On the bus last week I stole glances at a woman sitting next to me. She was probably in her late fifties or early sixties and had a somewhat tough, masculine face, care-worn and tired looking. Her eyes were a light grey, the kind that always remind me of spent flashcubes. (When was the last time I even saw flashcubes, the disposable kind?) They made her look cold and mean at first. Her profile was hard, chiselled, manly. She was the kind of woman they used to call “handsome”.
When she got off the bus, I had the chance to get a better look at her face. She went down to the corner of Panepistimiou and Ippokratous (she’d got off in front of the National Library) and waited for the light to change, and I saw her straight on. I imagined her thirty years ago. She must have been a beautiful woman. And by that I mean I imagined her a beautiful young woman. But then I realised she still was beautiful — more dignified than attractive, though. How had I failed to notice it right away?
When I was about 16 I had a conversation with a friend at school, in which we both admitted that we’d first met, we’d each found the other funny-looking. We discovered that we had both realised — independently, and at different times — that one’s first visual impressions of people were almost invariably wrong, even distorted. Almost everyone we’d ever met had been funny-looking, kind of ugly, at first, and then their faces changed as we got to know them.
I’ve also noticed this in films. Some actors and actresses seem to get more attractive as the film goes on, if they’re someone you haven’t seen before. The first time I saw The Double Life of Veronique, my first impression of Irene Jacob was that she was very plain. Before the film was over, I was practically in love with her. (I have seen the film over fifteen times, and I’m always amazed at how different she looks as Weronika, and much more attractive as Veronique.)
Somewhere I once read Ezra Pound’s explanation of this celebrated short poem:
IN A STATION OF THE METRO
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
He described how a face he saw on the Metro was suddenly, immediately beautiful, and then another and another, until it seemed everyone was beautiful.
What is it that prevents us from seeing this truer face of people? It’s not that we need to get to know the person better, because it can happen with people we don’t know at all, once our eyes get used to them, so to speak. Is it the imagination at work? If Pound was affected by a sense of ecstasy, what afflicts the rest of us? What’s the opposite of ecstasy? If ecstasy is standing outside yourself, then the opposite would be a sort of slumber where you are locked inside yourself, locked in your ignorance, not even seeing what is outside, utterly self-absorbed.
Today I asked myself what it is that liberates the imagination so that we can see, even for a moment, behind the mask we have hung on people’s faces.