In his 1862 historical novel Les Miserables, Victor Hugo writes, “Laughter is sunshine, it chases winter from the human face.” In our own day and age, we might observe that pornography is winter; it chases sunshine from the human face. In fact, it chases away the human face itself.
Pornography is Rampant in America; That Much is Sure.
Both the prevalence of pornography and its destructive effects have been confirmed by numerous studies for decades, but the problem is increasingly worse. Pornography has become mainstream, and viewing it is almost expected of American men. A few years ago, I listened to a major-network sports show which held a contest—with the winner receiving a collection of porn DVDs. Perhaps the logic was that any American man who enjoys sports also enjoys pornography. That assumption is insulting, but it’s not lacking data when considering the ubiquitous presence of porn.
Even non-religious groups have demonstrated the terrible effects of porn on our rapidly fracturing society. As the National Catholic Register recently noted, it is no exaggeration to speak of the personal and social effects of pornography as a pandemic.
The viewing of pornography denies, ignores, and/or mocks the fact that the human person onscreen is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and that he or she is a being of inherent worth and dignity. In the false world of pornography, the notion is advanced that beauty is only skin deep; far worse, pornography presents that one’s value is only skin deep.
Thus, pornography dehumanizes the human person.
The Defacing Effect of Pornography
But we can be more specific; we can conclude that pornography not only dehumanizes but defaces a person. Someone once observed that—due to its reduction of human persons to utilitarian objects for sexual pleasure—pornography takes the fig leaf off the genitals and puts it on the face. And there is no denying that pornography takes the focus off the face.
The viewer of pornography might contend that he is looking at a human body and human face onscreen; however, he is not seeing a true face. Rather, he is observing a lie—a denial of humanity through a distortion of photography. In his book, Heroes, Paul Johnson takes umbrage with the old saying that “The camera cannot lie.” Johnson writes, “No greater untruth ever came into popular usage. The camera lies all the time, through an infinite spectrum of mendacity.”
An “infinite spectrum” of lies. That’s a pretty good working definition of pornography.
“The camera is an extraordinary machine. It is like the printing press. We think of it as a mere human contrivance to make the telling of truth easier, simpler and cheaper. But it is not by nature a truth teller. It is a transformer, a self-generating art form on its own, often escaping from human control and pursuing its own aims; or taking possession of human beings and using them.”
And so it is with pornography.
The Beauty that Photoshop Leaves Out
It is not just pornography that distorts the face; technological advances in photography illustrate a much wider reluctance to see the true human face.
A few years ago, I tried a photo-enhancing program that took the lines and wrinkles out of facial photos, making the subjects appear ten years younger. The tool worked well, depending on your point of view. So my wife, Lisa, and I looked at a photoshopped picture of the two of us together—without wrinkles. Lisa asked me how I thought she looked.
I told her, “I can’t see the children.”
That might sound like an odd response, but the events of our lives—as well as our actions and the actions of those around us—become etched on our faces. The software had washed away her sorrows and joys, her tragedies and triumphs, her tears of both sadness and happiness. It in most meaningful and truthful sense, the software had washed away her face.
As the popularity of such software programs illustrates, we have grown accustomed to looking past the face. We see something, but it is not the true face.
This is a shame, because we used to see faces. We used to celebrate art for its portrayal of the face. Throughout time, great art not only recognized the link between face and soul but had something important to say about it.
As Roger Scruton observed in his book, Beauty, A Very Short Introduction,
"Human beings are alone among the animals in revealing their individuality in their faces. The mouth that speaks, the eyes that gaze, the skin that blushes, all are signs of freedom, character and judgement, and all give concrete expression to the uniqueness of the self within. The great portraitist will ensure that these high-points of bodily expression reveal not just the momentary thoughts but the long-term intentions, the moral stance and the self-conception of the individual who shines in them."
Great artists understand that it is the face that evidences the soul; but devoid of a face, we seem to be reduced to soulless creatures.
Rediscovering the Human Face
Many people seem untroubled by the great masking of the previous twelve months, which makes me wonder whether some of them were ever looking at the face in the first place. Perhaps in the years following, we will regain a healthy respect for the truth and beauty of the human face, and for the soul that animates the face.
Heaven help us if we don’t.
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