Saturday, January 1, 2011

On Smiling

"The Brief History of the Smile" is one of those books that I find irresistible because of their titles. I have on my shelves a history of God, of heaven, of happiness, of reading, and I've seen advertised a history of nakedness. Then there's a brief history of time. Is there anything that lacks a history?

Ideas large and small have histories, so it should not come as such a surprise that gratitude, boredom, and smiling (to mention only three) have a recorded past. In the case of the smile, it is to the visual arts that the author, Angus Trumble, turns. An art historian, he was once asked to address a conference of dentists interested in the face and beauty, professionals who make money on smiles.

So the topic opened up for him a vast treasury of information on facial expressions and what they mean in various cultures. In Indonesia, for example, smiling is mainly a courtesy, not a sign of friendliness; elsewhere it can be erotically inviting or, in life as well as in art, a sign of contemplation, wisdom, politeness, lechery, reason, deception, among other things. The presence--or more likely absence--of toothy grins in painting intrigues Trumble, who suggests that smiling is a powerful form of communication, even if it is involuntary.

Trumble's information, useless but fascinating, includes the uniformly serious faces of the U.S. 19th century presidents, Lord Chesterfield's admonition in 1754 to avoid vulgar laughter ("well bred people often smile but seldom laugh"), and of course the smile of the Mona Lisa and the Cheshire Cat.

I had hoped to see a connection between smiling and happiness, this being a day to wish everyone Happy New Year, but it's clear even from the opening of this book that there's no necessary correlation between the two. Oh, well. The idea, and the book, are wonderful anyway.

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