Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
a webzine of new and unpublished work

THE CHRONICLE OF SMILES (2006, revised 2023)

A Smile is a Frown Upside Down’ Motown 1976
a) The History
Smiles are more useful than tears. The only one that is counterproductive is a smirk (‘Take that pipe out of your mouth’, says Lotte Lenya). Spontaneous smiles don’t piss people off like blubbing (all that business with the handkerchief and the expectation that you ought to be moved). Usually, spontaneous smiles distract the conversation from one’s self. But the effect is passing, and following them up can be a problem. ‘Seriously’ is an off-putting starting sally. As is ‘incidentally’ – my mother said it means you want something. ‘Actually’ I personally find annoying. It’s suggesting the user is bringing you back to reality. (Also, I heard a tape of a recording I did on radio for a program on poetry and I was using ‘actually’ instead of ‘er’. My contribution was dropped for the transmission. Not because of my stop word, I think. I was mocking the poets.). But ‘let’s face it’ is the worst – being taken into the confidence of a cliché!
A smile that is a reflex reaction to embarrassment has its uses, but most people can see through it.  More useful is the premeditated smile of the Chinese diplomat, all teeth and saying nothing. There is always something to hide when any two cultures meet. Traditions confront one another, but for the purpose of barter and mutual survival. When the negotiations break down war is inevitable, and that means the downward spiral for both. Shakespeare was wrong. It’s not a matter of smiling and smiling and being a villain but of grinning and bearing or it will all end in blood.
The Chinese have four thousand years of isolation to hide, so their smiles go deeper than most. So deep that if you tried to fathom them in one plunge you would drown. Wise negotiators go along with the smiling and smile back, for deep feelings in the circumstances should be dealt with superficially. The game is being slowed down. Patience is how to play it.
The smiles will deepen into communication when confidence has been gained and a harmonious barter is on the table. The mandarin diplomat will take the plunge and parley something he wants and which you wish to give. This entente is neither inscrutable nor devious. It is the proper use of patience to peacefully gain something both ultimately want (often for opposite reasons). Too often the smile reflex is idly used to create suspicion. The opposing parties end up turning their backs, or killing one another.
A premeditated smile is always thoughtful, and underestimated by people misguided by the word ‘sincere’. They call it ‘forced’, a sort of silent ‘lie’. (‘Sincere’ and ‘lie’ are words that seem precise but ‘the longer you look at them, the more remotely they look back’, Krause). You use them about someone when you mean something else. There is, also, a thinly veiled irritation behind them. Planned smiles are more muscular than ocular, and can deteriorate into grimaces if you don’t watch out. It is recommended that they should be practiced before a mirror, once a day when shaving or putting your make-up on. Because the emphasis is on the muscles of facial expression, the eyes can look dead. The secret of avoiding this is well known to Chinese mandarins – narrow the eyes and let the muscles of facial expression do the work (they can speak more subtly than the tongue). The Chinese mandarins have been my masters. My First Communion photo shows me as a precocious diplomat of the Orient with slit eyes and contracting cheeks. Who was I negotiating with? God, or family and friends for First Communion money. Both. The set smile did best in the collection stakes if accompanied by a silent prayer. 
Smiles in the illustrated Oriental Atlas of Lu Sang are classified by their relation to a hundred common emotions. No two smiles are the same but all are capable within a nano-second of activating an adjacent one. Therefore, the number of possible smiles available to any human face (not suffering from a facial paralysis) is 100 x 99 x98 x 97 and so on to zero. Which by my calculation works out at several billions. In The Atlas, the smiles are deeper than in real life. The subjects are shown in elegant dissections, and with peeled-back skin. Though it shows the scalpel skills of eighth-century Chinese surgeons, it rather reduces the relation between aesthetic effect and emotions revealed. 
Muscular fatigue sets in with a lifetime of premeditated smiles. The youthful expansiveness is lost but can be compensated by a light toning. As a chronic cyclist, I wear translucent reflector shades most of the time. When I deign to smile, I raise them, and not being protected from the light my eyes return to the Communion boy squint, which allows me to smile and smile and be what people would like me to be. In addition, it saves my muscles of facial expression from working so hard that wrinkling would reduce me to the unsightliness of a shrunken head, or WH Auden, or Rider Haggard. Nobody would bear to look at me. How well my compromise works for the designed effect I am not sure. The language of smiles has moved on from the days of Wang Wai, and my heyday. The young smile to show their healthy white teeth, a premeditated response, while older people have their expensive dental work to show and communication is unilateral.   
b) The Changing Face of Smiles
Smiles did not go commercial until Byron’s letters to Hobhouse from Italy urgently requesting tooth powder were passed around Lady Holland’s saloon. Soon the aspiring classes could not do without ‘Mason’s Best’. The dream-smile industry sells a thousand brands of the same cheap paste, though salt and water would do the job just as well. Cosmetic dentistry has grown out of this, from ear-to-ear caps to veneer old crocs, and railroads them straight (it’s never too late to look like Dracula).
Digital cameras have taken the immediate out of smiles. They are recorded in order to show to others. They watch you watching yourself behind the monitor. You watch them watching you watching yourself. Self-consciousness controls all the stages, from the snapshot to the showing. The ‘smile’ is viewed in the monitor until its ‘perfect’ and a click registers it. The result distorts what it purports to celebrate. The smile is forced, gives a false impression. This development is not new. It is a refinement of what began with daguerreotypes and climaxed when television appeared to take over from real life in the living room, making the fixed-smile reflex the most prevalent carnal reality. 
Politicians flick on-and-off ‘sight-bites’ while not answering questions. ‘Mother, rapist, arsonist, lover / all smile out of the news, one time or another,’ said Lou Reed, who thought of making a movie of Chandler’s The Sun Also Sneezes before Andy Warhol put a hanky on it resembling Veronica’s veil, saying, ‘Bless you, Jesus. I love your makeup.’ Lou and the Velvet Underground made a break with him for not being ‘with it enough. Faces must be falsified with high impact plastic, designed to fit a mouth plumped up with liposuction.’  Andy scoffed, ‘Pass that makeover with insurance policy cover’. Lou ignored him: ‘Noses have lost their noble character, and the nip and tuck of wrinkles has standardised face-lifts, meaning that celebrities all look the same, and everybody else as well. In the march, not of time (for time walks on the dark side) but of space travel, front-line clowns with trompe l’oeil facades will parade with banners saying, “Death to Natural Appearance.” The eye will be the last bastion, a giveaway pin-point peering out. But lasers will see an end to that.’ Andy multiplied Marilyn’s as the world’s face and it sold for millions.
Shelley’s ‘eye with which the universe beholds itself and sees itself sublime’ is now a cosmetic (rather than cosmic) phenomenon. The ‘Seductive Optical Dazzle’ is guaranteed. Bags under the eyes have been banished forever, and lines under the eyes are lost to masking dyes. Like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland, the Seductive Optical Dazzle (SOD) lingers in the air. Scientists call it the ‘eidetic effect’. You see it long after you can bear to look (Lookee now is the familiar French for a make-over).  
In museums, the sockets of Greek statues, once filled with rubies, stare vacantly (‘Why are your eyes always empty,’ said Heathcliff to Catherine). And so, when the flesh falls away from the creatures of twenty-first-century fashion, the bones gnarled with plastic will remind the archeologists of the future that Frankenstein was once a James Wales movie (1931) which has spawned twenty-one remakes, each one less plausible than the previous.   
In the 1980s, Tjan (et al) classified the smiles of four hundred and fifty-four students in California into ‘high smiles’ (showing the gums and teeth) and ‘low smiles’ (something to hide like Ernie Kovacs, the 1950s movie crook with the crooked Hapsburg jaw, who when his rat-like lower incisors jutted forth was invariable caught). Tjan (et al) were looking for the ‘average smile’.    
The earliest reference in the paper is 1963. For them the smile reflex began with Lady Bird Johnson’s at Lyndon J’s inauguration. So much for medieval yokels spitting out their loose teeth to get down to some serious grinning, and The Dark Lady of the Sonnets. She smiled with her eyes for Shakespeare, who saw virtue as in inverse proportion to the amount of tooth displayed. There was no analysis of skulls from various geo-periods. Nor consideration of smiles in art history (the Mona Lisa’s was not because she was dentally challenged. Leonardo da Vinci made her laugh and she was trying on his instructions to keep a straight face).
No doubt Tjan (et al) only wanted to publish an article to secure tenure, but they owed the smile reflex more respect and further research. The field could have been opened up to become a scientific discipline in itself. Surprisingly, given the expanding cosmetics industry, it hasn’t taken off. But I can see the problem. A comprehensive review of smiles would have taken several generations of multidisciplinary researchers, and an introductory report so extensive nobody except God or Google would have time to read it.  
Limiting the review of the literature to literature would have been more practical. In nineteenth century, fiction, from Dickens’s picaresque to Flaubert’s hyper-realism, smiles, apart from the fixed grin of village idiots and leering of city madmen, were neglected in the written word. Smiles were regarded as a side-effect of an emotion, and it was the emotion itself that called for elaboration. In short, they were just twitches in the sea of self-expression, one of many signs and symptoms rather than the condition itself.
The industrial age of reading began in Victorian times with popularization to satisfy increasing literacy. And so, smiles are back in popular literature. Most   best-selling pulp novelists describe rather than reveal their character using signs and symptoms. Interpreting their smiles or tears would slow up the production. And so short cuts to spare the reader the psychological effort of understanding deeper feelings allowed writers on the assembly line to roll out more books more quickly.
As there are rhyming dictionaries for lazy poets, there must be handbooks for overworked hacks that match descriptive details to characteristics. In Mills and Boons, the received descriptions have been refined to caricatures. For instance, toothy smiles are the unit for male insincerity. Smiling with your eyes means intentions are honorable (though I don’t know how M&B are dealing with the advent of contact lenses, the ocular equivalent of wearing dentures, the descriptive unit for depravity in penny-dreadfuls).
The cinema was less one-dimensional about smiles. In the 1930/40s, as Hollywood censorship tightened with Hay, it had already turned kissing from a spontaneous act of gladness to an artful means of consummating a seduction. The seriousness of the moment meant you could not kiss and smile at the same time, unless you were portraying a rapist (not a good career-move for a studio star). Controlling this natural inclination deconditioned the reflex and called for a conscious effort to be made to act out the kiss as po-faced as possible. Even method-school actors had to think before they pounced as vile seducers. Theory preceded performance, and so once again our reflective age was interfering with human reflexes and reinventing them for commercial purposes.
In the 1950s public kissing was between the unmarried. Husband and wife limited themselves to a ‘see you, Mom’ morning peck. The imitation of the Hollywood kiss became central to courtship. Your chances of marriage were improved by being good at this practice run for the real thing. As it required forethought to get it right, courtship kissing determined who would lead the dance in the marriage. That’s the dominant partner. A kiss was not just a kiss. On-screen kissing wasn’t very subtle. Madame DuBarry (1934) was premiered at Cannes by starlets on swings as a ‘kiss me quick’. Veronica Lake and Eddie Bracken in a prolonged clinch (The Hour Before Dawn,1944) was considered daring. I picked up their lingering lip-suction at a re-issue in the Lee Cinema in the late fifties and practiced against the mirror before launching myself at Sadie Burns got me a slap in the face (just like in Doris Day movies).
Films played tight-lipped service to the kiss. Grace Kelly would be sweetly kissed but with ill-advised woman, often played by Kim Novak or Gloria Grahame (and later Shelly Winters), they could be riskily wetted. Classic clips show kisses to be procrastinations. They lingered long enough for the Hay code to restore self-control. That is until in the seventies Nagisa Oshima’s Ai No Corrida, In the Realm of the Senses (1978) made them interminable, one-hundred-and-five minutes of smooching in slow motion only released by castration and strangulation (I tell no lie). When it was first released in London, it had ‘Coming Soon’ banded around it to block out the title. Its Hollywood version Max, Mon Amour (1986), a ménage de trois with a gorilla, did not make bestiality hip. By then explicit sex on screen had become mainstream.
Smiles in the cinema of my youth were more full-blooded than kisses. There was more to them than a single act. Their psychological complexities deepened the storyline. It was how you saw the Gary Cooper or Grace Kelly think. The action was kept going by what was behind every smile. Dialogue, and what was permitted after Hay had his way, may have been conditioned, but nobody could bowdlerize the sparkling of eyes and the tossing of the locks. The association between smiles and hair gestures in films is a study in itself*. The smile reflex was the last refuge of freedom of expression in an increasingly boardroom-controlled industry. The smile could degenerate into a premeditated act to show teeth for dental work, or in aggression (in B-movies nobody really smiles. They kiss a lot with clenched jaws).
*Hair was never the same after Le Dernier Tango a Paris (1972). The Viking straggle to Maria Schneider’s lustrous tresses intruded on her nakedness so she looked like Lady Godiva, horse and all, while Marlon Brando barely took off his jacket. There was nothing to smile about in that rat-infested exercise in loveless romps. 
In the days of silent movies, toothy smiles were reserved for villains. As sound came in, Hollywood dentists restored teeth to their rightful place in the smile, though not always realistically. Their debut in the 1930s was a disaster. Dentally challenged starlets had complete dentitions transplanted from the unemployed, which were rejected, foreshortening promising careers and damaging marriage prospects. Joan Crawford had her back molars extracted to heighten her cheekbones. She appeared less like a man-eating tiger to her leading men who, it was said, rehearsed love scenes on phantom models of her head. Sunken cheeks made her pool-like eyes like an oasis in a desert. I wonder if the absence of back teeth, or a lack of joy in her life, made her smiles seem like a ghost emotion. Clark Gable’s smiles were too openly flashed for his raffish charm. Once all his teeth were removed and false teeth inserted, the effort not to dislodge them restricted his muscles of facial expression so that he gaped like a yokel. But, being a good actor, he soon learned to smile with dimples and knowing eyes. 
But the most affecting smiles are the comic ones, seemingly calculated but coming from the murky deep. Great character actors like Alec Guinness had as many of them as Lu Sang’s Oriental Atlas, with all the possible permutations. They flicker on the screen like random numbers in a test emission. He did not need the assistance of cosmetics. An encyclopedic knowledge of the emotions was sufficient. If he had one true smile it was a sad one behind his hand with his head inclined, a rueful nod to the absurdity of a thoughtful man who makes faces for a living. Alistair Sims had only one smile. He was born with it and never had his teeth fixed, precociously catching the folie of dotage. He could have been a comical King Lear. Peter Sellers’ apple-cheeks were windfalls, and his rabbity smiles those of a door-to-door salesman wearing the wrong false teeth. If he didn’t exercise them manically, the skull beneath the skin would have shown. These smiles were my education in human frailty, not least my own. In adolescence I was Terry-Thomas, with his vulpine tiptoe and whistling diastema (gapped front teeth), shiftily insouciant in order to camouflage the deep shame of being me. As a child I saw in Laurel and Hardy what frightened me in adults. That they were not as grown up as they pretended. When he fell on his own pomposity, Oliver, who didn’t know how to smile, revealed a lack of side and howled like a baby. Stan’s poker-face snigger is the sly child in all of us. 
When Spike Milligan smiled nobody laughed. I shared a changing room with him in a squash club in Notting Hill once a week for almost two years in the late 1980s. Always a Thursday afternoon when nobody else was around. Neither of us had partners. We played against the wall on adjacent courts. His depressions became a national issue some years later, distracting people from the royal family (who loved the Goons. Spike was Prince Charles’s tree spokesman). If I had known then he wrote light verse I would have communicated with him through toilet graffiti. As it was, we just said nothing. There was nothing to be said. I smiled sadly. He looked away.
In a memoir, Spike confided his love of rugby, which I share. Rugger made us cry and weep by proxy. We lived the game. The Five Nations cheered him up when everything else failed – Spike at Twickenham, cheering on the Irish (cheering is going a bit far for siding with his ancestors. Just the odd ‘Come on, Paddy.’). I suspect he was less of a winger than he claimed. I can’t see him flying, especially with the British Army flag. Though who knows what Spike was like when young or if he ever was? The British Army prison in Cobh was called Spike Island. I don’t know why they left out the Milligan. 
c) An uncashed cheque
I was an infant scrumhalf, a schoolboy hooker and a blind-side flanker as a student. I was never that good, though my dribbling was much admired by the ex-school international Noel Murphy, who tried to be encouraging. I never lived it down with the other boys, but dribbling on got me a place in the Bowen Shield final when Nathan was dropped for mimicking the trainer Joe Soap’s podgy yellow stare. I played at college when there were injuries and once received a pass from another international, Jerry Walsh, in the Quarry during an inter-faculty match. I stumbled over the line in shock. It was before video replays, and so I alone knew whether I had touched it down or not. The ref raised his arm and Jerry Walsh patted my dislocated shoulder. It hurt, but I was happy. Jerry is an unsung hero now. I must write him a song.
Smiles haunted John Huston’s last film, The Dead (1987). He was plugged into an oxygen cylinder so he could breathe on set. Joyce’s Edwardian drawing-room is peopled by ghostly old ladies and solitary old men. Huston’s supporting cast came from elderly actors in Dublin. But the tests troubled him, something wrong with the period feel. Anjelica, his daughter, pointed out that all the actors had had their teeth fixed for the auditions. They all had the same smile. Huston put the makeup department to camouflage the dental work. ‘Why should I be ashamed of myself,’ asked Gabriel, blinking his eyes and trying to smile.
President Reagan’s redeeming feature was a spontaneous smile (and he was supposed to be an actor). When it suddenly appeared, for no obvious reason, everybody loved him. John Major’s smile also came out of the blue. As he came from a family of circus clowns it could have been brilliant acting, like Peter Lorre’s in M, or Gary Cooper's when he remembered how. But I think Major’s was a rainbow in a downpour. His smiles said the rain is passing and I will soon be able to spend more time with my garden gnomes. I look at John Mayor and Ronald Reagan with more indulgence than they deserve. The next generation of top Western politicians have to force themselves to smile, and it shows (Sarkozy’s is like a bellhop receiving an inadequate tip. Putin to his credit doesn’t even try). 
My mother commemorated people who had not much to smile about. ‘He had a smile for everyone.’ She meant they smiled through tears despite. This is the humane end of the calculating. The smiles of saints launched to make others feel better by distracting from a grief that would needlessly upset. The further I go into saintly smiles; something nags at the back of the mind. The sickly-sweet smile of the living relic, the Rose of Lima, haunted my youth with a holy picture in my missal. Her mother was not smiling, having mouths to feed. I began to think martyrs were really smiling to and for themselves, and called it God. The first poem I got money for was about the Rose of Lima. The Kilkenny Magazine sent me a cheque for ten shillings, which I did not cash (student accounts did not exist then), and my lately widowed mother didn’t approve of me taking time out of my studies to indulge myself with poetry. She didn’t smile easily, but when she did it was real. I still have the cheque. It makes me smile.  
d) The cosmic smile
Tjan’s study concluded that the average All American smile exhibits ‘the full extent of the six upper front teeth, their curve parallel to inner curvature of the lower lip and slightly or nearly touching’. I try to visualise it on my blackboard with some chalk and come up with the graveyard smile of McGowan, the lead singer of the Pogues (Gaelic for The Kissers). I can’t draw. And so, I have to conjure it up in my imagination. What I see is called bilateral proclination, an orthodontic condition that you can do nothing about as it relapses after the appliances are withdrawn. It is characterised by a flattish prominence, sticky-out teeth that show how perfectly formed they are. Sufferers from it include the American Kennedys and the English Royal Family. Don’t smile. What is ugly or beautiful is a matter of public opinion. Particularly when it comes to the smile apparatus. The Japanese blackened the teeth and shaved the eyebrows of their courtesans so in demure lighting all you could see was pale hands and face, the mystery of women honoured by the shadows. The dark continent of mutual attraction is an old silent movie with a piano accompaniment as its voyeur. The mystery of men is how easily they are fooled and happy to be. It’s all in the teeth. Cheese.