K Paoletter 18: On Looking

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Throughout the 1530s— a decade when plagues were a touch more commonplace than they are today, though no less dreadful— a German painter by the name of Hans Holbein was a regular presence at King Henry VIII’s court. You may not recognize the name, even if you’ve probably seen his portraits of the English luminaries he mixed with: the philosopher Thomas More, moody and swallowed up in fur, or else the king himself, white tights and an enterprising mien, his shoulders made improbably broad by their draping in gold-embroidered velvet. Thomas Cromwell, the royal Rasputin, received the Holbein treatment as well, and in Hilary Mantel’s novelization of his life, Wolf Hall, he inspects it with no small trepidation:

He sees his painted hand, resting on the desk before him, holding a paper in a loose fist… the motion he has captured, that folding of the fingers, is as sure as that of a slaughterman’s when he picks up the killing knife… He had time to think, while Hans drew him, and his thoughts took him far off, to another country. You cannot trace those thoughts behind his eyes… He wears his winter clothes. Inside them, he seems made of a more impermeable substance than most men, more compacted. He could well be wearing armor. He foresees a day when he might have to.

Cromwell finds it “uncanny” to observe himself in this way, “to look at himself in sections, digit by digit.” Yet however much he attends to each daub of oil on canvas, Cromwell struggles to stop his mind from flitting away from the rendering in favor of memories of his time in Italy and his plans for England’s future. Cromwell sees the image of himself, but the image is inextricable from his otherwise occupied mind. Meanwhile, his son Gregory stands at his shoulder, simply looking. His discomfort rising, Cromwell makes a half-joke, remarking that he fears a comment made by a boy at court about his appearance may be correct. “I once heard him say I looked like a murder.”

His son isn’t laughing. “Did you not know?”

***

The other day— this year, I mean, in 2020, this miserable time— Theresa and I were on one of our daily socially-distant perambulations around our neck of Cambridge and found ourselves drawn into the deserted campus of MIT. Coming upon the backside of the Stata Center, a Frank Gehry-designed slapdash of masonry and stainless steel, we climbed a yellow-brick staircase up to a high plaza which hugs one of the building’s many reflective protrusions and overlooks a quad. On the other side of the structure’s rear entrance, the plaza falls away into an amphitheater, a dozen rows of seats leading back down to ground level.

The Stata Center is one of those sites you go by all the time but rarely stop to look at it, never mind appreciate how totally weird the building is. Similarly, MIT is a place I pass through almost daily (one end of campus is a five-minute walk from our house), even as I maintain little interest in the innovations that are supposedly made there. But on this particular occasion, the two of us had nowhere better to be; more to the point, we had the whole place to ourselves. Nobody was using the lawns as a shortcut to Kendall Square, no dogs were being walked, there were no students parading around with that special, fragile confidence unique to undergrads.

So we looked. We looked and looked and looked. We looked at the one part of the Stata Center’s façade that’s painted yellow. We looked at the trees planted in the midst of the amphitheater, which Theresa observed must ruin the space’s acoustics. We looked at the empty bike racks, at the blooming flowers some poor facilities crew must have installed ahead of an admitted students weekend that never occured. Once we were done looking at all that, we started walking back home, stopping along the way to observe a forsythia bush, some dappled sunlight on the bricks, the neatly painted trim of a duplex. Looking in the window of a biotech office near our house, you can see a Corona bottle some geneticist placed at his bench as a gag back in February. It hasn’t been touched since. 

Back in the ‘70s, Susan Sontag wrote that “life is not about significant details, illuminated in a flash, fixed forever.” She never had to ride out a pandemic in the springtime. Life, in this moment, is narrow. If we stray beyond a two-mile radius from our house, it’s only because we’ve decided to kill a Saturday afternoon by driving to some other desolate patch of the city (Boston College one weekend, Wellesley the next) and take a look at that instead. This is us, doing what’s necessary. Wearing our masks, crossing the street away from neighbors, avoiding the swarm of joggers along the Charles, pausing every day at the same trees to mark the progress of their branches into buds into blossoms into leaves. 

It’s been an education in looking, and how different looking is from seeing, watching, or even perceiving. Only one of those acts requires intentionality. Looking at your phone while watching Netflix? That’s a statement of priority, just as looking at the friend who’s sitting next to you at a bar is different from seeing that same person for a drink. Many of us are using this time of quarantine for seeing and watching. Seeing old chums on Zoom, watching the ten-part Michael Jordan documentary. I’m doing those things too, but when I’m out walking, I find myself focusing more and more on looking as well.

Fine art is one of the few mediums that demands looking, demands that the observer make an active choice to engage with the work. Nobody wants to acknowledge they have the face of a murderer, even if that’s what they see every time they glance at a mirror. But when that same face is captured for posterity in oils, the calculus changes. This power to command someone to look— and, in looking, understand— belongs to photography as well. The images of cars massing at food banks in San Antonio and Minneapolis and everywhere else, the photographs of chilled semi-trucks parked outside of hospitals in New York City. It’s only through looking at these pictures that the world we live in now can become at all legible.

This plague is oppressive like the weather, like a storm that never lifts. A hurricane you stock up for again and again, loading up your grocery cart to capacity in order to delay your next shopping trip as long as possible. Looking out the window, you see nothing. But that’s what plagues looks like: nothing, a vacancy. Yet it’s a vacancy that feels immense. It is too much to bear, this thing we cannot see. But it’s worthwhile to keep looking. This unbearable time, some days it looks like daffodils and some days it looks like moving morgues. Life, right now, is nothing but these significant details, fixing themselves forever in the mind. 


Two of my articles have been published since the last newsletter, though I can’t possibly blame you for having missed them. One’s a feature in The Baffler about the bizarre habit many restaurant critics have of praising eateries that only the wealthy can afford to go to while at the same time attempting to reassure the reader of their working-class bonafides. The other is an interview with the film critic A.S. Hamrah that appeared on Components, in which he holds forth on the habits of his peers as well as the “the great Baudrillardian fatberg” our media ecosystem has become, in which “politics, sports, and media all become one thing that just gets bigger and bigger and bigger.” 

The April issue of Harper’s includes a remarkable travelogue from the Jamaican poet Ishion Hutchinson about visiting Ethiopia’s famed rock churches. Hutchinson was raised in the Rastafarian tradition, which holds the site of those churches, Lalibela, to be a promised land— as he puts it, “The word ‘Lalibela’ was like the threshold of heaven when it was pronounced.” Hutchinson’s prose is enveloping in its beauty, and the perspective he brings is a splendid reminder of just how ill-formed most American narratives about the developing world really are. 


That’s all for now— stay safe and wash your hands, please. 

Your pal,

Kyle

 

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