Monday, July 22, 2013

`Going Into a Drawing-Room Without My Shoes'

Staring, we’re taught, is rude, and that lesson is mostly true but not always easy to practice. We stare at a beautiful woman (ogling, leering), an ugly woman (gawking), an automobile wreck (rubbernecking), a spectacular sunset (gazing). Such events have one thing in common – each is out of the ordinary. They are wondrous, arousing or appalling, never merely routine. Three of these four acts of staring are discouraged as voyeuristic, full of dubious pleasure at another’s expense. Morally, they’re related to theft. But is staring always a questionable act? Are there occasions when to avert one’s eye would be inappropriate, morally dubious, making staring a positive good? 

Flannery O’Connor thinks so, in a special sense. In “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose) she writes: “The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.” She is addressing the way writing is taught in universities. Several sentences earlier she writes: “A mind cleared of false emotion and false sentiment and egocentricity is going to have at least those roadblocks removed from its path.” She urges writers to cleanse “cheapness” from their minds and work, the easy, proven formulas, the pre-fab emotions.  One way to do this is to stare, to peer attentively at the world. “Any discipline,” she says, “can help your writing: logic, mathematics, theology, and of course and particularly drawing. Anything that helps you to see, anything that makes you look.” 

On the other hand, O’Connor, a connoisseur of the Southern grotesque, says nothing about those who wish to be stared at, the exhibitionists of the world, even writers, who specialize in attention-seeking cheapness. O’Connor knew and admired Dr. Johnson, and probably approved of this exchange reported by Boswell on Sept. 30, 1769: 

“Boswell. `Is it wrong then, Sir, to affect singularity, in order to make people stare?’ Johnson. “Yes, if you do it by propagating errour; and, indeed, it is wrong in any way. There is in human nature a general inclination to make people stare; and every wise man has himself to cure of it, and does cure himself. If you wish to make people stare by doing better than others, why make them stare till they stare their eyes out. But consider how easy it is to make people stare, by being absurd. I may do it by going into a drawing-room without my shoes.’”

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