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Sunday, August 24, 2014

the nose

“But these evils are notorious and confessed; even they also whose felicity men stare at and admire, besides their splendour and the sharpness of their light, will, with their appendant sorrows, wring a tear from the most resolved eye; for not only the winter is full of storms and cold and darkness, but the beauteous spring hath blasts and sharp frosts; the fruitful teeming summer is melted with heat, and burnt with the kisses of the sun, her friend, and choked with dust; and the rich autumn is full of sickness; and we are weary of that which we enjoy, because sorrow is its biggest portion; and when we remember, that upon the fairest face is placed one of the worst sinks of the body, the nose, we may use it not only as a mortification to the pride of beauty, but as an allay to the fairest outside of condition which any of the sons and daughters of Adam do posses.”
Jeremy Taylor’s Rules and Exercizes of Holy Dying was one of the 17th century’s bestsellers; through the nineteenth century, it was a prime example of raree, cadenced prose that crawled into the sentences of Johnson, Coleridge, Emerson and many others. Oh that seventeenth century rag, faint bits of which we still dance to today.
Taylor’s notion of the nose as a sink of the body and a monument to our mortification is the place where I start with noses, a subject that has been forced upon me over the last two weeks, as I’ve been dripping from it, or suffering from its drying up, or in general living a little too familiarly with, like a prisoner trapped within my sinuses and unable to think of anything else. e.
Of course, poor Jeremy Taylor must have witnessed a good many colds in Golden Grove, the house in South Wales where he wrote the Holy Dying. The book is inspired by the death of his wife, Phoebe, in 1651. Who knows, perhaps she died of a disease that had recently started entering the vocabulary of the English: influenza, named for the influence of the stars that was thought to incubate the disease. In his death sermon on his patroness, Lady Carbery, who died at around the same time, Taylor mentions that many new diseases had appeared lately, and many old ones had changed in circumstances and symptoms, which showed some awareness of the disease landscape around him. So who knows how prominently noses figured in Taylor’s life in 1651, when he wrote his greatest work, or how irritated he was at their running.
On the other side of the channel, we have another religious man, an infinitely greater thinker, Blaise Pascal, who also left a famous remark about noses: Pensee no 29 - “Le nez de Cléopâtre, s'il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé *  Pascal wrote down three versions of this thought, but all of them agree that it was the size of  Cleopatra’s schnozzle, and not its cuteness, its diminuity, its slightness, that made the face a regal beauty. Thus, Pascal enrolls himself among the truly rare connoisseurs of excess in the nose, or at least more splendor than you get down the slope of some nose-changed blonde extra. An essay by Paul Strapper in 1879 pointed out that we really don’t know the dimensions of Cleopatra’s nose anyway. But Strapper, undetered by the fact that we really have no guide to Cleopatra’s body, imagines it anyway, seeing her as an imperfect beauty, and thus a modern one, since we appreciate the disruption of the line, the flaw, as integral to our vision of beauty  – one that supposes a mercurial mind in a feu follet body. This doesn’t seem to be Pascal’s idea, but at the same time, he surely thought about the fact that the nose he was using as a monument for the mortification of human vanity was large, or at least regal, and not short, or demure.
The seventeenth century seemed to have been especially interested in noses and legendary nose figures. Cyrano de Bergerac was a seventeenth century libertine.The legend of his nose became a fixture of 19th century literature after Cyrano’s work was rediscovered by Nodier – and it might not have been an obsession of his contemporaries. Theophile Gautier, in an essay on Cyrano in his Grotesques, wrote that the Voyage to the Moon and the nose were Cyrano’s great works, one of art and the other of nature . Gautier described it as a mountain comparable to the Himalayas, or as a tapir’s trunk.  This is sheer nose trumpeting, or thumbing one’s nose at fact in favor of funny.
The eighteenth century, as far as noses went, was long on farce. One of the great nose writers is Laurence Sterne, of course, who ransacked the connection between the nose and the penis until he owned it. However, myself, I’m interested in another nose man whose marriage could have formed the basis for another kind of Tristam Shandy. Lord Elgin, who stole much Greek statuary for the British in the early nineteenth century, lost his wife to his nose – or rather, his lack of one. It seems that Elgin contracted some horrible disease in the Middle East that ate his nose. His wife, according to testimony at their divorce trial, then lost all interest  in her husband, and took up with a neighbor who, presumably, had a nose: a Mr. Robert Ferguson.
Byron, of course, made up a gossipy couplet about Elgin:
Noseless himself, he brings home noseless blocks
To show what time has done and what… the pox.
And so we reach what I consider the height of the nose in literature if not life: the nineteenth century, and Gogol’s The Nose. Here, finally, the outer coat of the nose develops an interior interest, a soul – a sinus of a soul. Nabokov, who is often so concerned to be clever, as a critic, that he fails to be interesting, wrote one good critical book – a study of Gogol. Nabokov, among other interesting things, contends that the nose figures majorly in Russian talk – there are hundreds of proverbial sayings that employ the nose. “The point to be noted is that from the very start the nose as such was a funny thing to his mind (as to all Russians).”
The humorousness of the nose leads us away from the mortification it marks, perhaps – or perhaps that mortification finds its true beauty here. But myself, blowing my nose in a wild trumpet solo lasting ten days, have a hard time seeing the comedy here – or rather, I am desensitized to what I know is a ticklish subject. The cold forces us inside the nose, and there – as is similar, in popular sentimentality, with the clown – all is tears. Furthermore, of course, this is my nose, the nose of a man who, having achieved 56 years of nosewearing activity, must acknowledge its rougeur and scaliness, at times – the results of too much sun and too much booze, or at least beer. So even when I am not forced into a stricter intimacy with my nose than I want, I view it with a bit of dismay. There it is, staring back at me in the mirror, and making it very difficult for me to shave over my upper lip,
Yet I have to give the nose some credit. Surely the inner sound of writing – the thing that I go by to get me from a to z – goes much much better when the nose, whatever its outer look, is comfortable inside. That inner noise is something I become partially deaf to when I have a cold, which is why I stop writing.

I write this as, hopefully, the epitaph on the gravestone atop my former cold, and to celebrate the faint re-awakening to my  inner tintinabulation. My nose is almost back! 

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