Go Ahead and Look

In praise of forbidden looking

I was maybe eight or nine years old, sitting with my family at the Hunan Restaurant in Morris Plains, New Jersey. It was a weekday evening in winter, the place raucous with kids and businessmen, no different than the dozens of times we'd been there before. We were in a booth beside a bank of windows, and outside it was dark enough for me to see my reflection in the glass. I enjoyed watching myself as I ate, making faces and tracing the movement of food down my throat. But then, just as I took a bite of spare rib, I heard a woman's voice behind me, not much more than a whisper: “I hope you choke on it.”

The voice was slow and deliberate, full of anger, weighted with a bitterness deeper than any I'd encountered before, and this startled me even more than the words themselves. For an instant I was sure those words were directed at me, though I had no idea how I might have provoked them. I was sure, too, that I was the only one who'd heard them, the only one capable of hearing them, as if they'd been spoken directly into my ear, or only within my head. I chewed carefully and swallowed.

But then, beside me, my brother snickered. My father looked up, blinking, and my mother glanced over my shoulder with an astonished, stricken look, her jaw clamped on a mouthful of food. Not only had everyone heard the voice, I realized, but it had nothing to do with me. And for some reason I found this so disappointing that I set down my rib and began to turn. “Mind your own business,” my mother said, but it was too late. In the glass I caught sight of the couple behind us, their reflection framed by the red velvet uprights of the booth. The woman was in her early forties, with curly hair and a bony, bloodless face, lips pressed so tightly they disappeared. Her eyes were sunken and dark, and even then I recognized them as the eyes of someone who'd hardly slept for days. She had a plate in front of her, but her meal looked spare and unappealing, several chunks of crispy, glazed chicken surrounded by soggy broccoli, and in any case, it hadn't been touched. Her hands were under the table, her back stiff, her entire body still except for an odd twitch in her cheek that made her slender nose alternately sharpen and dull.

The man across from her I could see only in profile, and it was strange to think that he and I were back to back, separated only by a few inches of fabric and foam. He was a little older than the woman, with gray hair over his ears, a trim mustache, a pinch of loose, rough skin under his chin. He wore a suit that seemed tight around his shoulders, and his face was flushed, as if his collar were squeezing all his blood into his face. His plate was nearly empty, only a few bits of pork and onion and pepper remaining in a pool of dark sauce. He took a sip from his wineglass, then bent close to the table and scooped a mound of rice into his mouth. His jaw moved a couple of times and then stopped. He dropped his chopsticks. His hands went to his throat. But I knew he wasn't choking. He pretended for a few seconds, then laughed, and went back to eating.

The woman's mouth parted, but she didn't say anything. Her shoulders went limp. Her face no longer looked hard but beaten. Her tired eyes left the man, and before I could turn away, they caught my own.

There was no doubt that she'd seen me looking, no doubt that she knew what I'd seen. There was embarrassment in her expression, and shame, but also a hint of pleading, a desire for understanding and sympathy. She was glad to have someone else witness her torment, I can guess now, glad not to suffer alone.

When I turned back, my mother was looking at me with disappointment and reproach. I wanted to tell her that she didn't need to scold me, that she was right, I shouldn't have looked, and that what I'd seen was punishment enough. There were three untouched ribs left in front of me, but I'd lost my appetite. I pushed the plate away.

I was recently reminded of this incident while rereading First Love, Ivan Turgenev's brilliant early novella, in which a boy discovers that his father is having an affair with their beautiful young neighbor, Zinaida. The sixteen-year-old narrator, too, is in love with Zinaida, but as yet he has no experience of love other than longing and fantasy. When he secretly follows his father to a rendezvous with Zinaida, he knows he shouldn't look, but he can't bring himself to turn away. Already he is in the grip of some kind of mystery, held fast by “an odd feeling, a feeling stronger than curiosity, stronger even than jealousy, stronger than fear.” And what he sees he can hardly believe. The two argue quietly, Zinaida at first resisting her lover's advances. Then she holds out her arm, across which the narrator's father delivers “a sharp blow” with his riding crop. This horrifies the narrator, but what he sees next shocks him even more: “Zinaida quivered—looked silently at my father—and raising her arm slowly to her lips, kissed the scar which glowed crimson upon it.” After this, her resistance is gone, and the narrator's father runs into her waiting embrace.

The narrator doesn't understand what he has seen any more than I understood what I saw in the restaurant, and his thoughts are “in a dreadful whirl.” What he does realize, though, is that “however long [he] lived, [he] should always remember Zinaida's particular movement—her look, her smile at the moment.” He has witnessed the ugliness and cruelty of adult love, the violence of desire, the wildness of passion, all of which he is years away from experiencing for himself. But he recognizes that this moment has aged him. His own love “now seemed … so very puny and childish and trivial beside that other unknown something which [he] could hardly begin to guess at, but which struck terror into [him] like an unfamiliar, beautiful, but awe-inspiring face whose features one strains in vain to discern in the gathering darkness.”

His glance has thrust him deeply into the mysteries of the world, and while this immersion terrifies him, it also transforms him. A few years later Zinaida dies in childbirth, and by then the narrator is prepared to face what lies before him: “Even in those lighthearted days of youth,” he tells us, “I did not close my eyes to the mournful voice which called to me, to the solemn sound which came to me from beyond the grave.” He is now open not only to the mysteries of love but also to grief and suffering and loss. He has entered the realm of truth, and there he remains, as much as it may pain him.

Examples of such forbidden looking abound in Western literature. None, I suppose, is better known than the story of Lot's salty wife, but close on its heels is that of the poet Orpheus, who, upon descending to the underworld to rescue his wife Eurydice from an untimely death, receives an injunction from the inhabitants of Hell: Take your wife back to Earth, but as you go, don't look behind. Of course Orpheus does look, and Eurydice falls back into the darkness, never to return.

In Ovid's version of the story, Orpheus casts his forbidden glance in order to make sure that Eurydice is still with him, “fearful that she'd lost her way.” I read this less literally than metaphorically: What Orpheus fears is that his wife is in fact still dead, that she can't really return to the world of the living. When he turns, he sees the face of death behind him and knows that his wife is lost to him forever. She is taken from him a second time not because he has abandoned the prohibition but because his attempt to rescue her from death was futile from the start, because death is always final. Orpheus's forbidden glance brings him face-to-face with the fact of mortality, a fact he can no longer deny, and when he returns to the world he is inconsolable, “melancholy-mad,” sitting in “rags and mud,” living on “tears and sorrow.”

But something else happens to Orpheus in the midst of his renewed grief, something, as with Turgenev's narrator, profound and transformative. Before being torn to pieces by “raging women” made wild by his beautiful singing and his refusal to sleep with them, he sits on a grassy hill to play his golden lyre. “A lovely place to rest,” Ovid tells us, but one that “needed shade.” And no sooner than Orpheus sings his first notes do all the trees of the world crowd around him, from the “silver poplar” to the “swaying lina,” from the “delicate hazel” to the “spear-making ash.”

His singing now isn't just beautiful but metamorphic, magical, an art form that transcends pleasure and enjoyment to literally change the landscape. According to Ovid, before visiting the underworld, Orpheus was “poet of the hour.” Now, having faced death and the horrible truth of mortality, he brings trees to a barren hillside. Informed by the knowledge of death, his art is lifted from momentary, passing fancy into legend. Despite what it cost him, his forbidden glance brings him greatness, and more important, infuses his song with a beauty that reshapes the world.

Orpheus remains one of our most powerful archetypes of the artist, not because of his solitary brooding, but because of the way he captures his ineffable encounter with the unknown and gives it form, translating it for those who'll never experience it for themselves. The role of the artist is to see what we can't or don't want to see and to present it to us in a form that doesn't allow us to look away.

No one, to my mind, has embraced this act of exposing the forbidden more fully or successfully than Chris Burden, the notorious performance artist of the 1970s, best known for pieces in which he has collaborators shoot him in the arm or crucify him to the hood of a car. When I first learned about Burden in an art history class in college, my professor spoke about him as an art world pariah, someone who took experimentation too far, who was reckless, sensational, exploitative. But when I finally viewed clips of his work, I was surprised to find how quiet they are compared to the sensationalism that surrounds us on every mediated front, how spare and simple and restrained. While his pieces often involve danger and self-inflicted pain, they resist the sensationalism of their subject matter in order to explore some of our most fundamental questions: How do we relate to the bodies that contain us? How much can these bodies bear? How can we live in the face of our vulnerabilities and the violence that constantly threatens us?

In 1973, the year I was born, Burden bought a month's worth of advertising time on a local TV station. After a highly produced ad for a dance-music record anthology, video of one of Burden's performances appeared in black and white with only a simple graphic, the artist's printed name followed by a handwritten title, “Through the Night Softly.” For ten seconds, TV viewers watched Burden, wearing only underwear, with his hands held behind his back, squirm across pavement covered in broken glass. The only sound was Burden's heavy, grunting breath and the crunch of glass shards under his chest. And then the screen went blank and he was quickly replaced by another highly produced ad, this one for shower soap.

I can only guess what viewers might have made of Burden's ad while awaiting the return of a sitcom or baseball game, when they were staring at their TVs with the half-consciousness that advertising demands. The image passed so quickly that they might have wondered if they'd really seen it, or if they'd only imagined it. They might have believed that someone at the TV station had made a mistake, that they'd glimpsed something they weren't supposed to see, that they should have turned away. But that image of a man crawling through glass must have burned in their minds; they must have carried it around with them for the next few days or weeks or months, and even if they wanted to forget it, it would show up in their dreams.

When Burden placed “Through the Night Softly” on TV, American involvement in the Vietnam War was winding down after many gruesome years, and certainly the piece evokes images of soldiers crawling through mud and debris, images that must have been all too familiar to viewers by 1973. But what Burden seemed to intuit—decades before reality television and twenty-four-hour cable news—is that ours is a culture in which looking isn't really seeing. The images produced for us by advertisers are meant to lull, to erase thought rather than to provoke it, and the constant marketing of products drains meaning from even the hard facts of the nightly news. By slipping his ad between images of laundry detergent and motor oil, Burden ruptured the trance of his viewers, making them confront not only the horror of war and the ever-presence of mortality, but also the body's incredible resilience, its fragile beauty. He cut a small slit in the surface of our mundane daily existence and gave us a brief, irresistible glimpse of what lay behind.

The TV was his hillside, broken glass his lyre, ten seconds of video his song.

It would be disingenuous to trace the start of my writing life to that evening at the Hunan Restaurant when I was eight or nine years old. Another decade passed before I picked up a pen and tried to write a story, and certainly other experiences contributed to the genesis of those early efforts. But now, whenever I sit down to face a blank page, I try to remind myself what, above all else, I'm supposed to do: look at what you don't want to see, even if you don't understand it, even if it causes you discomfort or confusion or pain.

I couldn't have guessed what went on between that couple in the booth behind me, what might have made the woman say those bitter words or look at me with such despair. Even now I can only wonder at the cruelty of the man's laughter as he scooped rice into his mouth. All I knew then was that I'd glimpsed something I shouldn't have, that I'd peeked into an adult world of misery and meanness I wasn't ready for and didn't think I ever would be. I'd seen something terrible and profound and mysterious, and like Turgenev's narrator, I knew it was something I'd never forget.

The couple left before we did, and I kept my head down as they passed our table. Soon after, my father paid the bill, and I followed my family outside. It had grown darker since we'd gone in. But now my eyes were all the way open. They took in more light. They made the darkness brighter.

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Also in this Issue

A Closer Look

Go Ahead and Look

Abnormal Beauties

Just Look and Read

Designing the Good Life

What Remains

Seen Though Not Heard