“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 are apparently at least nine kinds of smile: the true smile of pleasure, according to Humphries, cannot be faked, since a little pouch appears at the corners of the eyes. Gestures most commonly take place in contexts of aggressive and submissive behavior: and here one of Lichtenberg’s aphorisms (included in the little Grossman Cape selection) anticipates modern theory perfectly.
In woman the seat of the point d’honneur coincides with the centre of gravity: in man it is located rather higher, in the chest, near the diaphragm. Thence, in man, the buoyant fullness in that region when he embarks on splendid deeds, and thence too the flabby emptiness there when he embarks on petty ones.
Lichtenberg learned this universal language of gesture from England. Wensinger and Coley quote him as commending, on his return to Göttingen from a visit to London, one of the three Englishmen from whom
Germans can learn most about what the word “man” really means: David Garrick. (The others are Shakespeare and Hogarth).
There is no better description of acting anywhere than Lichtenberg’s amazingly detailed picture of Garrick in the first ghost scene of Hamlet: it is as if he had a total recall, in slow motion, and could record the position of every muscle throughout the sequence. He understood how profoundly Garrick had studied the behavior of men in the street, and had thus vastly extended the possibilities of miming. He also saw the dramatic basis of Hogarth’s art: how every plate is a scene from an imagined play, and how every gesture of the characters is not only drawn from life, but adds to the total meaning of the scene. For example, in plate five of Marriage à la Mode the countess kneels before her dying husband,
…beseeching pardon for the crime and doing atonement for it, at one and the same time…. Hands folded in such passionate supplication have surely set her arms atremble too; and behavior like that is not modish but natural, pure and simple. Her eye is fixed on the dwindling features of her husband’s woeful face, whose promised three score and ten years are now suddenly compressed into seconds. His every dull and painful groan is a thunderclap for her drugged conscience. Even her moribund sense of honor seems to have been jolted back to life by a shame which engulfs and enfolds her so multifariously.
That, although it may sound melodramatic, is beautifully observed; and Lichtenberg is even better on the comic gestures by which Hogarth’s characters give themselves away, on the young lady’s vulgarity at the betrothal, or on the difference between her own and her husband’s postures of fatigue in the morning-after scene. He shows convincingly that Hogarth took these revealing moments from life, translated them into visionary mime, and thence formed them into graphic signs of universal meaning.
Hogarth’s compositions have to be read, not simply admired at a glance; and they are so rich in symbolic detail, some of it cryptic, that they demand thorough interpretation. Commentaries began to appear not long after publication of the engravings, and Lichtenberg could draw on several when he started his own. The chief of these are summarized in Paulson’s standard edition, and two important early ones, by Rouquet and by an anonymous poet, are printed in full by Wensinger and Coley. Lichtenberg’s is much the best on gesture, but on symbolism too he is about as perceptive as any, though possibly not always quite accurate. Even about the literal meaning of a scene he is not always infallible.
Take plate three (reproduced on page 13), puzzling to Hogarth’s age, where young Earl Squanderfield is visiting a pox doctor: he has brought his young doxy with him and is complaining to the quack about the uselessness of his pills. That is obvious, but who is the older woman? Lichtenberg says she’s a whore or madam, denying indignantly that he got his dose at her establishment; but the other commentators, as the editors note, are surely right in thinking that she is the doctor’s wife, coming to his defense. At this point Lichtenberg could also have analyzed the earl’s ambiguous expression more carefully: in my reading, he is both vexed and laughing like a gay dog, ashamed yet proud that he has the pox, as a proof of his manliness.
But Lichtenberg does not often fail: he is incomparable, if sometimes whimsical and digressive, when he explains the symbolism of furniture, bric-a-brac, and pictures, all of which make witty comments on the action. He is particularly good on the old earl’s paintings in the first plate, which not only make absurd mock-heroic contrasts between the past and the present age, but also refer to the violent and sordid events to come.
A translation of most of Lichtenberg’s Commentaries, by Innes and Gustav Herdan, was published in 1956; this also includes A Harlot’s Progress, A Rake’s Progress and other pieces, and is a very pleasant book to possess. But since Marriage à la Mode is Hogarth’s finest series, and Lichtenberg’s commentary on it his most inspired, there was a clear case for re-editing this separately.
In any case, the illustrations in this new Wesleyan University Press edition are much better than in anything else that has ever been published about Hogarth: They consist of new photographs of the paintings in the National Gallery of London, the German engravings by Riepenhausen at the beginning of each section, and at the end of the book, full-scale reproductions that can be folded out and kept in view while the commentary is read. There are also details of the plates in the margins, just at the points where they are discussed. The typography and layout are splendid, and the editors’ introductions and notes of a very high standard. All this was bound to be expensive, but to quote an aphorism of the master, “Whoever has two pairs of pants, sell one and buy this book.”
This can be found in the Grossman Cape edition, which is an abridged version of The Lichtenberg Reader, edited by Mautner and Hatfield. * Containing a minimum of editorial apparatus, it is no dearer than a pair of socks, and makes a good introduction to Lichtenberg’s wide-ranging genius. Though it has nothing about Hogarth or Garrick, there are some good letters, and about 20,000 words of aphorism, which are equal in weight to at least 100,000 words by practically any other author; and as this author reminds us,
People who have read a great deal seldom make great discoveries. I don’t say this as an excuse for laziness, for inventing presupposes a far-reaching, original observation of things: one must see rather than be a listener.
Lichtenberg was above all an inventive observer. He believed, like Oppenheimer, that simple staring can lead to important discoveries, and so he stared at his Hogarth engravings until they yielded their secrets. He also stared at his fellow human beings until he began to understand some of their ways, and set his discoveries in the shortest and wittiest form, in a kind of shorthand at once scientific and poetic.
His aphorisms differ from the commoner examples of the genre; for example, from the tradition of Wisdom literature, represented by the Biblical Proverbs, and culminating in the sayings of Dr. Johnson. Lichtenberg is not a moralist in that vein, and since he is essentially a rationalist of the Enlightenment, his aphorisms in no way resemble those of the visionary, apocalyptic, schizoid kind that began with Blake. In his profoundly skeptical empiricism he is nearest in spirit and style to Bacon, as J. P. Stern has argued in his masterly study, Lichtenberg: A Doctrine of Scattered Occasions (1959), which also contains the only good general study of the aphorism as a form.
In his philosophical critiques he anticipated the logical positivists. Wittgenstein admired him, and so did Freud, whose book on jokes is full of quotations from Lichtenberg. Dr. Stern has shown how some of Lichtenberg’s observations on dreams and verbal slips anticipated Freud; but suggests that the implications of his approach lead not to Freudian dogma but to the famous aphorism of his twentieth-century disciple Karl Kraus:
Psychoanalysis is that mental disease whose therapy it claims to be.
It is as an observer of London life that Lichtenberg shows his outstanding talents. He knew and loved London from Hogarth before he arrived for the first time, and Hogarth had taught him how to see. He produces the verbal equivalent of The Four Times of the Day or of Beer Street in a sketch, quoted in Wensinger’s Foreword, of “Cheapside and Fleet Street during the minutes just before eight o’clock on a December evening in 1775”:
Then, within a circle of merry beggar boys, sailors, and rogues, you see a bonfire of woodchips and shavings spring up as high as the houses. Suddenly someone whose handkerchief has been snatched shouts out, “Stop, thief!” and everyone dashes about, pushing and shoving, many of them with no intention of catching the culprit at all, instead to see if perchance they might manage to cut a purse themselves or get someone’s watch. Before you know it a little lady in a pretty dress has taken you by the hand. “Come, my lord, come along: let us drink a glass together,” or “I’ll go with you, if you please.” Then, forty paces in front of you a man is robbed. “God bless me!” exclaims someone. Another: “Poor creature!” Everyone halts to examine his own pockets and to take pity on the miserable victim. But soon they are all laughing again because someone has slipped and fallen into the gutter.
London life, literature, and art turned Lichtenberg from a provincial professor into a great interpreter of the human scene. He took into himself the gusto of eighteenth-century England, and combined it with an intelligence of the highest order.
Now at last I am in my dear London, for which I have yearned and angled and reached out with both hands…. I rush and run the whole day, with all my senses wide open.
Like his heroes, Shakespeare, Garrick, and Hogarth, he kept his senses always wide open.
His unique blend of scientific curiosity and love of life is reflected in the parable printed below, which like all good parables and aphorisms can be interpreted in various ways. One of its meanings is surely a prophetic warning about the destruction of the biosphere, but every reader, and especially every scientist, must decide for himself about the other implications.
August 13, 1970