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The (Mis)Adventures of Some Nosey Fellas — by Mubashir Karim

Dec 7, 2020

Mubashir Karim presents a multidisciplinary commentary that reflects on the subtle and more prominent placement of noses in a wide variety of literary and cinematographic works, paying close attention to the function, (re)presentation and symbolic importance of this organ.

The last thing that the eyes of a broken flaring nose have seen is a tight fist. Now, take this fist, cutting through the air right at the nose, as the symbol of authority. Following that line of thought, it would make the poor nose a direct heir to vulnerability. ‘Roses are red, violets blue, I’m bored, so let’s hit you’ would then be the motto of authority against the puny nose.

In the earlier times, the nose as a symbol was associated with the strength of character. It is in this sense that Blaise Pascal commented on Cleopatra’s nose: “If the nose of Cleopatra had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed.”[1] This association of the nose with the character or beauty could also be found in various cultures, including ours as well. The nose, thereafter, it seems has been relegated from its pristine glory to the present times where it is used more often in association with shame, with obstruction. The nose is now more often seen in other people’s private affairs. The organ, however, has performed other functions, in literature as well as in films.

As a body part, the nose is usually thought to be this banal, ordinary, puny organ in comparison to the other parts of the body. The idea that the nose could be used or showcased as an organ of resistance is rarely put to practice. Writers, however, have used the said organ to satirize and criticize societal norms, values and materiality among other things.

If Pinocchio's nose grows in size in relation to his ability to lie[2]—showcasing the abstract moral attachment with the discernible bodily organ—then a nose capable of living on its own, like Nikolai Gogol's fictional nose, in contrast to his real one, quite humorously depicts the nose dressed “in a gold-embroidered uniform with a big standing collar” from which he concludes it belonging “to the rank of state councillor”.[3] Gogol, through the story, among other things, satirizes the social ranks in the then Russian society in particular. Or take Ryunosuke Akutagawa's Naigu, who is obsessed with his large nose. While “intoning scriptures or taking his meals, he would unobtrusively reach up at every opportunity and touch his Nose”[4] thereby showcasing the tussle between the sacred and the banal, between vanity and religious idiosyncrasy. Or take Rudyard Kipling's ‘The Elephant Child’ as an example wherein the unusually curious titular character, in order to know what the crocodile eats for dinner, learns a lesson from the animal itself  when his trunk, earlier small, gets stretched when the crocodile grabs it with its robust jaws.[5] Kipling makes a point here by displaying symbolically the curious animality of humans and the bodily disfigurement it could lead to.

An iconic scene from the 1990 French film adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau.

Or think of the multi-talented man like Cyrano de Bergerac, whose bulging nose, according to his friend, Ragueneau, is nothing but “too much!” for it “plays a joke on [all] us!'.[6] It was the nose, lest we forget, that helped the police arrest the criminal in O. Henry’s story ‘After Twenty Years’. Here again, in connection with time that’s “not long enough to change a man's nose from a Roman to a pug”, a lesser invoked body part helps to achieve a daunting task. In one of the stories from The Arabian Nights story entitled ‘The Three Wishes’,[7] this bodily organ is again made a point of argument wherein one pious man loses all his three precious wishes granted by Allah on his nose. In the story, the nose is attributed as the “perfection of man and the sign of his nobility”. The realization of this worldly, material possession, for this pious man, thereby becomes the reason for his losing all the sought-after boons.

The samurais, in stories at least, would usually cut the nose of the enemy and keep it with themselves as a precious gift to be kept as a proof and sign of their bravery.[8] Likewise, Evelyn Waugh’s story acknowledges and satirises the dilemma by portraying a character to whom everyone is attracted to because of her lovely nose only to find herself becoming a spinster, at the end.[9] In almost the same vein, but quite humorously, Voltaire’s character Dr. Pangloss also comments on the material existence of the nose, its shape and size, as nothing but a support for the spectacles to rest upon for a person to be able to read and see properly.[10] Likewise, Mario Bellatin’s Shiki Nagaoka[11] can only be a fictional character with a nose as extraordinary as the one that, at times, hinders him from eating. Through the invocation of weird details, like this kind of nose, Bellatin is alluding to all those writers who, because they are difficult to categorize within a genre, are seldom appreciated due to their idiosyncrasies.

In the popular imagination, we should also not forget the fact that Lord Voldermort has, as one of his horcruxes the snake, because of which, as one fan theory suggests,[12] he has an altered nose or nothing of that sort on his deformed face. Here, the presence/absence of the nose could suggest the in-between state of this creature.[13] In almost the same vein, the broken noses, in Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, seen in meetings and conferences of accountants, executives and attorneys with bandages, suggests that they are the ones who have finally decided to overcome their fears—characters who are no longer afraid to display their othered selves even in official ambiences.[14] In its cinematic representation, when his ‘boss’ decides to fire him, the first thing the unnamed narrator does is punch “himself in the nose”, thereby proclaiming his ‘working body’ as less his own and more a property of his boss’ dominion.[15] The character of Eleven, while using her powers, and her incessant nosebleeds in Stranger Things comes to mind as well. Although the close-up scenes showcase and capture the bleeding rather than the nose itself, it however becomes another example wherein the nasal area becomes the primal sight of visualization while resisting enemies.

However. as a visual medium, movies have made other parts of the body central to their movement. The eye of the camera has seen less of the nose in its technical life. Not to mention the policeman’s bum in the case of Charlie Chaplin, the head and the hat in relation to Buster Keaton or the eye-razor Luis Buñuel scene. In the earlier period or in the recent years, the nose as one single frame has rarely been shot unless for a particular reason. In contrast, eyes, lips, hands, face, hair, muscles appear regularly in the scenes. Even if the nose is treated as a loci of attention, it is usually invoked for the purpose of comedy (like Steve Martin’s nose in Roxanne, or Mr. Bean’s adventures with his nose in various episodes)—the nose as the clownish red ball of the body, or to showcase its ability to smell, or the act on the part of the character to partake drugs nasally—(countless references). Movies have majorly used the nose as an organ to invoke laughter and amusement in the audience. The reason for this can be attributed to the fact that in literature, unlike movies, a reader reads and imagines through words the scene supplied, which thereby leaves a certain room for them to imagine and think about the nose that lies somewhere between the exact representation and the imaginative ridiculous. It is imagined but nevertheless not imagined fully. Movies, cannot do anything about it but display as it exactly needs to be shown, thus invoking laughter as a primary reaction. In fact, in the movies, even if the nose is invoked it is in the sense of the meaninglessness. That is, the term that is often used around movie scripts is the term called on-the-nose-dialogues—something that the script writers are often told to abhor and whose lack or absence is encouraged. On-the-nose dialogues are those sentences and dialogues that state the obvious or partake no subtlety within the script.

In the movie, Blade Runner 2049,[16] the cut up bandaged nose of Ryan Gosling seems a distant nasal homage to Jack Nicholson's character in Chinatown.[17] Both the noses of these visual sleuths have a similar pattern of horizontal bandages over them with blood protruding from the sides.

Ryan Gosling as K in Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. ©Warner Bros. Pictures, 2017.

Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. ©Paramount Pictures, 1974.

While Gosling plays the role of a Nexus-9 replicant, who uncovers a secret that tends to threaten and disrupt societal peace and order, Nicholson plays the role of a private investigator who struggles to uncover the conspiracy behind the scandalous California water wars. “You are a very nosey fellow . . . you know what happens to nosey fellows?” utters the goon to Jake Gittes, “[They L]ose their noses.”[18] The character of K, in Blade Runner, likewise, discovers something that has been kept hidden from him—a piece of information that can change the course of human history. Both the characters suffer from the identical nasal wounds showcasing the plight of underdogs against big corporates and authorities. In other words, the inquisitive nature of their jobs makes them susceptible to violence. Violence that begins with the nose and subsequently spreads towards the whole body. In these two movies, the nose becomes a site, a focal point to attack someone at. It becomes, in other words, the point of primal attack that warns the person to stop their nasal injunctions in other people's mass crimes and conspiracies. Does a broken nose, then become, a handy tool to peck violently at the authorial hand? For me, it lies somewhere between the vulnerable and the resistant wherein a broken bleeding nose sounds the alarm that ‘Kansas is going bye-bye’.

In psychology as well, I am reminded of Wilhelm Fleiss’ theory of nasal reflex neurosis in which he formulated that all the problems related to health—chest tightness, back pain, insomnia, etc.—are somehow all related to the problems with the nasal cavity and can be cured surgically.[19] Taking this as a point then the nose, as is depicted in literature and movies, could be read as the problem-site, as it possesses the ability to smell the rotting state of affairs. Breaking their nose then, would inevitably become the primary point for their antagonist. This “sniffing” attitude on their part “to confront the dangers of all sorts of disgusting smells resulting from rot, decay, mold, dung-ditches, knacker’s yards, and the “sick city””[20] leads them to their noses being broken. As these characters smell something rotten in the state and hence get the beating within their colossally different time-zones, they therefore are made to confront their future choices. In this sense of the invocation of the disgusting and the rotten, one is also reminded of Immanuel Kant who, at one point, characterizes “disgust as the vital sensation connected particularly with the “lower” senses of smell and touch.[21] Jack Nicholson’s character in particular by being a nosey-fella discovers a brutal disgusting scam that involves the corporates hand in glove with the government involved in political and moral bankruptcy. The attack on the nose, therefore, becomes an early act to disfigure the working body of the protagonist. The act then further reiterates the nose as the primal organ that needs to be spoiled so that a proper message ‘to not mess around’ is delivered.

To conclude, once can’t help but refer to Saleem Sinai’s telepathic powers of his enormous nose in Midnight’s Children. It is through the reference to his Kashmiri grandfather’s nose as a specimen that this mighty organ is provided its due space. The Kashmiri phrase of possessing a ‘gazah teer hish nas’ or ‘qazaaq teer hish nas’, whether used in connotation to beauty[22] or as a weapon in a war[23], the nose as a point of resistance gets furthered. I want to end this piece as does the narrator of Rushdie’s novel: “I wish to place on record my gratitude to this mighty organ—If not for it, who would ever have believed me to be truly my mother's son, my grandfather's grandson?—this colossal apparatus which was to be my birthright, too.”[24]

Endnotes

[1] Blaise Pascal, The Thoughts, Letters and Opuscules of Blaise Pascal (New York: Derby and Jackson, 1859)

[2] Carlo Collodi, The Adventures of Pinocchio (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009) 

[3] Nikolai Gogol, “The Nose” in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1999)

[4] Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, “The Nose” in Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories, Trans. Jay Rubin (London: Penguin Classics, 2006)

[5] Rudyard Kipling, “The Elephant’s Child” in Just So Stories (London: Vintage Books, 2008)

[6] Edmond Rostand, Cyrano de Bergerac (United States of America: Icon Classics, 2005)

[7] Lady Burton’s Edition of her Husband’s Arabian Nights Vol IV (London: Waterlow and Sons Limited, 1887)

[8] Antony Cummins and Yoshie Minami, Samurai War Stories: Teachings and Tales of Samurai Warfare (United Kingdom: The History Press, 2013)

[9] Evelyn Waugh, “On Gaurd” in Work Suspended and Other Stories (United Kingdom: Penguin Books Limited, 2012)

[10] Voltaire, Candide (New York: Bantam Classics, 1918)

[11] Mario Bellatin, Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction, Trans. David Shook (United States of America: Phoneme Media, 2013)

[12] Betty Jackson, “What happened to Voldemort’s Nose?” Celeb Answers. June 2020

[13] J K Rowling, Harry Potter Book Series (London: Bloomsbury, 1997-2007)

[14] Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club (London: Vintage Books, 2005)

[15] Jim Uhls, Fight Club Screenplay (Fox 2000 Pictures, 1999),

[16] Blade Runner 2049. Directed by Denis Villeneuve, performances by Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2017.

[17] Chinatown. Directed by Roman Polanski, performances by Jack Nicholson, FayeDunaway, John Hillerman. Paramount Pictures, 1974.

[18] Robert Towne, Chinatown Screenplay, (Paramount Pictures, 1974)

[19] Peter Perkins, “Fleis, Freud and the Nose” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. September 2007.

[20] Winfried Menninghaus, Disgust: The Theory and History of a Strong Sensation, Trans. Howard Eiland and Joel Golb. (United States of America: State University of New Tork Press, 2003)

[21] Mojca Kuplen, “Disgust and Ugliness: a Kantian Perspective” (Contemporary Aesthetics, Vol. 9, 2011)

[22] Maybe that’s the reason so many female models, in this age as well, go for surgeries.

[23] Imagine a woman appearing in the public sphere with a broken nose - an indicator of fighting her domestic battle.

[24] Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children, (London: Vintage Books, 2006)

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About the Contributor

Mubashir Karim was born in Srinagar, Kashmir and completed his Masters in English from the University of Kashmir. He went on to pursue his M.Phil and PhD from Jamia University. Mubashir is currently working as an assistant professor in the Higher Education Department, Jammu & Kashmir. His work has been published in the Transnational Literature Journal, Café Dissensus and Muse India, among many others. He is a regular blogger at http://poiesismubashirkarim.blogspot.com/

“Remember, remember
13th of July,
Martyrs of Kashmir
and their sacrifice
who bore witness
with the crimson skies
Heroes of Kashmir
who paid the price.
Remember, remember
13th of July
Remember, remember
13th of July.”

—from: 13th of July, MC Kash

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