Man Who Laughs (Estes and Lauriat 1869)/Chapter 46
GWYNPLAINE AND DEA.
WHEREIN WE SEE THE FACE OF HIM OF WHOM WE HAVE HITHERTO SEEN ONLY THE ACTS.
NATURE had been prodigal in her kindness to Gwynplaine. She had given him a mouth opening to his ears, ears folding over to his eyes, a shapeless nose to support the spectacles of the grimace-maker, and a face that no one could look upon without laughing.
We have just said that Nature had loaded Gwynplaine with her gifts. But was it Nature? Had she not been assisted? Two slits for eyes, a hiatus for a mouth, a snub protuberance with two holes for nostrils, a flattened face,—all producing the effect of violent laughter, certainly Nature never produced such perfection single-handed. But is laughter a synonym of joy?
If in the presence of this mountebank (for he was one) the first impression of gaiety wore off, and the man's countenance was examined closely, traces of art were recognizable. Such a face could never have been created by chance; it must have been the result of intention. Such perfection of detail is not found in Nature. Man can do nothing to create beauty, but everything to produce ugliness. A Hottentot profile cannot be changed into a Roman outline, but out of a Grecian nose you may make a Calmuck's; it is only necessary to obliterate the root of the nose, and to flatten the nostrils. The Latin of the Middle Ages had a reason for its creation of the verb denasare.
Had Gwynplaine when a child been so worthy of attention that his face had been subjected to a complete transformation? Why not? Was any more powerful motive needed than the profits which would accrue from his future exhibition? According to all appearance, industrious manipulators of children had worked upon his face. It seemed evident that a mysterious and probably occult science (which was to surgery what alchemy was to chemistry) had chiselled his flesh, evidently at a very tender age, and created this countenance intentionally. This science, clever with the knife and skilled in the use of anæsthetics and ligatures, had enlarged the mouth, cut away the lips, laid bare the gums, distended the ears, displaced the eyelids and the cheeks, enlarged the zygomatic muscle, pressed the scars and cicatrices to a level, and turned back the skin over the lesions while the face was thus distorted,—from all which resulted that wonderful and appalling work of art, the mask which Gwynplaine wore.
The manipulation of Gwynplaine had succeeded admirably. Gwynplaine was a gift of providence to dispel the sadness of man. Of which providence? Is there a providence of demons as well as of God? We put the question without answering it.
Gwynplaine was a mountebank. He exhibited himself on the platform. No such effect had ever before been produced. Hypochondriacs were cured by the mere sight of him. He was avoided by folks in mourning, because they were compelled to laugh when they saw him, without regard to their decent gravity. One day the chief executioner came to see him, and Gwynplaine made him laugh. People who saw Gwynplaine were obliged to hold their sides; he spoke, and they rolled on the ground. He was as far removed from sadness as pole is from pole: spleen at the one, Gwynplaine at the other. Consequently on fair-grounds and village-greens he speedily gained the enviable appellation of "that horrible man."
It was Gwynplaine's laugh that so excited the mirth of others; yet he did not laugh himself. His face laughed; his thoughts did not. The extraordinary face which chance, or a special and weird industry, had fashioned for him laughed of itself; Gwynplaine had nothing to do with it. The exterior did not depend on the interior. The laugh which he himself had not placed on brow and eyelids and mouth, he was powerless to remove. It had been stamped indelibly on his face; it was automatic, and the more irresistible because it seemed petrified. No one could escape the powerful effect of this grimace. Two convulsions of the face are infectious,—laughing and yawning. By reason of the mysterious operation to which Gwynplaine had probably been subjected in his infancy, every part of his face contributed to that grin; his whole physiognomy led to that result, as a wheel centres in the hub. All his emotions augmented this strange expression; or, to speak more correctly, aggravated it. Any astonishment which might seize him, any suffering which he might feel, any anger which might take possession of him, any pity which might move him, only increased this hilarity of his muscles. If he wept he laughed; and whatever Gwynplaine was, whatever he wished to be, whatever he thought, the moment that he raised his head the crowd (if crowd there was) had before them one impersonation,—an overwhelming burst of laughter. It was like a head of Medusa, but Medusa hilarious. Every serious feeling or thought in the mind of the spectator was suddenly put to flight by the unexpected apparition, and laughter was inevitable.
Antique art formerly placed on the exterior of the Greek theatre a joyous brazen face, called Comedy; it laughed and occasioned laughter, but remained pensive. All mirth which borders on folly, all irony which borders on wisdom, were condensed and amalgamated in that face. Intense anxiety, disappointment, disgust, and chagrin were all depicted in the rigid features; but a ghastly smile wreathed the lips, imparting an expression of lugubrious mirth to the entire countenance. One corner of the mouth was curled upward in mockery of the human race; the other, in blasphemy of the gods. Those who eagerly crowded around to gaze at this grim exemplification of the covert sarcasm and irony which dwells in every human breast, nearly died with laughter at the sepulchral immobility of the sneering smile.
One might almost have said that Gwynplaine was that dark, dead mask of ancient comedy, adjusted to the body of a living man; that he supported on his neck that infernal head of implacable hilarity. What a weight for the shoulders of a man,—an everlasting laugh!
An everlasting laugh! That we may be understood we will explain that the Manicheans believed that even the absolute occasionally gave way; that God himself sometimes abdicates for a time. But we do not admit that the will can ever be utterly powerless. The whole of existence resembles a letter modified in the postscript. For Gwynplaine the postscript was this: by force of will, by concentrating all his attention, and allowing no emotion to impair the intentness of his effort, he could manage to suspend the everlasting rictus of his face, and to throw over it for a moment a kind of tragic veil; and then the spectator no longer laughed,—he shuddered. This exertion Gwynplaine scarcely ever made; it was a terrible effort, and an insupportable tension. Moreover, it happened that on the slightest distraction or change of emotion, the laugh, driven away for a moment, returned like the tide, with an impulse which was irresistible in proportion to the force of the adverse emotion. With this exception Gwynplaine's laugh was everlasting.
On first seeing Gwynplaine, everybody laughed. When they had laughed they turned away their heads. Women especially shrank from him with horror. The man was frightful. The paroxysm of laughter was a sort of spontaneous tribute paid to his deformity; they yielded to it gladly, but almost mechanically. Besides, when once the novelty was over, Gwynplaine was intolerable for a woman to see, and impossible to contemplate long. Yet he was tall, well-made, agile, and in no way deformed except in his face.
This strengthened the presumption that Gwynplaine was rather a creation of art than a work of Nature. Gwynplaine, beautiful in figure, had probably been equally beautiful in face. At his birth he had doubtless resembled other infants, and the body had been left intact, and the face alone been retouched. Gwynplaine had been made to order,—at least, that was probably the case. They had left him his teeth: teeth are necessary to a laugh; the death's head retains them. The operation performed on him must have been frightful. That he had no remembrance of it was no proof that it had never been performed. Surgical sculpture of the kind could never have succeeded except on a very young child, and consequently one who had little consciousness of what happened to him, and who might easily take a wound for an illness. Besides, we must remember that they had in those times means of putting patients to sleep, and of suppressing all suffering; only then it was called magic, while now it is called anæsthesia.
Besides this face, those who had brought him up had given him the resources of a gymnast and an athlete. His joints had been skilfully dislocated, and trained to bend the wrong way; so that they could move backward and forward with equal ease, like the hinges of a door. In preparing him for the profession of mountebank nothing had been neglected. His hair had been dyed ochre colour once for all,—a secret which has been rediscovered at the present day. Pretty women avail themselves of it, and that which was formerly considered ugly is now considered an embellishment. Gwynplaine's hair had probably been dyed with some corrosive preparation, for it was very woolly and rough to the touch. The yellow bristles, a mane rather than a head of hair, covered and concealed a lofty brow, evidently made to contain thought. The operation, whatever it had been, which had deprived his features of harmony, and put all their flesh awry, had had no effect on the contour of the head. The facial angle was powerful and symmetrical. Behind his laugh there was a soul, dreaming, as all souls dream. Besides, this laugh was quite a talent to Gwynplaine. He could not prevent it, so he turned it to account. He earned his living by it.
Gwynplaine, as you have probably already guessed, was the child abandoned one winter evening on the coast of Portland, and subsequently sheltered by Ursus at Weymouth.