The Smile that Hides the Soul

I have a number of books that supposedly clue you into discerning the personalities of people based on their physical gestures, things like hands on hips,  the turned up corners of the mouth, the wrinkling of the forehead or lifting of the eyebrows,  etc.  The problem is that body language can differ from one culture to another.  While close spatial contact with lots of touching may convey caring in, say, a Hispanic culture, it’s apt to raise the specter of territorial invasion among white North Americans.  I know families, for example, that simply don’t touch.

My take on kinetics, or body language, is to approach the subject with caution.  But it’s more than this, too.  I’m simply suspicious of reductionist approaches that promise us a mirroring of the human psyche and, often as not, a means to its manipulation, if we just read the body cues right and fine-tune our approach.

No, we humans are offspring of eons of evolutionary survival stratagems that camouflage thoughts, and with good reason in a world that often cannot tolerate a baring of the soul with its sonar witness to salient distress as a life component we’re uncomfortable  acknowledging.  We feel safer behind walls.

Thus we’re prone to exercising considerable dissembling skills to avoid alienating our fellows and exacerbating our isolation, for no matter what form physical pain, anguish, and grief assume, there’s always the immense individuality of suffering which even the greatest empathy cannot transcend.

Emily Dickinson, like all gifted poets grounded in sensory acuity, knew this well, typically drawing upon Nature for analogies of  concealment, undermining the conflation of appearance with reality in “The Wounded Deer Leaps Highest” with its successive examples of a deer’s leap, a gashed rock, a sprung trap, and, in the human realm, flushed cheeks and even laughter, suggesting a dynamism masking covert wounding:

A wounded deer leaps highest
I’ve hunter the hunter tell;
Tis but the ecstasy of death,
And then the brake is still.

The smitten rock that gushes,
The trampled steel that springs;
A cheek is always redder
Just where the hectic stings!

Mirth is the mail of anguish,
In which it caution arms
Lest anybody spy the blood
And “You’re hurt exclaim.

As the closing stanza poignantly bears witness, we put on a brave act hiding our grief, as though expressing it were a weakness, with resulting pity simply reinforcing our isolated fate.  Culture has insisted men, in particular, should be very good at this.

We are complex in our emotions and body language.  In the space of three years, Dickinson  would lose 26 friends and relatives to death; but she also knew that life goes on and the game must still be played.



Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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