On October 31th 2013, the controversial Marine Le Pen (leader of the Front National, the main extreme right-wing party in France), sparked off a controversy on Europe 1 radio with her reflections on the newly liberated French hostages from Nigeria:
“I felt awkward when I watched these images (…). We had the impression of observing very reserved men; these two guys with such surprising beards (…)”.
Try to ignore the nudge-nudge wink-winks in her speech and focus on a much more interesting detail: the mention of the beard. Consider it as a potential of suspicion, and the bearded guy as a source of fear. Mythical figure above all, object of fascination as well as rejection, an essential topic for dinner party conversation (I’m sure you’ve discussed this yourself, over a drink or two). The bearded guy has been an object of controversy since the Ancient Greeks.
Yet let’s clear one thing up, we’re not talking about the guy with stubble from the day before, or even three-day stubble which, of course, has an undeniable sex-appeal.
I’m talking about the True Bearded Guy ! The Hairy Little Face ! The Forest Physiognomy !
The Beard, from the latin barba, ae, appeared from Ancient Egypt, especially with the khebesout, an ornamental, small goatee sported by Pharaohs; distinguishing feature of the Nile gods; symbol of power. Likewise, for the Hellenes, the wearing of a long and luxuriant beard expressed wisdom, knowledge, or the privileged social position of an individual. It was the prerogative of statesmen, sages and writers. Whatever it was, the representations of Socrates, Plato, Herodotus, Pericles proved it: in olden days, the smooth-faced man had no rightful place in society.
The same is true of the three main monotheist religions, the prophets are all bearded. Remember Moses, mastering the Red Sea, beard in the wind and stick in the air: Jesus’ hippy forerunner. Even more so, there was the equally muscular Muhammad. Throughout collective history, warriors are always bearded: Visigoths, Saxons, Franks, Vikings, Moors, and to a lesser extent because more moustache-positioned, Gauls and Huns. As for the first medieval occidental dynasties, Carolingians then Merovingians, they keep the heavy metal fan look going: long-hair-bigbeards. The loss of these attributes means social failure (think back to the tragic fate of Childeric III, ultimate Merovingian King).
To summarise, the beard is symbolic of strength, intelligence, manliness. Ahhh…the Bearded Guy, this higher being, called to rule the world … (I say this in jest of course: everyone knows that only woman is the future of humankind. So there! ).
That being said, I can see that, for you, the bearded man, the demon of pride takes possession of your soul, while you shaven or beardless brothers lament about the vacuity of your non-existent hairs. For the sake of objectivity, it’s my duty to refer back to the negative dimension of the bearded guy, which cannot be concealed, and which fluctuates according to every era. Romans abhorred facial hair (notice the neatly shaved contours of Caesar’s mouth, Cicero and other Latin VIP). The representation of the Barbarian quickly becomes inseparable from that of the masculine, hairy tuft, which no scissors of Vidal Sassoon can overcome. The ferocity, the cruelty and the primitivism of the individual goes hand in hand with a brute, rough beard, whose indomitable flood responses to a victorious expansionism, able to make the greatest civilizations fall (all the sacks of Rome between 390 B.C and 546 A.C were the work of bearded hordes).
On a social level, if the scholar or man of letters occupies a privileged status, don’t forget that he is above all else a minor element, dependent on the goodwill of the public, of patronage; his existence can change dramatically at any moment; Socrates could testify to this.
In this way the beard means isolation and instability: the bearded guy is the man you don’t know, because half of his face is hidden by a veil of hairs. On an aesthetic level, the beard is often associated with dirtiness. It is seen as a larder or as a refuge for a fabulous bacterial ecosystem, or simply considered absolutely awful (for example Roland Barthes in Mythologies wrote that Abbé Pierre was close to the “zero degree” of the cut), provoking outright disgust.
Don’t you think that in French language, the digestive metaphor of a beard which “devours the face” suggests a dehumanization of the individual, an identity upheaval, which gives way to the despised and disgraced figure of the monster? The legend of Bluebeard, the predatory and misogynous murderer who would push any woman to enrol in the Femen organization, is an eloquent example. The degraded man is thus the one who lets his beard grow. Similarly, Fagin in Oliver Twist (Dickens) is a social failure. His long filthy beard is the physical manifestation of his fatum. One may also notice that after his audacious jailbreak, one of the first things accomplished by Edmond Dantès (The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas) consists in shaving his beard. This striking gesture means his reintegration in society: by rediscovering his face, he re-appropriates it, and begins a quest to regain his lost honour.
This dichotomy of the Bearded Guy still persists nowadays; the bearded man is always this figure of the old wise man (Tolstoi, Soljenitsyne …), the Super-Male who can be glimpsed in advertisements for luxury fragrances, the bobo-trendy hipster who makes the female population faint in the Latin Quarter or in the East End. But he’s also your bumpkin neighbour with a baleful eye, the naughty Taliban crouched in his dusty mountain, the visionary New Age disciple who takes a stroll bare bottomed during the night (even though keeps his Velcro fastener sandals by propriety) in order to receive the chakras of the Moon Goddess.
There is thus a permanent trauma in play for the bearded guy, ceaselessly torn apart by social contradictions and his inner voice. A young man, J.V, relates:
“I suffered and I suffer a lot: between the grannies who call me bushwhacker and the wasted guys in pubs who insult me of leftist tosser … That’s hard.”
But this is precisely my point. Can’t we consider that the bearded man embodies one of the ultimate strongholds of the subversive? Indeed, in this world of appearances where everything has to be plain and civilized, the bearded man expresses in a physiological manner his opposition to normalization and brainwashing:
“we seem more free, a little independent, in a word more primitive, getting the prestige of the first (…) depositaries of the spirit against the letter” (Roland Barthes).
The beard emerges in the real and overturns the established order. Its intensity is opposed to the insipidness of a programmed existence: it is protestation. Polemical by essence, it can’t be satisfied with a simple neutrality and so arouses awkwardness in the Others’ mind. In the era of total communication, showcase and one-upmanship, the beard appears as a secret world, a shield against overexposure; the bearded man retains an aura of mystery, an integrity and a sincerity which are out of place.
Paradoxically, in a psychoanalytical dimension, the bearded man is also the figure of authority, of stability, that we are all unconsciously looking for. The beard is both the remnant of childhood nostalgia for maternal tenderness but also, the reassurance and the warmth of the paternal figure. In this sense it’s almost a higher entity; its wearer exceeds his condition of the human mortal (such mythical bearded men as Homer, Santa Claus, God).
Finally, the bearded guy is also a return to the truly trivial. Admittedly, these last years have seen an excessive exhibition of bodies and a fake liberation of sins. However, this outpouring is too often the fruit of a mercantile staging. Yet in front of this façade of triviality, the bristle of the beard appears nude, unvarnished, disinterested. Rough and obstinate, it has the merit of reminding us of our origins as homo sapiens, whose soul was pure of any artificiality.