogether lovely; and we might say the same of alcohol-drinkers and total abstainers: the schnapps-worshiping natives of the Tyrolese highlands make amends by their active out-door life, as Lowell factory-girls by their teetotalism. There is a good deal in race, though. "Angeli sunt; non Angli" Pope Stephen III wrote more than a thousand years ago to Archbishop Cuthbert, who had sent him a batch of Anglo-Saxon neophytes, and a trace of the same angelic features may still be recognized among the little ragamuffins of many a Schleswig-Holstein coast-village, where men subsist on brandy, cheese, and sour rye-bread. Their neighbors, the Pomeranians, are a manful if not celestial generation, and, in spite of their dreary moorlands, very fond of out-door sports. But farther east Nature succumbs to art, and the northern Russians are about as outrageously unprepossessing as indoor-life and a combination of all vices could make the image of the Creator. Extremes meet, though, and their Emperor has the honor of commanding twelve regiments of the most godlike men of the present world—the lance-cuirassiers of the body guard, recruited in the highlands of Lesghia and Daghestan. Nearly all the natives of the Caucasus have that fatal gift of beauty which made their land the favorite hunting-ground of the harem-agents, and this gave the Czar a pretext for treating it as a Turkish dependency. But no social degradation could counteract the combined influence of the Caucasian climate, hardy habits, temperance, and frugality, for the Circassian mountaineers are teetotalers by religion and vegetarians by preference—figs, honey, barley-cakes, and milk, being the staples of their diet. They are physically self-made men, for their language proves that their ancestors were Turanians—first-cousins of the owl-faced nomads of the Mongolian steppe.

Pernetti believes that "the study of physiognomy has been neglected since men began to neglect their good looks, to which the classic nations attached an importance which we can nowadays hardly comprehend." Since Pernetti confines his remarks to his own sex we may plead guilty to his indictment, and it is true that the ancients combined their heroics with a good deal of Beau-Brummelism. "He abuses the right of a man to be ugly," Madame de Staël said of one of her admirers, but the ancient Greeks denied that right altogether, and their intolerance in this respect seems to have surpassed anything one could mention of contemporary notions, though it may be true that the military academies of Prussia and Saxony make homeliness a bar to admission. Even Plato, in his "Republic," advises his lawgiver to oppose all habits that might tend to lower the standard of physical æsthetics; Zopyrus berated Socrates as if he had caught a pickpocket; nay, the Spartan Gerontes fined one of their kings for courting a thick-set lady, because "they could not permit him to afflict the state with a race of undersized princes." In the record of the battle of Platæa, a certain Callicrates is mentioned simply because he was the fairest of all the Greeks who fought on that day; and Plutarch speaks of a slave whom Nicias set free for winning the applause of all Athens in a play (or religious festival), where he enacted the rôle of the Bacchus Methystes; and even more amazing is what Strabo tells us of one Philippus, who joined in the expedition of Doricus against Erix, and who, after having been slain and stripped by the people of Segeste, was taken up and grandly buried by his foes, and long afterward worshiped as a demigod, on account of his great beauty.

But the nil admirari is not always a voluntary virtue. De Lagny, in his account of a visit to the eastern tribes of Circassia, describes the horrible sight of a battle-field in the rocky valley of Halistan, where the day before six Russian regiments had been routed by the Lesghian mountaineers. "But the victory was dearly bought," says he; "in the bed of the river, and all along the northern shore, we found the unburied bodies of the heroes who had died in defense of their country. R—— was overcome by the sight, and asked us to hurry on,

but on the outskirts of a chestnut-grove, that shades the valley of a tributary creek, he suddenly stopped, and soon we were all assembled around the body of a Lesghian warrior, who had fallen, with a bullet through his head, at the foot of a shattered tree. The man wore the green scarf of his tribe, and, from the profusion of ornaments on his belt and his neck, seemed to have been a chieftain among his companions. Yet it was not his grotesque attire, nor his form, which was that of a Hercules, which held us spellbound—it was his face, a face which in manly beauty exceeded anything Phidias or Thorwaldsen ever expressed in marble. We stood around, almost immovable, as men will before a phenomenon they may see once and no more. No one spoke a word, till Surgeon Herbert, of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, broke the silence; baring his head—"Hats off, messieurs; voici l'image de Dieu—we stand before the image of God!"

The Duke de Rohan used to say that "it had pleased Providence to put something between the eyes of a French cavalier which a plebeian could not look at without quailing." The guillotine seems to have settled that difficulty, but it is true that there is an innate majesty in some faces which commands the respect even of those who would decline to recognize any other claims to superior rank, not excepting those of an established reputation. For some reason or other possibly the all-pervading hypocrisy of our Western civilization—this vultus majestatis has almost become a monopoly of the Mohammedan nations. During the revolt of the Wahabees, the commander of the sectarian army had frequent occasion to notice the efficiency of one Aboo Arish, a subaltern officer, whose stern command and intrepid bearing bad often retrieved the fortune of a doubtful battle; and after the close of the war it occurred to him to utilize the stentorian talent of his lieutenant in a different way. He made him the coadjutor of his envoy to the neighboring chieftains, and had no cause to regret his appointment, for, even on occasions that would have foiled the strategy of a European diplomat, the mere presence of Aboo Arish never failed to overawe the council of a hostile tribe.

This power of a physiognomic majesty is well illustrated by another story from the Caucasus, which I find in Lermontoff's history of the eventful campaign that ended with the capture of the prophet-chieftain, Shamyl ben Haddin, on the plateau of Ghunib, September 10, 1859. Eighteen hundred against twenty-six thousand, his men had defended themselves from early morning till after noon, and, when his ammunition was exhausted, began to hurl rocks and cannon from the parapets. But toward evening the citadel was taken by storm, and the survivors of the garrison were led forth, torn and bleeding, but resolved to die game. The officers of the Russian headquarters had adjourned for supper, as soon as the bloody work was done, but, when the commanding officer was notified that the great chieftain was among the prisoners, he gave orders to conduct him at once into his presence. A noise of boisterous mirth greeted the arrival of Shamyl when his escort halted before the commander's tent, but when he stood in the presence of his captors, like Ormuz before the court of Ahriman, a deep silence came over the assembly, and the insolent Junkers of Baryatinski's staff involuntarily rose to their feet, as if they felt the presence of a superior being!

"When he contracted his eyebrows, his look could assume a penetrative force that I have never seen equaled," says Lermontoff. Marius and Robert Burns had such eyes, and also Vasco de Gama, él de los ojos terribles, who "could read a face like an open book," and once quelled the spokesmen of a mutinous crew by simply keeping them under the fire of that terrible gaze.

How men can be affected by excessive ugliness history illustrates by many amusing examples. We have already referred to the nose of the first Hapsburger, which came so near defeating his nomination; but, if the descriptions of Caliph Walid's face are authentic, he was lucky that his accession to the throne of the Prophet did not depend upon the votes of men with physiognomic prejudices. His nose was crooked and sharp like a reaping-hook, his cheeks so tumid that "they could be seen from behind"; his mouth was atrocious, and, to put a finishing touch to the portrait, Abulfeda informs us that he was marked by the small-pox as man was never marked before, "pits like auger-holes" distributed over his face from ear to ear.

"Non cuique datum est habere nasum; another Eastern potentate, Ghengis Khan, had no nose to speak of, and was otherwise so frightfully ugly that he found it easy to pass for a superhuman or subter-human being. His next neighbors, the original Huns, were actually believed to derive their origin from a diabolical liaison of the Scythian witches; such at least was the theory of the Visigoths, who, barbarians though they were, enjoyed more than the average share of physical beauty, and were altogether overcome by the aspect of those Turanian fiends. "In many a battle," says Jornandes, "the warriors who had withstood the onset of the Roman legions were seized with a nameless terror and put to instant flight by the sight of those male Medusas."

"Hatred at first sight is no impossibility. I know that from personal experience," says Charles Lamb, "and I can believe the story of two persons meeting, who never saw one another before, and instantly fighting." Marshal Vendôme was so ugly that he avoided going near a looking-glass. But once, on entering a tent that had been furnished by proxy, he found a mirror over the wash-stand and could not resist the temptation to have a good look at himself. But, as he looked, his hand stole to his belt, and with a muttered curse and "Quelle figure!" he broke the glass with a pistol-shot. La Maintenon had seen him only once in her life, and ever afterward persecuted him with the rancor of a personal enemy, and used to refer to his person as "ce cochon à deux bottes."

But there is also such a thing as love at first sight, and in Schopenhauer's theory of sexual selection many of its apparent caprices have been explained with ultra-Baconian ingenuity. "The ultimate object of all love-dramas," says he, "is really more important than all other human concernments whatever, and fully worthy of the deep earnest of the actors. For what they decide is nothing less than the composition of the next generation. The apparently frivolous whims of Amor determine the physical and moral peculiarities of the dramatis personæ who shall mount the stage after we are gone. The sexual instinct, per se, only guarantees the perpetuity of the species; our erotic caprices determine the qualities of its representatives. . . . In regard to the human species the importance of this perpetual selection is enhanced by the perpetual necessity of counteracting the influence of degenerative agencies. Nature continually strives to correct all deviations from the standard of her normal types, and thus assists the survival of the fittest by preventing the birth of the most unfit. The metaphysical rationale of passionate love is, therefore, the instinctive perception of an opportunity to counteract individual abnormities, to neutralize them in a being of the next generation. Unless circumstances limit the scope of selection, every one chooses his or her physiological complement. A small man prefers a large woman, and vice versa; the manliest man the most feminine female, while weaklings are apt to admire a strong-minded woman. Pale blondes dote on a dark complexion, blonde and whitish hair being, properly speaking, an abnormity, analogous to the albinism of certain rodents, or at least to the recognized staminal inferiority of a white horse. . . . A child inherits its character from the father, its intellect from the mother. Firmness of will and courage, as well as the innate kindness and uprightness of a man, are therefore more potent elements of popularity with the other sex than intellectual brilliancy. Mental obtuseness does not impair the chances of an otherwise eligible suitor; on the contrary, genius (as an abnormity) may exercise an unfavorable effect. Hence the apparent paradox of a gross and stupid fellow superseding a refined and sensible man in the affection even of sentimental ladies; and the frequency of glaringly heterogeneous matches: he, practical, egotistical, and prosaic; she, all moonshine and poetry; he, metaphysical and learned; she, a goose. . . . Men, on the other hand, are guided less by the character qualities of a girl than by her intellectual attainments, though secondary to the importance of physical qualifications. In accordance with the perception of this bias, mothers try to enhance the attractions of their daughters by educational devices, music, painting, foreign languages, etc. Even a native sprightliness of the female mind is apt to outweigh the rarer merits of the heart, whence so many Socrateses have found their Xantippes—e. g., Shakespeare, Albrecht Dürer, Goethe, Byron, and others. Female beauty, though, will eclipse both goodness and wit, while, in the rivalry of the males, strength in all its forms is on the whole the main condition of success; in the eyes of the normal woman even the extreme of turpitude (moral or physical) being more pardonable than weakness."

When Bishop Lee sat down on his coffin and heard the sheriff's command of "Ready!" followed by the click of six Springfield rifles, the attendant photographer requested him to assume a pleasing expression of countenance." There have been individuals who possessed the requisite control over their facial muscles, though they might have lacked the inclination to gratify the enterprising artist. "A prince of the Church should know how to die with dignity," said Cardinal Frascati when he had been treated to a dose of poison and felt his senses give way. In spite of all entreaties he persisted in dying seated upright, with his hands folded and his face turned upward in an attitude of meditation. Savonarola kept up a controversy at the very stake, and, while the flames scorched his knees, his eyes twinkled, as he watched the effect of a caustic repartee.

When the French garrison of Detroit made a sally against the besieging Indians, Bœuf-courant, an Ojibway chieftain, had both his legs torn away by a cannon-ball. Carried into the fort, he refused medical attendance, and his young son, who had never left his side, at his bidding raked a pile of cold ashes from the guard-room chimney, and on this pile deposited his crippled father, with the stumps downward. Thus enabled to sit upright, he calmly smoked his pipe, till the commander of the fort suggested his removal to a prison-cell. They gave him a quarter of an hour to finish his smoke, and he sat motionless as a statue; hut, when one of the soldiers went to remind him that his time was up, they found that the fifteen minutes and the old chief had expired together. James Nisbet, in his "Annals of California," relates that in the fall of 1851, when Lynch-justice was the only law of the Territory, a multitude of citizens assembled on the Plaza of San Francisco, to hang a notorious rascal, who had amassed money by burglary, but was at last caught in flagrante. Mr. Nisbet made his way through the crowd, and seeing a gentleman standing a little apart, calmly smoking a cigarette, he went up to him and inquired if he could tell him who it was they were going to hang. The man thus addressed removed the ashes from his cigarette, and with great politeness replied, "Unless I'm quite mistaken, it's me, sir," and then resumed his smoke. "Ten minutes after," says Mr. Nisbet, "the same gentleman was dangling by his neck from a balcony of the Pacific Hotel."

During the first war of the Carlists and Cristinos an attempt was made to assassinate the Count de Santa Cruz, who commanded the city of Barcelona, by blowing up an old stone chapel where he used to transact his official business. A desperado undertook the job, and, after planting his powder and lighting the match, he went to the count's hotel, engaged him in conversation, and under pretext of some official business started him toward the loaded chapel. Once there, he calculated, the count would stay an hour or so, and he could slip out before the explosion. But, just as they entered the inclosure of the chapel, the building went up with an earth-shaking crash, and the would-be assassin, though unhurt, stood trembling and pale as death. Santa Cruz readjusted his hat, which had been knocked sideways by a flying fragment, and, turning to his companion, very quietly observed: "You always ought to wet a slow match in such hot weather, compañero; otherwise they burn double-quick, and the thing goes off prematurely."

It is to men of this class that Lavater refers, when he speaks of individuals who have such a control over their features that they prevent even violent passions from impressing them with the marks they would leave on other faces. As to the question what vices can be detected by the expression of the countenance, opinions differ very widely. Physical excesses always leave their mark, and there is no doubt that an expert physician can recognize a drunkard, a debauchee, a glutton, or an opium-eater without any difficulty, and even without confounding the effects of their different vices. But, though phrenologists assert, and every lover of justice should wish, it to be otherwise, overwhelming evidence obliges one to admit that, as a rule, moral turpitude leaves no such traces. If free from health-destroying habits, a plotting fiend may disarm suspicion with the ideal forms and soft eyes of Guido's dream-children, and the records of history not less than those of every-day life abound with instances of such masked scoundrels. Every large penitentiary in Anglo-Saxondom has inmates who might pose for any saint in the Roman almanac, while an honest village-priest of Southern Bavaria may combine in his face the deformities of Breughel's seven devils by indulging in salted pork, lager-bier, and sauerkraut. Some years ago I passed a few days at Brownsville, Texas, during the session of the United States District Court. The cause célèbre of the season was the case of Francisco Hernandez, a Mexican bandit, who had infested the Rio Grande frontier for more than three years before he was caught in his favorite trick of robbing the poor farm-houses of his countrymen, whenever the absence of the able bodied males gave him a chance of executing his designs with a minimum risk to his own skin. Though he assured the court that he had no hard feelings against any of his victims, he had been obliged, in the line of his business, to kill eight different persons—all females and minors. His last enterprise had involved a hand-to-hand fight with a stout old woman, who broke his left arm before he dispatched her. He was tracked to the Rio Grande, and, trying to swim the river in his crippled condition, saw himself obliged to turn back into pistol range of his pursuers, was captured, and arraigned for five murders in the second and three in the first degree. I strolled into the court-house while his trial was going on, expecting to see one of those bull-necked old cut-throats of the negroid type, who abound in this region of murder and mixed races. He proved to be a pale-faced creole, of some eighteen or twenty years, slender-built, modest-spoken, and resigned looking to a pathetic degree. His profile was absolutely perfect, and the same might have been said of his eyes, if their look had not been too ghost-like spiritual to leave an agreeable impression. Cæsar Borgia, the natural son of Pope Alexander VI, was at once the wickedest and handsomest man of his time. The fiend who aggravated the guilt of the most unheard-of crimes by perpetrating them in the name of a sentimental religion wore a face which, in the words of Delia Porta, might inspire a saint to live up to every sublime precept of that creed. The mere sound of his voice succeeded where the arguments of others failed; his eye could beam with the inspiration of a prophet while he meditated those fatti assassini to which the records of the most barbarous nations furnish scarcely a parallel. It is a pity that his skull has not been preserved, though we need not doubt that it did exhibit all those fine "developments" that were necessary to harmonize with such a face.

Cæsar Borgia had hostile biographers, who may have exaggerated his faults, and artist-friends who, perhaps, flattered him in portraits; but the same can not be said of Mohammed II, the conqueror of Constantinople, whose crimes were palliated by his abject courtiers, and to whose majestic beauty his enemies bear witness. The historian Phranza, who lost his fortune and his country in the downfall of the Byzantine Empire, and whose only son was stabbed by the hand of the Sultan, describes Lira as the physical ideal of a perfect man. A potentate of leonine bearing, with a beard that surrounded his face like a mane, and a pair of wonderful Oriental eyes, combined with features of classic regularity, he appeared "every inch a king," and the embassadors who visited his court from all parts of the world agreed that he was the manliest-looking man they had ever seen. Yet this same paragon was an infidel alike to his faith and his friends, inhumanly cruel, and mean to the rare degree of being at once avaricious and overbearing. But, though his subjects groaned under his yoke, no murmur ever reached his ears, and his presence inspired the genuine reverence due to a superior being. He was uxorious and a tool in the hands of his favorites, but his superintendence always insured the success of a campaign; he had that gift of commanding that can dispense with personal courage by inspiring it in others. Absalom, Cambyses, the younger Dionysius, Caligula, Louis le Debonnaire, Churchill, King Christian of Denmark, Ali Pasha, and Benedict Arnold, are well-known confirmations of a truth which, as Goethe observes, the experience of every man, but nobody's instinct, teaches him—that beauty and goodness are not identical. Children and childlike men, and most men a priori, are prepossessed by a handsome face and repulsed by an ugly one, and one can understand Madame de Staël when she speaks of unpardonable faces. Ugliness is something abnormal, and originally, no doubt, the consequence of sin—though, perhaps, quite unconscious sin—against the physical laws of God.

But, even about moral aberrations, the language of the face is not altogether silent, though it announces them in a different way. Besides those of the studied, calm expression, there are indications in what Sir Charles Bell calls the habits of the face, the manner of laughing, of speaking under the influence of passion, or of meeting a sudden glance. In these habits even moral peculiarities may betray themselves to a shrewd observer, and often quite unbeknown to the object of observation. Experience, in fact, can teach us to distinguish acquired from hereditary beauty or ugliness. They may be combined in the same face, but are altogether independent of each other, and differ as forms from manners, or talents from culture. The tongue, though, can be taught to refute this language of the features—hence the significance of first impressions.

Physiognomy and craniology are yet far from having been reduced to the rules of a logical system—"the one through want of cultivation, the other in spite of it," as the physiologist Camper said of his and Pastor Goetze's science. In the mean time we all practice physiognomy instinctively, though by methods which it would not be quite easy to define. What subtile differences in the form of the features enable us to indicate the age of a man, his habits, his temper, the average amount of his education, and even the country of his birth! The traveler Kohl mentions a landlord in Kent Square, Liverpool, who combined his restaurant with an emigrant boarding-house, and won many wagers by his almost infallible faculty for recognizing the nationality of his boarders: without asking them to speak, without taking any cognizance of the peculiarities of their dress, he scrutinized their features, and promptly announced the result of his observation.

Dr. Gellmayer, a druggist of Troppau, in Austrian Silesia, had for years the casting vote on every lunacy commission of his native province. He distinguished between chronic and transient ("emotional") insanity, and recognized the former exclusively by physiognomic symptoms. "I could approximately describe that expression," says he, "by comparing it to the peculiar look of a person who has forgotten something, and is trying in vain to recollect it. In the large subdivision of misanthropic lunatics that look is combined with a certain peevish furtiveness of the eye." When his colleagues wished to release a doubtful patient, Dr. Gellmayer sometimes withheld his opinion, but his averse decisions proved always correct.

Could Spurzheim have deduced such verdicts from craniological indications?