We can learn a lot of from a face. Writers, visual artists, and philosophers have been reading faces for centuries. But while some see the face as mask, others see it as our presence to the world. An acute difference can, for instance, be seen in the words on the face by Emmanuel Levinas and Louis-Ferdinand Celine.
Emmanuel Levinas is well known for the weight he gives to the “face” in his philosophy. In an essay entitled “Ethics as First Philosophy,” he writes: “The proximity of the other is the face’s meaning, and it means from the very start in a way that goes beyond those plastic forms which forever try to cover the face like a mask of their presence to perception”(82, Levinas Reader). In the face of the other “there is the nakedness and destitution of the expression as such, that is to say extreme exposure, defencelessness, vulnerability itself”(83). For Levinas, the face and the person who bears it to the world will always be exposed and vulnerable.
In contrast, Celine, in Journey to the End of the Night, shows us a face that, with more experience, changes, becomes ugly, and less vulnerable. Celine’s narrator introduces this theme through a character named Berbert who “had the greenish look of an apple that would never get ripe”(208). Berbert seems to be a friendly character. One day, he goes to say “good morning” to the doctor-narrator.
Before describing Bebert’s face in depth, the narrator laments that you can’t love grownups:
If you got to love something, you’ll be taking less of a chance with children than with grownups, you’ll at least have the excuse of hoping they won’t turn out as crummy as the rest of us. How are you to know? (209)
Bebert, it seems, is different:
I’ve never been able to forget the infinite little smile of pure affection that danced across his livid face. Enough gaiety to fill the universe. (209)
But this face is the exception, not the rule. After one hits a certain age, says Celine, his or her face changes for the worst. And that happens because the “world isn’t what we expected”:
Few people past twenty preserve any of that affection, the affection of animals. The world isn’t what we expected. So our looks change! And turned into a thorough stinker in next to no time! Past twenty it shows in our face! Our face is a mistake! (209)
For Celine, “our face is a mistake,” however Bebert’s is not. It gives Celine some respite from humanity. His ensuing description of Bebert portrays him as a sick, but charming animal. When they are separated by other people, Bebert tries to pop up in front of other people so he and Celine can exchange looks.
We couldn’t see each other anymore. Bebert jumped up and down, sneezing and shouting for joy. His haggard face, his greasy hair, his emaciated monkey legs, the whole of him danced convulsively at the end of his broom. (209)
In contrast, we have Bebert’s aunt. Celine treats her “free of charge,” because, as he sarcastically notes, “nobody paid me.” He helped them not because he was kind, however, but because he was “curious” about the nature of humanity. With Bebert’s aunt and all of “them” (the people he treats for free) he learns that people hide behind masks, lie, and sought to take advantage of him…because he did them a favor:
People avenge themselves for the favors done them. Bebert’s aunt took advantage of my lofty disinterestedness. In fact she imposed on me outrageously. I let things ride. I let them lie to me. I gave them what they wanted. My patients had me in their clutches. Every day they sniveled more, they had me at their mercy. And while they were at it they showed me all the ugliness they kept hidden behind the doors of their souls and exhibited to no one but me. The fee for witnessing such horrors can never be high enough. They slither through your fingers like slimy snakes. (210)
Bebert may be the exception, his face is not a mistake, but “ours” is. By saying ours, Celine includes himself with these people who appear to be – as Levinas would say – exposed, defenceless, and vulnerable, but are only appearing like this so they can control and manipulate the care-giver. Their faces are masks.
Celine’s cynical view suggests that very few people can “preserve” vulnerability and a child or animal-like honesty. In contrast, Levinas thinks that, regardless of what happens to us by way of loss, disappointments, etc, the face remains vulnerable and exposed. The face will continue to solicit me regardless of whether the subject is trying to manipulate me or not. But, for Celine (the character, author, and person), his curiosity about humans (his scientific experiment, so to speak) led him to be much more skeptical about the sick people he treats. His experience taught him otherwise.
Contrasting Levinas to Celine, we can ask ourselves a few questions. Are the faces we see in the street and in the mirror “mistakes”? Are we mistaken about what they appear to show? Isn’t every encounter with a face a risk? And should we write off most faces if we are deceived by a few? Celine remembers one face as good but sees many as masks of darker intentions. Levinas sees the face as exposed and vulnerable but, unlike Celine, he doesn’t turn the face into a mask. Both of them went trough war, but both of them decided to interpret the face in a different manner.