Skip to content

Eye Contact, What Can Literature Do?, In and of Itself

Office Hours

Eye Contact

The face is an astonishing thing.

Better yet, the face is astonishing precisely because it is not a thing: it is a crossing, a threshold, a liminal space. That is to say, it is not an inert object. Rather, it is that part of the body where the invisible becomes visible. A smile, a tear, a frown, a pout, a blush: these are marvelous happenings where the “private self” is “made public,” or where the distinction between private and public is blurred altogether.

We might say that the face is the body at its most revelatory.

Sometimes, this revelation is intentional, and the face becomes the site of communication: a smile in greeting, an eyebrow raised quizzically, a jutted lip of obstinate rebellion.

But often the face reveals us in a way that can feel like being exposed: cheeks redden in embarrassment, hot tears of frustration fall, a gasp of surprise or of fear escapes us. What was inside, what was “mine,” has now been made manifest, and I become aware with a sort of surprise that my face is living flesh, and that this flesh is not something that I inhabit or wield like a machine.[1] My body is my interface with the world, where the world encounters me and where I am moved by the world.

The astonishing mystery of the face makes it all but impossible for me to accept a wholly materialistic or merely biological account of the human person.

Consider the experience of making eye contact. What is it that I “contact” when I look into your eyes, when you look into mine?

In Lost in the Cosmos, Walker Percy asks us to reflect on the utterly unique—sometimes dangerous, sometimes even terrifying—experience of making eye contact:

Why is it that the look of another person looking at you is different from everything else in the Cosmos? That is to say, looking at lions or tigers or Saturn or the Ring Nebula or at an owl or at another person from the side is one thing, but finding yourself looking into the eyes of another person looking at you is something else. And why is it that one can look at a lion or a planet or an owl or at someone’s finger for as long as one pleases, but looking into the eyes of another person is, if prolonged past a second, a perilous affair?

Seeing, it seems, is one thing; being seen is quite another.

To see into another person while being seen—to watch the other watching you—to expose and to be exposed at the same time: this is one of the riskiest thing that a person can do.

Eye contact is an encounter, mediated by the flesh, in which my hidden is made manifest. At the same time, it is an encounter that exposes me to a seeing other, an other who is not just a thing among things, but is an intelligence with insight. (Literally: in-sight).

When you and I make eye contact, we are meeting, “contacting”, not just another body, but another self who is capable of “making contact.”

The face, then, is “public,” but it also the site of incredible intimacy, where not only is there a crossing between my own interiority and the exterior world, but also between two selves. The face (especially the eyes) is where I can be seen, and it is the place from which I can see.

So: lovers long to lose themselves—and to gain themselves—in each other’s eyes.

So, too: as the infant grows, her eyes become more intelligent, she wakes to the world, she delights in seeing and in being seen, and those who look at her see something—someone—awakening in and behind her eyes.

Of course, we do not always want to be seen. The scrutiny of a stranger, or the probing glance of a friend or a parent, can cause us to divert our gaze, to look away, to break contact. Looking into the eyes of another person is, as Percy says, a perilous affair.

I have intentionally avoided (until now) that clichéd expression, “The eyes are the window to the soul.” Like all clichés, this one expresses some truth. But to my mind it is much too passive a phrase. The eyes are not just a window to the soul; they are the soul. That is, they are the soul enfleshed: the invisible made visible, yes, but also the spontaneous and free subject actively crossing into the world, with all its danger and all its wonder.

  1. Wendell Berry: “Of course, the body in most ways is not at all like a machine. Like all living creatures and unlike a machine, the body is not formally self-contained; its boundaries and out-lines are not so exactly fixed. The body alone is not, properly speaking, a body. Divided from its sources of air, food, drink, clothing, shelter, and companionship, a body is, properly speaking, a cadaver, whereas a machine by itself, shut down or out of fuel, is still a machine.” From “Health is Membership,” delivered as a speech at the conference Spirituality and Healing on October 17, 1994. ↩︎

What Can Literature Do?

The more you read—if you’re doing it right—the more you find yourself subject to curious and delightful coincidences in your reading. It’s as if you enter a room, only to find that there has been a conversation going on, long before you arrived; and this conversation happens to center on the very thing you have been thinking about.

Sometimes what we read rhymes with something else we are reading. An On the Exam? reader wrote to me about last week’s newsletter on Plato’s account of “stretching out in the between,” and she noted a similar phrase she came across in Aristotle: "All human beings by nature stretch themselves out toward knowing” (as the unparalleled translation of the Metaphysics by Joe Sachs has it).

Other times you find that your favorite authors, though long dead, have been reading and quoting each other behind your back.

Such was my experience this week when I finished Dostoyevsky’s haunting Demons and happened—quite by chance—to pick up the Nobel lecture given by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 1972. Not only does the second section of the lecture open with the famous and “enigmatic remark” by Dostoyevsky that “Beauty will save the world,” but the sixth section even directly quotes from Dostoyevsky’s Demons!

The more one reads, the less one is surprised by such “happenstance”; it is perhaps even to be expected of great literature that invites us into one great on-going conversation.

In any case, I recommend the whole of Solzhenitsyn’s lecture. Here is a small taste:

We shall be told: What can literature do in the face of a remorseless assault of open violence? But let us not forget that violence does not and cannot exist by itself: It is invariably intertwined with the lie. They are linked in the most intimate, most organic and profound fashion: Violence cannot conceal itself behind anything except lies, and lies have nothing to maintain them save violence. Anyone who has once proclaimed violence as his method must inexorably choose the lie as his principle. At birth, violence acts openly and even takes pride in itself. But as soon as it gains strength and becomes firmly established, it begins to sense the air around it growing thinner; it can no longer exist without veiling itself in a mist of lies, without concealing itself behind the sugary words of falsehood. No longer does violence always and necessarily lunge straight for your throat; more often than not it demands of its subjects only that they pledge allegiance to lies, that they participate in falsehood.

The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: Let that come into the world, let it even reign supreme—only not through me. But it is within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie! For in the struggle with lies art has always triumphed and shall always triumph! Visibly, irrefutably for all! Lies can prevail against much in this world, but never against art.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Lecture (1970)

Cultural Event

In and of Itself

Have you seen Derek Delgaudio’s In & Of Itself yet?

It’s a subtle and lyrical performance, originally performed live, and now available as a film which does a nice job capturing what it must have been like to participate in the drama as an audience member.

It’s best to go into this knowing as little as possible about the film or its premise.

I’ll just say that Delgaudio is an illusionist-hustler-close-up-magician who takes the time to weave a story about seeing and being seen. While at times a bit saccharine, the overall performance left me breathless, not so much from the “how did he pull that off” magic tricks illusions, but more from an awareness that dawns, slowly, in the days after watching, of just how much courage it must have taken to risk everything in such a public and spectacular way.