“If we start with the first revelation of the Other as a look, we must recognize that we experience our inapprehensible being-for-others in the form of a possession. I am possessed by the Other; the Other’s look fashions my body in its nakedness, causes it to be born, sculptures it, produces it…He makes me be and thereby he possesses me, and this possession is nothing other than the consciousness of possessing me…”
This quotation from Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness delineates a structural relation of opposing or warring selves, in which the very look, or gaze, of the Other inevitably reduces the self to an object. Within this relation, one’s selfhood can only be reclaimed by entry into a sort of combat with the Other, reclaiming oneself as Self by taking a stance of opposition: “thus the project of recovering myself is fundamentally a project of absorbing the Other.”
The terrible thing here is that only through the objectifying gaze of the Other does one come to be aware of oneself as a being.
This is all very depressing, and I don’t deny that it happens, but what nihilistic despair, to assume that this, inevitably, is our only possible relation. Hints of such a nihilistic despair creep into that far better existentialist work, Simone de Beauvois’ The Second Sex – and, this is not surprising, because nowhere does this inevitability seem more fixed than in the culturally constructed relations between men and women.
It seems that too many Christian discourses on purity reinforce this idea. To look upon the Other – particularly the sexual Other – is, inevitably, to make an object of her. This is the common refrain in so many injunctions to chastity, as young men and even boys are taught to look away, as in this piece, whenever a woman whom some adults might construe as immodestly dressed looms upon the horizon. This trend in some traditional Christian groups equates male purity with not looking at women, or at least only looking at their faces (but not their mouths!) – and looking very briefly.
At least Sartre’s dismal view of the human gaze emphasizes the objectification of the Other as the core danger. This is a legitimate moral concern, and I think Christian moralists would do well to keep the focus on this when discussing the sin of lust. I disagree with Sartre that all looks are inevitably objectifying, but looks that are objectifying are, indeed, morally wrong – whether the look reduces the Other to a sex-toy to be enjoyed, an enemy to be killed, or a worker to be exploited.
The creepy thing is that the Christian tradition of custodia occulorem, or custody of the eyes, often placed the danger not only in the disposition of the objectifying subject, but in some malevolent power radiating from the objectified one. Custody of the eyes originally entailed a responsibility to avoid gazing on anything that might be potentially dangerous to the soul (idols, for instance, which were sometimes regarded with an almost superstitious dread). But over time it came to mean only avoiding gazing lustfully at someone of the opposite sex. The injunction was usually directed towards men, not because prior cultures shared our bias that “men are more visual,” but because custody of the eyes was connected with a fear of the actual agency of dangerous objects, and female bodies were considered to have just such agency, through the wiles of the devil. Tertullian (who also advised men to avoid looking at depictions of demons) declared: “woman, you are the gate to hell.”
Sermons against unchastity often utilized hyperbolic rhetoric to highlight the deceptive nature of female beauty, and the female body was seen as itself the terrain of dangers. While to explore the uncharted territories of this terrain might appeal to erotic poets, the message of the moralists was more along the lines of “here be dragons.”
“To avoid the sight of dangerous objects, the saints were accustomed to keep their eyes almost continually fixed on the earth, and to abstain even from looking at innocent objects,” says St. Alphonsus de Liguori.
I have difficulty with this idea, on a general theological level. We see constantly in the Gospels that Jesus looks upon the faces of those to whom he ministers. Why would he not want his followers to do the same? Certainly, there are times when it is fitting to avert one’s gaze, but to be staring constantly at the earth seems to indicate fear, not trust, as though creation truly were corrupt all-through, as though the divine were not made present analogously in all beings.
I have special difficulty with this idea from a female standpoint. Is it really so impossible for a male to look at me without stumbling headlong into a pit of iniquity? I am reminded of the comical scene in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, when a hapless sailor accidentally beholds the protagonist’s female ankle and nearly plummets from the rigging to his death. This sort of protection of the male from the dangerous female body (or protection of the female from the dangerous male gaze? funny how we’re never entirely certain which) is not healthy.
A man who is brought up to believe that looking on a woman will provoke lust is likely to look on a woman and experience lust, because he has transgressed into the realm of the forbidden, where everything is tinged with fantasy, and faces hide behind masks. How would it be possible for a man raised this way to work effectively as a doctor, or a nurse, or a first responder? If a man feels incapable of looking at women in bikinis without lustfully objectifying them, how would he react if he went to do mission work in cultures where woman casually reveal parts of the body traditionally covered in western societies? A man who marries may find this approach to women to be especially frustrating on his wedding night, since it is likely to provoke either over-excitement or guilt – or, probably, both. And if priests are trained not to look at women, or to glance at us only sparingly, how will they be able to minister to women as spiritual directors or confessors, without everything being very awkward?
While I am glad that recent philosophies of the person have led us away from the superstitious terror of the female body that was once mistaken for virtue, many Christians are in danger or embedding chastity within a morass of Sartrean nihilistic despair, in which the mere phenomenon of one person looking at another becomes an act of violence. I do not deny that there is always a danger of violation in relationships, especially between men and women, as sexuality is so often entwined with power, but to view this as inevitable is hopeless indeed. Perhaps there may be phases of development in which avoiding looking at people is somehow necessary, but it is not a mature condition, and certainly not a goal to strive for. There are also times when it is correct and moral to look away, to respect the individual’s intention to be veiled or private. This applies especially in cases when a person is helpless. If a person is lying wounded, naked, and unconscious, the decent thing is to look away, or better yet to find a way safely and respectfully to cover that person. But a person who meets you face to face, greeting you as a person, deserves to be greeted as a person in response.
Training in sexual responsibility should not draw lines around most of humanity and signal with an arrow that “this alone is safe to see.” It should involve training in seeing the other not as an object, but as a subject herself. When we see the person as subject we see that the person possesses herself, that the person is a whole in himself and cannot be reduced to fragmentary desirable parts. We learn to see the person not simply as a token “woman” or “man” but as someone unique and irreplaceable. There may be an array of fitting and morally acceptable erotic approaches to the person as person, as we look with fascination on the infinite mystery of the other, and ask that he reveal himself to us as a friend.
A mature custody of the eyes should entail, not looking away, but seeing rightly.
Image credit: Ulixes mosaic at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia. 2nd century AD. Public domain in the US. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mosa%C3%AFque_d%27Ulysse_et_les_sir%C3%A8nes.jpg