Lighted Windows in Lockdown

The visible and invisible lives of others

Ben Libman
Illustration by Laura Padilla Castellanos

When California’s lockdown began, in the middle of March 2020, windows became material to me in a way they hadn’t been before. The virus had deepened the architectural division between public and private. Being locked down, or locked in, was opposed to being out there, where people became vectors and threat roamed. Rather than go out, one looked out; or, if one did go out, one spent one’s time in the eerie streets looking back in. At least, I did. In the first weeks of the pandemic, my partner and I would walk the streets of San Francisco after work, wandering around the Lower Haight, drinking beers in the darkness of Alamo Square. We looked in at the spaces now closed to us: shops, schools, offices buildings, gyms, power stations. Above all, we looked inside homes, because, suddenly, that’s where everyone was. The effect was greatest at night: each lit room like a stage, the yellow glow bathing its occupants and shrouding the spectators from view.

We could not help looking in, judging or envying the lives of others. One night, we looked through a ground-floor window and saw two people having sex on their sofa, not four feet from us. We had watched them move in a couple of weeks earlier, lifting that sofa from the van. Were they simply unused to street-level living, forgetting they could be seen? Or did they have a desire to be watched? We did not linger. But each evening after, we never failed to turn our heads and look, never articulating what we hoped to find.

When I was a child
, I used to sit in my darkened bedroom and look out across the street at our neighbor’s house, waiting for a light to go on. One lamp in a room on the top floor was on a timer, flicking on each evening. I would sit and hold my breath, hoping that someone would appear. I decided that the room was a small library or study, rarely entered. Still, I took up my post nightly, and once a week or so I would be rewarded with a glimpse of my neighbor, the kind, gray-haired man who often waved from his driveway when I returned home from school, and who now appeared at the window with a book in hand. I saw him, but always wished to see something more, some secret; proof, perhaps, that he was a villain, a superhero, a madman.

This education in the visible and invisible lives of others, earned with one cheek pressed against the sill, was also one in my own habits. I was newly aware of the way I got dressed and undressed, the disarray of my bedroom. The moment my own light went on, I knew I could be seen, just like my neighbor, only I would be more cautious than him. For who knew who was watching?

One of the first novels I cherished
was an English translation of La Princesse de Clèves, the 1678 classic by Madame de Lafayette. My French teacher told me it was the greatest book he had read, so I borrowed it from the library. La Princesse de Clèves is often called the first psychological novel in the French tradition: a narrative of courtly intrigue, thwarted love, deception, espionage, and transgressive encounters. I turned one scene over and over in my mind. The Duke de Nemours, in love with the titular princess but unable to be with her, sets out for her country estate in Colomiers. His plan is vague, his intention is simply to see her, to lay eyes upon her. He sneaks through the garden, stations himself by the princess’s window. Night has descended, and the torches in her rooms have all been lit. Unseen, the duke watches as she makes an ornamental ribbon for a cane that, unbeknownst to her, belongs to him.

It is impossible to express what Monsieur de Nemours felt at this moment; to see, at midnight, in the finest place in the world, a lady he adored, to see her without her knowing that he saw her, and to find her wholly taken up with things that related to him, and to the passion which she concealed from him; this is what was never tasted nor imagined by any other lover.

It is a fantasy played out to perfection. But for the voyeur shrouded in darkness, the risk of the lighted window is twofold: it is not merely that he might be discovered where he should not be, but also that he might be seen to see. It takes only the suspicion of the one observed that she is observed for her to grab the nearest torch to illuminate the balcony where he stands, and for the unstable arrangement to founder. When Nemours, “heartened by the hopes which everything he had seen gave him,” advances toward the light, his scarf snags on the window, making a noise. Startled, the princess turns toward the blackness, and imagines she sees the duke. She doesn’t really, but it strikes her as the first possibility, that he is the one there. Why? Because he is the one she desires. The moment the princess, undressed and alone, is startled into the consciousness that she could be watched, is also the moment she conjures a specific watcher.

I am no Duke de Nemours. Looking into the warm rooms of San Francisco I considered that, even if I disclosed myself by my footfall, even if those within snapped their gaze suddenly to the darkened street, they would not see me, but the spy of their dreams.

In the penultimate volume
of In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust describes the thrill, a sort of ecstatic melancholy, that a lighted window can strike in the heart of the average evening stroller. He writes (in C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s translation) of “those glorious evenings when the windows of kitchens, of girls’ schools, standing open to the view like wayside shrines, allow the street to crown itself with a diadem of those demi-goddesses who, conversing, ever so close to us, with their peers, fill us with a feverish longing to penetrate into their mythological existence.” This line of Proust’s captures the project of his novel, the desire to penetrate the world that once was. Indeed, any novel offers a window and illumines what’s on the other side: some other “mythological existence.”

Proust takes the logic of the lighted window—its spatial arrangements, the lines of sight it offers and forecloses—to be foundational to all relationships. In Search of Lost Time is masterful in describing how the terrors of being seen and of being seen to see are to be found everywhere, all the time. We see lovers gazing at lovers (Marcel’s beloved Albertine kept captive in a lighted room); we see voyeurs stumbling upon illicit trysts; we see the poor gaping at those who dispossess them; we see the weary soldier longing for the warmth of home.

On a visit to Balbec in Within a Budding Grove, young Marcel is sensitive to the dissonance between the extreme opulence of the seaside hotel and the modest existence of the town’s inhabitants. Recounting the habits of four travelers who spend all their time in the hotel dining room, Marcel notes how the scene changes as evening descends. The light-flooded room full of diners becomes

an immense and wonderful aquarium against whose wall of glass the working population of Balbec, the fishermen and also the tradesmen’s families, clustering invisibly in the outer darkness, pressed their faces to watch, gently floating upon the golden eddies within, the luxurious life of its occupants, a thing as extraordinary to the poor as the life of strange fishes or molluscs (an important social question, this: whether the wall of glass will always protect the wonderful creatures at their feasting, whether the obscure folk who watch them hungrily out of the night will not break in some day to gather them from their aquarium and devour them).

Marcel’s “important social question”—whether, in a situation of transparent inequality, the status quo can be maintained, or whether the lower classes will revolt against their exploiters—stands quietly at the heart of the novel. The simmering potential for violence is a source of both fascination and suffering for the young Marcel, whose upper-middle-class status permits him to hobnob with the lower aristocracy. Within the “motionless, formless mass there in the dark,” he imagines “some student of human ichthyology” studying the wealthy diners. He imagines, in other words, the objectification of people like him, watched from without like so many fish, the desiccating aristocracy of the Third Republic running desperately through the gestures of an outdated hierarchy while upstart members of the bourgeoisie, seeing that the tide will soon turn, push at the dividing panes.

You see yourself as the other must see you, and the horror doubles at the thought of the other seeing you now seeing yourself.

The vision at Balbec alters Marcel, raising him into a sort of muted class consciousness. It’s also a new frame for self-consciousness. In the final volume of the novel, the memory of the diners being watched returns, not for the first time. As the First World War rages, Marcel sees poor soldiers roam the streets of Paris: “At dinner-time the restaurants were full and if, passing in the street, I saw a poor fellow home on leave, freed for six days from the constant risk of death, fix his eyes an instant upon the brilliantly illuminated windows, I suffered as at the hotel at Balbec.” He stands with these men in the darkening street, physically but also in spirit. Years after Balbec, after rising through the wrinkled ranks of high society, Marcel remains unable to shake this doubled form of awareness, this capacity to see himself being seen. He suffers, knowing the truth about himself and his kind: that they are the beneficiaries of an old order, relics of the world of yesterday.

Jacques Lacan posited that
the mirror stage in a child’s development is a moment of misrecognition. The child recognizes himself in the glass, but the image is only one sort of self—an aggregate of the imperfect ways he is viewed by others. When he accepts this reflection (“that’s me!”), he stitches within himself, like a sealed void, a true self he will never come to know. The lighted window, at each moment when its two-way mirror effects are felt, is a reenactment of this stage. It produces a moment of false clarity: one skin of self-deception is shed under the guise of epiphany, of sudden recognition, only to reveal another.

This consciousness, the crystallization of terror within a lighted room, proceeds like this. You feel watched, your eyes search the darkness, but the window fails. It has become reflective, returning only your gaze. You see yourself as the other must see you, and the horror doubles at the thought of the other seeing you now seeing yourself. You get the faintest inkling of the falseness of the “me” that you have been living with. This self-recognition, dim, oblique, comingles with the shame of having always misrecognized oneself—and is ultimately its own kind of falsehood.

The way one was, the way one is now: a new vantage has been gained, but it can only be maintained by telling the story of its emergence, for to tell of one’s past self is to assert that it is past, that one is now beyond it. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s confessional saga My Struggle, a linked series of autofictions spanning the author’s life from childhood to child-rearing, gets underway (after an extended meditation on death) with Karl Ove confronting his reflection in the window.

As I sit here writing this, I recognize that more than thirty years have passed. In the window before me I can vaguely make out the reflection of my face. Apart from one eye, which is glistening, and the area immediately beneath, which dimly reflects a little light, the whole of the left side is in shadow. Two deep furrows divide my forehead, one deep furrow intersects each cheek, all of them as if filled with darkness, and with the eyes staring and serious, and the corners of the mouth drooping, it is impossible not to consider this face gloomy.

What has engraved itself in my face?

The answer to this question propels the unfurling of the narrative. The failing window is the specular equivalent of Victor Shklovsky’s notion of defamiliarization: the minor distortion of common occurrences, which beckons a total reconsideration of what one knows. It is equally a place from which to begin as one from which to take stock of what has happened.

The novel’s beginning, then, is dual in nature: it is the beginning both of Karl Ove’s narrative past, the years which he must now account for, and of the act of writing that past. As he narrates his life, Karl Ove himself passes through time; the man reflected in the window who stirred him to this accounting is already someone else, an older version of himself. As the saga progresses, it comes to be about this problem; it takes stock of time’s slippage at the same time as it enacts it. By Book Six, the effects of the publication of Books One and Two have themselves been subsumed into the fabric of memoir, the project swallowing its own tail. The moment of recognition in the window—of the rupture between now and then, between self and past self—repeats itself only to slip away each time. For the glimmer of self-recognition is yet another fiction. The now is always already other, the furrows already grown deeper, and oneself already a stranger.

No writer since Proust has understood
as deeply as Marilynne Robinson the pathology of the lighted window: the window freezes those on either side of it into a relationship both rigid and fragile. The one within, seeing one’s own reflection, wants to break the cycle of misrecognition; the one without wants to penetrate the glass boundary and take part in the mythological existence within. The window makes fixed an arrangement poised to shatter.

Robinson’s Housekeeping imagines an alternative way of resolving this tension. Ruth, the narrator, has lost her mother to suicide. Passed from caretaker to caretaker, she and her younger sister, Lucille, are painfully unwatched, unseen. For Ruth, the returned gaze of the window can be an oblique comfort, masking the darkness beyond.

When one looks from inside at a lighted window, or looks from above at the lake, one sees the image of oneself in a lighted room, the image of oneself among trees and sky—the deception is obvious, but flattering all the same.

Mostly, though, Ruth finds herself on the outside. When her aunt Sylvie comes to care for the sisters in their late grandmother’s house, Ruth grows attracted to her way of life. Sylvie is an absentminded “transient” who does not know how to keep house in the typical fashion; she allows the house to grow dark, to become flooded, to lose the boundaries which distinguish it from the outside. Soon Ruth finds herself drifting to places beyond the home, to railways and shelters by distant lakes. She finds herself newly struck by the harsh divisions erected by lighted windows: “When one looks from the darkness into the light . . . one sees all the difference between here and there, this and that.” Like Marcel at Balbec, she perceives the boundary “between here and there” to be the site of resentment: “Perhaps all unsheltered people are angry in their hearts, and would like to break the roof, spine, and ribs, and smash the windows and flood the floor and spindle the curtains and bloat the couch.”

We confront our image thrown back to us disfigured, othered, our faces’ asymmetries plain, the rooms in which we spend our days suddenly shabby, cluttered, strange.

Ruth feels it herself, that will to break the window, to show the people inside the fragility of their well-lit indifference: “It would be terrible,” she thinks, “to stand outside in the dark and watch a woman in a lighted room studying her face in a window, and to throw a stone at her, shattering the glass, and then to watch the window knit itself up again . . . to see a shattered mirror heal.” But this terror reveals something true: it is not the window but the light that draws boundaries against the dark. And even as it makes visible the divisions that stoke resentment, the light is a neutral technology; like the first Biblical command, it is an act of differentiation. It also inscribes the line between self and other, past and present, defining the sharp edge of existence.

As Ruth grows closer to Sylvie, she comes to understand that even as it is unconscionable to live with the delusion of one’s reflection, it is untenable to live undifferentiated, dissolved in the darkness, as Sylvie is slowly becoming. There is a third way, one that Sylvie proposes but cannot enact so long as she is tethered to the domestic sphere: that is the life of the transient, the observer who glides from shadow to shadow, never lingering long enough to become lost. The transient is not a stalker, but a kindly, living ghost. She needs the light as much as those dwelling inside it—those like Ruth’s sister, Lucille. Ruth, at the end of the novel, imagines Lucille, pictures seeing her from the darkness beyond, in a warm kitchen, with daughters of her own, looking to “the black window” for a face—a face “rapt and full of tender watching,” of a phantom who trails “a strong smell of lake water.”

I prefer, these recent evenings
, to go as long as possible without the lights on, to allow the flow of shadow to pool where it wants. Inside, my eyes are strained by the light of a new window, the one permitted by the camera of the laptop on which I now compose, a window which I erect daily like everyone else, now, in rooms which once were strictly private.

We see others, and see them seeing, and are ourselves seen and seen to see. Like Karl Ove before his translucent reflection, we confront our image thrown back to us disfigured, othered, our faces’ asymmetries plain, the rooms in which we spend our days suddenly shabby, cluttered, strange. Partners, parents, and children are forced to slink outside the frame, crawl below the line of sight to fetch a book. When the windows open and the microphones unmute, we are on—bathed in light, interpellated by the machine, the drama of the lighted window made burlesque. The Zoom window is the lighted window perfected and taken to its extreme. The element of chance—of catching an unexpected glimpse, of hearing the rustle or rap of a lover—has been abolished. We are the duke loudly announcing himself at the window; we are the princess putting on a show, for spies we’ve never dreamed of. I can see everyone, and everyone can see me, and this is all normal, I am told, not worth the complaint, as I type this sentence, awash in electric light.

Ben Libman is the author of The Third Solitude, forthcoming from Dundurn Press. He lives in Paris.
Ben Libman
Originally published:
March 14, 2022


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