By Muriel Spark, from The Informed Air, a collection of essays to be published this month by New Directions. This essay originally appeared in the Observer, as “Eyes and Noses,” on January 18, 1953.
I was given to think about noses by being given to think about eyes for an essay competition. And the more I thought about eyes, the less I had to say about them, and the more did I ponder noses. Not that eyes lack scope: but for me there was too much scope: in particular, too many adjectives capable of being associated with the eyes. Dry, ambiguous, blue, beastly, wee, or haunting eyes are manageable, but after that, the deluge: the Arcturian eye, the strychnic and the televisionary eye, usher themselves to mind; and still to be embraced remain the United Provincial, the Jacobean, the extramural, the blunt and biting, eyes.
I am for noses, because they are frugal as to adjectives and constant in form. It is said that the eyes are the windows of the soul. A fallacy; they are the windows of moods and inclinings, alarums and excursions, which act only as a magnet to more adjectives. No one with a flighty imagination should touch upon a subject which is prone to adjectives.
It is not so with noses. For, incapable of deceit, noses express only themselves. But they mean so much. In fact, the nose is the signpost of the soul. In the sweeping and general sense, that is. That anyone’s can be interpreted to mean “steady and cheerful” or “homicidal and industrious,” I, as an aphysiognomist, truly doubt. I note that the nose of an officious bus conductor is, from base to tip, altogether too officious. He lets his bus take me past my stop. I am sure he has put the Evil Nose on me. I have to walk all the way back to the National Portrait Gallery, where, on the bust of John Keats, I see an identical nose lending itself an air of the compassionate sublime.
The adjectives proper to noses can therefore be reduced to a few anthropological terms, so plain is the nose on your face. It is true that these peninsulas of the human landscape have their individual endearments. The people I admire most have noses which go off at all angles; they have nostrils like panniers, bellows, cabbage butterflies: in profile, they are cliff-edges, dromedaries, spouts of teapots and Chianti bottles. You can keep your tiny tip-tilts, which are for shopwindow dummies. You can have your chiseled classicals, they are for a romantic taste. But what you prefer and what I fancy are beside the point, which is that the nose has a function.
It has three functions: olfactory, respiratory, and proclamatory, but the first two are also beside the point. The transcendent function of the nose is to proclaim humankind. That the nose is our tether between spirit and substance, Heaven and Earth, is evident from Genesis: “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” The first thing that happened to Adam happened to his nose. Therefore the nose is an emblem at once of our dusty origin and our divine.
Why else do infants reach out for our noses, except that they doubt whether we have got souls, like themselves? Remember that the newly born are, all unawares, deeply versed in the Book of Genesis. Thus counseled, our children clutch our emblematic noses, generously to give us the benefit of the doubt. Why do they consider a funny man with a false nose funny? Because, of course, they spot a heresy. He was quite a heretic, that Dong with a Luminous Nose of Edward Lear.
If neither the utterance of Genesis nor the pathetic fate of the Dong convinces you, hear what John Donne said about the nose. “The worthiest member,” he said. Regrettably, he did not actually say that noses stand for souls, but I take him to have meant it. Also in support of my proposition, Rostand provides his Cyrano. No spirit could be choicer than Cyrano’s, no nose more monstrous. This dramatic issue between Cyrano’s prominent nose and his prominent soul properly testifies to my nose-soul theme.
And I ask consideration of the case of the noses of Botticelli’s nymphs and goddesses, because it confirms my conviction. These figures have colds in their noses suggested by a touch of pink at the tip. And not without reason. Botticelli wished to convey the supreme spirituality of the exalted females. He understood that they exist, by nature, in an element so purified and perfect that when they came into a natural framework they would find the atmosphere odd. Giving them human form, in their immortal poses, he gave them a human reaction to change of climate, a cold.