There is an Oxford story featuring Maurice Bowra, the outlandish bachelor who was Warden of Wadham College half a century ago. On a stretch of the River Cherwell, known as Parsons’ Pleasure, male dons used to skinny dip. One day a group of women punted off course into this area, prompting the men to place their hands over their privates. With one exception. Bowra put his hands over his face, explaining to a friend: ‘My dear, in Oxford I am usually known by my face.’ Raymond Tallis has written a book ostensibly about the physiology and anthropology of the head, but which masks an earnest social and philosophical treatise in which he resurrects a version of the Bowra anecdote to make a profound point about the human soul: ‘If, as Wittgenstein said, “the human body is the best portrait of the human soul”, then the face is the essence of that portrait’, writes Tallis. The soul, he says, resides not in the stuff of the brain, and still less within an indwelling spooky stuff, but on the surface: literally, on the face.
Tallis is a literary dandy of dazzling, almost narcissistic proportions, but he is also one of the most prolific and serious essayists of our time, with a messianic mission to understand human identity. It’s just two years since I reviewed, for the journal Brain, his magnificent trilogy on the relationship