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Artillery Row

Face masks diminish the romance of everyday life

Smiling – one of the primary expressions of our common humanity – has been rendered invisible by the ubiquity of face masks

Veiling was never practised in my Muslim family. But during childhood sojourns in Bangladesh, I did have a friend—a naughty, rebellious girl—who insisted on wearing a burqa to school. A dark muslin cloak would transform my gleeful playmate into an austere stranger. It was spooky. All her wit, her waggish, joking tone, vanished behind her face veil. It also occluded her smile, which was troubling, since it was through our smiles that we crossed the language barrier separating us.

Governments are ushering in nothing less than a world without smiles

In Italy, where I am currently based, I have lately had a feeling of déjà vu that recalls those scenes from my Bengali childhood. Smiling has been rendered invisible by today’s ubiquitous face masks. Italy, along with at least fifty other countries, has mandated masks throughout much of public life, and the Italians I presently live among in a Tuscan village—many of them elderly—have been uncharacteristically rigorous in their observance of these health and safety regulations. So they should be.

But as this practice verges on becoming universal, I wonder whether policy makers and scientists have, with their cold, technocratic logic, truly grasped what they are asking the public to give up on, however temporarily. Governments are ushering in—and who knows how long it will last—nothing less than a world without smiles, and therefore a world in which we will lose one of the primary expressions of our common humanity.

There is no real communication without smiles. In shops and restaurants and bus terminals, I miss the hospitable smiles of Italians as they help me find what I’m looking for or return the change for my fare. And I am embarrassed the smile I return, in gratitude, cannot show through the unfeelingly clinical mask I am obliged to wear. Expressions of courtesy—my ​grazie,their ​pregoseem robotic without the facial gestures that customarily accompany them, and which establish the degree of their sincerity. Unable to speak Italian well, I tend to rely on my smile to do the talking, just as when I was a child visiting Bangladesh. The face mask, like the veil, makes all this impossible.

So much of the romance of everyday life is lost behind masks

So much of the romance of everyday life is lost behind masks. Gone are the smiles, furtive, flirty, or just friendly, exchanged in piazzas and cafes, delightful visions—whether real or imagined—that invite us into the world of fantasy that is among the joys of life in a community. Religious puritans insist on veiling precisely for this reason, and they should be pleased that masks now cover up the involuntary expressions of desire that reveal themselves in a smile. Ingmar Bergman, in his great, romantic film, ​Smiles of a Summer Night, captured beautifully the simpering solicitations that can, one balmy evening, galvanise a mysterious bond between strangers.

The unembroidered truth is that masks are ugly; so, consequently, is the social life conducted from behind them. “The human face was not worth looking at,” wrote Henry James, “unless redeemed by an Italian smile.” James, a man of ambivalent sexual orientation, did not lecherously mean Italian women; he saw the peculiar attraction of all kinds of Italians, as do I. The village godfather, with his ancient, ravine-ridden face, has to my mind a smile at least as seductive as that of a young ​bella donna ​or local Casanova.

It was from the Italians that the West relearned the virtues of smiling, after the dour, desert-dwelling church fathers had for so long frowned on laughter because “Jesus wept”. The grimacing gargoyles that embellish Gothic cathedrals testify to a mirthless worldview. But the art of smiling was born again during the Italian Renaissance. In painting, there was an unprecedented outburst of smiles beginning with Antonello da Messina’s portraits of unknown men, c.1465, generally considered the first notable depictions of smiling in Western art. The ​Mona Lisa,by da Vinci, is obviously the most famous. And no-one has better understood the profound, metaphysical significance of a smile than Dante, for whom the mouth, like the eyes, is a “balcony” of the soul, where the soul reveals itself “like colour behind glass”. He continues:

E che e ridere se non una corruscazione della dilettazione dell’anima, cioè un lume apparente di fuori secondo sta dentro?

And what is a smile, but a sparkling of the soul’s delight, that is to say an outward light reflecting that within?

(Convivio​, Book 3, Chapter 8)

Biological reductionists, who surely make up a good deal of the scientific establishment, disavow such mystical illusions. The face comprises, for them, a contortion of the flesh no different from our elbows or knees. They retort, quite reasonably, that there is no evidence for such a thing as the soul. But experience does suggest the face somehow has an exceptional, spiritual quality. Wittgenstein, a recovering reductionist, offered a proof of this. “We see emotion,” he wrote in his notebooks. “We describe a face immediately as sad, radiant, bored, even when we are unable to give any other description of the features.” Masks conceal that emotion, and emotion is what makes social interactions rich and humane.

A smile starts a relationship, a mask arrests it

Of course, it’s true that, though we are now seeing fewer smiles in the flesh, we do see more and more of them in our image-saturated virtual lives, in selfies on Instagram, for example. However, these are generic in nature, targeting everyone and therefore no-one. When I say “cheese” while having my photo taken, I am smiling only at an abstraction. The smile of such photography is a deliberate pose, whereas the smile of everyday life is a spontaneous way of relating to another individual, a real person, and it may be the most primordial way of doing so, since smiling is said to predate speech itself.

In a simple, wordless smile, one can detect the first stirrings of sex, of friendship, even of spiritual veneration. Think how potent the Buddha’s smile is, carved into a million stones. What makes it transcendentally alluring is that it is so clearly relating to the worshipper as an individual. The Buddha is smiling right at you. The Mona Lisa smile makes the same impression. A smile starts a relationship. A mask arrests it.

What so irked me about my childhood friend’s burqa was that, behind it, she was suddenly dispossessed of her individuality. I now see the face masks that surround me doing that all over again. We are never more ourselves than when we are smiling, since every smile is as unique as a fingerprint. Smiling, alongside laughter (my native Bengali, like Dante’s Italian, makes little distinction between the two), is self-evidently unique to our species. Beasts do not smile, still less laugh.

That is because, as Milton wrote in ​Paradise Lost​, “smiles from reason flow,” and are “to brute deny’d”. Our smiles, those enchanting expressions that dance around our lips and cheeks, mark us out, alone in the animal kingdom, as conscious beings. Without them, we live brutish lives. Milton was evoking the “sweet intercourse of looks and smiles” that Adam and Eve enjoyed in paradise, before the fall. This pandemic, too, has cast us out of Eden.

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