Does Anyone Own a Smile? The Origins of Gestures
October 27, 2011 9 Comments
I get a sense that as I move through life certain character traits adhere to me and accrue over time while others flake away and lie strewn about the path I’ve left behind. Where do new traits or pieces of identity come from and what happens to the old ones when they’ve fallen away? I ask because when I’m at my most self-aware, I feel like certain personality tics and affectations–the way I raise my eyebrows when I’m happy, roll my eyes when I’m annoyed, sigh when I lose patience–don’t belong to me, but to someone else; and that if I set myself to it, I could trace them back to someone I once knew. In whom do those raised eyebrows or that particular sigh originate? Does anyone own a gesture?
My grandfather used to raise his eyebrows in moments of delight. He would cock his head back so that he was looking at the ceiling, open his mouth wide, and explode with uproarious laughter. He would spread his hands wide and then clap them together in slow motion while the joke he had heard coursed through his body like sound through a tuning fork. Did these mannerisms belong to my grandfather? Did I acquire any of my own mannerisms from him or my mother, who laughs in much the same way? In a sense, do certain gestures exist apart from the people in whom they live, so that they’re like silent memes that spread through a civilization horizontally in the present and vertically from one generation to the next? And if they don’t belong to anyone, but in a sense have a life all their own, why do we use them as markers of individuality. Why do we say, “I love so-and-so’s laugh,” or, “she has the most beautiful smile,” when one person’s laugh and another person’s smile may have been repeated a thousand times throughout history?
Although none of these mannerisms may belong to any one person, maybe they are arranged differently in each of us. My grandfather combined a multitude of common gestures in a way that was his own and marked him as an individual. I can imagine a man living two thousand years ago in ancient Rome cocking his head back the way my grandfather used to do when he would laugh. I can picture some 19th century Russian peasant raising his eyebrows in delight just like my grandfather would do after hearing a good joke. I can imagine a hundred other people throughout history adopting my grandfather’s mannerisms, but I can’t imagine all of their gestures coming together except in my grandfather. It’s the symphony, not the instruments or individual notes, that gives rise to our individuality.