Christmas has got to be the most voyeuristic of the holidays, packed with parades, elaborate mechanized store windows, lights everywhere, everyone dressed up and watching each other across the party room. And everyone with the fantasy that the other people are in warm families, warm beds, warm pajamas (order them in sets for the whole family, including the pets), all of them snug against the snow and the darkness. It’s a matter of imagination that yearns to be checked out, because how do all the people in SRO hotels or living under bridges or locked into solitary know whether any of it is true, ever, for anyone? If it is, how does one get there? Is it really just a matter of “naughty or nice”? Or is that another bribing fantasy like Heaven?
The most local kind of voyeurism is the peeping Tom. In these small towns people know who they are. One was a rich man, a powerful man, with friends. But he seemed to feel he was being left out. Another was a kid, or rather an adult who didn’t want to stop being a kid, and he WAS left out. There’s a sexual side of it: they hope to see naked people. When I was little, Old Lady Otto’s son, Toole, was a high school principal and he used to come visit her over Christmas vacation. His room was just below mine (I was upstairs and he was downstairs) across a narrow strip of yard and he never pulled the curtain all the way to the sill. While he was undressing for bed, I could see him below the knees so I’d peep at him peeling off his socks. I guess from the evidence that school principals have feet about like those of everyone else.
Books and radio have got to count as voyeurism. (I suppose listening to sex is voyeuristic.) But I’m not sure that television and so on leave enough scope for imagination, which is a big part of it. There’s so much information that one is almost participating, but then not all visual arts are like that. Or arty ambiguous films. Maybe that’s wrong -- maybe ambiguity helps to enter the experience.
So voyeurism is a combination of wanting to know what the reality is, because one feels left out of it, not worthy or qualified in some way, maybe the way people say, “You’re not old enough yet,” and then one day suddenly switch to “but you’re too old for that.” Everyone else seems to be in on the excitement, and you don’t like being teased, you want to know what the hints and giggles are about. But there is always the existential despair of knowing that’s all there is -- little jokes and references about something not there. Happiness, love, family, and God. Just bait-and-switch come-ons according to the mercantile assumptions about life that we’ve all learned from bitter experience. Only one toy away from sublime happiness and the wheels come off it the second day.
Voyeurism is also the flip side of being unseen. Being watched, without knowing someone is seeing you peel the socks off your feet with their corns, blisters, and hammer toes, is not comfortable. So why do we insist Santa is watching and knows whether you’ve been naughty or nice? Why do we love the idea of seeing Mommy kissing Santa Claus? Why do we go looking for the hidden gifts and why do we feel empty when they are found. Even if it was something you really wanted? You want to know, but also to be surprised. What if Toole Otto wore nail polish on his toes?
But sometimes people know something about you that you don’t, something good, some skill, something lovable that no one tells you and you don’t suspect. That’s always a surprise, a gift. But they’ll have to watch carefully to see what it is without letting you know you’re under surveillance -- for a good reason.
Being invisible is a classic qualification for being a voyeur. That’s how you find out things about other people’s lives. “Theory of Mind” is a phrase for the knowledge that other people and even animals are thinking, just as you are, trying to predict what your next move will be so they can catch you -- or if you are yourself the predator, knowing how to jump them. It’s biological, wired-in, and for some people (especially the sexy Christmas party kind) it becomes a game of skill that might be enjoyed even if it stays secret. The trick, maybe, is to be drunk enough to take risks but not so drunk as to blunder into real harm or exposure. Heavy drugs, of course, render the game moot due to being zonked out.
Reading a book with awareness is just that sort of game of chase, using the “Theory of Mind,” to understand the characters AND the author, which one can learn to do at the same time. If they are shallow and boring, it’s not much fun, but if there is always something just out of sight, only a hint of a shadow but perfectly convincing once it is realized, then that’s a seduction and a book you will want to find “under the tree”, if that’s the way you do gifts. Again, it is most effective if the giver has been paying attention enough to know what turns you on.
Daniel Lord Smail and his cohort are very smart about material objects and even behaviors that go back to hominin days when primates sat in little clusters on the bank of a river in the shade of trees. If you watch National Geographic films, you know that much of the time is spent in grooming fur, picking out bugs and cracking them between teeth. Most of us enjoy the attentions of a hair-dresser or barber. That same child’s innocent enjoyment of hands-on by a trusted and careful person is deeply part of watching other people, because empathy allows us to faintly experience what we see happening to others. Often there is one animal off to the side, watching. We do love to see other people unwrap their presents, not to see whether they are expensive, but to enjoy second-hand the person’s pleasure at being understood. A material object that “contains” a relationship, proves it. Not status, but bonding.
Advertising is always trying to suggest that their product will create bonding, but they never achieve more than obligation and imitation, both of which interfere with authentic emotional intimacy. There are drugs that will make you feel loving and loved, but they’ll wear off after the party and leave the bloodstream empty.
The best gift is free in terms of money but costs in terms of effort and time. It’s simply open non-judging attention, the kind that causes empathy, so that you can see each other, belong with each other.