XVII – Physiognomy and Love

Vidaud, Ernest - EditedThis is the face of Ernest Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait. If I were Balzac, I would deploy my craft to read the passions inscribed on that visage, but I am no physiognomist. Yet I see curiosity and concentration in those dark eyes — an attempt to capture the world beyond one’s own body. He was, after all, a physician, a scientist in the nineteenth century, a man in an age of progress, and his eyes must have been open to observe and record the ebbs and flows of natural phenomena. His eyebrows and nose invoke the rigors of geometry, a will to measure and encompass the shapes of the earth — the complex botany of the Sierra Maestra, the grass- or snow-covered Pyrenees, the endless surface of the Atlantic Ocean. His forehead denotes intelligence, but also impatience; this man is not a sweet enlightened spirit, but rather the possessor of a sharp rational mind. The ears are mostly invisible, but they perceive all sounds; the lips, not quite uncovered either, are nevertheless poised to speak, demand, protest. Below the eyes, on both sides of the nose, the skin is flat and pale, as if to showcase bones and veins. But look at the hair — the virile mustache, the wild beard, the firm lovely waves on top. All that hair tells its own story not of passions but of Passion. The body may be hidden by thick Victorian garb, but we have read the intimate journals of the men and woman of that era, and we know better. The hand itself is naked. Sometimes an index finger is just an index finger; but sometimes it points to that which dares not to be depicted, as its flash — its luminous revelation — would breech photographic decorum of a certain kind.

This is what remains of Ernest V. du D. de P., who was born in Santiago de Cuba circa 1833, the sixth son of Pierre Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait and Anne-Joséphine Tardy. (In this, M. Vallantin Dulac’s chronology seems to be off; that of M. Alain Garric strikes me as more credible.) Following his peripatetic father and mother, he must have spent his childhood between Cuba and France. As if to honor his life on two continents, he married twice: first, Emilia de Arce, in Santiago de Cuba; and then Marie Bernardac, in Pau. That he was a doctor all sources seem to agree on. His own son, Joseph-Ernest Vidaud du Dognon de Pomerait, also a doctor, was decorated with the Légion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre during World War I. Our Ernest appears to have had a long life; sources suggest he was in Paris as late as 1912. Those are the facts, such as they are. Another such fact is my love for Ernest, though I’m not sure exactly what that means. What kind of love can one feel for one’s first great-grandfather’s second cousin, who also happens to be one’s second great-grandfather’s half-nephew, and who has been dead for over a hundred years? It’s complicated, as Facebook would have it, but such are the complexities of loving a distant relative, someone you only know from afar. Maybe my love is banal, as in the English and French usage of the verbs “to love” and “aimer” — I love chocolate, j’aime Brahms… My love of Ernest is probably no stronger than that, but it’s certainly stranger. It’s the love one feels for a specter, mostly invisible but ever so real, who, by means of the digital apparition of its face, decides to haunt you.

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