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On Noses

Noelle Gallagher—

By the word Nose, throughout all this long chapter of noses, and in every other part of my work, where the word Nose occurs, I declare, by that word I mean a Nose, and nothing more, or less.

So claims the eccentric hero of Laurence Sterne’s wildly popular eighteenth-century novel Tristram Shandy.  Yet even without Tristram’s dogged insistence to the contrary, no reader of Sterne’s masterpiece could be in doubt that, to misquote Freud, sometimes a nose is not just a nose. Elsewhere in the account of his Life and Opinions, Tristram invokes the classical association between the length of a man’s nose and the size of his wit, but here, we get the impression that it is a much less dignified association—that between the size of a man’s nose and the size of his penis—that Sterne’s hero has in mind.  

In the end, it is Tristram himself who seems to have invested too much significance in noses, since he repeatedly claims that his flattened nose—crushed at birth by a tragic misapplication of the forceps—has had a determining effect on his existence, marking him out for failure and disappointment. If anything, Tristram’s story seems designed to convince its readers that the word “nose” always signifies more than its literal meaning.  With its flat-nosed hero, its crackpot theories about nose shape and size, and its strange tale about a long-nosed stranger (a tale ostensibly penned by an expert on noses), Tristram Shandy forms part of a long tradition of comic literature that relies on the nose-penis analogy for a punchline.  But the obsession with noses in Tristram Shandy also has a much darker meaning: it references a literary and visual culture that used the nose as a gauge of sexual health, and that equated the disfigured nose with the threat of venereal infection. 

While this assertion might seem fanciful today, the association between venereal disease and noses had its basis in material reality: of all the symptoms of “the pox”—a list that could include chancres on the genitals, swellings of the lymph glands, severe skin rashes, bone pain, spinal deformity, and dementia—none was more obvious, more undeniable, more exposed to public scrutiny and condemnation, than the collapse of the bridge of the nose.  Afflicted with this particular complication, the infected man found that his face increasingly resembled a skull, providing a graphic and obtrusive warning that “the wages of sin is death.” 

While the destruction of nasal cartilage was not necessarily an inevitability, it was—as William Hogarth’s many images of “noseless” eighteenth-century Londoners attest—a potential reality for some of those suffering from venereal infection.  And in part because of this connection, the deformed nose developed a unique and eccentric cultural life in eighteenth-century imaginative literature and art: it provided the punch line for dozens of novels, satires, and joke books; it served as the focal point for social and political cartoons; it even provided the inspiration for whimsical literary set-pieces with titles like Rinology (1736) and A Critical Dissertation on Noses (1767). By the 1750s, the cultural association between noses and venereal disease was so strong that the merest mention of the feature was enough to set readers giggling—as Tristram’s protests indicate.

One reason for the massive popularity of these “no-nose” jokes in eighteenth-century culture may have been the wealth of meaning that had already accrued around the nose as a distinguishing feature.  For centuries before the early modern venereal disease epidemic, the nose had been used as a signifier of class, religious, and racial difference. In figurative use, it was often referenced in catchphrases dealing with the formation of social groups or the policing of social boundaries. Consider, for example, phrases like “looking down one’s nose,” “holding one’s nose in the air,” and “turning one’s nose up”—all of which used the nose to indicate forms of class-based discrimination. Similarly, Christians had spent centuries distinguishing their “straight” noses from the allegedly “hooked” noses of Jews; and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Anglicans distanced themselves from Protestant dissenters in part by ridiculing the latter’s tendency to intone hymns and prayers “through the nose.”  Nose shape and size were also crucial to the eighteenth century’s developing theories about race, as naturalists like Oliver Goldsmith and Georges-Louis Leclerc began to theorize that the “flat” African nose was a marker of biological inferiority.  Last but not least, the nose was an important feature for early scientists attempting to distinguish between mankind and his nearest relative in the animal kingdom: in this context, the nasal destruction caused by venereal disease could, according to the eighteenth-century French physician Jean Astruc, render a man “flat-fac’d like an ape.”

Many imaginative representations of venereal disease, including Sterne’s in Tristram Shandy, built on these associations between nose shape and social identity, drawing together qualities—blackness, Jewishness, infection—that would later form the underpinnings of scientific racism and eugenics.  Within the eighteenth century, noses came to assume a powerful metonymic significance, standing in not just for venereal infection, but for the wider social dangers that venereal disease could represent. In novels, poems, plays, cartoons, and caricatures, the deformed nose was used to depict a boundary between the diseased and the healthy that could run parallel to the boundaries between classes, races, and species—boundaries that seemed to some, much like a syphilitic’s nose, in imminent danger of collapse….


Noelle Gallagher is Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture at the University of Manchester. She is the author of Historical Literatures: Writing About the Past in England, 1600-1740.


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