By Katherine Franco
One, No One and One Hundred Thousand
Luigi Pirandello, trans. by William Weaver, Spurl Editions, 2018
I always knew it wasn’t all that bad to be a body. I knew that I flailed my arms in disgust with our embodied form, not out of disgust, but because I liked to flail my arms.
Still, I complained––many times a week––of the structures of streets and the scrutiny of eyes. You perform the great offence of looking at me, I trained my eyes to assert, but I am aware of this offence and for that we are now equal. To lament the body via disembodied Zoom-body would be new, I acknowledged to a professor, then to some friends. I would find a way, I reassured them, to sustain my customary practice. My party trick was no longer relevant; the party was over. I looked in the mirror.
‘You want to know why I’ve come here to hide?’, Luigi Pirandello’s protagonist Moscarda asks his small dog Bibì midway through the 1926 novel One, No One and One Hundred Thousand. ‘Eh, Bibì, because people look at me,’ Moscarda continues, the two of them tucked away in a quiet alley of Richieri. ‘They have that bad habit, people do, and you can’t rid them of it. All of us would then have to be rid of the habit of taking into the street, for a walk, a body subject to being looked at.’ Here lies Moscarda’s phenomenological ‘sickness’: his realisation––upon his wife’s declaration that his nose tilts at the beginning of the novel––that the gaze of passers-by in the external world does not match his own self-perception. More specifically, his realisation that to be alive is to relinquish control, to relinquish oneself to the eyes of another.
The prospect of quarantine, in the early 20th-century context in which Pirandello writes, offers an almost perfect exemption from the sort of neuroses Moscarda conveys to Bibì. Under quarantine or isolation, we indeed rid ourselves of the habit of taking into the street, at least in a traditional sense: even when we enter into the world, all valiant, excited, frothing at the mouth to see our fellow embodied beings, we wear masks to cover half our face and there can’t be too many of us out at a time. Sitting at home with his wife and dog, Moscarda would no longer suffer the streets of Richieri as a watchable embodied being.
But in 2020, we imagine a Moscarda whose anxieties would be heightened by the conditions under contemporary quarantine. Moscarda’s quest to align his own perception of self with those of countless others might happen magically through a Zoom portal––but become all the more obsessive (and futile) due to this very format.
We might imagine a Moscarda, seated in front of his laptop, not simply fixated on the tilt of his nose––like he does in One, No One and One Hundred Thousand––but the transfiguration of the self provided by the platform. Zoom is a spiritual conundrum––an out-of-body experience, the flight of soul from body and back into disembodied Zoom-body. Like God, I am both everywhere and nowhere when I speak to you. Or something like that. I watch you watch you: I see you shift your eyes to that particular point on the screen where one looks to inspect oneself in the mirror image. I watch you fix your hair as you watch to see if I’m watching you. I wonder if you do indeed realise I am watching you––or that I, too, was engaged in the same process five minutes ago. I surveille myself and the other in one fell swoop. Under virtual quarantine, every interaction with the non-self is one with myself: in locking eyes with you, I lock eyes with me in the corner of the screen. Zoom might offer a delayed response to Leopold Bloom’s question when dining with friends in Ulysses: ‘Am I like that? See ourselves as others see us.’ On Zoom, I see myself, quite literally, as others see me.
In the majority of novels I read from 2016 until the present, I would underline any scene wherein a character reviews herself in the mirror, scrawling ‘MIRROR SCENE’ in the margin. I liked these scenes; they were seemingly everywhere, from the novels of Tsitsi Dangarembga to Elena Ferrante. A scene of meditation. Quiet. Preserved. Most of all, rare: a sort of check-in one permits oneself as a break from the perception of others. But as I looked up at my eyes in my bathroom mirror, before running back to my Zoom engagement, I realised my life was one involuntary seven-week-long mirror scene. ‘It’s always / long halls of mirrors, even when it’s just one hall, or a single mirror’, I scrawled last summer, the sentiment truer now with each passing day. For today, it is indeed always long halls of mirrors––even when it’s just one room, a single mirror, a sole laptop screen with many hallways. With my actual mirror, my Zoom Mirror, my phone-mirror…
We seek control, painstakingly so, amidst contemporary disorder. Yet we seem to have acquired more control than ever in the sole place in which we might have desired a relinquishment: self-perception. Sociality––in its awkward, uncontrollable glory––is a saving mediation between self and perception. In quarantine, we might come to long for what Moscarda deems a ‘horrible oppression, thinking that all those eyes gave me an image that surely wasn’t the one I knew myself but another that I could neither know nor prevent’. We might, as our isolated condition continues, come to long for visions of ourselves we could not prevent, control, negotiate: for as Pirandello suggests, the self reflected back to us in the mirror is not some glorified origin, some reassured stable image, but one that does best when interrupted by perceptions made in passing, informed by the world.
‘Let’s face it,’ Judith Butler reminds us: ‘we’re undone by each other. And, if we’re not, we’re missing something […] One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other.’ We miss many things in isolation––if we’re lucky enough to be in isolation, if we’re lucky to have dignified lives to miss, if we’re lucky to have time to miss our lives… but, namely, this ‘something’ of which Butler speaks. I want to be undone, in speaking to you of ‘Henry V’ in my tutorial––to contort my chin so stupidly for a second that it seems I must have lost sight of the fact you can see me. To lose sight of the fact you can see me. I do not want to contort my chin if I can see it; I do not want to contort myself in this contorted state of things. Most of all, though, I do want to be undone––unable to curate how you see me, unable to decide my fate as a subject in your eyes. I did, it seems, enjoy those days, when someone watched salad dressing drip down my chin.
It must be for this reason that I fixate on a moment, three weeks into quarantine, when two Rottweilers chased me down a vacant street––when for a moment, I was faceless and mirrorless with no face in sight.
KATHERINE FRANCO reads English at Mansfield College. She would like to work toward a theory toward something.
Art by Katherine Franco