Tuesday 17 November 2009

Isn't It Iconic?

'Iconic' is a notoriously abused and overused word, but it does have its uses, and a meaning.
Yesterday I caught Dennis Sewell on the radio talking about this book, which seems to lob a well-timed grenade into the overblown, quasi-religious celebrations attending this year's Darwin anniversaries, reminding his admirers of the poisonous political legacy of Darwinism. Sewell argued, on the radio, that Darwin has now become one of those towering figures who is wheeled in to explain anything and everything, just as Marx and Freud were before him (where are they now?). And I wondered how much of this might be down to the power of the icon - the strong unmistakable image of these men, all three bearded with impressive high foreheads and a look of immense and serious wisdom. Darwin's face (at least in his later years) is, I think, more than that, with its sad, slightly anxious, faraway look (and the simian beard that seems to point the truth of his theory). It is the most attractive of the three iconic faces, and I can't help but wonder how differently things might have gone if he'd looked like, say, Herbert Spencer or his kinsman Francis Galton. Do we need our great men to look the part, to have iconic features? Would Einstein have quite the place he does in our esteem and imagination if he'd looked like, say, Nils Bohr, rather than looking like a readymade icon of Genius, 20th-century style? I don't know - but I do know that there is only one great figure whose insights are indeed applicable to any and every situation of life - Shakespeare. Hang on - beard, domed forhead... Another icon.


  1. Oh God are you on Darwin as well today? I came here for some peace...

    It is an interesting point about the iconic facial hair though. In addition to the five you mention, Dickens had a memorable beard too. Less amiably, Hitler, Lenin and Stalin all had notable growths.

    We need a freakonomic theory.

  2. Just to introduce a bit of Jung, I blame it all on the beardy archetype: Moses. Or should we go back further and blame it all on the white bewhiskered God?

    If so it would mean we only believe in Darwin et al. because they actually looked like God. Mmm.

    (Oh dear, we know where this one goes...)

  3. Of course there's a simple evolutionary explanation for all this. Back on the African savannah (I remember it well) a domed forehead and a well-cut beard were sure signs of superior hunting ability, or breeding success, or something...

  4. Yes, I believe our ancestors found beards very useful as tea-strainers, Lapsang Souchong tending to have a few grains of sand in it back in 50,000 BC.

    I've read that Darwin was someone of unusual gentleness but that very few portraits of him bring this out. Perhaps there is something of that in his "faraway" look. It is so hard to see any historical figure except through the veils of all we know about him or her.

    Icons have been a mixed blessing, at a guess. The Byzantines had furious rows about them. Maybe the arrival of photography changed things a little, making it much harder for subsequent generations to change the way we "see" someone. We can change the way we see Alexander the Great or Shakespeare, perhaps, but we are stuck with the way we see Einstein. Hmmn, not necessarily an improvement.

  5. I like the way that in Victorian era books, people often describe men with 'so-and-so has a big, handsome/powerful head' ..in an admiring way

    People don't positively or negatively remark on the size of peoples heads much anymore, I suppose it was all a bit 'eugenics'

  6. Do you think you can tie all this in with a synthesis theory to the cost of Gillette Fusion razorblades, Nige?

  7. "we are stuck with the way we see Einstein": oh I don't know. Google 'Lieserl Einstein' and then ask yourself whether you still see him in the same way.

  8. A sad story Dearieme, but it doesn't get rid of that hair - and Brit, the Gilette Fusion problem began back on the African savannah when um... I think this might need a bit more work...
    Mark, Darwin's gentleness comes out in his letters sometimes, and stories about him - and it does look a gentle face, certainly compared to Marx and Freud, let alone Lenin. Oddly, I think we are a bit stuck with an image of Shakespeare - great domed forehead, neat beard - it's the fault of that bust, which is truly iconic, whereas the other probable portraits somehow aren't.