From The Reality of Things Outside Me
Who stares into an open window never sees as many things as someone looking at a closed window. There is no object more profound, more mysterious, more fecund, more sinister, more dazzling, than a window candle lit. What can be seen by sunlight is always less interesting than what occurs behind a windowpane. In this dark or illuminated gap life lives, life dreams, life suffers.
Across waves of rooftops, I catch sight of a woman, mature, already wrinkled, poor, always bent over something, who never goes out. By her face, by her clothes, by her gestures, by practically nothing, I have reconstructed the story of this woman or, rather, her legend, and sometimes I repeat it to myself, weeping.
Were it a poor old man, I would have reconstructed his just as easily.
And I lay me down, proud to have lived and suffered in other than myself.
Perhaps you will ask me, “Are you sure this legend is true?” What do I care about the reality of things outside me, if it help me to live, to feel that I am and what I am?
—Charles Baudelaire, “Windows”
Baudelaire loved a closed window. Shut, but still an opening. Delighted, he poured into the gaps of his understanding; what he saw in part helped make him feel whole: “What do I care about the reality of things outside me, if it helps me to live, to feel that I am and what I am?”
But I do care—a lot—about the reality of things outside me. Enough to pause. If the woman in the window is bent over, is this a clear sign of fatigue? Can one’s clothes be translated? How many wrinkles constitute a year of life? The face in constant revision against the flickering light of a candle. If for Baudelaire, a few details—clues—warrant a construction, then I walk on a tight-rope of not assuming. One that that still sounds when plucked.
In their earliest form, windows were openings, holes in a structure. A break in the surface: a way for light to enter and a way to look out. From Old Norse: wind-eye; from Old English: eyehole, eye-door.
The eye—an organ: a tool for making or doing. In Anatomy, an internal organ is given the name viscus; the plural: viscera. The resonant pedal-tone of a pipe organ—feeling seems to surpass hearing. Staring forward, sound surrounds you—springs almost sourceless, but the organist sits far behind you and above. It was once believed that emotions stemmed from your bowels. Breaking in through basement windows—rummaging through the penetralia of a building inside the bubble-gutted belly of the city. I tell myself: Go outside, write down everything you see.
A window functions as a negotiation.
Let air in. Keep rain out.
Let light in. Maintain privacy.
Look out. Don’t let anyone look in.
But outside the window, the day hums within a slippery present. Through the frame—a thin divide—glass and screen, a foot of brick and drywall—the living room separated from the sidewalk. In a reading chair, I overhear conversations as the tops of heads bounce past the front window. Living like this, in such close proximity: paying attention is eavesdropping. To stand under eaves means to be neither completely inside or outside, but to dwell in secret at the edge— to let go of that which projects beyond the wall.
In A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson’s definition of the sash-window, a window with movable panels, includes the note that these windows originated for “the sake of seeing and being seen.” Agents of mediation: an attempt at seeing assumes the possibility that you just might be seen.
Writing a photography of the present is a never-ending snapping. A constant breaking and reforming. Not improvement. Not replacement. Addition: more and more life. Down the block, the city bus smears—arriving and departing. Multiple opportunities for a meeting-place: an approximate somewhere.
There is a myth that a camera can steal the soul of the person photographed—that a photograph can capture a small portion of one’s essence and then trap that energy within the image. A convenient fantasy: the transfer of power blamed on the apparatus and not the stranger’s face hidden behind the mechanism.
Walking—paying attention to each window slows my pace. I start at the end of my block held by the tension of looking up, scanning each house. Stopping to write in a small notebook, I assume the posture of writing: a looking down, a looking away. Each window an opening, but most remain covered: vinyl micro-blinds, a discolored roller shade, faux wood vertical blinds, particle board resting against the frame, cardboard, a torn bed sheet. Some of the more ad-hoc solutions allow for privacy but do not allow for light or air to enter. Because light reflects off the windows, I cannot see if people are watching me, watching. Some awnings block light from entering the windows. Two stained glass ornaments hang—a dull rose kept in the shade; a hummingbird, unilluminated.
Early theories for visual perception present two ways of seeing:
seeing as taking and
seeing as receiving.
seeing as active and
seeing as passive.
The first—“Emission Theory.” Beams of light emitting from the eyes scan the landscape and are intercepted by objects. Before capturing and returning to the eye, vision-rays diverge, hitting several points on the object but leaving a distance between each. Euclid writes, “Nothing that is seen is seen at once in its entirety.”
The eyes cannot create a landscape, but only frame what is already present. Language used for seeing: catch, capture, (be)hold. But what about a seeing that is only peripheral? To notice but hold the object lightly without sharp cutting focus. To let things come and go—passing by in a boundless field.
In response to light—reception acts as a doorway to perception. Stepping outside to douse the skin in sunlight. How one absorbs a glare; how children are scolded for staring. Less of an issue of propriety—more in the service of an implicit evolutionary trait. The prey that reacts: senses the impression of the predator’s hungry beam. But like most predators, our eyes are positioned in the front of our heads—sacrificing a wider angle of view for a sharper visual perception.
Legend states that the “Blue-eyed Barbarian,” Bodhidharma, a 5th Century Buddhist monk, could burn holes in the walls of caves with a meditative stare. Fixed attention on a certain point for hours—a patch of skin on the shoulder heats up—a gleaming glare sensed by the body before it turns around.
Before glass was common, different materials were used to cover a window: wooden shutters; canvas or hide soaked in turpentine and stretched over the opening; a sheet of parchment treated with oil; or stacks of multi-colored glass-like pebbles organized in a wooden frame. Pebbles, casting chromatic beams of undulating light against the opposite wall, let the light in but prohibit the resident to look outward.
At night, as the trolley rolls down the avenue its passengers are illuminated. A moving tableau of city dwellers framed and gliding past. Windows outline the passengers reading, bending their necks downward towards devices or standing uncomfortably close—a synchronized attempt to stay balanced. Through the windows, a composite of private experiences publicly displayed. The rumble of the trolley marks time—strange comfort that the city has not stopped moving. Without directional limitation—voices are distorted, amplified with distance as echo enlarges the evening.
Georg Simmel writes: Interpersonal relationships in big cities are distinguished by a marked preponderance of the activity of the eye over the activity of the ear. Before the development of buses, railroads and trams in the nineteenth century, people had never been in a position of having to look at one another for long minutes or even hours without speaking to one another.
In the summer, air-conditioner window units hum and drip, hum and drip. A box fan shakes in a window. Heat held in the concrete emanates back, holding the body heavy with heat between the sidewalk and the sun. It compels neighbors to open their windows, each house casting out a unique broadcast of the sounds of network sitcoms, the radio and telephone conversations. Most newly constructed houses have central air: a luxury that affords the residents the privacy of a closed window.
The second theory of visual perception—“Intromission Theory.” The object gives off rays of light. It caught my eye. “The eye receives impressions via rays that proceed from objects; crucially, the eye can send rays but does so only as a function of being seen.” The object makes an impression on the eye. Here, an idea becomes visible, is let into the mind.
Most windows have a space between the glass and the curtain: a small jar filled with black and white marbles, a stuffed bear donning a Philadelphia Eagles jersey, a vase with fake flowers, a bamboo plant. Each window can be read as a paragraph. Beware: the urge to close-read. If I put my face up to the glass and wait, what will I meet? A lonely house-cat, an alarmed resident, an empty room. But I see in part, within a frame and through a glare—a mirror reflecting back.
Broken and weathered, the crumbled vessel speaks. The Broken Window Theory states that a few broken windows invite further vandalism, that the public’s experience with the built environment affects behavior. Seeing—a matter of public safety. Eyes on the street. Public characters.
New windows can be the first sign of new development. There are several buildings that appear deserted or uninhabited but new windows have been installed. The manufacturer’s sticker on the windows, bright and colorful, next to the decaying brick and the front door boarded up. Windows, as portals—protection.
On the avenue, new windows, covered in brown paper, have been installed on commercial properties. I attempt to gather clues from the licenses and permits taped to the window.
Once windows fitted with transparent glass became the societal and architectural norm, passersby could catch a glance, even a passive peek, into a house; however, this precipitated “moral censure throughout the Eighteenth Century [In Britain].” Further, “the glazed window’s commercial potential was soon recognized and the modern shopfront was born.”
A small shimmering pile of blue-green glass below the smashed-in sedan window. On another block, a shattered car window is covered with a black trash bag and packing tape— cracks in the windshield spreading outwards from one central point. In a second story window, what appears to be an intricate design of cracked glass is, in actuality, gossamer reflecting light.
Ancient fears of strangers manifested in a belief that one could cast an eye evil. A covert glance could dry up the harvest. Mothers may have covered their children in soil or spit as protection from illnesses caused by a leering eye scanning the landscape for unsuspecting victims. Talismans were worn or carried for security; mirrors adorned shields to reflect and repel the malevolent forces held within a gaze.
An early theory about the optic nerve: a hollow channel through which the spirit could flow out of the body from the soul center. A flood of information flowing from the eyes—an open watercourse containing a choppy wake.
A window—the cornea allows for light reflected off of objects to enter: a contorted flash, inverted projection on the surface of the retina. To see the city upside down—then the brain turns the image right side up.
In the late Fall, chill takes form as breath—marker of a moment vanishing. A single stationary spot on the sidewalk still in motion.
The impossible junction humming within an uncatchable present. The greasy residuum of the trash truck’s trail—smearing. But I am afraid of missing something, so I hold on tightly. An attempt towards a possibility—to dwell not only from within. A different kind of imagination that builds a dwelling more numerous of windows.
Bradford Bucknum lives in North Philadelphia. He received an MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) at Temple University and performs with the indie rock band, Oldermost.