As visual creatures we’re programmed to respond to faces. We project faces and human figures onto landscapes, the moon’s surface, cloud formations, etc. We make quick judgments about others on the basis of their faces and habitual facial expressions. And up to a point, we’re often justified in doing so. After all, we feel most comfortable around those who look like us. The “looking” part is key. Eyes tell us a great deal, and who hasn’t wanted at some point to remove the sunglasses from a stranger’s face so we can “read” the person’s eyes?
In particular, the properties of “cuteness” — large eyes relative to head size, rounded features, a set of proportions frequently common to young animals and humans — induce a “cuddle response” which the Austrian Konrad Lorenz asserted motivates adults to care for the young. Subsequent study has confirmed that the response is universal, crossing cultures — and incidentally allowing such things as Japanese cartoons like Hello Kitty to catch on in the West.
Of course there’s a large element of “warm and fuzzy” sentimentality in such images, and in how we react to them. Marketers know this and capitalize on it. And environmentalists, not surprisingly, find they can succeed more easily in garnering support to protect an endangered bird or animal that happens to have some features of cuteness over one that may be grotesque or otherwise off-putting. The Ugly Animal Preservation Society makes this point through its official mascot, the Blobfish. As the UAPS president notes, the group is “dedicated to raising the profile of some of Mother Nature’s more aesthetically challenged children. The panda gets too much attention.”
Perhaps this is why cultural images that actually possess real power can shock and startle us into waking up a little, because our increasingly sentimental cultures seem to have produced fewer of them in recent times. We may even fear the archetypal and subconscious energies that emerge in such images, because they can reveal the hollowness of much of our emotional and spiritual lives, as well as pointing out ways towards greater depth and integrity. We don’t know where we are with such images, and we may turn away in discomfort or disgust, or accuse the visionary or artist who helps manifest them, or misunderstand our own dreams where such archetypal images and figures may also appear, instead of understanding them as prompts to look inward.
The Wishram Indians of Oregon U.S. tell a story about Tsagaglalal (tsah-GAHG-lah-lahl) “she who watches,” whose image appears on a stone above the site of an ancient village. In part it’s also a story about Coyote, the archetypical Trickster figure of the Americas. Warning Tsagaglalal of a coming time when women will no longer be chiefs, Coyote tests Tsagaglalal’s resolve to protect her people. When he finds her worthy, he changes her to stone to guard the village she overlooks.
Visitors can see the combined petroglyph/pictograph of “She Who Watches” at Columbia Hills State Park near Dallesport, Washington. A guide now accompanies you — the image has been vandalized in the past.
[On a side note, when we lose our connection to the sacred, we may access a subsidiary glimmer of the original energy through the act of profaning it. Degradation and blasphemy do generate power of a sort. Human spiritual history testifies to this in figures and movements who have explored their possibilities. If they were too public in their explorations, they outraged the sensibilities of the wider culture. In the end, such practices seem consistently not to deliver what it is we seek anyway. Like the “withering away of the state” in Communism, human limitations sully the abstract ideal.]
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