The Guardian 23 February, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

The face on the bathroom floor

Have you ever looked at a wooden door on which the paint is badly chipped, or at the mottled pattern of some vinyl tiles, and seen recognisable shapes or even faces in them? Of course you have, we all have.

Our eyes perceive phenomena poorly and indistinctly. It is the role of the vision centre in the human brain to make sense of such dimly perceived data, to smooth out their edges, make them sharp and well defined, and with the help of memory and experience, to turn raw visual data into a brilliant, factual image.

It is this vision centre that turns three or four smudges on the floor, or some irregular splodges in a vinyl tile into a clearly defined face or a cartoon figure of a sergeant major shouting at his men.

Chips in the paintwork of a chest of drawers in my front room used to show a portly fellow kicking a soccer ball. Over time, more paint has chipped away and the portly man's girth has grown as his sporting activities became more indistinct.

A vinyl tile on the floor of my son's house has a splendid albeit small reproduction of an upright hippopotamus in a floral dress. You have to use your imagination sometimes, and a familiarity with cartoons helps!

Only recently, a large smudge on our bathroom floor, caused by one of our dogs, caught my attention on this score. It was a dark smudge with a clear, pale area in the centre of roughly oval shape.

Within the clear area were three or four other small smudges, fortuitously placed to perfectly suggest a black and white photo of the face of the author Thomas Mann. It's not that I am all that familiar with the face of Thomas Mann, mind you, but rather that the room also contained a magazine with his face on the cover.

Objectively, it was only few smudges suggestive of a face. If the magazine cover photo had not been so close to hand I would probably have identified the face as a movie star, a politician or no one at all, just a face.

If I was intensely religious I might have identified the face in the smudges as that of the Prophet Elijah after he had slain 400 of Baal's priests and defied King Ahab. But not being even faintly religious I wiped the floor clean.

And thereby might just have done myself out of a whack of money. Last year a Florida woman sold a grilled cheese sandwich with the suggestion of the face of a woman on it for over $35,000.

Diana Duyser made the sandwich ten years ago, presumably in a sandwich toaster, for it is scorched on one side. It is among this blackened area that another fortuitous set of smudges has produced a recognisable woman's face.

Ms Duyser has no doubt about whose face it is: "I would like all people to know that I do believe that this is the Virgin Mary, Mother of God."

Now how would she know? There were no portraits painted of Mary in her lifetime. The best known portraits were done many hundreds of years after her death and faithfully reproduce the likenesses of the artist's relatives and other Renaissance models.

The face in the toast surface is a typical, high cheek-boned Western European beauty more suggestive of English screen actress Madeleine Carroll (star of Hitchcock's thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps) than of any biblical figure.

After keeping the toasted cheese icon encased in clear plastic for a decade, Ms Duyser sold it through the Internet auction site eBay. It was bought by GoldenPalace.com, an online casino.

The boss of this gambling business told the media piously, one assumes that he would use the sandwich to raise money for charity. By charging admission to view it, I suppose.

However, GoldenPalace.com don't seem too impressed by the view that this is a religious artifact. "It's a part of pop culture that's immediately and widely recognisable", said their impious but frank spokesman.

I once saw someone described as having a face "like three mule kicks in a mud wall".

What degree of superstition do you have to have to want to turn those three mule kicks or smudges on the floor or marks on scorched toast into a religious experience, a magical vision of something supernatural?

WC Fields, that juggler and comedian of genius, once made a short film called The Face On The Barroom Floor. It was a comic dissertation on drunkenness and the face was formed from spilt beer.

By no stretch of the imagination could it have been turned into a religious manifestation. But that was in the hungry '30s, when people had reason to know what the score was in the world.

Today, capitalism seems intent on encouraging people's gullibility at every turn. Perhaps they are afraid of what might happen if people too think too clearly about the world and what goes on in it?

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