Can I Get a Witness?

Illustration by Hadley Hooper

I WAS VISITING A HOUSE THAT HAD A CHILD IN IT. HE WAS LOOKING around for someone to watch him play a video game, a Phantom Menace scenario, with lots of light-saber action, and beyond that I don't know what the hell it was about. Video games are taken as the very token of the new solipsism -- a black-hole attention-suck that kills the possibility of old-fashioned human relations -- and yet my little friend was quite insistent that someone else be present. Not to play with him, just to watch him play.

He wasn't exactly showing off, either; he was taking a lot of hits and getting backed into corners. But it made a difference to him to be observed. And what if he'd actually beaten the game, and no one had seen it? If you tell a joke that nobody hears, is it funny? If you do a magic trick to an empty room, is there any magic? It's the old question about the tree falling in the forest -- from the point of view of the tree.

Kids are always asking to be looked at; acknowledgment is the air they breathe. But we all like to be watched, within the bounds of decorum, and sometimes without. While there are things most of us would rather do absolutely in private -- and I will allow you to fill in that blank for yourself, thinkers of low thoughts -- there is nothing that somebody wouldn't rather do in the presence of another person, or persons. Even many persons. Big Brother and its ilk seem to me not aberrant but rather expressions of something deep and common in human nature.

It doesn't surprise me, then, that, apart from the opinion pages, the nation is not significantly upset by the prospect of being increasingly spied upon by its government; certainly, it's not like back in the good old Days of Rage, when it would have been the cue to overturn a police car or occupy an administration building or set something on fire at least. But I suppose the hippies really did have to worry about being spied on, since they were all "holding" -- and of course the drugs made them paranoid on top of it. Nowadays, however, the people's paranoia is all directed toward outsiders, and civic infantilism is the order of the day; we are crying to be watched over, and are in any case already used to surveillance, accustomed to offering even our pee for analysis, aware to the point of forgetfulness that every financial or cyberspatial transaction leaves digital footprints in the nexus. Although I'm not anxious to have my video rentals or Kylie Minogue dance-mix downloads made public -- whoops! -- I am not losing any sleep over who might be peeking through my window. Peek away! I'd be flattered to find out the FBI had a file on me, actually; it's always nice to know that someone is paying attention. (But they can't have my pee.)

IT'S SAID THAT THE VIEWER COMPLETES THE ARTWORK. But the viewer also completes the artist. One does sometimes hear stories of painters whose stockpiled canvases are discovered only after death, and whose art was entirely a matter of private compulsion -- though if one counts those voices in the head perhaps not entirely private -- and likewise of artists who would rather destroy than display their work. (Or perhaps that is just something I saw in a movie.) But we find such tales sinister, even shocking -- just as we do that of the movie star who turns her back on fame to go off into the woods and raise rabbits.

The pathological form of the need to be seen is called "show business." The actor, the comic, the androgynous death-rocker in pancake makeup and pink jodhpurs have so often proclaimed their native insecurity that it is taken as a given now that anyone who gets up on a stage or in front of a camera is making up for a bad childhood or suffering some kind of serotonin deficiency. George to Ringo: "You've got an inferiority complex, you have." Ringo to George: "I know, that's why I play the drums. It's me active compensatory factor."

I can't say what I'm actively compensating for, but I crave response as much as or more than the next person. I've written hardly anything that wasn't meant for someone else to read, whether a letter to a friend or something for publication. (Though, of course, publication is no guarantee of being read, as I think sadly whenever I pass the remainder table at the bookstorium -- that tree-in-the-forest business again -- or wonder, indeed, if there's anyone on the other end of these words.) I've never kept a journal, never wrote impassioned poetry only to tear it up -- but if I ever do write impassioned poetry, that will undoubtedly be the thing to do with it. The idea of an audience, if nothing else, is always there. Sitting alone, noodling on the piano or the guitar, I am engaged and entertained and enriched, but somewhere in the back of my mind persists the notion, like a low-level hum, that what I am really doing is rehearsing -- preparing for the eventual moment I'll play for someone else.

NOT EVEN GOD IS ABOVE SUCH THOUGHTS: AS the story goes, the first thing It did after completing the basic package -- sky, earth, water, elephants -- was to create an audience, someone to say, "Well done, God!" It made Itself a little pal, to reflect back Its glory -- but then made the mistake of making Its pal a little pal of its own, who turned out to be more attractively configured. (The Lord Your God is a Jealous God -- James M. Cain would have been proud to write that story.) And that is how babies are born.

At the same time, God is the ultimate audience. It is a great comfort, to the sort of people who take great comfort in such thoughts, to think not a sparrow falleth but that God doesn't mark it down in the big book of fallen sparrows. God sees you, too, if It is not too busy keeping track of the birds -- sees you playing your video game, standing on your head, putting beans up your nose, all that clever stuff you can do. It sees you when you're sleeping, It knows when you're awake, and when you're really awake but pretending to be asleep. Still, given the unreliability of divine feedback, even the most ardent believers cultivate the interest of people-sized people.

There may be a few real hermits in the world, those rare individuals who thrive individually, who really feel at home on a mountaintop or a desert island. But most of us require at least one other person around in order to feel substantial, opaque -- not a ghost. Self-satisfaction only goes so far; no one gets dressed up pretty merely to please themselves. The fact that I can say the alphabet backward is only valuable to me in that it ultimately might impress you. Also there is this thing I do with my ears. You really ought to see it.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >