vi. the smile

walking down the dusty road from downtown to uptown pangnirtung, climbing the hill in the stark bright mid afternoon sun, hot and tired. an elderly woman walks in the other direction and our paths cross. our eyes meet and both our faces break into rich welcoming smiles. we have never met before, and may not again. we both keep walking. the also-stereotyped inuit smile, emblematic of ‘the smiling inuit’, is an extraordinary gesture.

the smile in pangnirtung does not mean that one is happy. it means that one can carry one’s burdens.

the smile of public life in dominant culture is a smile that lies. it says ‘have a nice day’ or ‘welcome to walmart’. since agamben turns our attention to the connection between film and gesture i will draw upon a filmic example: there is a scene in a buster keaton movie (go west?) where keaton, the man with sad eyes who never smiled, sets up a gag in which his character spots his opponent in a card game cheating. he abruptly and self-righteously announces that fact, which prompts the opponent to pull a gun and say ‘smile when you say that’. keaton’s attempt to draw a frightened smile out of his malleable face is more than a source of amusement: it is an allegory of modern life. we smile under the gun.

the smile one gets and gives on the road in pangnirtung, or wherever we encounter someone, has to be deeper, has to communicate more. a small, tightly drawn half smile, a ‘have a nice day’ smile, will not work. in my view there is a millennia of knowledge, the genius of a culture, embodied in this daily practice. it signals an initial happiness at seeing the other, an openness to the other: an initial willingness to appreciate the other. it places us within the generosity of the appreciative mode and pulls us out of the symptomatic suspicion of the (conventionally-) critical. it indicates that one has some residual energy left, whatever burdens one carries, to emotionally lift the other’s load and have her lift one’s own load. one can carry one’s burden, and still have an excess, a surplus, a residue that one can offer.

once we enter the space of these smiles we can begin to estrange ourselves from the world where no one smiles. the normality of the not smiling that goes on between strangers in contemporary cities is a symptom of the neurosis of dominant culture. but we must not smile in cities, lest we be taken for neurotics or psychotics ourselves. and of course, between women and men the smile can be taken for invitation. remember the faces of the people in the slow-motion, busy street at night sequence in koyanisqaatsi/life out of balance. think the danger then, of smiling in contemporary culture.

the smile in pangnirtung does not mean that one is happy. it means that one can carry one’s burdens. my friend kayrene nookiguak (now kilabuk) tells me, smiling, that a child has gone missing in nearby kikiktarjuak. it appears that the elderly grandparents were looking after the child. the grandmother had a heart attack and was medivaced out. the grandfather had not been able to give the eight year old much thought, and had not noticed for several days that the boy was missing. they search for the child for days. each day she reports, through a smile, their lack of progress. some time later kayrene tells me that the body has been found. ‘so’, she says to me, ‘you see what things are like in our communities’, through a smile. through a smile.

the smile.