e s s a y g. l. m i n d
“. . . whatever it is eyeballs do.”
Pat Barker, The Eye in The Door
n a tavern only a short walk away from the University of Chicago, I caught a man gazing upon me. My husband had asked me to wait there for him while he visited an old colleague at the Divinity School. I sat at a small table by the window reading Pat Barker’s Resurrection Trilogy, happy to be reading, even happy to be waiting. Then, when I glanced up for a moment, I noticed a man looking at me, steadily and contemplative. An unpleasant feeling, like dirty water seeping up a wick, rose through my body. Would he speak to me? Was he going to say something provocative? Something insulting? From a small table, eight or ten feet away, his shallow eyes lingered upon me, wide and apparently unblinking. I glanced back at him, looked away, and then, feeling a small twinge of shame, I let my eyes return to his. I knew that returning his gaze, even for the briefest instant, was a mistake. Yet the urge to look back was irresistible. In the corner of his right eye, nestled between the bridge of his nose and the eye itself, he had a tattoo of a spider. Spreading in its descent, the web fell down his acned cheek. His thick shock of urinous blond hair straggled down his temples, lank and unkempt. His nose seemed slightly twisted, perhaps misshapen from a blow. He wore a stained tee shirt. His upper arms bulged as he supported his head in his hands. On his tuberose forearms, tattooed bats hung, fur-brown and dangerous, from the crook of each elbow. (Though now, his arms held erect in a chin-bearing position, they appeared to be standing upright, their tiny rodent heads hooded within the cusps of their folded wings.) His arms were skewed outwards so that I would not miss the bats. In unbroken silence, he preened, he strutted: gaze on my works.
What did his gaze mean? I looked away once more, and then, again, hesitantly, I met his eyes. I was drawn to them, compelled, though I found them disturbing, even menacing. The second time I glanced at him, I could see that his irises were inky blue, like the scales of a cold-water fish. In one eye, red threads criss-crossed the white ball. Someone, I guessed, had struck him solidly and hard. No doubt, he would have deserved that blow. Sitting uneasily at my table, Pat Barker now resting spine up on the tabletop, I knew instinctively that this large man could easily overpower me or, if we met on a street, drag me into a waiting car. Watching him gaze at me, I tried to figure out what I should do next. I could get up quickly and flee. I could return his challenge and wait to see what happened. I could verbally admonish him and, most likely, precipitate a violent outburst, a string of filthy words. If I challenged him, I might inspire him with the idea of waiting for me outside the tavern. In the way of violent men, he might even wait for Nick to come back and attack him in my place. I could also try to ignore him. Unless he actually spoke, I would not have to acknowledge him. Mentally huddled, I sat across from him, silent, doing my best not to return his gaze, hoping that someone else would distract his attention. Eyes down, pretending to concentrate on my glass of merlot, I tried to work out his intention. It was a combative gaze, though obviously not an invitation to personal conflict. It was not evident that it was an invitation to have sex with him, either. He wanted to intimidate me, but probably not to seduce me. He may have seen me as a contemptible bookish woman. Perhaps I struck him as a woman lacking a genuine sexual drive or as one, too accustomed to academic neighborhoods such as this, who had forgotten, or had never known, how a “real” man could perform.
There was something about me, no mistaking that, which provoked him, urging his challenge. His frank gaze invited me to become intimidated. He seemed to be inviting me to create a fictional world in which his part would be to stand out as dangerous, singularly volatile. His imagined voice, hushed and minatory, thrust itself through my mind. “Now I have become” (I felt sure he would gleefully say) “your worst nightmare.” Within my own fictional world, that which I had just been invited to create, I would feel uncertainty, fear and anxiety. I might, or might not, feel sexual desire. For him, that might not have mattered.
There are many kinds of looks, but a gaze is peculiar. It is a steady look. It is not a dirty look, though it may be “dirty” in some sense. (The man’s gaze made me feel dirty, among other complex sensations, but it was hardly a dirty look.) A gaze is never wild, though it may be mad. A gaze may not actually last long, but it is never a blink, neither hasty nor abrupt. It cannot be confused with a glance or a glimpse. There may be a battle of gazes. The gazer may “avert his gaze” under pressure or threat. I was afraid, and had no way to explore this option in Chicago. A gaze’s steadiness reflects thoughtfulness. It indicates a mind at work (somewhere, unknown and remote) thinking, drawing inferences, contemplating. It is the opposite of a stare. A stare shows dispassion, even an implacable lack of emotional connection. It is the look of an animal contemplating prey, or that of an android. (Tracking and identification data scroll down a head’s-up screen covering its field of vision.) A stare, heartless, without empathy, is the way you might expect a psychopath to consider you before making his kill. Men seem to understand the weight of intimidation that a stare can convey: in many sports, such as boxing, the initial stare-down is a ritual of domination. Even in make-believe, a stare displays an aggressive contempt and indifference: pitiful bug, I am going to destroy you. However brief, a gaze indicates thoughtfulness. The gazer seems to contemplate the person he gazes upon and even to invite connection.
Many gazes, perhaps most, are sexual. You will be kidnapped into an alien world where you, or a mental image of yourself, will be stripped, tortured and raped. This is the gaze that feminist thinkers, since Laura Mulvey’s 1991 essay in the New Left Review, have insisted upon: transgressing, violating, male kidnapping. Such gazes are aggressive, predatory and proprietary. They project the gazer’s physical strength, his potential power (over you). His unwanted interest, precisely because unwanted, may be intensely disturbing. You may begin to tremble, free-floating anxiety flooding through your body, and to wilt, sweat trickling, like drops of ice-water, down your ribs. You may experience yourself as vulnerable, captured, already trussed up. In this way the gaze exerts power, as feminist theorists argue that the patriarchal gaze invariably does. The male gaze implies the gazer’s superiority. (He can look at you in this way; you can only grow angry, turn away, hide, seek to flee. He can possess you.) Even if the gazer is small, a lecherous runt, the mere fact of gazing makes him tower over you. You will know, even without being told, that, in his mind’s-eye, he is looking at your unclothed body. Being on the receiving end of such gazes is always a terrible moment.
Still, you may be drawn towards the gaze, succumbing to the gazer’s proclamation of mastery. This may happen when a gaze also suggests a compliment. Then (no matter how you respond) the gaze proclaims the gazer’s amazement, his wonder at your presence, his understanding that you are spectacular. This distinction may seem a trifle, a difference without import. Yet it does illustrate that the act of gazing may proceed from very different motivations and, like other similar insults (such as stalking), may engage you on a high as well as on a low level.
What does it mean to be “gazed upon”? It may be either a threat or a compliment and even both at once. You may feel exposed, even undressed (if the gaze is of a certain kind, if it seems to exert a certain kind of power), reduced, rendered contemptible, raped. Another’s gaze may seem ominous, threatening, abrasive. You may sense yourself on the edge of violence, watching death eyeball you. As well, there are gazes that seem only to worship, or to gaze in wonder or awe in honor of your beauty or style. That kind of gaze will not be hostile, though it may be disturbing and unwanted. If you try to imagine how the gaze works for the gazer, to grasp its interior structure, it may turn out to be vastly more complex than a simple threat, or even a determined exercise in domination. After all, you have been invited into a kind of play. You have been asked to join a game of make-believe, even if you would have preferred to refuse the invitation. You have been invited to play the role of a character in someone else’s fictional world. In a sense you have been kidnapped. You have been snatched out of your own world to play a part in another’s imaginative world.
What has happened is analogous to having a writer, perhaps even a good friend, transform you into a character. Looked at in this way, being made the subject of someone’s gaze, even if it seems hostile, might act like a tribute. It will be a reward that has been graciously extended towards you because your beauty, your physique, your personal demeanor has drawn someone’s eyes. The man with the spider and bat tattoos who gazed upon me was intimidating, though I did not much fear actual in-the-world violence. His physical bearing made a powerful impact, constructing an interpretive frame around his act of gazing. The world into which he appeared to invite me was not one I wanted to visit. Considering the implications of the threat that had been made, and the interpretive frame that I had been offered (the spider, the bats), I felt that I had been terrorized, carried off, transformed into the unwilling participant in a scenario that I did not understand, nor even have a means to grasp. When the terrorist kills or maims you, it is quite impersonal. You have simply been invited to play a role in his terror-scenario. The script requires an unsuspecting victim. Knowing that the man in the Chicago bar had fixed his gaze upon me, I could only guess at his script, but my guess terrified me. When I glanced up to return his gaze, I saw myself reflected in his imagination, splayed-out and helpless beneath him.
The man in the tavern was doing something else as well. He was inviting me to imagine him. This act turns Mulvey’s hypothesis upside down. What happens when someone solicits another’s gaze? He calls out to you to look, to fix your gaze upon him (or her). Look at me! Gaze upon me! Gaze on my works. Now the polarities of the gaze are reversed. Now you are being invited to create your own fictional world in which the other person can play a distinctive role. You are not being asked to become a terrorist since the gazed-upon person has volunteered. He wants to be kidnapped, carried off into some brilliant scenario within your imagination. But what would the point be? Suppose that you have been invited to gaze upon someone whom you have never met, never before seen. This person will have sent out signals, or perhaps laid a snare—a hairstyle, a body part, an ornament (tattoo, ring or stud, even a brand or scar), a corporeal style, accomplishments, works. Your gaze will fix upon some aspect of this person: size, good looks, style, talent. At this moment, you will have been invited to create a world in which the other person proves to be a magnificent lover, an overwhelmingly desirable person, someone quite unlike your previous experience. Human beings often wish to be imagined. (There can be pleasure, if equivocal, in finding yourself re-imagined as a character in someone else’s tale.) They may receive a nip of pleasure from seeing their names in print or from figuring in someone else’s narrative. To-be-looked-at-ness, never a simple motivation, runs through many human activities shaped as a desire for celebrity in fashion, sports and entertainment or politics and war.
A soliciting gaze invites you actively to play another person’s game. Take me to live with you and be your love. Imagine my always-ready, my never-failing Jovian tumescence. Imagine my lush openness, my Venusian warmth. Expressed in its simplest terms, the game is to invite you, a stranger, to kidnap the gazer. In the world that you will imagine, the gazer’s proffered set of features, the symbols of her or his desirability, will contrast to your memories of other people, to your daily experience. You will have been nudged into making a comparative judgment upon other people whom you know and may hold dear. (Who knows? You may be motivated to step out of your new imaginative world to introduce yourself within the actual one. In that event, the gazed-upon person will have snared you, led you, perhaps against your better judgment and even all your disciplined habits, into an in-the-world situation in which he may become your actual lover, or murderer. By analogy, a chat-room seduction is a stylized context for soliciting a virtual gaze.) Soliciting another’s gaze, through visible plumage or cyber-avatars, involves a complex courtship, like a peacock strutting or a bower bird building fancy dream-nests. The works become evident, having been thrust out into full view, but the intention only slowly manifests its shape.
I do not know whether the tattooed man in Chicago wanted me to imagine him or was fulfilled by imagining me. At the time, I felt a woman’s normal sense of violation, of sensing that I was being undressed, fondled and raped in an unknown man’s imagination. Now I am less certain. The tattoos were intended to attract attention. The way he turned his arms outwards to expose the hanging bats indicated that he wanted me to imagine him, regardless of whatever he was doing with my image in the same moment. Looking back, the best reading I can give for his gaze is that, primarily, he wanted me to imagine him, even though, secondarily, he may also have been imagining me. It was an equivocal situation, impossible to categorize precisely, but it did illustrate the double-sidedness of the gaze.
I can make the concept of the soliciting gaze clearer by reference to an explicit instant. The most theatrical solicitation of another’s gaze that I have ever observed happened in Broome, an old pearl-diving port and now a tourist “destination” on Australia’s northwest Indian Ocean coast. Here is how it took place.
A young man working behind the boutique bar at the Cable Beach International Hotel told us that once everyone swam in the nude, but now people conscientiously wear bathers on Cable Beach. Nick believed him. I had doubts. Surely, not everyone, even in Australia, likes to swim in the nude. Not everyone, surely. If he was telling the truth, then the triumph of swimming suits might show the impact of Civilization. More likely, the new Cable Beach International Hotel cast an invisible force field. Tourists, American and Japanese, mostly, stay in the hotel and swim on the beach. The thinking in Broome must be that the sight of naked locals would be disturbing to the foreigners and, indirectly, hurt commerce. Sometime in the past ten years, nude swimming on Cable Beach mostly ceased (though who knows what happens after dark when the lifeguards have gone home?). Nick and I had come to the wild Northwest only to encounter international modesty.
Quite a way north of the wide, white sand beach where most of the tourists swim, the local people do, I learned, occasionally disrobe and swim happily naked in the surf. Walking north, past a collection of scattered black rocks exposed at low tide like the indeterminate bones of an extinct species, I found them. They were bare and bronzed, indifferent to ultra-violet rays, in the late afternoon and early evening. Their vehicles were parked on the sand. There, out of sight or nearly so, Broome’s traditional beach-ways survived in fragments.
Walking along that part of the beach, I noticed a young man, in the nude, wading parallel to the beach. When I came back a hour later, heading for the bar at the Cable Beach International Hotel, where I had agreed to meet Nick, the man was walking naked on the beach. It took me several minutes to catch up to him while he stepped back into the water, where he stood ankle deep in the swishing surf, occasionally walking a few steps one way or the other. Over to the east, under the sand hummocks, the evening camel train of tourists was forming. A dozen or more, mostly young men and women, guests at the hotel were taking the chance to ride camels a mile or two northwards along the beach. Each one of them would have been told, as we had been told two evenings earlier, that feral camels were common in the Australian outback, especially in the Kimberley. Harnessed and kneeling, the camels they were preparing to ride were anything but feral, but why worry about reality when you have been given a legend? Broome nearly chokes on its own legend-making. The local tradition of bronze-skinned, healthy nude surfers is a central legend.
As I watched the tourists scramble up on the kneeling camels, gaudy in their red harness and trappings, I suddenly understood why the man was walking, so prominently exposed, through the ankle-deep surf. He was there to reveal himself, to be a sexual epiphany for the tourists. He had a muscular upper body with thick, Captain Aussie biceps and lush, razor-cut black hair. He had, I saw immediately, a working-man’s body. Only his forearms and a v-shaped wedge of skin below his neck were tanned. His legs were a dead give-away. They were maggot-pale, thin and spindly as mulga, strikingly in contrast to his sun-darkened arms. The toothpick ordinariness of his legs showed that he did not work out in gyms. His heavy, upper-body musculature could only have come from hard, physical work. His flaccid penis hung impressively thick. I couldn’t remember ever having seen one quite like it.
I walked by him looking away towards the camel-train that was forming. Actually, I felt a strong urge to gaze, to weigh and measure him in my imagination, but I had determined not to give him satisfaction. I cloaked my imagination in rational analysis. After I had passed him, I met another woman in a red Speedo one-piece suit, cut high on her hips. She was walking along the sand from the direction of the Cable Beach International Hotel towards the exhibitionist. She possessed an athlete’s body—a woman in her late thirties, trim, muscular, tanned all over, unmistakably healthy and close to the local mythology. Unlike the naked man, she evidently worked out in gyms. I sat down on a flat, exposed shelf of rock so that I could observe how she would confront the man with the hero-sized member. She handled the situation well. As soon as she saw him and guessed his intentions (to call her attention to his endowment one way or another), she turned into the water, making a distinct disgust face, her nose crinkling and her mouth pursed. She swam out for about twenty meters and then swam back in beyond the stretch of beach where the man was pretending to walk. He would get no pleasure from shocking her. Nothing about him would excite her.
What kind of reaction would he have been expecting? If the athletic woman in the red one-piece had looked at him, perhaps stared for a moment, or, better yet, gasped and jerked away, it would have been a bonus. What he clearly hoped for was to be noticed by one of the young women climbing onto the camels. Perhaps when she saw him she would be so dazzled, so consumed by desire, that she would send her card over. Her hotel room number would be written on the back. Perhaps he kept his hopes modest and only waited for a young Japanese woman, equipped with the inevitable camera, to take a photo or two. (I observed two of the young women take out binoculars and train them upon the exhibitionist.) He may only have wanted a foreign woman to compare him favorably to her under-equipped lover. Watching him preen himself, I suspected that he must feel that, given his natural gift, he should have had better luck in life than he had yet scored. He had come to the beach, not in the usual truck, UTE or SUV, but on a little red Yamaha 250cc motorbike. The affable young man at the bar would have said, I guessed, that he was a no-hoper attempting to compensate. He had a natural advantage that, in some other world, might have brought him a Dirk Diggler success. In this world, never fully esteemed if never unnoticed, his endowment may have given him only a corrosive sense of resentment. On that day on Cable Beach, as he strutted in the surf, no women seemed to give him a second thought or even to look at him more closely than at the sea itself.
An exhibitionist struggles through personal flamboyance to evoke in others a world that has not yet (and may never) come into existence. Flamboyance lends imaginary wings to the mud-bound. Through the startling to-be-looked-at-ness that the exhibitionist creates, a path opens and a fictional world appears. In the imaginary worlds that he sought to solicit, the exhibitionist on Cable Beach must have hoped to star, his cape wrapped gracefully about him, the desired of all desiring. He must have dreamed that he would startle the Japanese girls on the hotel’s camel train out of their sexual complacency, seeming for them to be masterful, exceeding all familiar proportions, irresistibly desirable. In his dreams, he would have been well worth the trouble of inviting into their rooms.
Was he wrong to think this? Perhaps not. At least two young Japanese women had taken the trouble to examine him through binoculars. Two women who had encountered him posing had gone out of their ways to ignore him, but one at least had felt an nagging desire to look. Leave aside the sleazy crassness of exposing himself to young women whom he couldn’t have known (and, after all, it was a beach where nudism was still quietly practised), and concentrate upon the problem of soliciting another’s gaze. Flamboyance is a visual rhetoric: an exaggerated case of flaunting at least one impressive feature. Visual rhetorics exaggerate details and highlights a small range of features at the expense of all other possible ones. In a similar manner, if in a different medium, the internet chat-room constitutes a place of personal streamlining and enhancement: age, looks, availability, all subsumed in the need to capture another’s attention and to become, in that unseen person’s mind, an exalted image of oneself.
A spider nesting in the corner of the eye? Bats hanging from the crook of the elbow? I read these as the corporeal expression of desire. Look at me! the man in the Chicago tavern strutted about (without moving) silently commanding, gaze on my works: I am capable of all, I cross all boundaries; beyond both disgust and fear, I transgress social order. Watching him invite me to imagine him, I could overhear his silent whisper: I lead life to its excess. It was a kind of seduction. He invited me to contemplate his striking tattoos, his demeanour and general bearing. He prompted an aesthetic, far more than a sexual, response. The young man on Cable Beach, without clothes, with no feature to boast other than his penis, was startlingly flamboyant in a narrow, specialized manner. What made the difference? The man in the Chicago tavern was not attractive, his hair was unkempt and the color of morning pee. Still, his tattoos were entrancing works of art. His flamboyance, which he might not have recognized, was aesthetic, a visual rhetoric. The man on Cable Beach was handsome, his hair was professionally cut and black as the collied night. His flamboyance, which was genuine if rather local, hung upon his sexual promise. He displayed his single magnificent endowment as a lure. In his own self-seeing, he had transformed his penis into a beacon to compel women’s eyes into a ravished gaze. His was a wholly a corporeal rhetoric. He wanted to compel women to invite him to penetrate their minds, taking up residence within their imaginations.
The soliciting gaze is very different from the aggressive, kidnapping gaze. Still, it is not innocent. It may even be intensely disturbing. You may not want a stranger, however gorgeous his features or impressive his parts, residing, perhaps for life, in your imagination. Think again of the two instances I have given in this essay: each man’s flamboyance lay in the act of preening himself in an effort to attract another’s gaze. Strutting into a stranger’s vision, each displayed himself where, before, he had not been noticed. At least one of the men did not gaze upon the women he met in order to kidnap them, but sought to tempt others into kidnapping him. Each offered himself as the glamorous material from which to build an imaginative world. Such offers are common. Many people, it seems, desire to be imagined and to occupy a well-lit nook in someone else’s mind. Taunting and baiting, the man in Chicago is still there, glowering at me. His works, his tattoos, remain as vivid as fire. Once you have returned the other person’s gaze, accepting his invitation and constructing his suggested world, he will be yours, private and disturbing, for as long as your mind imagines.
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