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Responses and Reactions IV

- Abstract

This is the fourth in a series of commentaries by the distinguished novelist NORMAN MAILER on selections from Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim.*

Through the Hat t

Once Rabbi Mikhal visited a city where he had never been before. Soon some of the prominent members of the congregation came to call on him. He fixed a long gaze on the forehead of everyone who came, and then told him the flaws in his soul and what he could do to heal them. It got around that there was a zaddik in the city who was versed in reading faces, and could tell the quality of the soul by looking at the forehead. The next visitors pulled their hats down to their noses. “You are mistaken,” Rabbi Mikhal said to them. “An eye which can see through the flesh, can certainly see through the hat.”

Reading faces is a frontier art. An honest face may be either honest or a masterpiece of treachery. Consider this: every inanimate form in nature is the record of a war-the shape of a stone reflects the obduracy of the material versus the attrition of the elements. Whereas the meaning of the forms in a man’s face or body is more complex. An honest mouth hints of battles taken against everything dishonest in the world and in oneself, but an honest mouth cannot necessarily be trusted, for humans have the ability to displace the psychic war within themselves. A man can influence the growth of his features, the shape of his body, he may be able to transpose the revelation of his personal forms from the surface of his skin to the function of his organs. An actor can cultivate an honest mouth and suffer in exchange a bad digestive system. An honest man can let his mouth go slack in order to protect the well-being of his stomach. The art of reading faces depends on more than an instinct for the language of forms; one must also be able to sense the dialectic between a face, a temporary mood, and the formal character of the man before one. It is this instinct upon which Mikhal was obviously depending. So a hat could bother him little. Obviously, he would “see through the flesh.”

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