Looking

Looking

 Aida Cheng

Aida Cheng

As a person walking down First Avenue between Twenty Fifth and Fourteenth Street, you have two pastimes available to you: you get looked at, or you look at someone else. Each can be accomplished only passively—the seer and seen in a familiar agreement, rehearsed with many strangers past, that whatever happens, they must never acknowledge the objects of each other’s sight.

Let’s begin with two men. Look at them passing each other: there is a power-maneuver taking place. Simply, one man is powerful in how he raids the other man’s image for information, while the other pretends not to notice–he’s scared of what his image might reveal, of his worst secrets offered and then stolen by a strange face. He looks elsewhere, anywhere else.

The flow of power might not only run along the information current, or carry any information–just as powerful is the unseeing, ignorant stare. Intruding upon privacy for the sake of intrusion alone, into the private somewhere only to prove that one can go there; in the thrill of intransigence, the seer does seek to know anything, his eyes are as senseless and flatly-textured as the long smooth steel of a blade that cuts. But in this case, for the seer, the less known the better; if he feels his ignorance, he considers it another elegant sign of his power, to censor all self-doubt as he probes deeper, down the shirt, into the crotch, up the blouse, into the wet fabric between breasts in summer. There is more than one type of man, one type of person, and we would be wrong to ignore the variety. Or not to address it.Who is most often the seer, but those who look like men? And who most often the seen, but those who look like women?

The secret to any instance of abuse is what happens when two seers confront each other with no nearby outlet for their aggressive vision.

But the secret to any instance of abuse is what happens when two seers confront each other with no nearby outlet for their aggressive vision (traditional outlets, means and never ends, though sometimes the end of her life: those they call, accurately or not, girls). Men look at each other like wolves. Their gaze, at least immediately, has nothing and yet everything to do with sex, because from his captive heart and attentive cock he tells his eyes to look down the street for a moment’s way of filling the need which only sex can stop. Or, not even sex, but his formless instinct to hold a person naked over his own naked body, while he and they are slippery and trembling–skin stretched over skin, so everyone’s insides might be better protected, until the body’s contours moisten and harden and soften into indistinguishableness, undignified: love, or close to it. Every man can do this for another man, but the frequency at which they allow themselves is so low, as underwhelming and scattered as their courage.

Men are free to look at each other. We might call it men’s responsibility to bust out this phantom of sexual assault, visually and physically and mentally haunting us all. It is men’s responsibility to take one (of what?) for the team and keep the reform-rally going. But reform is problematic for how often it provokes livid reactionaries to entertain and empower supporters; it hungrily asks for antagonists to keep the irresistible, hot, proud, and feel-good witch-burning flame dancing and voluptuous, like news-anchors’ tantrums on television. Think of why you know the name Pontius Pilate, wonder at how little you remember of what he did, or how he felt about it. We love remembering names like Pilate, recalled and despised in successive reigns of church and state–in every Easter play and impeachment trial.

Men and women, each responsible for the unanswerable in the publicized moot point, the conviction and media frenzy, the He did it! and Mea Culpa!, are compromised and helpless to find out how they really feel, nonetheless to admit it. The binary is like a fault line, two shelves of the same earth are pulled apart by tectonic plates, invisible, so the tallest, most unsuspecting and presumptuous structures near the crack—well-built men in dry-cleaned suits with sharp collars that fold like metal—are the first to fall in. (But fall into what? Think: all our reforms have only resigned screen actors to their private pensions earlier than they might have preferred.) This distance crowded with metaphor and allusion is fodder for sociologists, if not the substance of sociology itself, but it’s described in this paragraph of this essay because of one instance, a public event: the single, random, passing and abusive glance. A defunct and debilitating attempt at exchanged affection. But there’s more there, and its subject is essentially this: if we are limited to loving only by means of sexual exploitation—from statutory rape to marriages arranged by how humanely she has seen him treat his mother—we can never hope to love, we can never hope to live, and never approach, even in dreams, self-actualized adulthood. Those adults, wherever they are, are the only ones who can love, who can ever be willing to risk it.

Love and power cannot be reconciled. In bedrooms where lovers are fixed only by power, no love can move, no lovers can make it; in bedrooms where love allows for every twitch of feet and knot of tongues, power is cast off and, locked outside, mortified in the indifferent, cold, wet, rainy night, if only for tonight. The difference is that, with love, bedmates can, after sleeping together, wake up and face the doom of the day, faking whatever is necessary and enduring quotidian disrespect, if only to return to their lover’s arms at night. No amount of power can liberate someone that well, ever, or even allow for a few free hours of cathartic fornication. In fact, power, even if consummately taken from the captains and merchant bankers, in an act of leveling meant to mimic love, cannot liberate anybody–it can only employ the once-powerless, now-powerful, in recreating pain for the next generation.

Think: all our reforms have only resigned screen actors to their private pensions earlier than they might have preferred.

Most marriages and lovers’ pacts are power-maneuvers, so compulsive and slight in their antagonism that no one comments on the crime. Every ceremonial glance between bride and groom is abusive, but the resulting strain is similar to the pain of a bad knee: we slowly accustom ourselves to it, in order to walk our commute–to the M15 stop at Fourteenth and First, among other directive destinations. Only in jokes do we complain about our body as it fails, because these ills should be expected at our advanced age; whatever our age, the number crushes us with precedent. But, as in the last hours of a final illness, patients are prone to moments of unbelievable consciousness, inconvenient lucidity, when they give those gathered at their bedsides the last of themselves left to give, through speech, stare, or touch. Those wholly committed to marriage have similar moments of clarity. Their revelations are awesome, the witness often dismisses them on account of dementia, pain, or any chronic irrelevancy that would disqualify reference to the spouse’s final, uncompromised character.

But enough with the soon-to-be dead. Their coffins are dressed, their skin pales. Looking, the subject of this essay—we have written and read this essay just to find its subject’s object—can only do so much. In spite of all that grows obscure—our faces deranged with fear, our bodies decaying, slower and slower to move—what remains clear is the growing width of street between the sidewalks that we tread, the more sharply opposite, lonelier directions in which we carry ourselves with caution. The sun sets. In the shadows cast by power, we want love, we aim our ambitions to that height, tall as the dome of the state house. But we hate ourselves for how cold it is down here, in the street, inside the shadow where we were born; we hate ourselves for not having a warm loved one already. We swear we hate all women or all men, in so many words, anybody who promises us intimacy, any reminder of the intimacy we feel someone should promise us. But our hatred boils only from a distance, and across this divide the despised is indistinguishable from the demographic herd.

Hatred is like arson in a city—you never manage to burn down only one thing. The violating look at you, lonely and cold, is and is not yours; it disparages the person looked at, makes them wonder if they really own their own lives; they might have concluded no already, and your aggression has confirmed their malignant, metastasizing predetermination. On Fourteenth and First, descend the stairs and board the L train—she sits at the center of the long blue bench, the dark wide window does her the double injustice of staring, without eyes, and carrying the image of what it sees—she hates the glass’s glazed gaze, she hates the glass for taking an image that should be hers alone. You are also on the train, but to head farther into Brooklyn, and the window plays the same trick on you, and you hate it for not revealing how impressed it is with your looks. On the train, there are no words for this. There is no courage, promise of redemption, chance of fulfillment, or audible whisper for release.

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