Sunday, March 6, 2011

Mark Twain on Ability to Judge Expressions

picture of Mark Twain
A bit of my leisure reading reminded me of trial ad.

After visiting "The Last Supper"—and a lot of other famous European art—Mark Twain riffed on people's ability (or inability) to judge the meaning behind expressions.

It vexes me to hear people talk so glibly of "feeling," "expression," "tone," and those other easily acquired and inexpensive technicalities of art that make such a fine show in conversations concerning pictures. There is not one man in seventy-five hundred that can tell what a pictured face is intended to express. There is not one man in five hundred that can go into a court-room and be sure that he will not mistake some harmless innocent of a juryman for the black-hearted assassin on trial. Yet such people talk of "character" and presume to interpret "expression" in pictures. There is an old story that Matthews, the actor, was once lauding the ability of the human face to express the passions and emotions hidden in the breast. He said the countenance could disclose what was passing in the hear plainer than the tongue could.

"Now," he said, "observe my face—what does it express?"


"Bah, it expresses peaceful resignation! What does this express?"


"Stuff! It means terror! This!"


"Fool! It is smothered ferocity! Now this!"


"Oh, perdition! Any ass can see it means insanity!"

Expression! People coolly pretend to read it who would think themselves presumptuous if they pretended to interpret the hieroglyphics on the obelisks of Luxor—yet they are fully as competent to do the one thing as the other.
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad, ch. 19.

What do you think? Did Twain have it right? If most people are this bad at reading faces, why do we put so much faith in a juror deciding that a witness's fidgeting and stammering means lying rather than sincerity or uncertainty rather than shyness?

Graphic: picture of young Mark Twain lifted from, Mark Twain Abroad.

1 comment:

Marsha Hunter said...

Mark Twain is right, of course. Body language and expressions are clues to what people think, but not definitive conclusions. Lie to Me, the current popular television program, is gradually convincing us that we can read faces and physical tics as hard evidence. And thanks for the pleasure of reading a bit of Twain today!