News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Faces Whose Script No One Can Read Except the Wretched

Monday, November 27, 2006

Faces Whose Script No One Can Read Except the Wretched

There’s an old tale—whether a wife said it or not I do not kn0w—that if something scares you enough your hair turns white. Fear has many forms. It need not shake its skeletal hand at you in supernatural rags to put the psalms of god in your heart. Life itself—full and ruddy life, bellowing like a bull at the bovine moon in rutting desire—can scare you and turn into an ash heap the table of plenty.

Faces often tell tales too. Think of Abraham Lincoln’s face as it aged from the first years of his presidency and to the end, before the assassin’s bullet shattered his skull. That face, the one I used to ponder for hours as a child, that face that seemed to mirror the deaths and agonies of the million who went to their death fighting for justice and against it. …

Watching CNN reporter Michael Ware these past weeks reminds me of Lincoln’s face and the imagined faces of all those whose visages sculpted by terror I have never read. Ware’s reportage from Iraq has grown more and more terror-laden, his face dragged with death’s tine as he increasingly seems threatened with the extinction of wordlessness in his effort to describe the horror he’s witness to.

Ware’s face—no doubt wracked by sleeplessness, inability to shave or wash, concern for his safety and that of his fellow journalists—grows gaunter and thinner. His Australian accent--thicker with an exhaustion born of sleeplessness, but perhaps more the sight of bodies torn to shreds by bombs and body parts strewing trees and desert street--almost cracks with the wails and ululation that he has no doubt heard on the desert wind.

In his philosophical remarks on the infinity of the Other, Emmanuel Levinas talks about the trace of God. For Levinas the other is the person whose face I must espy in all its primeval tender responsibility. Levinas evokes the care and tenderness of a mother for her newborn in his concern for treating others with justice and love.

But even before that, even before the solicitude of the maternal there’s a trace, as he calls, of something more infinite and transcendent and for which the maternal is at most a symbol, pregnant as it is. For it is that trace of the infinite and insolubly mysterious responsibility for justice and love that is the trace of God, for Levinas. And no human image can ever be that image though it can and will hearken back to that infinity which humans have called upon in their cries for justice and compassion.

For the cheery news people ensconced in their studio far away from the dangers and death-dealing war machine, Ware’s scruffiness is no doubt becoming something of a joke. “How unprofessional,” no doubt lurks around wry smiles. At best, they think of the gritty images of a man unkempt and almost shrill in throat as good TV.

That Michael Ware face reflects such agony is a subtle hieroglyphic in a divine script whose interpretation cannot be read without a lexicon. That lexicon itself cannot be read unless you understand a language and its unwritten signals that no culture, no education can teach except the life lived in fear and trembling for not only material welfare but that of what may arrive more preciously.

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