Who Knows Whose Nose

Who Knows Whose Nose?

“I don’t know why we run laps around the bonfire, why we rush the field at Homecoming, or why we rub Warner Bentley’s nose on our way into the Hopkins Center. But those are things we do anyway because we know how many have done them before us and more will do them after we’re gone.”

Zeke Turner, Dartmouth College ‘09                                                                                                                                                                                                  


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It has a peeling kind of feeling, of a face somehow escaping it’s own skin, of moving so fast towards you it sheds. It’s the material: barky globs extend backwards past where a normal face would end. The HOOD museum registrar Kellen Haak ’79 calls it a, “dark chocolate patina. ”[1] I see husks, and I think of beetles. The nose shines: proof of hands having been a place many times. Who would want to touch it, I wonder.  Warner Bentley says the plaque.

Bentley spent 41 years at Dartmouth College, and in that time oversaw the creation of the Hopkins Center for the arts. The center was a kind of bait: in the late 1920s, then Dartmouth president Ernest Martin Hopkins promised Warner Bentley, a newly recruited English faculty member with responsibility for the non-department theatre program, Dartmouth would create a space on campus for his programs to run. Stay, it said. Don’t go to Broadway, where we know a job awaits. Stay here in the wilderness and give us culture.

Instead, delays: The Depression. World War II. Korea. Ernest’s own retirement.

Maybe they need not have promised Bentley anything. The world proved itself all calamity. Here is where a man could come hide from the world, and last. This is place that names itself after the retired. We love granite and tradition and the comfort in not changing.

The promise was paid in interest. When the building finally reached the construction stage, its concept had grown to include space for a new concert hall slash film theater, a “black box” theater, music and theatre rehearsal halls, a recital hall, gallery exhibition and art storage space, and arts studios. It opened in 1962.

This new design wasn’t just expansive, but clever, too. Fearing that non-art students wouldn't venture into the new center, and therefore miss the fliers advertising upcoming plays and concerts, college planners designed the Hinman Mail Center to create daily foot traffic in the building (before the Hopkins Center, mail was delivered to the College's residence halls).

Oh, fact! Oh, human cleverness! So small and bright are we, yes so bright. But there are things left undesigned for: the fliers are everywhere, they’ve multiplied, bred. Every year a year older, and one thousand more gone. Still: they sum to zero. Bodies amount to nothing, always one thousand new ones. The outside is leaving, and the inside confusing itself, displacing bodies as it does. The momentum builds ever greater, explaining the face peeling, and the so much white noise. Complicity is air and our lungs a limited cavity. We breathe.

And so this daily foot traffic got clever themselves. They repurposed their humdrum daily passing of Warner Bentley into a tradition for luck, into an attempt at the comfortable amidst the overwhelm. It started as a no-doubt leftwards motion, and only downwards if otherwise. Such is tradition: it is about touching the before, and the particular way your feet touch the ground.  

Says Hirsch: “Since then students have had the insight to realize that rubbing its nose as they pass on the way to exams brings good luck—and the high bronze shine above the smile and below the merry eyes testifies to the vigor of their faith.” This was in the February 20, 1970, edition of the Boston Herald Traveler, barely a year after Bentley’s retirement party in the spring of 1969, where he was presented with the statue.  Even then, just a year after its unveiling, his nose shone from the friction of strange hands.

There’s something comforting in all that wear, an admission of age and an evidence of other young people. There’s something salving about all that smoothness, a pretending to be youngness. Burnished, the nose has been rubbed smooth of its imperfections, so that only the shine remains, aglow. You can be made new, with a little luck, it says. He, though, he says nothing.

There’s something anxious about all that touching, too, a fear of something hollow. Repetition is meant for burying. Tradition deadens the critical, the comfort in habit is strong.

Or so I imagine. I have never seen anyone touch Warner’s nose, or any other part of him. Tradition is small, I’m reminded; it dies. There’s really nothing there at all—no Warner Bentley, survivor of history— except the maybe-already-forgotten impulse to touch those larval peels coming off his face, chitin-like. To touch: an impulse leading to darker stuff, to germs left by nose-pickers, and to a closing of the eyes.  Touch towards a picking away of sculpture, structure, only to find some nasal-like cavity, to see if any soft meat is left inside and poke, poke around. When coping collapses, morbid curiosity remains for the exhausted,  

In Season 2, Episode 21 “Supersition,” Meredith Grey monologues, “My college campus has a magic statue. It’s a long-standing tradition for students to rub its nose for good luck. My freshman roommate really believed in the statue’s power and insisted on visiting it before every exam.”  And so this tradition continues on in the manner of all traditions: through word-of-mouth and in unlikely transmissions concocted by storytellers, writers (in this case Dartmouth graduate Shonda Rhimes).

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II. But Shonda was wrong. Dartmouth has two lucky statues.

They called him “The Dean.” He was first a student of Dartmouth, then a professor of oratory before ascending to the deanship. In his own words, there was one essential to public speaking: to “know when and how to shut up.” But Craven is most famous for removing Theodor Geisel’s ability to edit the Dartmouth Jack-O-Lantern, after a dorm room gin party gone awry. This ban, of course, forced the resourceful young Geisel to publish under a pseudonym: Dr. Seuss.[2] Eventually, Laycock would mellow and become better known (in his own time, at least) for lending money to students in need then for busting parties.

The Dean never liked this nose-rubbing tradition. He fought it, asked students firmly, in his best orator’s voice to stop but, eventually, grew to accept it as an affectionate gesture. Worn-down again, like his disciplinarian edge before it and his bronze nose after, The Dean accepted what proved to be inevitable; tradition is bigger than the people it keeps alive.

He’d be relieved, then, that this Bentley usurped his tradition, and took over his place beneath grubby fingers desperate for their own luck— luck enough, maybe, to one day be statues themselves. The ceaseless wearing down of a man would’ve been undignified for a man like The Dean. Says his obituary in the Dartmouth Alumni magazine: “Dean Laycock’s was a life of success achieved the hard way.” Everyone agrees: he was all grit. The internal hemorrhage that killed him was more fitting an end than some gradual erasure of face—a fate Warner’s more conveniently located statue saved him. His nose rests alone now somewhere in Baker tower.

Soon, maybe in one more rub, maybe two, his nasal cavities will be revealed for the caves they are. And all this yelling about now, about what’s wrong, about who we are, will sound off like some failed echolocation; the rot cannot be found. So, you rub a stranger’s nose for luck, unapologetic for its ridiculousness because all ambition is ridiculous; this one just outwardly so.

I should add that it’s only a speculation that Craven Laycock’s nose rub gave way to Warner Bentley’s. It’s not a matter for certainty when one started, and the other ended, if either still continues at all.[3] This makes sense: beginnings are untraceable because to announce them makes a starting seem silly, sillier even then the blind continuing of a thing already begun.  Afterimages of once-were men grace graveled paths and lend some illusion of piety. But this is nostalgia without memory, careless blindness. There is no braille raised on any old man nose. Yes, there’s something hollow here.

This is the problem with wonder; what is wondered at and why? A nose shines above a statued smile, and students admire the blind burnishing of tradition, the hollow shine of meaning so worn down by years it is lost. The copper nose is too distracting an introduction to the man—whose nose, once knowing him, you may or may not want to touch, or who may not have ever wanted you touching his nose in the first place. What did they stand for alive, and what does he stand for in stone? Touch, touch again, or touch not at all. Neither answers questions.

Traditions are so small, and we are made small in turn— quartered into busts, covered in germy fingerprints grubbing for luck, forgotten in plain sight.

[1] Warner was temporarily removed from the HOP in 1996 when an April Fool's prank involving tarnish remover stripped off the dark chocolate patina that covered everything but the well-worn nose. While it was being repaired, the bust's void was filled by a Polaroid photo. Jake O'Shea '97 wrote in The Dartmouth, “I discovered that rubbing a Polaroid certainly doesn't have the same appeal as rubbing Bentley's nose.” He pleaded for the return of the statue, noting, “It was a little tradition that had become a small but significant part of my Dartmouth experience.” Kellen Haak '79, then the registrar at the Hood Museum of Art, volunteered for the restoration, which required painstakingly removing with a Q-tip the green gunk that filled the bust's crevices. Quoted in the May 2, 1996, issue of The Dartmouth, Haak termed the project a “labor of love, having rubbed Warner's nose on more than one occasion as an undergraduate.” Bentley's bust was finally returned to the Hop on May 2, just in time to pretend to bring students luck for midterms.

[2] Thus, the author of The Nose Book and creator of the zatz-it, whose nose is so high that nobody pats it (unless, of course, they have a Three-Seater Zatz-It Nose Patting Extension) was born. Excepting maybe Meredith Grey, he is Dartmouth’s most fictional and least medical doctor. The Theodor Geisel School of Medecine is his legacy, along with a coveted study room on the first floor of Baker library that promises, “a Fun and Imaginative Learning Space!”

[3] Craven Laycock is buried in the Dartmouth College Cemetery, in it’s northwest corner. Tuck drive runs along side it, and all students walk by him and his wife on their way to the Thayer school of Engineering. This is how I found it, just after writing this piece, on my way to class. Something lives there now. I think it is a gopher.