I recall the first time I ever saw a tattoo on a woman. It was about thirty years ago, at a combination flea market and auction. The tattoo was a colorful snake draped over her leathery shoulder and back. I remember being stunned by it, feeling as you’d feel if you rounded the corner of a handsome old courthouse and found its back had been scrawled over by thirty feet of painted gangland tags.
I had seen tattoos before that, on men. Most of those fell into two or three categories: the Popeye anchor on the biceps; the name of the man’s best girl, which was sometimes Ma; or some insignia related to the armed services. They were modest, and they marked the man out as belonging to the working class. Most of them were a dull inky blue or green. They weren’t attractive, but the defacement was minimal.
Now, of course, tattoos are everywhere, even on necks and faces, and both men and women wear them. I saw an otherwise attractive girl the other day with a ring in her nose, like a prize sow. One of my students wears a ring in her lip. Guys without muscles who want to look tough spike their eyebrows. We are now even treated to people who get some plastic surgeon to bore holes in their faces, so that you can see their fangs from the side, just as when you raise your dog’s lip to pry a chicken bone from his teeth.
I remember also – it is a long time ago, and the fad hasn’t passed – the first time I saw a man wearing his trousers around his buttocks, so that he seemed like a lusus naturae, four feet of shambling maleness set on itty bitty legs extending barely above the knee. It’s nearly impossible to walk that way without throwing your hips from side to side, like a brave crippled fellow I once knew. He had been stricken with polio when he was a boy. This guy was stricken with something else.
The first thing people say to such reactions, as if I’d never thought of it myself, is that these are fashions, and that every generation thinks that the ways of the young people are decadent. Well, that isn’t true. At most places, at most times, young people have worn the same things their elders wore, danced the same dances, sang the same old songs, and played the same merry games. But some things are decadent.
Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote that one of the privileges of being human was that we could raise up the creation round us to take part in the life of the spirit. We might say that human nature quivers in an unstable equilibrium. We rise to the full stature of Christ, transforming all things in Him, or we reel back into the beast.
We can see it upon the face – the animal leer of the debauched, the hardened scowl of the cynic, the stony blankness of the man of avarice. Look at the face of one of our presidential candidates, and note the terrible engravings of ambition, and the ill-concealed scorn of the very people the candidate must race about to entice, to flatter, and to bribe. Think of what it must be like to have to live behind that face.
The Orthodox priest, scientist, and mystic Pavel Florensky – murdered by the Soviets, of course, during the days when Stalin was all the rage in fashionable salons of the American left – says that there are two irreconcilable things an icon-painter can present to the world: One is a countenance, and the other is a mask.
The countenance in a saint is his unique likeness to God: grace shining through the particularities of his flesh. It is the icon-painter’s humble task to revere that countenance and be taught by it.
The mask, by contrast, is a shadowy thing, as glaring as it may be. It casts a barrier between the observer and the truth, and between the mask-wearer and God. It is a product of man’s arbitrary fantasy, like the demonic and animal shapes into which pagan man casts his natural but tenuous apprehension of God.
We live in an age of phantasmagorical masks, vandalizing the second most beautiful thing in physical existence, the body, and turning into the ego’s billboard the most beautiful thing in physical existence, the thing that the blind Milton longed most to see again – the human face divine. In emphasis, it is as if the abdomen or the crotch or the bosom were what we thought made us most ourselves; as if we were walking and talking groins, with stunted little countenances hidden away below.
Dogs do their doggish things by helpful instinct. We do what we do by disgraceful design.
Catholics of all people should not be surprised. We’ve been fooled into doing plenty of vandalizing of our own. Take a look at the facade – or I should say the sfacciata, the shameless face-showing – of one of our new public buildings, say, a pharmacy or a department store or a doughnut shop. All is garish advertisement, aggressively ugly, with at most a mendacious hint of true and human architectural styles, as fitting as a weather vane on top of a dumpster.
Now take a look at our churches – the bare walls, the commercial jingles in the hymnal, the congregational graffiti obscuring the countenance of Christ. Then take a look at ourselves and the way we behave, our posture, the prayers we say, our dress, our habits of thought in church.
I’m not excepting myself here. We all have much to do, to become human at last, that is, to have countenances and not masks – instaurare omnia in Christo, to establish all things in Christ.