- About Face: German Physiognomic Thought from Lavaer to Auschwitz
About Face, subtitled German Physiognomic Thought from Lavater to Auschwitz, is a book published in 2004 by Wayne State University Press, in Detroit. The author, Richard T. Gray, is professor in the Department of Germanics at the University of Washington. Physiognomy is a pseudo-science that was pretending to determine the main and real character of a person by deducing it from the study of the shape of his or her head, the lines of the visage, the modes of expression, etc. In his book, Gray studies how, from the Swiss theologian Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801) to the twentieth century, this false knowledge inspirited the German scientists who elaborated their discriminatory theory about the differences between the so-called human races, as well as, before them, some famous figures of the German intellectual scene of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In doing so, however, Gray wants to ascertain that this story of physiognomy tends to prove that the interest about what is hidden inside the very heart and brain of human beings is probably a universal human compulsion and not only a tendency of the German modern culture. It still remains that, according to the author, Lavater’s works, especially the monumental Physiognomic Fragments for the Promotion of Human Understanding and Human Love, published from 1775 to 1778, represent a fundamental turnaround in the history of physiognomy, because of their methodological and, apparently, positivistic approach of the subject. The influence of Lavater will be decisive in German-speaking areas, and Gray tries to elucidate why the discipline renewed by the Swiss pastor was so cultivated by the German intellectual tradition.
In fact, as Gray shows, physiognomic thinking had become, from the end of the eighteenth through the first half of the twentieth century, a highly respected “super-discipline” that caught the interest of some of the most prominent figures in German philosophy, literature, and science, like Goethe, Herder, and Gall, of course, but also, Schopenhauer, among others. Gray, in the conclusion of his investigations, proposes the thesis that, actually, physiognomy was a system of thought perfectly adapted to other German conceptual systems, such as Naturphilosophie or the German philosopher Dilthey’s vitalism; further, Gray refers also to other intellectual currents of thought, including the ideas of the young Nietzsche, the phenomenological method of Husserl, and Freud’s psychoanalysis. Unfortunately, all these various conceptions will serve, regardless of their authors, as a basis for the German racial-genetic biology and anthropology appearing in the early decades of the twentieth century, leading up to the Nazi racial policy, which was prepared, from 1918 to 1935 and beyond, by an intense period of academic “researches” during the Weimar Republic. [End Page 561]
Of course, Gray reminds us of this irony of history, that born with the theories of the Protestant preacher Lavater as a way for promoting human love and mutual understanding, German physiognomic “science” evolved to become a weapon of mass destruction for a social and political discrimination and the elimination of all those people who “felt outside the circumscribed taxonomy of the acceptable,” to quote the author, whose work seems to demonstrate the possible affinity connecting the first Lavater’s physiognomic theory with, finally, the horror of Auschwitz. In his preface, in particular, Gray discerns in Lavater’s insistence on the inherently natural and biological basis of physiognomic significance, as opposed to accidental and historical– cultural one, a part of the explanation of the problem. According to the physiognomic point of view, each of us is biologically predetermined, and this predetermination can be read directly in the form and structure of our face and body. For that matter, Gray says, German racialist anthropologists and ideologues will look at Lavater as their significant precursor. So, from Lavater to German racial theories, we find a same line of thought, a kind of pseudoscientific method, constantly intertwining measurement and quantitative practice with a very few scientific intuitive technique of...