Tuesday, February 08, 2022

When We Love, We Want to Know Names and Faces

What a man who has brain damage has taught me about love; and what it reveals about the 9th-century theology of sacred art.

I have a friend named Mike who knows me and likes me (or at least he regularly tells me that he does) but, and here’s the paradox, he knows virtually nothing about me. Mike used to be a Presbyterian minister, and before that he was a practicing lawyer. However, six years ago he had a heart attack. His brain was deprived of oxygen for several minutes, and suffered serious damage which resulted in severe memory loss. He can remember very little from his past, and his ability to recall the detail of experiences since the heart attack is greatly impaired, so that typically he can’t remember what happened even 10 minutes ago. I met him for the first time two years ago, and each time he sees me he has barely any recollection of our previous conversations. He is so uncertain of what he knows about me that the first thing he says to me each time we meet is, ‘David Clayton, professor? Right?’. ‘That’s right Mike,’ I say. ‘I am David Clayton the professor.’. About 25% of the occasions on which he sees me, he gets the name or my profession wrong and I correct him. 

His memory is so impaired that mid-way through an interaction, perhaps after just five minutes, he will stop mid-sentence and ask me again, ‘David Clayton, professor? Right?’ We can only conduct conversations at all because he can recall some random details from his life, and we can talk, for example, about the Bible, which he knows that he views as authoritative (although he can’t remember much detail) or he might tell me about his father and I will tell him some things about myself and my life. The content of one conversation can sometimes be almost exactly the same one we had the previous day.

Yet, for all that he knows very little about me, he knows me and knows he likes me. Each time we meet, he is obviously pleased to see me (which pleases me too!) and from the perceptibly steady, if incremental, growth in the warmth of the greeting he gives me, he likes me more and more. Even when he can’t remember my name, it seems that he knows me more each time he sees me, and (I feel sure these are connected) he loves me more. He has, it seems, a developing sense of the whole, but little recall of the parts that contributed to his knowledge of the whole. Or, to put it another way, he knows he likes me, but doesn’t know why.

And it is my face that triggers this reaction. This makes me recall the article I wrote about how it is conventional in Christian art to associate facelessness with the devil, here. And another on the detrimental effects of mask-wearing entitled the Facelessness of Tyranny and the Tyranny of Facelessness

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte, 1942. I am hoping, at least, that the title was meant to be ironic.
I described my observations of the pattern of Mike’s interaction with me to his wife, Maria, and asked her if this pattern described his interaction with people generally. She said that she thought this was correct. He always wanted to know the name and one defining characteristic of the person, and even though he might forget these from one conversation to the next, he had nevertheless an accumulating sense of whether or not he liked the person. She told me that the reason he repeated the name and profession during the conversation was that he was afraid that it was slipping from his memory and he wanted to lock it in there before he lost it again.

What does this indicate? The following is highly speculative, given that it is based upon the observation of just one person. It would be interesting to know if my thoughts resonate with readers who have had more contact with mentally handicapped people.

To me, this seems to indicate that the faculty for retaining information about a person, the memory, and the faculty for loving and for the retention of the love of the person, reside in two different places. One explanation might be that each operation takes place in different parts of the brain and only one part, that which relates to the memory of facts, is damaged.

Alternatively, and I would love to think that this is the explanation, there are two different sorts of knowing that occur here, and to know a person for themselves, as distinct from knowing about them, is really to love them. And Mike’s faculty of loving is intact because it does not reside in the brain at all, but rather in the spirit. The spirit is the highest aspect of the soul, which is, by definition, spiritual and not material and therefore unaffected by brain damage.

When we love someone, we see them as they are, and that person is encountered as a unique object of love. The key characteristics that need to be grasped in order to love the person are, in Mike’s case, to judge from his questions, the face, the name, and the main pre-occupation of the person.

Mike is a neighbor of mine whom I see pretty much daily. One time, however, I was away for a month and when I saw him on my return, I wondered if he would recall me at all. To my surprise, he was just as pleased to see me as he had been the last time, a month earlier, and he said, ‘David Clayton, the professor? Right?’, pronouncing my name with perhaps a slightly longer hesitation than normal.

With Mike, it seemed to me by observing this pattern that when he sees a person who is known, simply yet deeply as an object of love, that love is not so much remembered as it is re-lived, fully and truly. It is a temporal participation in a love that is permanent and does not decay with time, for it resides in the spirit.

There is an interesting parallel with the theology of icons here.

The Seventh Ecumenical Council (781) addressed the issue of images, and stated that images of the person of Christ as man, of Our Lady, and of the Saints must be created and be venerated. For as we can love the Father through the love of Christ, who is a man that is the image of the Father, so we can love a saint in heaven through their image in the icon. This tells us that, in the estimation of the Fathers of the Council at least, the human capacity for love is stimulated strongly by seeing the person, whether viewed through an image or directly.

However, it was found out subsequently that the Council had only partly dealt with the problem, for the iconoclast controversy was not fully and immediately resolved, and the destruction of images and rejection of their use continued. The iconoclast controversy was only finally resolved in the 9th century through the theological contribution of St Theodore the Studite, who stated that the necessary conditions for the veneration of a sacred image were, in addition to an image of the person, a clear statement of their name and essential characteristics. By essential characteristics he meant the key attributes that define the person for those who know him; so for example, an icon of St Isaias the Prophet would show a person with a gray beard and long gray hair, his name, and tongs with a lump of hot coal. St Theodore argued that this is the minimum of information that people need to love the person authentically through the image.
The icon of a feast or biblical scene, incidentally, would have a title written on the icon and not necessarily every person present within the scene. The one below is for the Visitation in a Gothic style.
When the practice of including the characteristics and the name of the person, as proposed by St Theodore, was adopted, the iconoclastic controversy was finally resolved. I suggest that the decline of iconoclasm was not so much that Theodore presented a compelling theological sound bite that convinced the masses, but rather that when artists incorporated all of these features into the icons that they painted, those icons now inspired in those who saw them an authentic love for the saint portrayed and the desire to destroy the image diminished. His theology was as much a reflection of insight into human nature as it was the product of great learning.

Similarly, when Mike sees me, he seems to follow the 9th-century ‘Theodoran’ pattern of thinking. He sees me - not as an image, but as a person - then he knows he loves me, but his instincts tell him that for this love to be fully manifested, which is what he desires, he needs the essential truths that define me for him, that is my name and my profession. Then he knows me - David Clayton, professor - in love.

There is a lesson that artists might learn today. If you want people to be attracted to your art, follow Theodore’s advice and write the name on it. Aside from helping to stop those who see your work from smashing it to pieces with a hammer, it might even induce them to pay for it! I have resolved to try to remember to include the name in every piece of work I do in the future - I will admit that occasionally I have neglected to do so in the past.

It is interesting to note, further, that in the more recent periods of iconoclasm, such as those of Protestant reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries, or by Catholic bishops in the mid-20th century, the practice of naming sacred art in the Theodoran manner had fallen by the wayside. So Sir Anthony van Dyke did not tell us that he was painting the Crowning with Thorns on the painting itself.

Also, a common method of destroying the effectiveness of a painting or sculpture was to de-face it, as we see in this 15th century retable in the Jan van Arkel chapel of Utrecht Cathedral (Domkerk), which was found behind a false plaster wall during restoration activities in 1919.

All this suggests to me that if we don’t incorporate the use of names and key characteristics in our sacred art today we will struggle to re-establish a Catholic tradition in sacred art, and therefore, will struggle to establish a wider contemporary culture that is a reflection of it.

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