Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Physiognomy and Vampires

Now regarded as pseudoscience, physiognomy, the art of detecting one's character through the shape of their face, was widely accepted among many writers in London in the 1890s, including Bram Stoker and Oscar Wilde.

The plot of the Picture of Dorian Gray uses magic to overcome the supposed laws of physiognomy to make the protagonist appear kinder than he is, turning him into an undetectable monster.

From Stoker's novel to the history of vampires in film, the way a vampire looks deeply effects the way its victims see it. Who would you rather invite into your home, Max Schreck or Brad Pitt?

Even though we've rejected any validity physiognomy ever had, the Victorian writer's faith in this pseudoscience has shaped the gothic novel.

If we remember that Victorian Londoners feared other Victorian Londoners more than anything else, we can better understand their acceptance of a guide to reading the appearance of others in everyday urban settings, as a tool that would theoretically better enable them to navigate their landscapes more safely. The 18th- and 19th-century rise in the popularity of physiognomy can also be traced alongside the rise of the city, during industrialization, and read as a coping mechanism for people, terrified of their urban lives.
He has succeeded after all, then, in his design in getting to London, and it was he I saw. He has got younger, and how? Van Helsing is the man to unmask him and hunt him out ... Doctor, you don’t know what it is to doubt everything, even yourself. No, you don’t; you couldn’t with eyebrows like yours. - Jonathan Harker's Journal in Dracula (1897)
That the Count in Dracula can make himself look younger makes him a hidden danger, which needs to be unmasked, by someone with trustworthy eyebrows, like Van Helsing.

Physiognomy didn't just influence Victorian fiction, but was the subject of volumes of Victorian writing to the extent that a cursory internet search can produce titles from the period that are available for free online.

Encyclopædia of Human Nature and Physiognomy (1889)
Physiognomy and Expression (1890)
How to Read Character (1890)
A System of Practical and Scientific Physiognomy (1890)
Physiognomy Illustrated Or, Nature's Revelations of Character (1891)
Physiognomy (1892)
Our Noses (1893)
Faciology (1893)
New Physiognomy or Signs of Character (1894)
Wells' New Descriptive Chart for Giving a Delineation of Character (1895)
Physiognomical Register (1895)

Of course, physiognomy was also used to justify Victorian racism:

San Francisco Call, Volume 81, Number 167,
16 May 1897
A 'science,' based on judging people for how they look, is inarguably discriminatory in its very nature, though we still do it all the time. We say a person has 'kind eyes,' or that 'eyes are the window to the soul, and we live in a world that has institutionalized racial profiling.

If you are interested in pursuing this subject further, I recommend: Physiognomy in the European Novel: Faces and Fortunes (2014) by Graeme Tytler.

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