Becoming who we are
friend is a beautiful woman. Simply sitting across the table from
her, male and female friends agree, adds pleasure to a meal. She
is also in her late 40s and confesses that recently, when stopped
at traffic lights, she finds herself taking a quick look in the
rear-view mirror, smoothing out her laugh lines with her index
finger, and wondering about getting a face-lift. Her friends understand
the cultural imperative that prompts her musings. Still, we're
glad that she's resisting the impulse: the lines are a part of
her, indistinguishable from her beauty.
of my friend when I read an article by Wendy Doniger, the Mircea
Eliade professor in the history of religions at the Divinity School.
"The Mythology of the Face-Lift" appeared in the Spring 2000 issue
of Social Research, and in it Doniger takes the long view
of what most of us regard as a contemporary phenomenon. According
to Doniger, both ancient and modern myths proclaim the folly of
wishing for a new face. In these myths, the owner of the new face
is quickly betrayed by the discrepancy between the magically acquired
visage and what lives below the surface. Once that discrepancy
is revealed, the lover who has been taken in by the new look flees
is the result even when, as is often the case, the face-lift myths
"express the desire to have not just any face but one's own face
as it once was in the past-to masquerade as one's younger self,
as it were," Doniger writes. Regaining the façade of one's younger
self, however, changes a person into someone else, "different
from who you really are now: a person with a soul and a face that
are formed and scarred by experience."
laugh lines or "scars" removed by a face-lift, writes Doniger,
"are the body's memory, in a form visible to others, of what the
mind may have forgotten. Our scars may be the strongest signs
of who we really are: perhaps, at the final reckoning, the whole
body will disappear, and only our scar tissue will be there to
testify for us."
this is bad news for people who wish to escape their past, it
is good news for people-and institutions-who worry that their
past will somehow escape them.
goes from gymnasium
to dining hall.
around the quads this summer and fall, it has been impossible
to avoid the sights and sounds-and the energy-of construction.
Some of the work will, as the architects like to say, leave new
footprints, permanently altering the campus landscape. Other projects
will return things to the way they used to be-the flagstone path
beneath Cobb Gate, for example, is no longer pockmarked by decades
of weather and traffic, and the arch's support stones are once
again on firm ground.
Doniger points out, however, you can't change your essence by
changing your façade. In the end, the University's new buildings
and fresh plans are manifestations of an enthusiasm that echoes,
and is informed by, the first, larger-than-life and construction-dusted
days of William Rainey Harper himself.
editor's note: Joining us on the masthead and on the staff this
issue is associate editor Christopher R. Smith. A May graduate
of Columbia University, where he majored in narrative anthropology
and minored in writing, Chris was editor-in-chief of Inside
New York, an annual guide to New York City produced by Columbia
students. Chris has written for numerous publications, including
Billboard, Rolling Stone, and Performing Songwriter. A
songwriter and performer in the Arlo Guthrie mode, he's also a
graduate student at the University, enrolled in the master of
arts in the social sciences program.--M.R.Y.