The Face of Immortality
Physiognomy and Criticism
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Argues for a new kind of criticism, one that mediates between literal and allegorical modes of interpretation.
The literature on physiognomy—the art of studying a person's outward appearance, especially the face, in order to determine character and intelligence—has flourished in recent years in the wake of renewed scholarly interest in the history and politics of the body. Virtually no attention, however, has been devoted to the vocabulary and rhetoric of physiognomy. The Face of Immortality addresses this gap, arguing that the trend in Western culture has been to obliterate the face, which is manifested in criticism as a disregard for the letter.
Denouncing this trend, Davide Stimilli draws on Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, English, and German sources in order to explore the terminology and historical development of physiognomy. Stimilli takes physiognomy to be the resistance to such an obliteration of the face, and argues that it offers a model for a theory of reading that does not discount the letter as inessential. Elaborating on the work of Walter Benjamin, he defines the task of physiognomical criticism as transliteration (which preserves the letter) rather than translation (which obliterates it). The Face of Immortality is meant to exemplify the method and test the reach of such a criticism, which aims at mediating between philology and philosophy, between literal and allegorical modes of interpretation.
Davide Stimilli is Associate Professor of German and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the author of Fisionomia di Kafka.