OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIf you’re taking an interest in the unfolding story of how veils should be responded to, and how they might be reacted to, it might interest you to know that there is a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story that touches on the subject.

Long before the issue of Muslim veils had surfaced here in England, I’d written a long short story set in a futuristic mall – but one for which the actual future kept on outrunning me in many ways – in which a projected, electronic veil was worn, to protect people’s privacy in the face of CCTV coverage. I could never really get a grip on the story. Like so many stories, it wanted to go its own way, and persisted in turning into some sort of adventure story. I liked the characters though, and the playing about with the ideas that the veils, and what they might look like, prompted. Not only the fast encroaching future of malls, but the developing issue of the Muslim veil also eventually ran my story into the long grass.

Hawthorne’s tale comes from a different era, and is based on, or at least parallels to some extent, a documented historical incident.

Clergyman Hooper’s Black Veil is a story with a religious basis. The eponymous hero appears unexpectedly in a black veil, a scrap of muslin – don’t get confused there -which he wears, day and night, sleeping and waking, eating and drinking – I’m beginning to sound like the Bishop’s Curse (you have to know your Carlisle) – until the day he dies. It’s a curious veil, in that it covers his eyes, but not his mouth. His parishioners are horrified. His wife is devastated. On his death bed he challenges those present with its meaning. I don’t want to reveal more, but commend the story to you.

Veils, masks and visors have a potent and enduring presence in my culture, by which I mean the culture of the English that was created, along with its language, in the aftermath of the Norman Occupation – from which there has been as yet, no liberation. Robin Hood was the original hoodie. Medieval knights raised their visors to show their faces, and their good intents – a lowered visor, a concealed face, meant the threat of violence. Playing cowboys as a child, when you got the baddy’s roll, you masked the lower face with a handkerchief folded in a triangle. Highwayman went masked. TV villains wore stockings over their heads – what a waste! The IRA wore their balaclavas. The Ku Klux Klan wore its bedding. The Public Hangman, I think, was hooded, when on duty. Even the black glasses, and especially those reflective ones, of the celebrity, and the gangster, carry connotations, in this culture, of rejection, of exclusion, of contempt, and of threat. I can see you, but you can’t read my intentions. Only the Lone Ranger bucked the negative connotations of the masked man, and he was a late comer to the fold. In my childhood women sometimes wore veils at funerals, and of course there’s  the wedding veil. The former kept grief, or lack of it, concealed, and the latter, kept the identity of the chattel concealed, until it was too late. There are some lovely medieval stories about the ‘wrong’ daughter being supplied!

Eyes and mouths are what this is all about. The curled lip, the sly smile, the dismissive grin. A few years ago a women’s magazine ran a little competition – there were no prizes – in which a half dozen eye-line photographs were shown, for interpretation. What emotion, the reader was asked, did these eyes communicate? I scored about average, but I was guessing mostly.

Working in the Probation Service a couple of decades ago, I can remember the eyes of a confidence trickster, who painting himself – talking I suppose, really – into a disastrous corner over a period of weeks, had the bleakest pair of eyes I have ever gazed into. He used no mask to veil his intentions. Lies did the job as well as it could be done.

In my mall-set story, only the security guards went routinely unmasked. Everyone else was ‘veiled-up’. In private conversations, among friends, they would ‘veil-down’, and in shops they might be asked to, ‘for your safety and convenience’. And of course, the electronically generated masks they wore, became more elaborately individualised the further you travelled up the social scale. In my story, it was the desire for privacy that sparked the trend. In Hawthorne’s story it was shame that sparked the act. Whatever the reason, the practice of going masked, in this culture, confronts a thousand years, and perhaps more, of custom.

There’s a flip side to this coin: the place of ‘face’ in our culture. In Eastern cultures people can be spoken of as ‘having’ or ‘having no’ face, much as the way we might speak of people having ‘side’. Look at colloquial English, and you’ll get an idea of how important ‘face’ is to us. We can have a ‘brass face’ be ‘hard faced’. Inscrutable or unforgiving we have a ‘closed face’. We can ‘face up’ to our responsibilities. Soldiers ‘face about’ to ‘face the foe’. Unwillingly, sometimes, we ‘show our faces’ at public events. In adversity we ‘put on a brave face’. Confrontations can be a ‘face off’, tete-a-tetes can be ‘face to face’. It was Helen of Troy’s ‘face’ that launched a thousand ships, rather than any of her other physical attributes. Agression is ‘in your face’, and that recent addition to global communication (from American English) had to be called ‘Face’book. When we’re daunted we say we ‘can’t face it’, when determined we ‘set our face’, often ‘in the face’ of some difficulty or other. The Mona Lisa fascinates us because we can’t quite read her face: if she had been a Page Three girl we’d have forgotten both of them long ago.

Unseen manipulators of our lives, whether beaurocrats or anonymous officials, are ‘faceless’ men, and, perhaps, women. Our icons are ‘the face of’ whatever they’re representing. Take away the face and you are removing a foundation stone of our means of communication between individuals. Deliberately obscure it, and you are challenging, perhaps unintentionally, the notion that such communications are necessary, or even desirable. Without the face the focus of our interactions must shift, but to what? Language? I read somewhere that the meaning of words accounts for a mere 3% of the ‘communication’. The rest is in such things as tone of voice, pitch, volume, expression, gesture and body language. How much, I wonder, is attributable to face?

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