Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

The Face of God*


 

Created, as we say, in His own image, how does the face of God appear to us?

Perhaps one should be ready to apologize for introducing a subject seemingly so grave in a place supposedly so flippant as a daily journal. But I do not mean to be theological, nor even literal. Let the exact sense of the words be what it may. I only wish to use the phrase figuratively,-a large symbol for a small thought. After all, that is the utmost reach of your contemporary artist; he no longer has the thews and stature of his ancient sires; his ambitions and achievements are (for the most part, and barring notable exceptions) but puny masquerading. If he were forced to fulfil at the Day of Judgment the requirements of the Turkish fable, which says that every artist at his last account must supply soul to all his characters, he would be in a sorry case. And that feeble spirit which for all its longing must ever rest content with small thoughts and small deeds, is very prone to dress its petty creations in the gorgeous livery of a giant symbolism, and continually to take the Name in vain. In robuster, more primitive times a simpler speech might suffice.

To be plain, there is in the face of Man (from the Man with the hoe to the Man with the halo) not one look, but many. Do all these myriad phases of mood, evil and holy, proud, defiant, tender, cruel, as they play over this human image, reflect the attributes of Deity? Or did the Maker's hand falter a little in the making, so that the portrait by Himself is not quite true, but reveals traces of the sinister face of the Enemy? Or may we surmise, with certain doctors, that the likeness was in every case, or in the first instances, made goodly and perfect, and was afterward marred by that same impish destroyer of beauty?

At all events, here are the faces fleeting by in endless procession, and out of the ghostly company we are continually choosing here a feature, there a feature, which seems to us to approach the perfect beauty of countenance. The most beautiful human face ever seen, the one chosen by most nearly universal consent, would contain the lineaments and expressions of a character we should agree to call good,-it would approach the typical Likeness in which (as the great poem has it) we are all created.

And then, after all, comes the next question, "Which are the most beautiful faces?" What attributes are the most admirable? Why do we choose one and pass by another? Is it force, vigor, insistence, and dominant will that we admire; or is it calm, resignation, placidity and sweetness?

In one of his essays, "About Faces in Japanese Art," Mr. Lafcadio Hearn, comparing the eastern and the western ideal, says, "When we exclaim, 'What force!' on seeing a head with a prominent busy brow, incisive nose, deep-set eyes, and a massive jaw, we are indeed expressing our recognition of force, but only the sort of force underlying instincts of aggression and brutality. When we commend the character of certain strong aquiline faces, certain so-called Roman profiles, we are really commending the traits that mark a race of prey..It may even be said that we associate the idea of manhood with the idea of aggressive power more than with the idea of any other power. Whether this power be physical or intellectual, we estimate it in our popular preferences, at least, above the really superior powers of mind, and call intelligent cunning by the euphemism of 'shrewdness.'"

And again, in reference to the saying of a German philosopher, that "the resuscitated Greeks would, with perfect truth, declare our works of art in all departments to be thoroughly barbarous," Mr. Hearn remarks, "How could they be otherwise in an age which openly admires intelligence less because of its power to create and preserve than because of its power to crush and destroy?" And finally there is this significant paragraph: "As reflecting both the trivial actualities and the personal emotionalism of western life, our art would be found ethically not only below Greek art, but even below Japanese. Greek art expressed the aspiration of a race toward the divinely beautiful and the divinely wise. Japanese art reflects the simple joy of existence, the perception of natural law in form and color, the perception of natural law in change, and the sense of life made harmonious by social order and by self-suppression. Modern western art reflects the thirst of pleasure, the idea of life as a battle for the right the enjoy, and the unamiable qualities which are indispensable to success in the competitive struggle.

There, you see, we have the thinker in sympathy with Oriental thought interpreting the Face of the God as the Face of the Buddha-the face of benignity and repose and utter resignation. It is a suggestive idea for ourselves; and every artist knows within himself (more or less clearly) what his idea of the Face is. It is not of supreme importance that he should be right; indeed it is not of the less importance at all. But it is of supreme importance that he should draw the Likeness, in every line he makes, truly and faithfully as he believes It to be. It is only so that we shall ever behold It in anything like perfect beauty, and that only after a long time. For to each artist has been revealed something, now and again, at rare moments; one glimpse of glory to one, and another glimpse of power to another. And each vision is only tentative, only temporary, and may be corrected by another artist with a clearer eye; but little by little, age after age the image grows, the Likeness is perfected, and we begin to see the Face as it really is. The artist is our seer and prophet, to show us the glory of the Light of the Countenance. And then (a strange thing) we grow like the Image as we gaze upon it. So that not only is it true that man was made in God's likeness; it is true that he is made more perfectly in that likeness every day. It is the artist only who ever approaches to seeing Him face to face.


"The Face of God," Commercial Advertiser, Feb. 10, 1900 [back]