The quest to see without being seen

Becca Rothfeld
An image from Ingmar Bergman's Persona
Still from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966). Courtesy the Criterion Collection.

May I disappear in order that those things that I see may become perfect in their beauty from the very fact that they are no longer things I see.
­—Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

Other people’s loves are like other people’s dreams—boring and incomprehensible to observers.

Or so I thought when I first navigated to Rachel’s profile, knowing that she was the person for whom Adam had left me. I clicked through beaches she’d visited and lumpy cakes she’d baked, passages she’d underlined and toddlers she’d tickled. Her bookshelf jutted into the background of a few photos, and when I zoomed in and squinted, I could make out a row of mint-­colored Penguin Classics. An earlier, non-­Adam boyfriend still liked some of her photos, which I knew because I clicked not only through her pictures but also through the profiles of the all people who had liked them, through their photos, through the profiles of the people who had liked those, and so on, until at last I found myself hunched over my phone at five in the morning, staring at pictures of Rachel’s ex-­boyfriend’s third-­grade teacher’s tomato garden.

Adam himself did not feature in any of Rachel’s posts, much less any of her ex-­boyfriend’s third-­grade teacher’s posts, but I saw them through the lens of his interest in her, which was palpable as a residue. Maybe it’s not quite right to say that she was the person for whom he had left me, “left” implying that I had ever represented a destination. Nothing was permanent for Adam, neither me nor Rachel nor our immediate predecessor, who maintained a haphazard photography blog she probably thought no one was obsessive enough to discover. The last time I opened his refrigerator, I found three bottles of bad vodka and a crinkled baggie of psychedelic mushrooms. Red-­eyed and restless, he was only ever hours away from some fantastic intoxication. And yet here was Rachel, mild and milky, impossible to reconcile.

Rachel had a common name—she shared it with four therapists, a screenwriter, a gospel singer, and an avid Amazon reviewer. Still, I scrolled through all twenty pages of search results, ignoring clips of the gospel singer and reviews of the therapists, right-­clicking relevant links until pages cracked off like chipping plaster. Every night for a week, I lay awake in my stagnant bedroom sweating and scrolling. She had a Facebook, an Instagram, a Twitter, a blog, a LinkedIn, a Pinterest, and a Goodreads account. She liked Jane Austen and Mary Oliver. She had written a column for her college newspaper, from which I learned a lot about her alma mater’s dining halls. I listened to the sole playlist (“Good Music”) she had assembled on YouTube, which was crammed with Lou Reed. Thankfully, she ran a much slower 5K than I did. On her Pinterest, she had amassed hundreds of pictures of wedding dresses on a board called “Someday Soon :D.” The board was next to impossible to square with what I knew (or thought I knew) about Adam.

Maybe it's not quite right to say that she was the person for whom he had left me, "left" implying that I had ever represented a destination.

Sometimes I actually spoke to the selfies she took in front of her mirror. Her nails were stubby, the polish chipping. “Who are you?” I demanded, zooming into her reflection until it blotched into pixels. “What do you even look like?” Sometimes I thought she looked beautiful. At her birthday party in 2016, she wore a flattering shade of dark lipstick and a tight black dress. But in other pictures, her teeth gaped, or her hair hung limply. I wasn’t sure that there was any true face underlying the divergent faces I struggled to amalgamate: behind her image were only the looped wire guts of my laptop. Even if I could stab through my screen and graze her, even if I could cut into her body and yank her viscera out, I would not be able to imagine what she and Adam talked about in private.

at the beginning of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966), a child strokes a face that is flickering across a screen. More precisely, the child tries to stroke a face but can only stroke a screen. His silhouette is stark against the glare of the projection, his outstretched hands splayed and sad. The face itself is indistinct. It may belong to Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), an actress who falls silent in the middle of a performance of Electra and refuses to speak again. Or it may belong to Alma (Bibi Andersson), the chatty and initially cheerful nurse assigned to minister to the stubbornly silent woman. The child may be Elisabet’s son, but he may also be a symbol or a hallucination. As Susan Sontag writes in her seminal review of the film, “Persona is constructed according to a form that resists being reduced to a ‘story.’” We rarely know whether the events it sketches—the dissociative montages of crucifixions, the swirls of suggestive mists—are dreams, realities, or something in between.

Alma echoes the boy’s futile gesture many times throughout the movie. At first, she takes a merely professional interest in Elisabet. In the hospital where she attends to the convalescing actress, she makes bubbly (if one-­sided) small talk and fusses with the bedsheets. As she applies lotion to her own face before bed, she recites her bourgeois ambitions: she will quit her job, marry, and raise a brood of children. “It’s all decided. It’s inside me. I don’t even have to think about it,” she says. Then she flips off the light. The darkness resounds around her until it is as blaring as Elisabet’s silence. “I wonder what’s really wrong with her…Elisabet Vogler,” she asks at last, prompting us to wonder what is really wrong with her, Alma.

When the nurse and her patient depart for a restorative stay on the Swedish island of Faro, they lie by the sea in the sun. But then it begins to rain violently, and Alma starts talking. She tells Elisabet about her engagement, about an orgy she had with a pair of strangers, about her subsequent abortion. Drunk and flushed, she rolls toward Elisabet and presses their cheeks together. Elisabet seems sympathetic to her companion’s distress, but she does not speak, and eventually Alma grows furious. “You got me to talk, to tell you things I’ve never told anyone!” she shrieks. Enraged, she yanks at Elisabet’s face as if to tear it off. Later, in one of many shots in which Bergman overlays the women’s faces so that they seem to bleed together, Alma runs a palm across her charge’s nose and forehead. She hovers so close that her lips almost brush the silent woman’s skin.

Unlike the boy at the beginning of the film—and unlike me, an Instagram lurker swiping at a screen—Alma has reached through the glass to trace the face itself. Yet she yearns not for the face so much as for whatever lies beyond it. In the film’s gauziest and most iconic sequence, a spectral Elisabet floats toward ­Al­­ma’s bed, wakes her, hugs her, and fondles her face. For a while the women stare not at but past us. Then they bend toward each other until they seem to melt together. When the nurse fingers the actress’s features, it’s as if she is trying to scratch off the persona (mask) until she reaches the naked alma (soul) beneath. Apparently, she reaches neither in reality. In the morning, Elisabet shakes her head in confusion when Alma asks, “Were you in my room?”

Sontag maintains that Persona’s meaning “resides in the work itself. There is no surplus, nothing ‘behind’ it.” In other words, it is all surface: a mask, a flutter across a screen like the one the child strokes at the beginning of the movie, or the ones on which I watched Rachel’s videos of her beagle or monitored the progress of her ex-­boyfriend’s third-­grade teacher’s tomatoes. The movie therefore satisfies the demand that Sontag makes in “Against Interpretation” (1966), where she calls for an appreciative rather than an interpretive approach to art. In her words, we should forgo “hermeneutics” in favor of “erotics”—though she is vehement that Persona is not an erotic movie, about which I think she could not be more mistaken. What does eroticism consist in if not the impossible urge to smash through the skin and reach all the way to the beloved’s bloody core?

If Bergman’s masterpiece is a surface, it is a cracked one, an exterior that hints at its own inadequacy. Persona is a movie about our dissatisfaction with surfaces, and this is precisely what makes it more than a persona—more, that is, than a mask. And this, in turn, is what makes it a mask, for a mask implies a hidden face. Persona is a depth disguised as a surface, a skin that conceals a soul, a movie that invites the very interpretive grasping that it pretends to eschew. What it teaches is that there can be no erotics without hermeneutics, no satisfying caress of flesh or text that does not aspire to plumb all the way to the entrails. If Alma threatens to douse her patient’s visage with boiling water at the height of her fury, it is because she aims not merely to touch Elisabet’s appearance but to singe right through it. Indeed, Alma is so desperate to shove her way into Elisabet’s mind that she opens an envelope the actress forgot to seal and reads the letter enclosed within.

I understand her prying gesture. I longed to read Rachel’s emails—to enter her apartment, her refrigerator, her brain. I bought one of the shirts she added to her “cute clothing” Pinterest board, but what I really wanted to wear was her very body. It would not be enough to taste the lumpy cake she’d baked and photographed: I had to taste it with her tongue.

Within weeks of discovering Rachel’s various profiles, I was infatuated, which is to say that I became both hermeneutic and erotic. As Roland Barthes observes in A Lover’s Discourse, his canny monograph on romance, love functions perhaps primarily to transfigure senseless surface into symbol, to attach a face to every mask. “From the lover’s point of view, the fact becomes consequential because it is immediately transformed into a sign,” he writes. To be in love is precisely to be someone for whom “everything signifies,” someone for whom nothing is mere veneer any longer. When I woke up, I grabbed for my phone to check on Rachel. When she’d posted, I was thrilled; when she hadn’t, I pouted. When she commented cryptically on friends’ profile pictures, I tried to piece together what she meant; when she typed an anagram I didn’t understand, I did my best to decode it. I surveyed my friends, who tolerated my questions because they had Rachels of their own. “Does the weeping emoji signify grief or affection?” I demanded. “Affection,” they replied, before sending me screenshots of ex-­boyfriends’ new girlfriends’ bad haircuts.

Faces. Alma’s face, taut with anger. Elisabet’s face, slack in sleep. Rachel’s face flushed at her college graduation or creased in laughter at a friend’s wedding. Rachel’s ex-­boyfriend’s face when he grew his mustache for a month. Rachel’s face once more, this time with makeup, in a splash of blinding sun. A whole book of faces, a Facebook. I still couldn’t pin down what Rachel looked like, but I was certain that if you stared at a face intently enough and interpreted it fanatically enough, you couldn’t help falling in love with it. “The human face is the great subject of the cinema. Everything is there,” Bergman once told Roger Ebert. Everything has to be in the face when the face is all there is—when the face’s owner is otherwise reticent.

In the first five minutes of another movie about a nurse speaking to a silent patient, Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (2002), we see six different faces. Three belong to dancers performing a harrowing piece about blindness: two women with their eyes closed careen around the stage as a man knocks furniture out of their way. Two belong to men in the audience: one is weeping, moved by the choreography, and the other is looking alternately at the dancers and the weeping man. The final face belongs to Alicia (Leonor Watling), an erstwhile ballerina who has languished in a coma for four years. The camera glides from her fingers to her face, which is soft and expressionless. Her lips are parted, as if she is sleeping. She is lying on a hospital bed while the man who was not weeping at the theater rubs lotion on her hands. This man, Benigno (Javier Cámara), is Alicia’s nurse and her near-­constant companion. As he puts it when he first encounters the weeping man, Marco (Darío Grandinetti), in the hospital, “I’m always here. I’m often here at night too.” One of those nights, he rapes Alicia, though he doesn’t think of it that way. He believes that he loves her, and he is convinced that she loves him back.

Before the car crash that consigned Alicia to the hospital, Benigno had booked an appointment with her father, a psychiatrist, and we watch their exchange in a flashback. “What’s your problem?” the father asks, his pen poised over his notepad. “You must have one if you’ve come to see a psychiatrist.” Benigno hesitates. “Loneliness, I guess,” he says at last. In an interview that Almodóvar, quite fittingly, conducted with himself, he identifies this phrase, “Loneliness, I guess,” as “another possible title” for the movie. “Loneliness is something which all the characters in the film have in common,” he explains. Marco is lonely because his girlfriend, Lydia, falls into a coma when she is gored by a bull—even lonelier than he realizes, since Lydia had been cheating on him for months before her accident. Alicia and Lydia are, if not lonely, then at least alone, interred in their inaccessibility. And Benigno is lonely because he is odd, “touched in the head,” as people used to put it.

He is also tragically untouched: “I’ve hugged very few people in my life,” he confesses to Marco at the end of the film, when he lands in prison for his crime. Now he can interact with his visitors only through a sheet of glass. Almodóvar pans to the rain veining the prison windows until the pane’s impassibility becomes conspicuous. When the camera swoops back to Benigno and Marco, they are spreading their hands against the screen that divides them.

Of course, Benigno does manage to come into perverse contact with Alicia, and he insists that he is not lonely when he is with her. Like Alma, he is privy to his patient’s most intimate moments: he bathes her, places towels between her legs when she is menstruating, and massages her face. In a way, he knows more about Alicia than she knows about herself, for he bears witness to the years she will not remember. But no one who is with Alicia is really with Alicia. “Hello, Alicia. I’m alone again,” Marco announces, entering her room. Strictly speaking, his remark is false: literally, he is with Alicia. But in another sense, everyone who greets the unconscious dancer is alone with her, because no one sentient can imagine how it feels to feel nothing. As Marco eventually snaps at Benigno, “We don’t know what vegetative life is really like!”

But we don’t know what non-­vegetative lives are like either. Talk to Her proves that we are often as baffled by people who speak as we are by people who are comatose or silent. (“A woman’s brain is a mystery,” Benigno tells Marco, in a moment of dark comedy.) Marco was never really with Lydia, even when they were ostensibly together. Nor does he manage to reach Benigno, who remains trapped on the wrong side of the glass. Nonetheless, he tries to comfort his friend. When Benigno urges Marco to talk to Lydia, he protests, “She can’t hear me.” Still, just as I spoke to Rachel’s silent selfies, knowing she also could not possibly respond, Marco remains by Lydia’s side in the hospital in hopes that she can sense him. And in the end, when Benigno kills himself, Marco talks to his friend’s tombstone, just in case.

As any connoisseur of the practice colloquially called “online stalking” could tell you, there is a special thrill involved in speaking to someone who cannot hear you. It is precisely because Rachel had no idea I existed that I went on staring and shouting at her, or at least at her image. Indeed, part of what distinguishes online stalking from its dangerous, “IRL” analogue is that no online stalker wants to meet, much less seduce or harm or abduct, the object of her obsession. The online stalker aspires to remain invisible at all costs, which is why I frantically Googled “Can someone tell when you Google them?” in the midst of Googling Rachel over and over.

Some social media platforms have introduced features designed to make online engagement less like stalking and more like reciprocal, in-­person interaction: on Instagram, for instance, I can scroll through the list of followers who have viewed my stories in close to real time, and in this way I can see them seeing me. But whoever created Instagram Stories sorely misunderstands the internet, which is at its core the province of the stalkers. Instagram Stories thwarts the urge to see without being seen so thoroughly that many creeps, me among them, create fake Instagrams (“Finstas”) in order to lurk undetected. Only once I was safely hidden behind my Finsta did I dare to watch Rachel’s stories, and even then I felt exposed, like someone leaning too far out a window.

Alma and Benigno fall in love with people incapable of acknowledging or even noticing them because, like stalkers, they yearn to be wholly and sublimely ignored. Although there is no overt sexual contact in Persona, the film often feels obscene. After a while, I realized that the flushing sense of hot violation came from studying Liv Ullmann’s face for a minute without interruption. It is jarring to look at someone unreservedly: usually, the people we observe look back. In order to watch a stranger weeping on the subway, we would have to see her seeing us. And then we would flinch and clamp our eyes back on our feet by way of apology. Even if we could contrive to stare covertly, we could not look as hungrily as we want to. Bergman permits us what we are not allowed on the train or the street, and we love him for the same reason that Alma loves Elisabet and Benigno loves Alicia: they relieve us of the burden of our own visibility.

I longed to observe Rachel unobserved, as her dresser or her bedside table. How would she act when she stopped acting in any theatrical sense? Would she retain her hands, her eyes, or would she become entirely interior, without even the trappings of a face? Elisabet’s doctor suggests that the actress falls silent because she wants to be seen in exactly the way I wanted to see Rachel: she wants to be witnessed as she is when no one witnesses her. “The hopeless dream of being,” the doctor mumbles sadly. “Not seeming to be, but being.” What Elisabet wants is impossible, as her doctor warns her in no uncertain terms: “You can refuse to move or talk. Then at least you’re not lying. You can cut yourself off, close yourself in. Then you needn’t play any roles, wear any masks, make any false gestures. So you might think…but reality plays nasty tricks on you. Your hiding place isn’t watertight enough. Life oozes in from all sides. You’re forced to react.” If Elisabet could be a persona only, she would not have to be a persona at all. A mask without anything behind it has nothing to conceal. But Elisabet yelps, “No, don’t!” when Alma brandishes a pot of boiling water, and in a flash, we sense the rift between her fear and its expression.

Still, Elisabet’s fantasy can be approximated by the very art she abandoned, as Talk to Me intimates in its opening sequence. For five minutes, we watch Marco crying at a dance performance. Later in the film, he cries again, this time at a concert. In both instances, it is the darkness of the theater that gives him license to weep, just as it is the darkness of the theater that gives us license to watch him weeping, at least if we are at the movies (or pretending to be). In normal life, we could never gape so greedily, because we would become uncomfortable and avert our gaze, or because Marco would detect us and wipe his tears away. But when we are in the cinema, Almodóvar sanctions the gravest transgression: he allows us to look at people looking at the stage. In reality, the theater is structured so as to seal its denizens into a special privacy. They sit in silence and darkness because they aim to see without seeming, if only for a couple of hours. In this respect, they are more like stalkers than like posters. Alma and Benigno may want to see without being seen, but when they soliloquize, they only succeed in performing. If they had Instagrams, they would post pictures of their bookshelves and their dogs; if they had Pinterests, they might collect photos of wedding dresses.

In short, they would submit to sheer appearing. Because where was Rachel behind all her posturing and posting? Was she herself in dark lipstick, or herself with bad teeth? Even the sixteenth page of her Tumblr, where she had posted her mother’s confidential pancake recipe, did not reveal her. Alongside all the noise was the shimmer of insuperable silence.

The point of all our posting and all our talking is only to mask our stalking. Beneath the online Rachel I saw was the Rachel with a Finsta I could never find. Maybe she was seeing me when I did not know I was an object of sight. And yet sometimes I was so still and so quiet as I watched Alma and Benigno and Rachel that I could convince myself I had disappeared altogether. Maybe I did, once or twice. But maybe the Rachel I couldn’t see could watch me even then.

Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic at The Washington Post, an editor at The Point, and a lapsed academic philosopher.
Originally published:
May 19, 2021


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