Ways of Looking

On eye contact, staring, gazing, appraising, and looking at.

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“Eye contact” is not as well-defined a concept as it seems. As a child, I had an idea that true eye contact required a perfect eye-to-eye lock: my right eye looking into the other’s left eye, my left eye looking into their right, and vice versa. This, of course, is impossible; you have to pick one eye, or a point somewhere near the eyes on the face, in order to focus your gaze. The paths might randomly cross, but they don’t meet and stop. When standing near someone at a party, or sitting on opposite sides of a desk, holding eye contact is tricky — not because of the intimacy, but because you have to move your eyes around to take in their whole face. Counterintuitively, the illusion is easier to maintain if the person you’re looking at is farther away.

I’ve noticed that people will look at me longer if I’m wearing sunglasses — with my eyes hidden, they forget I can see them looking. Is it still eye contact when something in between obscures the gaze? The sunglasses act like a one-way mirror — I know when we’re making eye contact, but the other person does not. If both parties are wearing sunglasses, the atmosphere becomes louche and permissive as a masked ball, and we can stare at each other all we like, since neither one of us is sure that the other is looking.

Los Angeles is a staring culture. People will sit down at the next table over in a restaurant and just look at you, like you’re the entertainment. This is assisted by the fact that almost everyone in LA wears sunglasses, but I think there’s more to it than that. It’s the sense that anyone you pass on the street might be famous, that anything at any moment might be caught on film, like we’re all in the background on reality TV. Also: Everyone wants to be famous — is waiting to be discovered — so they stare as a way of making sure you see them.

I have been working out of a home office for about four years; there are days when I see almost no one, aside from my husband and perhaps a neighbor from the building while I’m checking the mailbox. It can be lonely-making, but seeing friends is only partially palliative. I’ve come to understand that what I’m starved for is strangers — I think we have some basic need to see unfamiliar faces. When I lived in Boston, this need was met by my daily commute on the train. In Denver, where I never use public transportation, I have to contrive opportunities to look at strangers. On Sunday evenings in the summer, I go to see jazz in the park — not for the music, but for the crowds. At museums and concerts, I look at the museum- and concert-goers as much as at the art or the live act.

But I want, also, to be looked at — an affirmation, a confirmation that I exist. It’s like overhearing your name in another conversation. My friend S, who had her first child a few years ago, tells me that as a mother she’s invisible — people look at her little girl and not her. We seem to need it more now that we’re approaching 40 — does the world still want us here? As women we grasp the erotics of being looked at. Both heterosexual men and women are demonstrably aroused by looking at pictures of naked women. Researchers theorize that women are enacting a kind of intense sexual empathy — they identify with the pornographic object, rather than fantasizing about possessing her. In Ways of Seeing, John Berger writes: “A man’s presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you. By contrast, a woman’s presence … defines what can and cannot be done to her.” And: “One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.”

For men, then, making eye contact is a power move. Susan Sontag, in On Photography, says to photograph “means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power.” Maybe looking in itself feels like power; the photograph is only the proof. A site called “The Art of Manliness” claims that “Being able to look people in the eye and hold their gaze can help you better network with others, land a job, pitch an idea, make a moving speech, woo the ladies, and intimidate your enemies.” All the articles I find on eye contact are directed at men: “You can use eye contact to show a girl you’re interested, to gauge her interest, and to create or deepen her attraction in you.” More threateningly, “If you meet eyes with a woman before approaching, don’t break eye contact until she does. You want to have a genuine smile as well otherwise it could come off murderous.” (The site uses these last three words to link to a jpeg of Charles Manson.) Women, meanwhile, are shown, gauged, approached, landed, pitched, moved, wooed, intimidated, all by being looked at.

Years ago my friend M told me that she dreams in the third person. I found this unlikely, until I noticed that I often fantasize in the third person. Even my memories play back this way, as though I’ve been recording my life with a stealth external camera. There I am, in the scene, but here I am also, watching the scene; which one is me? A doubling. An auto-empathy. From this vantage my own face has the blurry, not-quite-there quality of characters in novels, whom I rarely bother to imagine in full physical detail. It’s a police sketch of me, rough assumption and approximation. After all, I don’t know exactly how I look from the outside, when not flattened by photography or reversed in reflection.

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In Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb, the Erszi character is dismayed by an unexpected encounter on her honeymoon. She and her husband are traveling through Italy when they bump into a friend from his childhood. This friend, Janos, “looked Erszi up and down with undisguised hostility,” and “thereafter totally ignored her presence.” It becomes clear to her during the course of their conversation that he is thoroughly sinister, a liar and a thief; still, his assessment of her nags:

“Damn him. Why didn’t he like me?”

Basically, Erszi was not used to this sort of situation. She was a rich, pretty, well-dressed, attractive woman. Men found her charming, or at the very least sympathetic. She knew it played a large part in Mihaly’s continuing devotion that men always spoke appreciatively of her. Indeed she often suspected that he looked at her not with his own eyes but those of others, as if he said to himself, “How I would love this Erszi, if I were like other men.”

Her only power in the context of this café meeting (the novel takes place in the 1930s) is passive: to be noticed, to steal attention. (Sontag again: “[Beauty] is not the power to do but the power to attract.”) The man infuriates Erszi by denying her her due power. In turn, she fears, it will lower her value in Mihaly’s eyes. If women watch themselves being looked at, men watch other men looking at women, which provides clues as to where they should direct their envy, as well as their jealousy. (Always, in the performance of jealousy, some element of pride — I have something worth envying!)

In any case, Janos returns later on in the novel, with an apparent change of heart. (These passages told from Erszi’s point of view, as opposed to Mihaly’s, make up at most 5% of the novel; I wished for more of them.) On an evening out in Paris, he confesses (with the emphasis, perhaps, on con) that in fact he “instantly” found her attractive, which acts on Erszi like a drug:

“Wonderful. In Ravenna you said exactly the opposite. I was pretty offended.”

“Yes, I only said that to see if Mihaly would slap my face. But Mihaly doesn’t slap anyone’s face. That’s what’s wrong with him. He always turns the other cheek. But to get back to the point: from the first moment you had an enormous effect on me.”

“Amazing. So now I should feel myself honoured? Tell me, can’t you seduce me with a little more wit?”

“I don’t know how to seduce wittily. That’s for weaklings. If a woman attracts me, all I think is that I want her to know it. Then she responds or she doesn’t. But women usually respond.”

“I’m not ‘women’.”

But she was fully aware that she really did attract Janos Szepetneki: that he desired her body, in a hungry, adolescent way, devoid of adult restraint, single-mindedly, obscenely. And this so delighted her that through her whole being the blood moved faster under the skin, as if she had been drinking.

This is how looking exerts its power: Being desired turns into desire. I am suddenly conscious of my body, hyperconscious, pornographized. Of course the gaze is often unwanted; you don’t get to choose. But it’s frightening how wobbly the line is, how that power can make you unsure what you want. •

Elisa Gabbert is the author of L’Heure Bleue, or the Judy Poems (Black Ocean), The Self Unstable (Black Ocean) and The French Exit (Birds LLC). Follow her on Twitter at @egabbert.
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