November 30, 2009

"In some of the pictures Lincoln's right eye looks half-asleep while the left stares wide-open."

"Cover half the face and each side looks like it belongs to a different person, one appearing downcast and uncertain, the other determined. A person speaking with him would in a sense face two Lincolns, one soft and exhausted, the other fiercely alert."

The radically asymmetrical face of Abraham Lincoln. What does it mean? Does it have something to do with the functioning — presumably high functioning — of the hemispheres of his brain? Generally, we find symmetrical faces beautiful, and this asymmetry may be the key reason we see Lincoln as ugly — though we excuse and even love his ugliness because we feel confident we are looking into the face of a great man. But let's think about asymmetry in faces of other human beings. Perhaps we should make a conscious effort to keep looking at the individuals who initially repel us. Is it Lincolnesque asymmetry? And what complexity and power of the mind lies behind that facial dualism?

And let's think about why — if my hypothesis is true — we feel drawn to the people who lack this complexity and power. It might be that we have evolved to feel comfortable interacting with simple, straightforward people, and our eyes and minds are trained by the long experience of the species to see those qualities in a symmetrical face. That is, our ancestors trusted people who were, in fact, trustworthy, and that is why they survived and produced descendants. The nonancestors of human history did not read faces so well and were betrayed by deceitful, duplicitous, wily people with powerful, complex brains.

Our ancestors were successful in their mistrust of 2-faced individuals. But that doesn't mean that today we should shun the ugly. Not all asymmetrics are dangerous. Some, perhaps, are the very greatest human beings — like Lincoln. Now that we are able to think consciously about what lies beneath the repellent face and now that we live an an ordered society, let's not pass up the opportunity to benefit from the minds that show an asymmetrical face to the world. Don't turn away from the ugly.

26 comments:

Fred4Pres said...

I would rather be around people looking like Lincoln than people who look like Anime characters.

Skyler said...

People go to any length to further deify Lincoln.

Martha said...

UGLY?
Lincoln probably had Bell's Palsy affecting the facial nerve on the right side of his face causing the droopy eyelid, drooping corner of his mouth, and weakness of the muscles on the right side of his face.

THAT would account for the asymmetry.

Obama on the other hand has a perfectly symmetrical face and beauteous smile. See what that face accomplishes as President.

Expat(ish) said...

"That is, our ancestors trusted people who were, in fact, trustworthy, and that is why they survived and produced descendants. "

I think we look at today's society and attribute our level of choice to our ancestors. I think this is probably startlingly inapt.

While not a historian, I've read a LOT of history and it seems clear to me that people in most societies 100+ years ago had very few options to choose any affiliation. Even your choice of spouse was pretty limited if the average person lived/died w/i a 10 mile range.

-XC

traditionalguy said...

The right eye has an accomodating look of an ordinary man , yet the left side has an Eagle's eye attacking look. He did well with that combination that attacked oppenents when he was ready and the opponents had been lulled into thinking that he was another simpleton from the countryside. That is also a way of fooling people, and it is usually much hated when seen in a winning lawyer by his opponents.

Lem said...

I would not call Shannen Doherty 'ugly'.. different maybe, but not 'ugly'.

SMGalbraith said...

As a boy, Lincoln was severely kicked on the right side of his head and face by a horse. Almost killed him. Was knocked unconscious for several hours and bloodied up.

Probably contributed to his odd look.

Joseph said...

I can imagine a good argument that, to the extent asymmetrical facial structure is representative of unusual cognitive or personality traits, it may be legitimate to reject people with those traits for political office. I tend to think democracy is most stable and legitimate when elected leaders are relatively moderate and reflective of mainstream values, ideology, etc. Even though I might personally agree with the ideas promoted by potential leaders with more radical bents, I can see the danger in giving control to people with extreme views that are not (yet) generally representative of people in any direction. That said, sometimes those extreme views and approaches are actually the best ones and provide transcendent leadership in crisis. But I'd generally prefer those extreme/usual types serve society in other capacities.

SMGalbraith said...

Lincoln's brush with death -

"In his tenth year he was kicked by a horse, and apparantly (sic) killed for a time."

http://home.att.net/~rjnorton/Lincoln19.html

k*thy said...

So...don't judge a book by it's cover?

Are there actually that many out there that ARE symmetrical? I'm guessing most of us are not.

Kansas City said...

No doubt Lincoln is fascinating. I'm interested in the medical explanations for his looks, whether kicked by a horse or Bell's palsy - it seems like there is still another explanation. Ann's take on how people react to the looks of others is also interesting, but I don't know how much it applies to Lincoln's rise to the presidency and tenure as president. The looks of a person almost certainly were less significant 150 years ago.

For years I thought Lincoln was highly overrated, as the result of the North winning the war and his assassination at the height of his success. I thought that any president who fumbled through a war for four years tolerating incompetant generals and with over 600,000 dead and a country in tatters was not a great president. I read Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which was very pro-Lincoln and it softened my view. Overall, I think presidents need to be judged on the big issues that came their way. On that score, Lincoln has to rate high because the union he "saved" turned out to be the greatest miliary, economic and freedom supporting superpower in the history of world. The cost was extraordinary high, but the result was extraordinary good.

Kennedy falls into the same category. He was a bumbling president in many respects, but in the Cuban missle crisis, he rejected bad advice from the miliary that could have caused nuclear war and achieved a result that avoided nuclear war - with the added kicker of the Soviet Union collapsing 30 years later.

Other great presidents: Washington, Polk, FDR (on the war), Truman (unbelievably enough, with his background), and Reagan. I would put Bush I in the same category, although he will never be recognized for it, because he answered the call when Hussein was about to become a major power after the conquest of Kuwait - he also did not mess up the collapse of the Soviet Union, although he also probably did not have much to do with it.

edutcher said...

Lincoln had Marfan's Disease which alters the body, accounting for his physical appearance (the attenuated frame, eyes, bone structure, etc.).

This said, our idea of handsome and that of 150 years ago is not entirely the same. Many accounts rhapsodize over Armstrong Custer's good looks, as an example, but he appears anything but in most photographs.

An interesting point was made about looks in a History Channel program, making note of the fact that most people had no access to even the most elementary cosmetics. "People looked the way they looked", one contributor noted, and the electorate was more concerned with the old saw, "Pretty is as pretty does" than packaging.

DADvocate said...

Pablo Picasso painted asymmetrical women.

Chip Ahoy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill White said...

Christ is traditionally given an asymmetrical face in icons (presumably to represent his two natures, human and divine). This one dates from the 6th century A.D.: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Spas_vsederzhitel_sinay.jpg

Lynne said...

Actually, you can get the same effect if you study most of Winston Churchill's famous photos one side at a time. It's striking.

Iapetus said...

Lid droop may also be a sign of amblyopia (lazy eye).

Jeff with one 'f' said...

Take a look at the bust of Nefertiti and tell me that love of symmetry is a recent development....

SMGalbraith said...

Imagine how horrible it must have been for Lincoln to go to the White House telegraph room every day or week and get the reports.

Manassas, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Antietam.. on and on....

Reports of 2,000 killed and 5,000 grievously maimed here, 5,000 and 8,000 the next battle, 3,500 and 7,500 the following battle....

Week after week, month after month for five years.

Horrible.

Iapetus said...

@Kansas City: "Kennedy falls into the same category [as Lincoln]".

I must disagree with that statement. John Kennedy was no Abraham Lincoln. Unlike Lincoln, Kennedy himself sowed the seeds of his first major crisis in office. He started out his presidential term Obama-like, showing signs of weakness that Nikita Khrushchev thought he could take advantage of, namely, by threatening to place missiles in Cuba, Khrushchev would compel Kennedy to remove US missiles from Turkey (which is in fact how the Cuban missile crisis was finally resolved).

Kennedy is indeed to be praised for ignoring war-like advice during the crisis, a good deal of which I believe initially came from his sainted brother Robert. As I recall, it was the experienced
diplomat George Ball who provided Kennedy with the peaceful solution that ultimately ended the face-off with the Soviets.

Palladian said...

"It was just after my election in 1860, when the news had been coming in thick and fast all day and there had been a great "hurrah, boys," so that I was well tired out, and went home to rest, throwing myself down on a lounge in my chamber. Opposite where I lay was a bureau with a swinging glass upon it (and here he got up and placed furniture to illustrate the position), and looking in that glass I saw myself reflected nearly at full length; but my face, I noticed had two separate and distinct images, the tip of the nose of one being about three inches from the tip of the other. I was a little bothered, perhaps startled, and got up and looked in the glass, but the illusion vanished. On lying down again, I saw it a second time, plainer, if possible, than before; and then I noticed that one of the faces was a little paler — say five shades — than the other. I got up, and the thing melted away, and I went off, and in the excitement of the hour forgot all about it — nearly, but not quite, for the thing would once in a while come up, and give me a little pang as if something uncomfortable had happened. When I went home again that night I told my wife about it, and a few days afterward I made the experiment again, when (with a laugh), sure enough! the thing came back again; but I never succeeded in bringing the ghost back after that, though I once tried very industriously to show it to my wife, who was somewhat worried about it. She thought it was a "sign" that I was to be elected to a second term of office, and that the paleness of one of the faces was an omen that I should not see life through the last term."

Abraham Lincoln, from "Washington in Lincoln's Time" by Noah Brooks.

Cabbage said...

Christ is traditionally given an asymmetrical face in icons (presumably to represent his two natures, human and divine). This one dates from the 6th century A.D.: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Spas_vsederzhitel_sinay.jpg

I was going to post that too. That particular icon can also be used to represent Christ as the fulfillment of the Covenant. Cover up half the icon vertically -- each side of the face has a very different expression. The harsh expression is shown on the same side as the book. The book is the Law (i.e. the Old Testament). The Law was given to prepare mankind to receive Christ, but it is still Law.

The other side (Christ's right) is a more loving and merciful expression. His hand is outstretched in the same way that eastern clergy give blessings -- this is an Orthodox icon after all. So the icon is symbolizing that, while we might be judged harshly according to the Law, we are still saved by the mercy of Christ.

lyssalovelyredhead said...

I can't recall where I heard it, but I know that there is a story about Lincoln's critics accusing him of being "two-faced," to which he replied "If I were, do you think that this is the face that I would use?"

John Lynch said...

I wouldn't generalize much from Lincoln. He's exceptional.

Kansas City said...

Iapetus,

I don't think we really disagree that much. Kennedy was a bumbler who rose to the occasion on the Cuban Missile crisis. Linconln dealt with more difficult issues over a longer period of time, bumbled some, and ultimately prevailed in achieving the great conclusion of saving the union which turned out to be the greatest country in the history of the world.

I did not intend to say that Kennedy fell in the same category as Lincoln (although they are comparable in a number of ways). I intended to say that Kennedy, like Lincoln, fell in the same category of needing "to be judged on the big issues that came their way." There is no bigger issue than avoiding a real chance of nuclear war. So, reluctantly, I have come to acknowledge Kennedy as one of our great presidents, on that issue standing alone.

Who is a greater president? I suppose Lincoln because he dealt with great moral and tactical issues over an extended time, while Kennedy dealt only with great tactical issues one time. But one could reasonably argue that the avoidance of nuclear war was such a significant result that Kennedy should be rated higher than Lincoln.

mavzoley said...

Аладдин 2 - Возвращение Джаффара мультфильм / The Return Of Jafar