Hogarth on High Life: The Marriage à la Mode Series from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s Commentaries
Aphorisms and Letters
“Chief employment of my life, to observe people’s faces,” Lichtenberg wrote in his diary in 1771. In fact, his chief occupation was teaching physics at Göttingen; he was also an astronomer of distinction (one of the craters of the moon is named after him), a mathematician, a philosopher, a brilliant letter writer, and the finest aphorist of his century. But the observation of expression and gesture was his lifelong interest, and to this he brought his scientific training and literary insight with great success. He was the first to show a theoretical mastery of the subject, even though he never wrote up his ideas systematically; distrusting systems, he put his observations into his aphorisms, into the classic description of Garrick’s acting, and above all into his readings of Hogarth’s engravings.
The study of expression had long been confused by the red herring of “physiognomy,” which even today continues to bedevil artistic and literary criticism. Even the admirable editors of the beautiful new edition of the Commentaries do not seem to have dispelled this confusion entirely when they write of Lichtenberg’s enormous interest “in the whole gamut of physiognomic and pathognomic detail.” If you take “physiognomic” in the strict sense, as applying to the deduction of character from the skeletal and muscular structure of the human face and body in repose, that is misleading; for Lichtenberg attacked the whole pseudo-science of physiognomy, and in particular as it appeared in the fanciful writings of his contemporary Lavater. In this sense he seems to have been right, since there really is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face. The deduction of people’s intentions and states of mind from the movement of their facial muscles, limbs, and eyes is quite another matter; and it was in this that Lichtenberg excelled.
His insights were unfortunately not taken up by others, and the study of gesture continued to languish until 1872, when Charles Darwin published what is still the best book on the subject, The Expression of the Emotions in Men and Animals. Despite Darwin the subject again fell into obscurity until the last few years. Academic psychologists on the whole handled the matter tediously, and the impetus to new discoveries came from animal ethology, that is, from the field studies of the gestures of mammals and birds made by Lorenz, Tinbergen, and their followers. It was not long before ethologists began to apply their observational methods to human communication, and very interesting work on the question is now being done in the US and England.
The main point of this work, and one which should be of great value to critics of art and literature, is a greatly refined understanding of the nonverbal signals that people send out in their dealings with each other. We have developed a huge set of gestures, inherited from our primate ancestors, and, often unconsciously, read these off other people’s faces and bodies as we confront them. For example, there …