Nose Perception in Modernist Writing: What’s That Between Your Eyes?

Just at the centre of our vision, yet subconsciously ignored, the nose is one of the most prominent organs on the human face. The emotional resonance of the eye, and the romantic and vocal attractiveness of the mouth have often, however, left the nose running behind in its literary appearances. This essay will focus on specific scenes of nose consciousness in modernist writing. I define nose consciousness as any moment when a character’s attention is drawn to their own nose. Rather than addressing the sense of smell, this piece will narrow in on the fleshy organ itself. Due to its prominence on the face, its centrality, and its demand for maintenance, the nose becomes the locus for modernist questions of identity and emplacement in the world. It has a psychological importance to its owner. The nose, along with the whole human face, becomes a marker of self. Ultimately, moments of nose consciousness speak to larger contexts surrounding how modernists understood the interweaving of psychological and bodily experience at the beginning of the tumultuous twentieth century. 

Modernist confrontations with the protruding nose can be explicated with the help of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a French philosopher and leading voice in the field of Phenomenology. In his landmark work, The Phenomenology of Perception (1945), he distinguishes sensation (raw sensory data) from perception (the mixture of sensation and interpretation that guides and even constitutes our consciousness). Key to the mechanics of consciousness is the idea of “attention”, the way in which we focus our perception.[1] For Merleau-Ponty, attention “is the active constitution of a new object that develops and thematizes what was until then only offered as an indeterminate horizon.”[2] Paying attention creates “a change in the structure of consciousness” as our perceptions rearticulate the new object.[3] Perhaps this is why many infants are enthralled, or even terrified in some instances, by the popular game: “I’ve got your nose.” The new perception through attention of an object (the parent’s thumb as the false ‘“nose”) causes the deceived infant to reassess their nose as a now disembodied object, causing a temporary restructuring of consciousness to accommodate this new information. While this is perhaps a glib example, modernist confrontations with the nasal enact similar changes in consciousness through the blurring of fictions and realities. 

Bringing the phenomenological theories of Merleau-Ponty to modernist texts allows us to understand why the nose is of such importance. Indeed, the nose becomes a source for psychological anxiety in modernist texts. An anxiety which must be constantly powdered, blown, rubbed, and itched in a way that demands attention. Connecting the idea of nose perception specifically to Merleau-Ponty’s theories of attention brings to the surface the ways in which confrontations with noses can cause radical restructurings of consciousness in a variety of modernist texts.

This idea of attention is dramatized throughout Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (1961), his late modernist work featuring Winne, a woman who retains a surreal optimism in the face of deprivation. She chatters to her obscured husband even as she is gradually embedded into the ground. By Act Two, she is buried up to her neck, with no limbs free to peruse her possessions. In this harrowing situation, she still seeks to orientate her identity and world, remarking: “There always remains something.”[4] In the search for “something” she begins by vocalizing the act of attention:

And now? [Long pause.] The face. [Pause.] The nose. [She squints down.] I can see it . . . [squinting down] . . . the tip . . . the nostrils . . . breath of life . . . that curve you so admired.[5]

When buried up to her neck, “[t]he nose” is the first place where she reorientates herself after contemplating the remains of her existence, her so-called happy days. With no mirror, and a buried torso and limbs, she can only confirm her identity visually through the protruding parts of her face. This act of attention restructures her reality as it reminds her of her physical existence: the nose becomes both her “breath of life” and a focal point of selfhood. A biblical allusion, this “breath of life” is introduced at the creation of the first human: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2. 7). It is also paired with destruction, as during the Flood “[a]ll in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died” (Genesis 7. 22).[6] The “[e]xpanse of scorched grass of Happy Days is its own post-apocalyptic “dry land.[7] After this nasal reorientation, she then gains the momentum to remark on her lips, her brows, her bag, the earth, the sky, and eventually her own memories. She recreates her barren world through speech, through reference to the biblical energy of creation contained in the nostrils. The physical reality of the nose, protruding right at the centre of our vision, gives it a phenomenological importance – it helps centre Winnie and her world. 

Yet, as a prominent focal point for self-reflection, the nose can become a site of crisis and psychological collapse. In Luigi Pirandello’s One, No One, And One Hundred Thousand (1926), the narrator, Vitangelo, spirals into a psychological crisis after being told by his wife that his nose tilts to the right while they are both gazing into a mirror. Vitangelo quickly becomes obsessed with his bodily selfhood:

I plunged totally, immediately, into the reflection – was this possible? – that I didn’t know well even my own body, my most personal possessions: nose, ears, hands, legs. And I began looking at them again, to re-examine them.[8]

His process of re-examining only serves as a re-articulation of each body part, creating further schisms in his consciousness as he reframes his perceptions. Donovan Irven flags this scene in his article on modernism and mirrors, as he remarks: “Modernist mirror gazing communicates the onset of a dis-ease that spirals into neuroses of uncertainty and dissociation.”[9] Irven signals that the mirror not only gives us the image of our self, but also “my recognition of and by others with whom I am emplaced in the world.”[10] Vitangelo’s nasal encounter fragments his psychology as he contends with both his own re-structuring perceptions and others’ perceptions of his emplaced body.

The modernist mirror can be explored further with reference to Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts (1941), in which an English village pageant is thrown just before the outbreak of the Second World War. At the end of the pageant’s tour through history, suddenly the spectators are caught by surprise when child volunteers jump onto stage holding reflective objects:

Out they leapt, jerked, skipped. Flashing, dazzling, dancing, jumping. Now old Bart…he was caught. Now Manresa. Here a nose…There a skirt…Then trousers only…Now perhaps a face….Ourselves? But that’s cruel. To snap us as we are, before we’ve had time to assume…And only, too, in parts….That’s what’s so distorting and upsetting and utterly unfair.[11]

Here, as in Pirandello’s novel, the mirror provokes a visceral reaction. The audience are “caught” in an existential trap, faced with “[o]urselves” in fragmented parts. They are seen “before [they’ve] had time to assume”: one can be said to “assume” a position of power, an identity, or a supposed reality, but the audience are denied all three in the chaos of their own “parts.”  Each act of attention reconfigures how each viewer understands their features, not only as their own, but as the other spectators see them. The spectators become the spectated, and recoil at the re-cognition of their emplacement in the world. Again, the “nose” is the first feature captured here in the reflective attention of the viewers: it is literally central to the composition of the face. For one character, the nose instead anchors her to her reality and selfhood. Mrs. Manresa, an indecorous yet compelling flirt, remains unfazed by the mirror show:

All evaded or shaded themselves—save Mrs. Manresa who, facing herself in the glass, used it as a glass; had out her mirror; powdered her nose; and moved one curl, disturbed by the breeze, to its place. ‘Magnificent!’ cried old Bartholomew. Alone she preserved unashamed her identity, and faced without blinking herself.[12]

While this is, on the surface, an ironic comment on her vanity, there is something to her act of nose maintenance. The act of powdering serves as a physical reaction to the act of attention, allowing for Mrs. Manresa to focus in the face of modernist fragmentation, while also providing the ability for her to take an “unashamed” agency over her visual appearance and emplacement. It is more than just vanity: like Stephen Dedalus’s noserag at the beginning of Ulysses, Mrs. Manresa’s nose powder becomes an assertion of “herself” in the very act of maintenance – the foundation of her identity, if you will. Furthermore, the threat posed by the fragmenting mirrors in Between the Acts has been read by critics such as Maud Ellmann as representative of the blown and fragmented bodies of the incoming Second World War soldiers.[13] Mrs. Manresa’s stoicism is thus in the face of both a symbolic physical threat and a psychological fragmentation. As well as symbolic of wartime injury, Woolf’s fragmentary mirrors also have an analogue in the Cubism of the early twentieth century. Multiple facial perspectives and geometrical divisions characterise the works of artists such as Pablo Picasso and Jean Metzinger, as their portraits symbolise the multiple perceptions possible in paying attention to the human face. The face, split into parts, brings into question ideas of physical change and deformity, as well as psychological schisms. 

Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s “The Nose” (1920) is especially relevant in this regard: it is a tale of a Buddhist monk, Zenchi Naigu, who undergoes a surgical procedure to shorten his enormous nose. Before the procedure, we yet again see a mirror scene which illustrates psychological concerns through Naigu’s perception of his own nose:

When there was no one around he would hold up his mirror and, with feverish intensity, examine his reflection from every angle […] Never once, though, was he satisfied that his nose looked any shorter. In fact, he sometimes felt that the harder he tried the longer it looked.[14]

The act of direct attention, similar to Pirandello’s narrator, leads to an obsessive attempt to come to terms with the reconstituting acts of perception. While the physical nose is the same size, each act of attention enlarges the nose as Naigu’s self-consciousness also grows. Naigu’s disciple eventually learns of “a new method for shortening noses” from “a doctor friend.”[15] The absurd method involves boiling and stamping on the organ, until it reduces in size. New technologies and medical methodologies (Japan’s own surgical society formed at the turn of the century in 1899) allowed for the more drastic alteration of physical bodies, culminating in present day forms of body modification. This act of body modification in Akutagawa’s tale causes real change in Naigu’s psychology: “The face of Naigu inside the mirror looked at the face of Naigu outside the mirror, eyelids fluttering in satisfaction.”[16] While split into a mirror self and an emplaced self, Naigu’s act of attention perceives his reflected face as satisfactory but, crucially, as not his own – as a different self. Without his larger nose, he finds that he is laughed at more openly than before, as the local community judges him for his operation. As a Buddhist monk, he is expected to be above bodily vanity. After hitting a child out of anger, his nose becomes the root of his psychological angst, as “he hated what it was doing to him.”[17] When he wakes up to find his old, large nose magically returned, it is a moment of relief. Changes to the body, especially on a prominent organ such as the nose, have drastic psychological repercussions. With a shortened nose, the monk had to contend with a change in his self-perception and emplacement, a change which threatened the stability of his selfhood as a monk and spiritualist. Akutagawa’s tale argues for bodily self-acceptance, and the understanding that one’s body constitutes an essential marker of their identity and emplaced self.

But how does the modernist nose fit in with the face as a whole? Rainer Maria Rilke, the esteemed poet, addresses this idea in his description of Auguste Rodin’s sculpture, “The Man with the Broken Nose”:

We can feel what it was that led Rodin to form this head, the head of an aging and ugly man, whose broken nose only tends to accentuate the tormented expression of the face; it was the immense concentration of life in these features; the fact that there was no symmetry in the planes of this face, no repetition, no part empty, uncommunicative or neutral. Life had not simply touched this face, it had wrought it through and through, like some inexorable hand thrusting it into destiny and holding it there as in the rush of swirling, cleansing waters. Taking it in one’s hands, and causing it to revolve slowly, one is amazed by the ever-changing profiles, not one of which is accidental, uncertain or indefinite.[18]

Rilke finds a certain beauty in the “broken nose”, not in any question of symmetry, but in how it serves as a marker for an “immense concentration of life” – the broken nose signals a past lived event (the injury). The nose is one part of a liquid, “swirling” system which reveals our identities, our emotions, and our experiences. The “ever-changing profiles” are caused by different acts of attention, different ways of restructuring how we view the face. While a physical organ, the modernist nose is simultaneously a site for the liquid and changeable self-perceptions that characterise modernist texts. Yet, the nose does not exist as separate to the face. The nose is an essential part of the facial structure and works within the system to serve as a marker of our identity and selfhood. As Rilke intimates, the nose is not a “neutral” object, but rather a chaotic site for psychological reflection and interpretation. In modernist literatures, nose perceptions can lead to crises of self-definition and a sudden consciousness of one’s emplacement in the world, yet the nose can also, inversely, become a site for self-assertion and maintenance. The nose demands our attention. Slap bang in the middle of the face, it is hard to ignore. 

Ryan O’Shea (he/him) is a PhD researcher at Queen Mary University of London funded by The London Arts and Humanities Partnership. His research looks at the representation of spiritual mortification in modernist literature and has previously been published in the Postgraduate English Journal. His broader interests include modernism and religion, sensory studies, literatures of the body, and forms of experimental writing. He tweets on his research at @RyanOShea42.”


  1. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes. (London: Taylor and Francis, 2012), 33. 

  2. Ibid., 33.

  3. Ibid., 32.

  4. Samuel Beckett, The Complete Dramatic Works. (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), 161.
  5. Ibid.
  6. The Bible: Authorized King James Version (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 2, 8.

  7. The Complete Dramatic Works, 138.

  8. Luigi Pirandello, One, No One, And One Hundred Thousand, trans. William Weaver. (Sacramento, California: Spurl, 2018), 22.

  9. Donovan Irven, “Communicating that I am: mirrors, Modernism, and the ontology of place.” Review of Communication 19.3 (July 2017), 241.

  10. Ibid., 245.
  11. Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 2008), 165.

  12. Ibid., 167.
  13. Maud Ellmann, ‘More Pricks Than Kicks: Modernist Body Parts.’ Recorded February 2013 at Swansea University, accessed September 28, 2022, <>.

  14. Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories, trans. Jay Rubin (London: Penguin, 2006), 21.

  15. Ibid., 22.
  16. Ibid., 24.
  17. Ibid., 26.
  18. Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin, trans. Victoria Charles. (Parkstone International Press, 2011), 26.