Shakespeare, Physiognomy, the Pope and Lavater

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men May read strange matters…“Your face, my thane, is as a book where men May read strange matters…”

(Macbeth, act 1, sc. 5

Comment. As usual, there is a barrage of opposing statements regarding the new Pope’s relation with the Argentinian Junta, responsible for the so-called “Dirty War” and the repression of the 1970s – 1980s. Repression is actually a euphemism as the most circulated number of people “disappeared” in Argentina for the sake of democracy is around 30,000 – it was only Your face, my thane, is as a book where men May read strange matters…recently that some of the authors of the massacre went to jail.
Consequently the man-in-the-street, naively attempting to reach a conclusion, no longer knows whom to believe. In the circumstances, one of the taken-for-granted methods for assessing character is the old art of physiognomy (from the Greek physis (nature) and gnomon (judge) – meaning  the assessment of a person’s character from his outer appearance, especially the facial expression).
Greek philosophers were fond of the practice, but it acquired a new life when the illuministic Swiss and Zwinglian Abbot Johan Lavater (1741-1801) published his monumental “Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe”. Where Lavater shows that all the human character traits and personalities are described in about seven thousand expressions. By the way, novelist Honore’ de Balzac constantly referred to Lavater’s work when describing the characters of his novels.

Armed with a copy of the same I therefore attempted to apply Lavater’s principles to the expression of his Holiness. But first, let’s summarize the key points of the debate. They may prove interesting historically.

Today the Dirty War stories are entirely at odds with the image of the Pope portrayed by the Vatican Media – a humble and kind old man, a man of the people who cares deeply about the poor.

As questions about the dealings with the Junta began to surface, the Vatican official spokesman issued a statement claiming that the attacks on Bergoglio’s reputation were the work of “left-wing anticlerical elements” who are always attacking the Church.

The statement is telling in its simplicity. Those critical of the Church are tout-court “left-wing”. Given the bubbling of church sexual scandals worldwide should we conclude that all those who find pedophilia revolting are “left wing”?  And for that matter, the Church also never pronounced a word against the Vietnam War with its millions of dead, nor about the Iraq War with more than one million dead, and all the other wars in between and current.  In fact, the previous Pope, during his visit to Washington, did not utter one single word about the Iraq or the Afghanistan invasions. The conclusion is simple, critics of the church are “left wing”. Those who understand the church’s holiness and that the Pope is the prime minister of God are “right wing”.  Instructive, I think.

Then there is the book “Silencio”, by  Horacio Verbitsky, in which he reports that one concentration camp was actually set up on Church property that had previously been used as a retreat by senior clergy.

In the 1970s, Bergoglio had been made the Jesuit Provincial in Argentina, the head of the entire order there when he was only 36.  The specific allegations made about him suggest that he gained and kept that position for several years not by taking responsibility in perilous circumstances, but by evading it.

Testimony at the recent trial of the 44 military men in Buenos Aires on Wednesday focused on one particular set of crimes. When pregnant women were “disappeared” by the military they would be kept until their babies were born and then the infant would be given away to couples the military deemed sympathetic. The relatives of those stolen children – the grandmothers, aunts and uncles — are still looking for them (see the Association “Madres de Plaza de Mayo”).

Then, always from the book, two priests working in the favelas were labeled as terrorists by the junta  and there is conflicting information as to whether Bergoglio help them or helped the junta.

Interestingly, an Italian journalist travelled to a retreat near Budapest where one of the two priests, Ferenc Jalik, is residing (the other died in 2000). Refusing to be interviewed, Father Jalics issued what we could define a ‘jesuitical’ declaration in which he says that the Pope and himself were ‘reconciled’.

Some time ago, the Guardian, the only UK newspaper that has not yet put out the brief candle of journalistic independence wrote,

“To the judicious and fair-minded outsider it has been clear for years that the upper reaches of the Argentine church contained men who had communed and supported the unspeakably brutal Western-supported military dictatorship which seized power in that country in 1976 and battened on it for years.

Not only did the generals slaughter thousands unjustly, often dropping them out of aeroplanes over the River Plate and selling off their orphan children to the highest bidder, they also murdered at least two bishops and many priests. Yet even the execution of other men of the cloth did nothing to shake the support of senior clerics, including representatives of the Holy See, for the criminality of their leader General Jorge Rafael Videla and his minions.

As it happens, in the week before Christmas [2010] in the city of Córdoba Videla and some of his military and police cohorts were convicted by their country’s courts of the murder of 31 people between April and October 1976, a small fraction of the killings they were responsible for. The convictions brought life sentences for some of the military.

These were not to be served, as has often been the case in Argentina and neighbouring Chile, in comfy armed forces retirement homes but in common prisons. Unsurprisingly there was dancing in the city’s streets when the judge announced the sentences.

What one did not hear from any senior member of the Argentine hierarchy was any expression of regret for the church’s collaboration … in these crimes.”

One can almost hear the comment of pious Catholics – the past is past, even if the church did not oppose the killings, what does it matter now?

Roses have thorns, and silver mountains mud,
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults.”
  (Sonnet 35)
Etc. etc.

In the circumstances then, let’s apply the principles of Lavater. We can consider the geography of the Pope’s face as divided into two sections, eyes and forehead being one and base of nose to neck being the other.

Eyes and forehead show the traits of a keen and consummate diplomat, capable of quickly discerning what his interlocutor is saying, what he is not saying, what he is thinking, what he plans to achieve, what he says he will do, what he thinks of doing and what he will actually do once the meeting is over. The new Pope’s eyes are penetrating and superbly neutral, making it almost impossible to guess his thought or what conclusions he is reaching.

The other section represents a veritable impassable iron curtain, no one will ever know what he really thinks about any issue of relevance. The “Lavaterian” telling sign is the inclination of the lines starting from above the nose, along with the perfectly parallel lines issuing from the corner of the lips.

Quick summary, total and utter impenetrability. To the skeptical reader who may say that the same conclusion may be reached about every Pope, I invite him to look  at the expression of Pope Ratzinger and check for himself that this is not so.

Tips for Use. Question the intent of a potential adversary with slight modifications, e.g. ‘Your face, Mr. Carson, is as a book, where men may read strange matters’.

In the play. Lady Macbeth tutors her husband before he kills King Duncan who is visiting Macbeth’s castle.

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