Eyeball the Enemy

Eye-contact is a fascinating phenomenon. With our beloved, it is a delight. With a stranger walking down the hall, it is unbearable. This leads to the exciting game by which I — knowing full well that I am about to cross paths with the aforementioned stranger — pretend not to know it at all. I keep my head down, fascinated — for some inexplicable reason — with the movement of my feet, and only at the last moment look up, make eye-contact, and acknowledge the other’s presence with my most imperceptibly subtle combination of grunt and nod, then woosh — we have passed each other. I usually feel as if I have narrowly avoided something awful.

Eye-contact is a contact of the person, the subject, the unique, unrepeatable consciousness — the inexplicable, unknowable I of the girl standing in front of us. This explains why our parents told us to “look him in the eye,” for it is a look that acknowledges the other person in fullness. This explains why, when men become enamored with a particular curve of a particular woman, they are told “my eyes are up here,” and are helpfully guided back into relation with the person they are communicating with and away from an objectified version of the same.

But why? Why does eye-contact amount to I-contact? It is a truism to say “the eyes are the window to the soul,” which is precisely the same as saying “the eyes are the windows to the person,” but the cynic in me wants to respond, “no, the eyes are the windows to the dark of the vitreous gel behind the pupil.”

And yes, I looked that up for the sake of the post.

Through my eyes I perceive the world. This perception is mine. No other person in the universe occupies the same space as I do and no other person sees the same “angle” of the Cosmos. This fact — that the perception of my eyes is always, at any moment, unique to me — speaks directly to the very nature of human existence. Human existence is a first-person experience of reality. No one else has my experience.

Eye-contact, then, is a mutual meeting by which I perceive you as a unique perceiver. Not only this, but in the same instance, you perceive me as a unique perceiver. Eye-contact is mysterious because it is an acknowledgment of a profound mystery — that you inhabit a perspective and an experience that I can never inhabit, and I inhabit my own. It acknowledges the dignity of the human person because it can never subsume first-person experience into anything less. It can never say “oh, you’re just a stranger,” or a “face in the crowd.” These statements pretend that the person’s existence and experience is “just like” another’s, but when we perceive someone as a unique, unrepeatable perspective in the Cosmos, subsumption into a “common perspective” becomes ridiculous. An unrepeatable perspective cannot be “just like” another.

Perhaps this is why, when someone offers us an insult that generalizes us, calling us an “egoist,” a “slut,” or an “asshole,” we often rejoin with the wonderfully intense demand to “look me in the eye and say that again,” or better yet, “say it to my face.” What we seem to mean, consciously or otherwise, is “acknowledge that I am a unique, ungroupable, unrepeatable existence, and then try and label me into a generally disdained group-existence.”

Perhaps this is why eye-contact can be frightening. It is far easier to exist as a general idea than to exist as the subject that you are. It is easier to exist as part of a crowd. It is easier to exist as a stranger. We spoke of this earlier in our discussion of labels — how much easier it is to simply accumulate a list of labels, to be generalized into a host of different groups. I’ll be pro-life, heterosexual, a hipster, caucasian — Christian, even — and thereby understandable to myself and all others. But a single second of eye-contact obliterates us, strips us back to our core, for by it we are acknowledged beyond all groups as the unrepeatable human person we are,   in the very moment that the other appears to us in precisely the same way (which can be equally scary if were previously comfortable to think of him as part of a crowd, as a citizen, as a stranger, etc.).

It occurs to me now that eye-contact is most essential in moments of love and hate. That it exists as a necessity between lovers, friends and family makes sense: Love is directed towards the person. We want to love the beloved for who she is, and we want to be loved for who we are. Within the erotic, eye-contact is an embodiment of the bittersweet strive to fully contemplate the mystery of the beloved, to fully know, and indeed, to fully become the other, until the two can say “we are one” — an impossible task, as far as this life is concerned, except, perhaps, in the creation of a child, that third who bears testimony to the union of the two.

But hate? Why lock eyes in hatred? Why do we “get in each other’s faces” and “stare each other down?”

Karol Woltiya said that the opposite of love is not hate, but use, and to this I would add that hatred is actually — phenomenologically speaking — extremely close to love, and it is precisely its closeness that makes it so agonizing, as being outside of a locked bathroom is closer to relief than being in a car, and yet all the more agonizing for the proximity. How swiftly the lovers, after an unforgivable offense, shift to an unbearable hatred of each other. How swiftly male enemies turn hatred into love, becoming inseparable friends during the same recess they broke into a fistfight. How similar the experiences of having a lover and an arch-enemy. We think about both all the time, distracted from normal life by their presence, flustered by their nearness. Our heart beats, our blood-boils, and above all, we are filled with the sense of demand, that something must be done, that this person — lover or enemy — must be confronted.

I think this similarity arises from the fact that hatred is not an ignoring of another’s subjectivity. It is not an act of objectification. Dislike and use may be, but hatred is hatred precisely because it hates the person. It acknowledges the unique, unrepeatable subjectivity of a particular person — and wishes him dead.

The presence of eye-contact within the act of hatred makes a twisted sort of sense. It takes the guise of love only so it can come close enough to spit at the innermost person. In the glare of hatred I impose my unique, unrepeatable perspective as diametrically opposed to the perspective of the other. I acknowledge that there will never be another him, not out of any respect for the mystery of his subjectivity, but because only then can I fully oppose his very being. “Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer,” (1 John 3:15) yes, for murder extinguishes a unrepeatable existence.

Hatred is diabolical. The devil does not dislike God, nor did he hate an objectified concept he believed God to be, rather, he rejected God in the fullness of his presence. He hates God. Similarily, the devil does not objectify mankind. He is under no illusion that we are just faces in a crowd or names on a Facebook page. The devil knows we are unique, unrepeatable subjects — and he hates us as such.

Both hatred and love make eye contact, because both hatred and love strive to perceive the other as a unique perceiver, the self that they are and none other. Both shoot their arrows at the core of the person. I think this makes a little more sense out of Christ’s baffling statement: “I wish you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” (Revelation 3:15) Somehow, a hostile hatred of God is closer to love than a bored and boring apathy, for it strives — at the very least — to meet his gaze and live.

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  • AMoniqueOcampo

    As someone who is diagnosed with autism (Asperger’s to be exact), this article is very relevant. Thanks for updating!

  • Anonymous

    Another interesting point that relates to this is the meaning of reconciliation – literally to see eye to eye again. This really flushes out the meaning of this sacrament I think.

  • Jenny

    Awesome reflection! (As usual :) ) have you ever heard of the musical Wicked? There is a song in there that your post reminded me of: http://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=related&v=tduD7L-GlnA

  • Ben @ Two Catholic Men

    Interesting Side Note: In the 70’s TV series “Jesus of Nazareth”,
    there was something special about the actor’s eyes (Robert Powell). He was instructed not to blink. If you watch closely, it’s true. Jesus never blinks. It subconsciously gave a more authoritative quality to the acting with a sense of being more than human.

  • nanomanoman

    Yes, this is basically what Simone Weil says.

    • Barfly_Kokhba

      Do you mean Elie Wiesel? He is the one to whom the quote is generally attributed, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference…”

      • nanomanoman

        No, Simone Weil… ;-)

        • darylg

          Simone Weil is less well-known a name, but definitely worth a read! :)

  • GaudiumDei

    So, then, the question that leads from your final paragraph: is the hating person a better person than the apathetic person? Could we, if we were to suppose, make a possible judgement that apathy is farther from heaven and salvation than hatred? It’s a weird question. Neither is good in itself. Yet I think that, too often, Catholic writers point to hating enemies and declare that they are the worst we must deal with; rather, could it be that we should be pointing to the apathetic populace more? Just wondering.

    • Donovan

      There’s a difference between intelligent, intimate hate and mindless hate. If someone feels the over-urging passion to picket funerals or strap bombs to his chest simply because of what an authoritarian presence instructed them to them the person has been forced to think in an unintelligent manner not of their own. But if one views his enemies as a person with thought, a person with a completely different perspective and life, the the person would probably have a logical reason. Yet it seems if you truly acknowledge a person in its’ whole you will find it is very difficult to actually “hate” them. For if you know why a person feels such anguish then you can sympathize with them, see the beautiful human being lying underneath and come to truly love them. So it comes to show that the opposite of hate must be knowledge.

      • GaudiumDei

        I must admit, good sir, that is an extremely impressive response. I agree with your logic.

  • Halcyon

    This speaks to the fundamental suspicion many have about social media: it is a medium between two unique persons, and thus necessarily a barrier between those persons. It is easy to rant at or “hate on” someone through Facebook or Twitter, but extremely difficult to do the same face-to-face. We’re all polemical over the web, but usually diplomatic in person, precisely because we’re having to deal with another “person,” and not the smoke-and-mirrors abstraction on their web account.

    BTW, this article makes me wonder at our ultimate meeting with God, how now “we see through a glass darkly, but then face-to-face” (I Cor. 13:12). It suddenly seems a lot more terrifying. And wonderful.

    • ladycygnus

      Along the same lines – how easy is it to “fall in love” with an abstract person over the internet. So often people develop fantasies about who the other is, which is little more than a reflection of themselves, perhaps in part because they cannot look into the “eyes of the beloved” except in their own imaginations.

      • Halcyon

        Social media can create strange acts of self-idolatry, yes?

        Reminds me of “That Hideous Strength,” where C.S. Lewis has Ransom tell Merlin that the Moon was once inhabited by a race of people who died out because they refused to have each other but instead carved out statues for themselves that they animated through dark arts.

        I found that image bizarre at first, but now…. 8^|

  • Wife

    So, you enjoy your shoes as she passes. Marc, what do you think about Catholic arranged marriages? At the rate all “this” (hell) is going, do you think we should start seeing a trend pretty soon?
    I’m entirely serious.

  • AeroAg2012


    I read this post this morning while I was in line waiting to testify before the Texas Senate on SB 1, the omnibus pro-life bill. How apropos. Today I tried to test out what meeting the gaze of the people there would bring. As you laid out, it drove home the very humanity of everyone there, not to be reduced, as you said, to mere abstractions. What spiritual warfare is being fought in the halls of the Texas Capitol right now.

    Anyway, thank you for providing a catalyst for my exploration into the humanity of a VERY emotional and intense issue today. You helped me keep my own personhood along with confronting the personhood of everyone present.

  • John Francis

    This reminds me of a great quote from Perelandra, which I just finished reading again:

    “It came into his [Ransom's] mind that in certain old philosophers and
    poets he had read that the mere sight of the devils was one of the
    greatest among the torments of Hell. It had seemed to him till now
    merely a quaint fancy. And yet (as he now saw) even the children know
    better: no child would have any difficulty in understanding that there
    might be a face the mere beholding of which was final calamity. The
    children, the poets, and the philosophers were right. As there is one face above all worlds merely to see which is irrevocable joy, so at the
    bottom of all worlds that face is waiting whose sight alone is the
    misery from which none who beholds it can recover. And though there
    seemed to be, and indeed were, a thousand roads by which a man could
    walk through the world, there was not a single one which did not lead
    sooner or later either to the Beatific or the Miserific Vision.”

    • John Francis

      And another:

      “The faces [of the angels] surprised him very much. Nothing less like the ‘angel’ of popular art could well be imagined. … One single, changeless expression – so clear that it hurt and dazzled him – was stamped on each and there was nothing else there at all. … He concluded in the end that it was charity. But it was terrifyingly different from the expression of human charity, which we always see either blossoming out of, or hastening to descend into, natural affection. Here there was no affection at all … Pure, spiritual, intellectual love shot from their faces like barbed lightning. It was so unlike the love we experience that its expression could easily be mistaken for ferocity.”

  • Ball of String

    Great article and interesting perception…no pun intended. :)

    By the way, the sculpture in the photo is of Cupid and Psyche, correct? It’s one of my favorites. The gazes between the two are done so well–a wonderful representation of what you presented.

  • Isabella Rose

    In some cultures eye contact is considered offensive.

    Even in Western Civilization, during the Middle Ages (if I am remembering correctly) it was considered amongst some to be inappropriate.

    The Poor Clares never looked anyone in the eye after they joined the order – I remember an account of St. Therese’s sister Leonie telling one of them to take a good look at her eyes, for they would never see them again after she joined.

    It is all in how a culture looks at it. Some cultures find it too personal.

  • Joseph Antoniello

    A couple things: You misspelled Wojtyla and similarly. Jussayin’.

  • Faith

    Isabella Rose is correct. This article only makes sense in our present Western culture. My Korean friends think it’s rude to look people in the eye.

  • AlexR

    Last paragraph equals this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om6HcUUa8DI