Facing Facts About Monumental Faces
The M&O Man is the official mascot of my
hometown, Livingston, Montana. Or, well, his image should be. Not far
from the modest business district, painted in green and yellow on the
brick side of what was once the main linen laundry of Yellowstone Park,
he's a huge, smiling 1920's guy with slicked-to-scalp hair, a big cigar
in his mouth and uplifted arms. His message is simple: M&O Cigars:
Every puff a pleasure.
In the middle '60s, when I first apprehended the M&O Man, he was the
ideal symbol of difference for Livingston. He wasn't the conformist culture
or the freak-out culture. He was our saucy cigar sign from another realm.
The realm of the stone faces.
We appreciated stone faces. The Sleeping Giant was a constant of the community.
Every child knew he loomed above the town, in the mountains bordering
Yellowstone. Strangely, he was hard to pick out of the crags and peaks,
even for locals. But he was there, dammit. Pictures in the local paper
would prove it. Folks would shuffle into the backyard with the photos
for reference and say, Aw, there he is.
It's a brow, poor eyes, strong nose, lips maybe and too-sharp chin. Four
peaks that seem, maybe, to form a face lying down. That's all. He's not
even unique. There's another Sleeping Giant in a range about 30 miles
east of town - though that one is sometimes called the Sleeping Giantess,
I suppose to promote inter-mountain harmony instead of rivalry.
Human beings take comfort in a world filled with faces we recognize -
your dead grandmother in a cloud, Jesus on a tortilla, even the Man in
the Moon (though some cultures see a rabbit or a horned toad hanging up
there). Neuroscientists have mapped out a small bit of the brain called
the "fusiform face area" that goes wild when eyes, nose, mouth
and the rest come into view. It doesn't seem likely that dog packs revere
a tree that retains the Prime Canine Stench, or a spot on a lawn where
they can check out the eternal Big Mutt Reek. And it isn't simply that
people treasure sights more than scents: they want faces that are superhuman
size, and permanent.
The Sleeping Giant holds that massive advantage over the M&O Man.
Although the Giant was as much created by humans as if he had been painted
like M&O, the hands of time don't have the same grip on him. The cigar-ad
figure gets paler each year, but the Sleeper will never awake.
he? Stone faces aren't quite the sure thing they seem. This past spring,
the Old Man of the Mountain in Franconia, New Hampshire, which had been
a landmark long before the coming of Europeans, underwent radical plastic
surgery in the form of a
landslide. This is not something a minor touch-up is going to
fix. And it's a cultural-identity shock to the state. The Old Man
was the most popular star on custom license plates. Now somebody could
put out custom plates with the Old Hole in the Mountain as a protest statement
about New Hampshire.
Stone faces are targets that can't run and you can't hide. Think of Shelly's
Ozymandias. Think of the Taliban blowing apart the two ancient,
titanic Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan. Mount Rushmore is a terrorist's
score worth many, many less-colossal countenances. What happens to stone
faces can be symbolically disturbing in many ways. The M&O Man's pigment
has washed out so much that the advertisement painted on the wall before
he was there now stands out boldly above his head. COAL, it
says. The M&O motto, Every puff a pleasure, has become
political in a way nobody imagined.
Maybe this habit of superimposing faces wherever and whenever we like,
is more trouble than comfort. We have to take more care when we see our
own faces in the troubled faces of others, in the shifty sands of other
places. You can cover Saddam Hussein's iron mug with the Stars and Stripes,
but the face that's there when you lift the flag will still not be America's.