Throughout human history, heedful observation has been the first step to deciphering the mysteries of the universe: Copernicus only realized the planets in our solar system revolved around the sun after countless hours staring through a telescope whereas Darwin only formulated his paradigm-shifting theory of evolution after rigorously studying the breathtaking diversity of the Galapagos. Art, too, begins with observation. The novelist, the photographer, the painter, the poet: before he can represent reality, he must see it, which requires he dispense with all preconception and prejudice. To discover truth, whether as an artist or scientist, we must be willing to look closer— and be courageous enough to see things as they actually are.
The necessity of looking closer is what Yiyun Li, author of the heartbreaking autobiographical novel, Where Reasons End, ponders in her perceptive essay “Strangers on a Train,” one of forty six thought-provoking pieces that compose Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. Complied of the best essays from the Atlantic’s much-beloved “By Heart” column, Light the Dark asks literature’s leading lights one question: what inspires you? They then choose a passage that was formative to their development as writers. The result? An engrossing compendium of wisdom from authors as diverse as Mary Gaitskill, Khaled Hosseini, Andre Dubus III, and Elizabeth Gilbert.
When asked what inspires her, Li chose an excerpt from Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Death of Heart. The passage describes Portia Quayne, a sixteen-year-old orphan who’s learned to evade people’s gaze:
“Portia had learnt one dare never look for long. She had those eyes that seem to be welcome nowhere, that learnt shyness from the alarm they precipitate. Such eyes are always turning away or being humbly lowered…You most often meet or, rather, avoid meeting such eyes in a child’s face— what becomes of that child later you do not know.”
For Li, this passage captures an essential fact of human nature: most of us are embarrassed to be known. Terrified of being seen for who we are, we avert our eyes from lingering glances and hide from intimacy behind self-imposed walls. When others attempt to penetrate our defenses, we fortify our strongholds, remaining as remote as an island thousands of miles from the coast. Not even our dearest friends are permitted unrestricted access to our hearts. After all, if we lay bare our authentic selves, whether it be to casual acquaintances or to our closest confidantes, we risk being rejected and ridiculed:
“This passage describes an averted gaze— eyes we ‘avoid meeting’ because they are so revealing, so full of feeling, and the way these eyes themselves learn to turn away because they cause such alarm. I think it’s a very cutting insight into human nature. How often do we turn away from knowing another person fully as we could, avoiding even the eyes of the people we’re closest to? And how often do we hide ourselves, afraid of being really looked into and seen?”
In a funny moment, Li confesses that— unlike Bowen’s timid Portia— she loves to stare, mostly because observing is how one begins to understand another’s soul:
“I relate to this because I’m a starer; I’m interested in looking at people very closely. I look at people I know, but I also look at people I don’t know. It does make strangers uncomfortable— which, of course, I understand. I’ve noticed that, in New York City, you’re not supposed to stare at people. No one has enough space, and when people are in public, they’re trying to maintain anonymity. But I stare at people all the time, because I like to imagine their lives by looking into their faces, looking at their eyes. You can tell so much just from a person’s face.”
Other than our instinctual fear of ridicule, we avoid gazing too intensely in others’ eyes because we fear the secrets we’ll unearth. Human beings are as unfathomable as the furthest reaches of the universe: we can launch satellites into space but can never unravel all the enigmas that lie beyond our own limited frontier.
And therein lies the dilemma— we can never truly know people. Our mother, our best friend, our lover: if we look at any of them too closely, we’ll realize they’re as unfamiliar as strangers in a subway car. On the surface, our mother may seem unadventurous but, if we plumb the depths of her past, we might discover she once gallivanted around the globe, sunbathing in Santorini and dancing all night at the Brazilian carnival. Our best friend may seem vivacious and charismatic, so convivial she can effortlessly strike up a conversation with most people but, beneath her facade of sociability, she might prefer to be left alone. Even after years together, some terrain of our lover’s character might remain unexplored. Our kind, gentle husband might shock us when he loses his temper and smashes a plate against the wall. Or a casual conversation about abortion might reveal he holds an opinion in direct conflict with our own.
Nothing is more mysterious than the human heart. Though we tend to classify people into neat and tidy categories of semantic description (“mother,” “father,” “enemy,” “friend”), human beings contain “multitudes” to borrow the enduring words of Walt Whitman— they can’t be collapsed into a box. When we look steadily at our loved ones, Li writes, we realize what we see is but a small fraction of who they are:
“When I was studying fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop years ago, Marilynne Robinson used an example to demonstrate the inexplicableness of human beings. I forget the context, and I’m paraphrasing, but she would say something like this:
Sometimes, when you get home and your mother looks up, her eyes are so unfamiliar, and for a moment it’s as though she’s looking at you as a stranger on a New York subway would do.
I loved that idea— your eyes surprise your mother’s eyes, and for that split second everything is there: a whole emotional world that you don’t know well, so foreign and hidden that she briefly becomes a stranger. Then she transforms, she becomes the mother you know again, and life goes on. But, in that brief instant of eye contact, something is caught. This is what we learn by looking at another person’s face— and also what makes us want to turn away.”
No matter how terrified we are of seeing and being seen, the only way to unveil the truth of people— and the world— is to look closer. This is especially true in writing. In the words of Susan Sontag, “a writer is someone who pays attention to the world— a writer is a professional observer.” For Lin, to write is to stare: to truly see characters in all their contradictions and complexities, we can’t flinch from what’s there. As in real life, characters lie to us: they wear a public face, they weave stories about who they are. And just as in real life, we must unravel our characters from the myths they tell. Life is a masquerade ball where we disguise ourselves in more acceptable costumes. If we are to find the man behind the mask, the person behind the persona, we have to strip away the endless shrouds of affectation and facade until we can see others uncut and uncensored:
“Writing fiction is kind of like staring, too. You have to stare at your characters, like you would a stranger on a train, but for much longer than is comfortable for both of you. This way, you get to know characters layer by layer, until any dishonesty is stripped away. I believe all characters try to trick us. They lie to us. It’s just like when you meet someone in the real world— no one’s going to be 100 percent honest. They’re not going to tell you the whole story about themselves; in fact, the stories they do tell will say more about how they want to be perceived than how they actually are. There’s always a certain resistance with being known, and that’s true of characters and real people. People don’t want to tell you their secrets. Or they lie to themselves, or they lie to you.
That’s why I stare at my characters. Not physically— I can’t really see them physically— but in an act of imagination that’s similar to the way I stare at people in real life. It can be harsh, but I think I like the harsh, true things you see when you don’t turn away. The writer must never look away. You can feel it in a book when a writer flinches away from seeing too deeply into his characters. You really have to strip your characters naked, every single layer, to finally understand them.”