No 10 Downing Street is probably the most famous front door in the world. It is different from the other centres of power because it has the appearance of an unassuming, ordinary front door on an ordinary street. So, it’s not the White House, nor is it the Kremlin. The doorway could be the doorway into any house and there’s nothing about the door aside from Larry the cat, that gives it its distinction.
So, it is not like a face that we can read for the character of its façade or visage as the French would say. Take for example, Truman Capote’s description of Perry in In Cold Blood
It was as though his head had been halved like an apple, then put together a fraction off center. Something of the kind had happened; the imperfectly aligned features were the outcome of a car collision in 1950—an accident that left his long-jawed and narrow face tilted, the left side rather lower than the right, with the results that the lips were slightly aslant, the nose askew, and his eyes not only situated at uneven levels but of uneven size, the left eye being truly serpentine […]
The thrust of this description is in ‘being truly serpentine’, an aspersion that we have heard only in the past week, “a snake”, hence untrustworthy, unreliable, perhaps treacherous, and very definitely cunning.
This idea, of course, works on the assumption that something of inner life, a residue of the habits of living, is deposited on the face. Think of the sneer on some faces that leaves a groove around the mouth and nose, wrecking it, wrinkling a perfectly normal mouth into a pout that’s ugly and declarative of meanness. Or, of the eye that darts from corner to corner, hunches the back, presses the neck forward, and the rounded shoulder is poised on limbs on tiptoe, the shape of frantic suspicion and of perverse insincerity.
The door of No 10, in contrast, declares nothing. It is just a door after all. And that reminds me of Medea’s cri de coeur in Euripides’ Medea
O Zeus! Why have you given us clear signs to tell
True gold from counterfeit; but when we need to know
Bad men from good, the flesh bears no revealing mark
Yes, how so? The search for signification in the colour of a door, or of the symbolic meaning of the door knocker, of the deep connection with the numerology of the house number, or indeed of the value of determining what the peeling door paint stands for, are as useless as looking for signs of fidelity in the clarity of light in the eyes. But yet, we must try.
We inspect the body too. The stance and posture, the configuration of clothing and grooming, even the proportions of the limbs to torso, searching for the golden ratio. To return to Truman Capote, still speaking of Perry
Sitting, he had seemed a more than normal-sized man, a powerful man, with the shoulders, the arms, the thick, crouching torso of a weight lifter—weight lifting was, in fact, his hobby. But some sections of him were not in proportion to others. His tiny feet, encased in short black boots with steel buckles, would have neatly fitted into a delicate lady’s dancing slippers; when he stood up, he was no taller than a twelve-year-old child, and suddenly looked, strutting on stunted legs that seemed grotesquely inadequate to the grown-up bulk they supported, not like a well-built truck driver but like a retired jockey, overblown and muscle-bound.
Here we have the juxtaposition of a fit upper body and a disfigured lower body, an outward hint at the warped inner life. If only it was all so easy. If only deviousness was always revealed, for all to see, as stigmata. Look at that preposterous jaw, beware of an addiction to violence and depravity! Oh no, there’s something siren-like in the courtesies of that movement, all seduction, and promises. Alas, we must train ourselves to listen and to apply judgment, to accept that if it is too good to be true, it isn’t true.
As Medea well knew in connection with Jason, the flesh bears no revealing mark, even when it is bare.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
2 thoughts on “FRONT DOORS”
Hello Femi, thank you for this amusing and interesting post. Jan’s photos are always an excellent counterpoint to your writing (or vice versa!).
Best wishes, Huw
Thanks for your kind words.