and its relationship with the paintings of Francis Bacon (also sadly deceased):
*Randall Tex Cobb, it turns out, is alive and well. I must have been thinking of some other guy. Bacon remains dead.
Well, I've been meaning to let you know my thinking on the resemblance. It is this: in both Bacon's version of Pope Innocent X, and Cobb, the mouth is much more prominent than the eyes - in fact, the eyes are nearly eliminated. This effect is more striking in Cobb's most famous role, in Raising Arizona:
His eyes, squinting, are nearly hidden in the folds of his face, while his mouth is framed by the beard and moustache and enlarged by the omnipresent cigar.
There is something horrific about both figures - Cobb's apocalyptic bounty hunter, and Bacon's pope. Let me introduce a different thought to try to explain this quality of the horrific.
As you most likely have also forgotten by now, I wrote at one point that I suspected that Margaret Livingstone's research would eventually reveal a prioritization of neural recognition of facial features, with eyes ranking above mouths. Score! She kindly sent me a paper that included this fascinating graph, derived from studies of facial recognition neurons in macaques:
You will notice that eyes get a lot more neural firepower than mouths. My contention, therefore, is this: since when we "see" a face, a large proportion of our processing capability goes into understanding the eyes, and a much smaller proportion into understanding the mouth, there is something horrific about a condition where the eyes are minimized or eliminated. Let's go hunting for examples - it's not hard, once you think about it:
Yes, there's Giger's immortal design for the alien in Alien. Giger, an artist possessed, like Bacon, of a natural sense of the horrific, seems to have single-handedly spawned a tradition of eyeless monsters with his design. This hideous thing turns up again in Lord of the Rings:
Disclaimer: I haven't read the books, so I don't know if the Mouth of Sauron is described that way there too. But now that Peter Jackson has gotten the ball rolling again, it's a short leap to the latest deployment, in Clash of the Titans:
Look, you might say, a face that's all mouth - be it Jaws or the Sarlacc - is always horrific, because it's going to bite you. I'm not arguing that that's not true; I'm arguing that there is a neurological component to the fearfulness of the image. After all, a rabid dog is going to bite you too, but why is this the cover of Cujo?
The biting is scary; the face without eyes is horrific. When we stumble across stimuli that provoke a non-linear response, it is always a good idea to check the machinery receiving the stimuli, which is to say, ourselves. So this is the basis of my contention that there's a processing issue involved in the horrific property of the eyeless face.
And I've thought of a tricky and exciting bit of evidence in favor of this proposition! Consider the reverse instance: a mouthless face. The first instance I became aware of was the cover of an old edition of Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream:
I am not the only one to note the thematic and visual resemblance of this image to a memorable scene in The Matrix:
The only other instance of this image that I can think of in pop culture is the poster for the underrated movie of Silent Hill (a film lousy with eyeless mouth-monsters, by the way):
Now, I would not describe these images as horrific - would you? The term uncanny comes more to mind. Thinking about it this way, I think the topic has something interesting to teach us about the always-elusive distinction between the horrific and the uncanny. Consider this:
When we see the eyeless face, we immediately know something is wrong, because our brains are looking for eyes first, and mouth second.
When we see the mouthless face, there is a tiny, tiny delay before we realize something is wrong, because our brains go through the following steps: 1. Recognize outline of head 2. Search for eyes 3. Search for mouth.
So what this teaches us is that the horrific corresponds with an immediately apparent breaking of the ordinary laws of nature. The uncanny corresponds with a subtle breaking of the same laws. The uncanny inspires terror because we first achieve comfort with the image, and then suddenly we realize the image is, in fact, unnatural. The horrific inspires immediate revulsion, but the uncanny inspires deep fear: fear that either the reality we thought we could trust, or our own rationality that we thought we could trust, are in fact untrustworthy.
Let me give you a really good example of this difference which comes to mind. It has to do with two nightmares a friend of mine once had:
1. She found herself beside a highway where there had been a massive multi-car pileup. Everybody involved in the accident had been mutilated and killed. There were bodies, blood, and gore everywhere.
2. Two weeks later, she dreamt that she came to the same place. But now it smelled terrible, because the bodies hadn't been removed, and they were rotting on the ground.
The first nightmare is horrifying: it is a scene of ghastly violence.
The second nightmare is uncanny: certainly, it is natural for a dead body left in the open to rot. But a tiny fraction of a moment later, one realizes it is profoundly unnatural for time to pass in a continuous dream-world during the period that the dreamer is not dreaming it. Two weeks passed in the dream - but where was this dream during that time? What parallel world did the dream inhabit? This second nightmare, this profoundly unnerving nightmare, breaks the rules of nature as we understand them. Either nature is mad, or we are.
This proposition about the nature of the uncanny also helps to explain why we have so many more uncanny experiences as children than we do as adults. When we are children, we really do encounter many more subtle, delayed-awareness mistakes about the laws of reality - because we're still learning those laws. The sudden revelation that something we thought happened one way, in fact is happening another way, is more frequent in childhood, and it is often accompanied by a twinge of fear: fear of the uncanny.
I'm not sure what, if anything, this little essay has to do with art, but I hope it has at least provided some interesting material to mull over.