Thursday, February 15, 2007

Saving Face

Did you know some people find it difficult to remember or identify faces? It's called prosopagnosia, or "face blindness." Here's a simple test you can take to see if you have it. (Hint: you have to guess whether it's Bush or Blair. Yuck! Why not Jennifer Lopez vs. Salma Hayek? Or Brad Pitt vs. George Clooney? Whatever.)

Not having one's face recognized is especially onerous in the Age of Celebrity. Imagine how slighted the glitterati feel.

It turns out authors are frequently among the unrecognized faces. But I'm alert to such sightings, probably because they are what I am not. Years ago I worked at Random House in New York. I saw Joseph Heller on the elevator. I approached John Updike in the lobby, asked for his autograph, and he chatted with me amiably. Kurt Vonnegut was often seen in the neighborhood. I saw Norman Mailer strutting up Second Avenue. (Before all that, I even met the satirist Peter DeVries at his house.) I saw James Baldwin sitting alone in a hotel lobby in Chicago in the 1980s, shook his hand (somewhat cold and feeble), and asked for his autograph. He pleasantly obliged, and his face warmed with a smile seemingly at the fact someone recognized his face.

(As you can see, I am a shameless name-dropper. Is it a sign of poor self-esteem? Or just living vicariously?)

I shouldn't joke about this face blindness phenomenon; it is considered a real neurological impairment. It's not that I think I have it, but I do find it difficult to describe a face to someone. It's hard for me to draw that picture with words. And I have no talent as a visual artist beyond the creation of stick figures.

I remember the youthful thrill of trying to rivet into my brain the image of the visage of someone I liked. (Typically, of course, I was unable to articulate such affection.) Must be what Lennon and McCartney had in mind with "I've Just Seen a Face."

Then there are the images of those I feared or loathed: a kid who bullied me, a teacher who smacked me to the ground. I wish I had no memory of their faces. Prosopagnosia for the antagonisti, call it.

Whether visually or otherwise, we seek to save face. In domestic quarrels, each participant tries to save face.

Barry Bonds held out on signing a $15.8 million contract with the San Francisco Giants, just to save face.

Nations and sects and rivals also fight to save face, even if it means destroying the whole body, the whole body politic, the whole soul, in the process.

I wonder if there is such a thing as mammogagnosia, "the forgetting of breasts"? I think I'm afflicted with whatever the opposite of that is. And let me tell you, Braille may not help but who cares!

There's even a romantic comedy film called Saving Face by Alice Wu. It concerns a Chinese-American lesbian.

Maybe right about now, some of you are wishing I'd do an about face (which is also the title of a work by Dario Fo, but not by Dario Marquez)!

Does all this make me a facist? (Read that last word carefully. Remember, spelling counts.)

6 comments:

Army said...

Another interesting tale to read is "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat." He had visual agnosia, rather than prosopagnosia.

And while we're on the subject, I find anosognosia the most interesting - it's an injury in which the person is unaware or denies they have an impairment. This seems like an awful ailment to live with. Or is ignorance the bliss it's cracked up to be?

Pawlie Kokonuts said...

Arm,
I've read some pieces by Oliver Sacks in The New Yorker. Strange maladies. Don't we al have a bit of anosognosia, denial of one's foibles, addictions, or prejudices -- and ultimately denial of the utlimate "impairment" (death)?
pk

azgoddess said...

too funny -- ok, you got me laughing today at work -- thanks!!

and it looks like i can recognize faces....but dont tell! grin

mist1 said...

Any post name dropping Vonnegut is okay with me. When you saw him, did you put in a good word for me? Does he know that I exist? Does he read my blog?

I don't have the problem identifying faces. I have the opposite problem. Some days, I see people all over the place. I see people I knew in other cities. It doesn't make sense.

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I've heard of this condition, but don't have it. I never forget a face, or a voice. Such total recall is is a mixed blessing, though, like most blessings. There are always those whom i would prefer to forget, but can't.

Glamourpuss said...

I'm with Mist - never forget a face and see shades of people I've met before wherever I go. I waste a lot of energy trying to remember where I know a face from. But names, I'm shit with those.

Puss