Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Sunglasses and the Subtle Art of Deception

It is a widely regarded axiom that the eyes are windows into the soul. I have encountered this saying countless times in my life, and found it expressed once again in Sia Figiel’s They Who Do Not Grieve. The eyes are perhaps the most telling component of the face, displaying emotion truthfully no matter how hard the other parts try to hide it. Eyes can be used to tell when someone is lying, to gauge a person’s emotional status. It is for this reason that I believe sunglasses are so popular in Western culture.

Sunglasses are often viewed as glamorous, mainly because they are so often adorned by celebrities. If you stop to think about why celebrities wear them so often though, you’ll probably answer that they need to hide from paparazzi. While this is a common conclusion, there is a strong meaning inherent in this statement that points to a deeper understanding of humanity. The sunglasses form a sort of barrier, preserving a perons privacy by separating them from the outside world. They enable the bearer to see out, but those on the other side cannot see in. Sunglasses function as a sort of translucent mirror, protecting the eyes not only from the sun, but from the minds of the inquisitive. The donning of sunglasses becomes a 21st century masquerade, enabling those who wear them to project a facade. Because it is so much harder to read a person covering their eyes, that person can then be more convincing in acting a certain way. Sunglasses therefore enhance the ability of deception.

While I try not to be a deceptive person, I do normally wear sunglasses to protect my eyes from the sun. I’d be disingenuous if I said that I don’t like the aforementioned aspects however, of wearing sunglasses. Over the past weekend I visited some friends from home at the University of Delaware and attended their homecoming. While I normally feel some anxiety when talking to strangers, I felt much less with my sunglasses on. In conversation I felt as though people had to open up to me rather than vice versa, mainly because they couldn’t tell what I was thinking.

The characters in They Who Do Not Grieve lack the luxury of sunglasses, and live in a very different culture than we do. As a result of this culture (not so much the sunglasses), they have a very open relationship with one another. The second spoken line in the novel is, “Don’t deceive people like that, Malu” (3). While they may seem cruel to one another in action and speech, they are honest with one another. In a lesson to Malu, Lalolagi says, “What people say is deceiving[...] What people say and how they say it are two entirely different things [...] But look into the eyes of the same person and you’ll see a whole universe separate from the realities of the music they have deceivingly exposed to you” (31). The face comes to serve as a map of the soul. The characters we encounter are imperfect—they are wrinkled, scarred, bruised. In their imperfection though is honesty, a complete inability to deceive.

As a counterpart to the islanders, Mrs. Winterson is one of the only characters who wears makeup. The act of this is unusual to Malu, and she describes it in terms of her inability to understand. Mrs. Winterson is naked without “putting on her face,” and this serves as a reflection of the utter fragmentation of her character. In accordance with this act, she comes off as an inauthentic character in terms of her personality.

We become exposed to personalities of the Samoans, warts and all, because they wear their history. Towards the end of the novel, in the chapter “The elements of nature and of the universe” a narrative begins, “These lines. The lines of Lalolagi’s face are a history in themselves. Each line an event. Each line a ceremony” (247). Figiel is attempting to bring the reader into the eyes of her characters, connecting aesthetic with meaning. The effect ultimately is iconoclast, a complete 180 from the way we view the world. While we attempt to conform to society, these characters embrace the humanity of their society. They may seem mean, rude and shocking—but they are less deceitful than us, and even the western characters portrayed in the novel. We try to mask our faces, while they cannot even comprehend this practice.

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