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Vol. 7, No. 1, 2008
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




In Mazatlán, Esteban, who owned the ocean-front cantina, had been feeding Tim and me very good tequila on the house. He was in his fifties, much older than we were, but tall and, in a dark and sullen manner, very handsome. He was muscular, still powerful, bronze and mostly silver-haired. We had seen him a few times, but nothing had ever seemed noteworthy about our give-and-take. This time, at some point between our third and fourth drinks he began staring at me. It was neither a friendly nor a hostile stare, just cold and penetrating. It definitely was not a gaze. There was nothing either intimate or contemplative about it. It was more analytic than anything else, probing for something, a response or a sign of awareness. He stood at his ease in his white shorts, resting his heavy upper body on the bar's counter. He wore a barman's shirt, bright with tropical flowers, with sleeves short enough that his muscle-corded arms could be seen.

When if ever should a man protect a woman? That ancient chivalric code, inscribed beneath the surface of action, insists he should always defend her, leap to her assistance, stand before her, suffer whatever hurts such aid might entail, die for her if need be. Often it may be a very foolish act, a free acceptance of a beating, even death. A woman might not want this sacrifice, but she probably would not be asked. The man may feel those male imperatives, deep within some secret stratum of the brain, erupting suddenly when challenged. The woman might not want the man's intervention since it will cast her as helpless and could lead to the man's injury. The chances are great that her man will not register what she wants.

Esteban's snake's-eye stare bored right through me. I sat still, holding my glass, no longer drinking, wondering what I should make of things. I had not yet understood that Esteban was staring through me at Tim. They were engaged in some sort of ritual, but it would be much later before I grasped its nature. When Esteban stopped by our table to pour us another round, I began to understand that he was deliberately provoking Tim. As he reached across my right shoulder to fill my empty glass, he fondled my breasts, first appearing to graze them accidentally and then, with raw provocation, to feel them outright. I didn't stop him, other than to squirm away as best I could, trying not to be rude. As I twisted away, I abruptly saw that he was now grinning, or maybe sneering, at Tim who had turned his head away, averting his eyes. I was left to defend myself against unwanted advances if I chose to do so. Tim had been the indirect target of Esteban's stare all along. Until that moment, I had expected Tim to rescue me. Unhappily for my romantic assumptions, he simply refused to engage in Esteban's game. I couldn't entirely blame him for that, since out of shape and flabby from Mexican coast life, he would have been a poor match for Esteban. Still, I was disappointed. I felt crippled by Esteban's aggression, reduced to a game-piece in his male play. I also felt personal shame and irritation that I had not been capable of bringing myself to act on my own behalf.

The blank stare is a powerful weapon. Even when it is not hostile, its pure indifference, its sheer refusal to acknowledge its object, can incite anxiety, even fear. It plays such an important role in horror films because it signals both an absence of, and a rejection of, consciousness. Torturers, concentration camp guards, executioners, murderers, hooded thugs and lesser bullies, even bureaucrats, meet looks, pleading, begging or simply inquiring, with indifference. Their consciousness, to the extent that they have one, will not recognize your own. Most likely, it will brutally exclude yours. If someday an alien being looks into your eyes it may well be with just such unblinking indifference. You may then look into eyes, vaguely familiar from foreshadowings in science fiction, which will be cold cyborgian instruments of analysis. These may mask (or not) their head's-up display of targeting and monitoring data, like the Terminator's eyes in James Cameron's films. Those eyes will take everything "in," but will neither note your consciousness nor reciprocate its existence.

Men seem instinctively to understand the weight of intimidation that a stare can project. They often make-believe this cold stare since it is inherently disturbing and threatening. It lies at the heart of such ceremonial exchanges of cold glaring as the "stare-down" in sports. Boxing matches typically begin with this ritual: an ice-flecked stare that reveals only implacable hostility and indifference to the opponent's well-being. Whatever effect the stare-down may have on either boxer, it rouses the audience, helping it to anticipate an impending scene of primitive, inhuman (animal-like) violence. Beneath the human stare-down, there may be anticipations of cyborgs and androids, fears of alien eyes lacking feeling and response. There may also be memories of wild animal eyes blocked to understanding, incapable of symbolic communication, probing deeply for signs of aggression or weakness. You will look into an animal's eyes, John Berger observes in About Looking, across an "abyss of non-comprehension." An animal's eyes reveal a view, narrow and extremely limited perhaps, but still a worldview of sorts, in which you are only a nuisance, an obstacle to be cleared, possibly a danger, perhaps a meal. This is the look that the executioner adopts and the boxer imitates. It is what you might imagine that an alien's look will resemble. Once, when I looked into a grizzly's eyes and observed it staring back, I was aware of that abyss. No symbolic gesture could have crossed it.

When Jung observes that we can see nature looking back at us through an animal's eyes, he may have meant only the indifference, the sheer implacability, that I believe I once saw in the grizzly's eyes. He may also have meant (as Berger seems to have understood him) that, by a wild animal's eyes, we can estimate our own infinitesimal standing within nature's vastness. Human stares that attempt to simulate such implacable vastness work to call attention to our pathetic non-value. Inevitably, one day we will encounter alien beings. They may not look like us. Indeed, before we have actually seen them, they may have been utterly unimaginable. Suppose that will be the case: the aliens will resemble the humanoid characters on Star Trek more or less as gunkanzushi, with roe, resembles a shrimp omelette with spring onions. (Each dish has a connection to sea-life.) Alien bodies, however these may look, will have evolved , or otherwise shaped themselves, to solve many of the same problems that ours have done. The physical constants of the universe, space, gravity, mass, energy and so forth, will be recorded in those bodies. Somewhere, they will have an organ that is sensitive to light and to the information carried by the optical end of the spectrum. These may resemble eyes or something nearly as familiar, such as antennae or the optical stalks of the googly-eyed glass squid, but they may also appear as pads or warts, or even as multiple open sores. We will recognize them by their function and call them "eyes." And it is likely that we will see neither our consciousness reflected in them nor any sign that we possess status above a non-valued thinghood. We will look into an unyielding stares and understand that we have seen it before.

The stare is different from a gaze. Esteban was not gazing at me. He was not imagining me naked or perhaps fondling me alone in one of the remote places along the beach. He was not making love to me. He was dissecting me for Tim's benefit, hoping (for whatever reasons) to enrage him and to prompt him into a fight. A gaze, however brief, indicates thoughtfulness. The gazer seems to contemplate the person he gazes upon and even to invite connection. It may be nasty and intrusive, but a gaze is also a compliment, a tribute to a another person's beauty or allure. Many gazes, perhaps most, are sexual. A woman is kidnapped into an alien world where she, or a mental image of herself, 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: violating, predatory male kidnapping. Such gazes are at once aggressive and proprietary. They project the gazer’s physical strength, his potential power over the gazed-upon woman. His unwanted interest, precisely because unwanted, may be intensely disturbing. His victim may begin to tremble, free-floating anxiety flooding through her body, and to wilt, sweat trickling, like drops of ice-water, down from under her arms. She may experience herself as vulnerable, captured, already trussed up. In this way, as Feminist theorists argue, the patriarchal gaze exerts power.

The male gaze implies the gazer’s superiority. (He can look at the woman in this way; she can only grow angry, turn away, hide, seek to flee. He can possess her.) Even if the gazer is small, a scrawny runt, the mere fact of gazing makes him tower over the woman. She will know, even without being told, that, in his mind’s-eye, he is contemplating her unclothed body. Quivering on the receiving end of such gazes is always an ugly moment. Sometimes a gaze is soliciting, begging to be noticed, even to be kidnapped into your own imagination (Look at me! Am I not, handsome as I am, worth a continuing presence in your mind?), but it is still unpleasant and nasty. On the other hand, a stare is indifferent to your vulnerability, your emotions, in particular your anger and aggression, even the charms of your unclothed body. A stare, seeking to hurt, even to prompt conflict, is always as hateful as it is cold.

Nothing came from Esteban's challenge. Tim kept his eyes turned away and refused to engage. After a short time, we left the cantina and never returned. Back in our hotel, we quarreled over Tim's unwillingness to defend me. Forget the shibboleths and stereotypes, he yelled, a woman can defend herself. A man can only get himself hurt. Feeling unreasonably dismissed, I persisted. At length, I won a small concession: if another man did something to make me feel threatened, he would ask the man to stop. I knew that he would keep his word, though I also knew that Tim would remain always unfailingly polite. Then, a few months later, in early winter, we were in Mexico City. Late one afternoon, dusk already descending, we were walking by the Casa del Lago in Chapultepec Park, a place thick and, in the deepening twilight, ominous with trees. As we walked, perhaps talking about Mazatlán but certainly about places in Mexico, I felt myself repeatedly nudged from behind. I turned around to see a man in a fawn colored suede suit with blond lank hair hanging along his face. He was grinning, which might have reminded me of Esteban, but, in the intensity of the moment, I failed to connect. In the glimpse I had as I turned around, I saw a flat, fungus-looking face staring into me. It was utterly without expression, beyond the deadpan sociopath's grin. The man's flaccid penis was hanging out of his trousers. He held it in one hand while rubbing it up and down my backside. I gasped, and, cringing away, clutched Tim's arm. He wheeled around and saw immediately what was happening.

He spoke to the man just as he had promised to do. He spoke politely, but loudly. Por favor, he exclaimed, do not molest my wife (which technically I wasn't, though it thrilled me to hear him make the implied promise of worship and protection), leave her in peace. As he spoke, he reached out phatically, in the old-fashioned Canadian manner, to touch the man's upper arm. Suddenly, so quickly that I hardly realized what was happening, the man grabbed Tim's wrist, twisted his arm backwards and pushed him face down onto the pavement. He kicked Tim a couple of times before he let him get to his feet. Tim attempted what must have been a football tackle, a barely-remembered move from rugby learned in his boys' college in Toronto. The man in the fawn suit stepped out of the way, his penis still hanging from his fly, grasped Tim by his hair as he stumbled past, wrenched him sideways and then, running along side, hammered his head into a tree. He did this twice while I screamed. Then as Tim lay on the ground, I yelled for help. The man flicked his penis up and down in a good-bye gesture, said something insulting in Spanish, and then disappeared into the trees in the direction of the monument to the Young Heroes.

What had just taken place? Clearly, the man in the fawn suit had hated gringos, or perhaps he simply hated young couples who appeared to be happy together. He had also known a startling amount about fighting. He hadn't looked as if he could fight, but, once Tim had touched him, he had shown unmistakable skills. And, just as clearly, it was evident that his flaccid penis had been a blind to disguise his actual intention and even, the insult it implied being immense and humiliating, a bait to lure Tim into a fight. At length, I drew two conclusions from these encounters, but especially from the second. I realized that men can be dangerous, to each other as well as to women, much more because of their martial skills than their size and strength. Both Esteban and the fungoid man in Chapultepec had wanted to fight. Against them, Tim's size (tending then towards flab) and long-ago rugby experience amounted to nothing. A few years later, back in Calgary, I saw Danny Boyle's 1996 film, Trainspotting. One character in the film, Bigbie (played by Robert Carlyle), is the smallest of the group of friends, a runt of man, but by far the fiercest, and the most inclined to fight. He knows plenty about dirty kicks, broken glass and knife-work. Never in the history of film, did a brute ever look less brutish. The man in Chapultepec had not appeared dangerous. If I had seen him on the street, somewhere along the Paseo de la Reforma, say, on a bright afternoon, I might have thought him strange, a sad-looking nutcase. Nothing more. Yet he was a monster.

The second lesson that I drew from these encounters was that men often attack each other through women. They often fight over women, knowledge gained as early as primary school; but that they will fight through, or across, women constitutes a more sophisticated level of instruction. The woman assumes, probably unwittingly, first the role of blind or lure and then that of weapon, or even battle ground. This is a hard lesson, and not a pleasant one, but it is a good one to possess. In Mazatlán, I hadn't understood that the threat was against Tim, not me. If I had understood that Esteban was staring at me only to lure Tim into a fight, I would have asked to leave. In Mexico City, I understood more, and could even see from nearly the first moment, that the odd-appearing man wanted to engage Tim through me. The second encounter also made me see my own responsibility in what happened. When I had quarreled with Tim in Mazatlán, I had extracted a promise that he would defend me in the future. When he attempted to do so, I was able to count the cost of that promise as he was beaten before my eyes. It was just as he had argued: I might feel myself insulted, but he might be badly hurt, even killed. For a long time after that moment in Chapultepec Park I bore the weight of my own involvement, my responsibility and, as I thought, my guilt. It hung upon me like a private stench. The world of physical aggression is a hard, raw place, and difficult to understand from the outside. Understanding an alien world (really understanding in the sense of being able to make smart decisions within it) is never easy, but, especially when that world is as close as it is also remote, it's best to get on with it as early in life as possible. After Mexico City, I often wished that I had learned a martial art in girlhood.

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