As if to say (1)

One of the key aspects of our project is the study of the silent discourse of the face: the way literary texts characterise the face as communicating a message or a feeling to others. Our shorthand phrase for this is the “as if to say….” trope. Sometimes faces “speak” in complex sentences; at others their expressions are simpler. We will probably blog about this expression several times, so I have numbered this post as first in a series.

Our blog’s epigraph features the “glance of brightness” that Captain Wentworth gives to his old love Anne Elliot when he sees a stranger admiring her. This glance

seemed to say, “That man is struck with you, and even I, at this moment, see something like Anne Elliot again.”

Jane Austen, Persuasion, 1818.

In this highly emotional narrative context, this trope has a temporal immediacy. The glance is the work of a moment; it is a gift; and it recalls a older, but still strong connection between the characters.

The trope is very familiar from other forms of popular culture. Many readers will think of these lines from Toto’s song Africa, from 1982.

I stopped an old man along the way
Hoping to find some old forgotten words or ancient melodies
He turned to me as if to say, “Hurry boy, it’s waiting there for you”

Toto, Africa, 1982.

One of the reasons this trope fascinates our research team is its capacity to conjure the effect of a visual image, entirely through text.

At the same time, we are equally interested in the intersection of text and image.

This morning on Radio National’s “Art Show” I was listening to the Australian photojournalist Stephen Dupont, who has spent many years in Afghanistan as a war photographer. Dupont speaks about the personal ethics of taking photographs in time of crisis and moments of trauma, and the experience of an “underlying connection” with subjects who implicitly allow him to take their photograph in the split second when asking for formal permission is not possible.

He says you can feel if they give you a spiritual “yes” or the connection that says, “Take my photograph.”

A minute later he revisits the same trope, speaking of a “subtle spiritual” thing, as people give their blessing.

They kind of look at you in a way and it says, “Do it.” Or they’ll look at you in a way that says, “You take my picture I’ll kill you.”

The grammatical form of these examples of the speaking glance, or look, is the imperative, or the command. In effect, Dupont transfers the agency and decision-making to the potential photographic subject.

Dupont’s use of this trope captures the temporal urgency and immediacy of the “as if to say”, but in the context of this interview, it is fascinating for us as the verbal representation of a moment that either precedes the actual photograph, or indeed, that prohibits a photograph being taken.

Text and image wind around each other in these emotional moments.  A powerful image is produced, but the drama of that image is captured in the silent discourse of the face. 

Stephanie Trigg

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Guy Webster (July 14, 2021). As if to say (1). Literature the Face: A Critical History. Retrieved July 12, 2024 from

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