By Josh Wagner
I can’t remember faces. Whether it’s someone I quickly met waiting in line at Coupa or a friend from my freshman dorm, I have trouble placing faces, especially from a distance or if they are laughing. It seems that I’m always looking at people who I feel I should know, or who I do actually know, but can’t recognize. It’s a very strange and unsettling feeling. But sometimes I actively see people and know who they are – a shocking turn of events.
In section last week, as I turned to say “hi” to a classmate from my freshman dorm, like I usually do, I didn’t see him. It’s not that he wasn’t in the room or anything like that – I just didn’t recognize him. All the physical features that I had grown comfortable with – his long, curly hair, the slight jump in his step, his fire-truck red shoes – were all gone. I found that, as I scanned the room and thought I saw him, everything was wrong. I looked into my friend’s eyes and subconsciously saw a stranger sitting comfortably in his place.
Really freaked out and not really sure what to do, I just stared at him dumbfounded. The shape of his head, the depth and thickness of his glasses, the existence of his chin, the way he was reclining in his chair and crossing his legs were all wrong, unknown, different. This sight, which I usually see every week, was alienating and unnerving today. But, all I could do was look and travel deeper into my mind, trying to reconcile the physical reality with my psychic one.
I’m probably making a bigger deal out of this than it deserves, but I was legitimately scared. I started thinking about doubles and tried to figure out what imposter had come and taken up the place of my buddy. But, of course, I was the imposter. In my mind, I quickly flashed through our memories – meeting in our freshman dorm, getting lost in San Francisco on ScavHunt, playing Scrabble, baking French toast, his love for musical theater; these experiences and aspects of his personality that had seemed so present and real just didn’t seem to apply to him anymore. Yet, on some level, I knew that under the surface of that visage, those infinitesimal qualities – the unknowable qualities of human expression, the hidden ones that darted through my mind, that didn’t register on his motionless face – were still there. I didn’t know what to do and I really wanted to understand what was happening.
French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas too often reflects on the experience of meeting “the face of the other [autrui].” For Levinas, such an encounter is not a physical interaction between two people, but a confrontation between living presences. This other face represents a presence to which I owe some kind of ethical responsibility. And, no matter what is going on inside the other person’s mind, her infinity, I can only be startled by the presence of the face, its “there-ness.” Of course, people are more than faces, yet this physical manifestation is prior, vulnerable, exposed, affective, expressive; it is there before I know about anything going on beyond that unknowable “glacier.”
How does this help me? In Levinasian terms, this kind of raw encounter with another is what happened to me in section – I could only see the outward manifestation without getting at anything that lay beneath. Even when I psychologically “corrected” for the fact that I knew this particular person, I could not escape the estranging sense that I had entered an alternate reality. In my failure to recognize the familiar features of my friend, I also realized that I should be able to recognize them. How important are physical features to my connection to friends? If I can just wake up one day and see a stranger in my friend’s eyes, how connected are we really?
I think that physical appearance plays a huge role in this connection. If you can’t uniformly recognize someone, how can you be expected to interact with and form a connection with them? But, more crucially than that, my relationships with others are premised upon looking and, to an extent, acting in a certain manner. It’s not that it’s impossible to be friends with someone who wears turtlenecks or has blue eyes. Rather, there’s some kind of mutual expectation that the person you’re friends with will continue to be that same person. Styles and hair colors might change, but the infinitesimal, inexpressible things that those features connote will remain.
Physical appearance seems to be a pretty weak basis for a friendship. But perhaps it is because of that weakness, that randomness that it works. It’s less a rapid-fire judgment and more of a way of differentiating between the mass of people here at Stanford. The more I obsess over what connects me to other people, the more I realize how unhelpful that question is. Last week, a friend told me that the more she idolizes something, i.e. friendship, good grades, money, etc., the more inadequate she feels about that thing. And I think that’s a good intuition – it’s almost as if caring about something robs that thing of much of its personal value.
The other thing to consider is the inscrutability of the face. You’re never going to know exactly what’s going on in someone else’s head. You’re never going to know what kind of day they’re having what kind of world of despair, or of joy that they are currently wrapped up in. Sure, they can try to let you in, but it’s not quite the same as effortlessly being there-there. We can’t even touch each other on a biological level because the electrons in our atoms repel each other. We live in our heads. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just makes it much harder to reach out and connect with another: “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,/Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?”
Contact Josh Wagner at jwagner4 ‘at’ stanford.edu.