Seeing With Soft Eyes



I’ve certainly been in relationships in which even the smallest actions of my lover demand my attention. I see her decision to go out with friends, to lunch with a male work acquaintance, to knit, to sleep with her back to me as meaningful, as a statement about me. And I know I’ve felt this same attentive gaze from the eyes of lovers — my innocuous comments become amplified, the stuff of drama, of tears, of retribution, of life and death itself.

I know when I see like this it’s because I’m locked into one world of meaning. Everything she does flies back to me, as if on a rope — hard, fast, merciless. There is no sense that there are other worlds in which she operates, social worlds, existential worlds, historical worlds, physical worlds, metaphysical worlds, cosmic worlds. No, my eyes are limited in their scope, seeing only the immediate social significance to me. At times like these, my eyes don’t flex, don’t give, don’t receive the breadth of information available. They’re stubborn, inflexible, hard.

Soft eyes is a phrase I borrow — poach? steal? — from “The Wire.” It comes up ta few times but it’s only explained once, when Bunk takes Kima out on her first homicide. You know what you need at a crime scene? Bunk asks. Soft eyes….You got soft eyes, you can see the whole thing. You got hard eyes, you stare at the same tree, missing the forest.

Hard eyes have a focal point already picked out, even if they don’t know it. Hard eyes are knowing, in the worst possible sense: they reach their conclusion before seeing the scene. Eyes like these are too hard for the world to make an impression on them; information comes from the inside out, from ideas, from preconceptions, not from the touch of things. Soft eyes, meanwhile, stand back a bit, let the scene unfold. Soft eyes actually see what’s there — the multiplicity of worlds, the teem of information, all those planes of existence intersecting (or not). It’s a different kind of knowing.

There is a lot to see when we look at the world. Look outside your window right now. Sure, you see trees — maybe — sky, clouds, cars, pavement, other houses. Now keep looking. See all those branches, all those leaves. See all the pebbles in the concrete or, more likely, the stains on the asphalt. See the cars but now begin to notice the undulation of the metal, all the little nicks, the way dust and dirt settle on the hood, the windshield, the mirrors. See the way the sky is not a uniform blue but rather shifts intensity and hue throughout. And this only begins to address the visible aspects of what we see. Add the invisible states that, yes, we see — the affect and mood — and the information we take in quickly approaches the sublime.

If we were to see all the information that was available as our eyes scanned the plains (and planes), we’d be insane, schizo, overwhelmed, shut down, sent in hundreds of directions at once. When we claim to see the world, we already see it as categories of things — cars, trees, bugs, roads, people. We size things up, drop them in their proper category, go on with our day. This is not bad; it’s necessary. This is what makes us social, human, lets us live.

But that doesn’t mean all seeing is the same, that either we see everything — and are pummeled — or see only what is already known. There are different degrees of seeing. Some people see hard, often. I remember when I was in college and took a course on Derrida and deconstruction. Afterwards, regardless of which class I was in or what books I was reading, I’d somehow find the same will to metaphysics and its inevitable undoing. I thought I was open to the world, letting it flow. But then a professor of mine, an intellectual historian named Bruce Kuklick (don’t know how I remember that), turned to me one day after I’d made another of my predictable comments and said: “You’re like a meat grinder; it all comes out the same.” I was, and remain, humbled by this.

The fact is I’ve not only had hard eyes much of my life, I’ve sought out hard eyes. This is what makes an expert an expert (in the McLuhan sense): they already know. Think of the psychoanalytic film theorist who discovers Oedipus, lack, the mirror stage in every movie she watches. So when I started studying philosophy and critical theory, first in college and then another seven years in grad school, I was training myself to see the world in a certain way. Hard eyes are one symptom of the academic disease.

At the same time, I was learning to see more softly. This was due in part to my steady ingestion of LSD and magic mushrooms. They were helping my eyes loosen their firm grip on things, showing me swirls of being and becoming both terrestrial and cosmic that flow through all things all the time. My training for hard eyes was being met with a will to soft eyes, letting the world flow as it will.

And then I began to see how a collection of hard views might yield soft eyes. That is, I began to take in lots of different views of the world — from Derrida and Foucault, from Deleuze and Guattari, from Plato, Hegel, Kant, Lyotard, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, William Burroughs, Carlos Castaneda, Jesus Christ. It was then that I realized I’d never be an expert, never be an academic: I liked seeing all these different perspectives at the same time.

Still, hard eyes are hard to surrender. Maybe I could see softly when I read books but those hard eyes would return when it came to people. We’ve all experienced that awful feeling of stone eyes sizing us up before we’ve even had the chance to speak. I know I’ve been seen that way just I’ve seen others that way. It’s an ugly way to see the world, shutting it down, stopping it cold in its tracks.

Soft eyes are more generous. They lend themselves to the world, let impressions form, however strange, however disconcerting. Soft eyes respect things by letting them be rather than judging them. I think of it like this. When I’m in a relationship, there are always things that drive me apeshit — she judges people too readily, leaves her knitting everywhere, makes up strange stories about where she’s been. My instinct is to judge, to see her actions as about me, as a personal affront. But to be angry is absurd as that’s just how she is! So why should I judge her? Just let the damn woman be! 

Soft eyes love. Hard eyes may often feel like love as they reach and grope for things, try to possess them. But that’s not love. That’s desire, maybe, or more like that’s insecurity posing as desire posing as love. Soft eyes relax and are relaxed. They let the other person be in all her quirks and nuance, in all her strength and weakness, in all her ways of going.

This doesn’t mean I can never get angry, never judge, never harden my gaze. Rather, it means situating my gaze in that beautiful space where vision flourishes, poised between and amongst worlds. Seeing is neither active nor passive, is both active and passive. Think of it this way. When I’m reading these words, are my eyes grabbing them or are they grabbing my eyes, winding themselves into my very mind and body? It’s both and neither. At my best, I let those words come to me as I go to them and, together, we make something new, something interesting, something beautiful. At the risk of sounding sappy, we make love — literally.

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