Our appearances are accidental; as we are startled to learn in youth, staring into mirrors, we are not our faces. In posting photos of ourselves, we document coincidental elements of our identities: faces, bodies, expressions. Given that our names are no more or less arbitrary, I hope I can be forgiven for returning to a theme from months ago: the Instantiation Edition of GPOYW.
Whereas last time I attempted to associate myself with inanimate instances of my name, today I present two men who have done more with it than I will.
Above is Walter Mills, a British private who died at the age of 23 from exposure to shelled gas (probably phosgene) one year before the end of WWI. Mills was awarded the Victoria Cross for the incident described below:
On December 10/11, 1917 at Givenchy, France, after an intense gas attack a strong enemy patrol tried to rush British posts, the garrisons of which had been overcome. Private Mills, although badly gassed himself, met the attack single-handed and continued to throw bombs until the arrival of reinforcements and remained at his post until the enemy had been finally driven off. While being carried away he died of gas poisoning but it was entirely due to him that the enemy was defeated and the line remained intact.
He was five years younger than I am. I find his story -and his accidental appearance- heartbreaking; I cannot be alone in being barely able to look at his face without feeling an overwhelming simultaneity of admiration and sorrow. I also note that his Victoria Cross medal “was buried with his daughter Ellen, who died in the 1920s.” My mother’s name is Ellen; when I was a boy, she let me play with the Purple Heart and Silver Star her father earned in WWII. I don’t inflate the meaning of this additional coincidence, but it is touching in its way.
Below is John Atta-Mills, whose gleeful face you may have noticed on Wikipedia’s front page over the last few weeks. His election to the presidency of Ghana was an extremely welcome example of successful, stable democracy in Africa. Despite some concerns, his predecessor ceded power gracefully and the transition of the parties wasn’t marred by violence; this unfortunately remains rare.
I am happy for Ghana and John Atta-Mills, but not as happy as John Atta-Mills himself seems to be: in almost every picture you see of him, he has a smile that seems reflective of more than polish; it seems exuberant, genuine, warm, whole. I suppose I already contradict my opening assertion: after some decades, we begin to show through our faces, and by then one may regard appearance as less than totally accidental.
Into both of their faces, then, I have read more than should. I can only wonder what people see in mine, if anything, and whether it matters; I am reminded of C.S. Lewis’ description of his own in Suprised by Joy:
“Worst of all, there was my face. I am the kind of person who gets told, “And take that look off of your face, too… [I did not intend to look] insolent or truculent… The moments at which I was told to “take that look off” were usually those when I intended to be most abject.”
Our faces are not of our making, but they attempt to make us. Lewis, pondering that which landed him in trouble, asks a question I’ve wondered about: “Can there have been [someone] among my ancestors whose expression, against my will, looked out?”