In the light of the coronavirus, there has been much talk of face-touching, which we have been repeatedly told is a way the virus can get into our system and thus is to be avoided. I went to a concert Sunday night by the great country singer and guitarist Robbie Fulks, where he talked about trying not to touch his face. Then he touched his face, repeatedly.
He’s not alone. The New York Times recently reported on a 2015 study which filmed a group of medical students and found they touched their faces an average of twenty-three times an hour. Nearly half of the touches were to the so-called T zone—the eyes, nose, and mouth—through which a virus can most easily enter the body.
The Times also offered some tips on how to avoid or reduce the damage from this reflexive habit, including draping your hand in a tissue when face-touching, keeping your hands busy with a stress ball or some other activity, and, more generally reducing stress and cultivating calm.
The last item reminded me of the only literary passage on this topic I am aware of. I encountered it when I read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night (1934) fifty years ago, as a summer reading assignment for high school. (It must have made a big impression on me, because it’s the only part of the book I remember.) The scene is a club in the south of France, and the character Dick Diver (based on Fitzgerald’s friend Gerald Murphy) thinks that such behavior reveals American men’s lack of “repose.” The relevant Oxford English Dictionary definition for that term is “The state of being quietly inactive or relaxed, or of being free from care, anxiety, or other disturbances; ease, serenity.” In other words, the very qualities recommended by the Times.
Dick is willing to put his money, if not his hand, where his mouth is.
They were at Voisins waiting for Nicole, six of them, Rosemary, the Norths, Dick Diver and two young French musicians. They were looking over the other patrons of the restaurant to see if they had repose — Dick said no American men had any repose, except himself, and they were seeking an example to confront him with.
Things looked black for them — not a man had come into the restaurant for ten minutes without raising his hand to his face.
“We ought never to have given up waxed mustaches,” said Abe.
“Nevertheless Dick isn’t the ONLY man with repose —”
“Oh, yes, I am.”
“— but he may be the only sober man with repose.”
A well-dressed American had come in with two women who swooped and fluttered unselfconsciously around a table. Suddenly, he perceived that he was being watched — whereupon his hand rose spasmodically and arranged a phantom bulge in his necktie. In another unseated party a man endlessly patted his shaven cheek with his palm, and his companion mechanically raised and lowered the stub of a cold cigar. The luckier ones fingered eyeglasses and facial hair, the unequipped stroked blank mouths, or even pulled desperately at the lobes of their ears.
A well-known general came in, and Abe, counting on the man’s first year at West Point — that year during which no cadet can resign and from which none ever recovers — made a bet with Dick of five dollars.
His hands hanging naturally at his sides, the general waited to be seated. Once his arms swung suddenly backward like a jumper’s and Dick said, “Ah!” supposing he had lost control, but the general recovered and they breathed again — the agony was nearly over, the garçon was pulling out his chair.
With a touch of fury the conqueror shot up his hand and scratched his gray immaculate head.
“You see,” said Dick smugly, “I’m the only one.”
Maybe we can all learn a lesson from Dick Diver, and cultivate our repose.