Here's to the ones who just watch

(or, On the novelistic gaze)

One of my favorite songs — which I cannot actually manage to sing — is Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch,” from the musical Company. The song is biting, campy, acerbic, everything you’d want from a gay-piano-bar classic. Joanne, the character who sings it, is blowsy and insalubrious, downing martinis and felling ex-husbands. She sings the song to the musical’s confirmed thirty-five-year-old bachelor, Bobby, on a drunken night out, regaling him with her withering accounts of the titular, wealthy, “ladies who lunch,” the aspirational “girls on the go,” the mousy “ones who play wife.” It’s a song that works, in part, because it’s gloriously bitchy, because it so accurately captures the worst in everybody in New York. 

I was used to hearing the song in isolation — on Spotify, say, or at a karaoke night, or during a medley at Marie’s Crisis. But it wasn’t until I saw the musical live, in its gender-swapped London run (Bobby is now Bobbie, played by Rosalie Craig; Joanne is Patti LuPone) that I understood it. In that staging, Bobbie and Joanne sit at a bar, people-watching side-by-side (by side), leaning their heads together, getting increasingly sozzled, and increasingly furious, as they share in their twinned contempt of anyone foolish enough to try to be sincere.

But Joanne’s worst contempt is reserved for the girls, like herself, “who just watch.”

        Another chance to disapprove,
        Another brilliant zinger, 
        Another reason not to move,
        Another vodka stinger.

It’s a heady cocktail of a song. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun to sing at Marie’s, downing vodkas at the appropriate beats. But it’s also, at its core, a tragedy. It’s a song about vision, and attention, and about what it means to laugh, and to see.  

As a writer, I am naturally aesthetically drawn to the ways in which words can be both true and cruel, and in particular to the specific aesthetic pleasure we get from mocking that worth mocking. My first novel, Social Creature, though marketed more as a thriller, was in my mind a black comedy: an attempt to put into lacerating prose the drumbeat of my own self-doubt, and anxiety, about a New York full of shifting, Escher-esque social ladders, and surrealist status games. I am drawn, too, to this in other writers: to what I call the “ironic gaze” — in Oscar Wilde, in Dorothy Parker, in Sondheim. It is the gaze that observes and elucidates the world’s foibles sub specie ironiae, to use the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s phrase, from which the whole world looks faintly ridiculous.

At its best, this kind of ironic distance can call into relief the worst of our absurdities: the ways in which we orient our lives, and our selves, toward goals of status or prestige or influence that are, indeed, nonsensical when set against our actual telos as human beings. That we, as human beings, who are (as I believe we are) fearfully and wonderfully made by a divine creator, spend all our time chasing clout on the Internet is, well, a bit silly. 

But, at its worst, the ironic gaze can foster in us the same contempt Joanne experiences: a combination of hatred for the foibles of others and a smug self-satisfaction for having figured it all out, unlike all the other “normies” who don’t know any better. The ironic gaze is what we find in, say, the libertine novel of the eighteenth century — the calculating and calculated manipulations of the characters in de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, say, or the tedious pornography of the Marquis de Sade, where bodily cruelty becomes a liberalization of mental superiority. We find it, too, in its modern iterations: the world-weary cynicism of a writer like Michel Houellebecq. (For an extended discussion of why Houellebecq is morally repellent, you can listen to Dhananjay’s extended 2019 lecture on the subject for the Morningside Institute).

As a writer, I struggle often to balance my innate tendency toward the ironic gaze with my moral commitments — as a Christian, as a Platonist, and as a humanist — toward regarding all human beings as possessed of dignity and worth, beings made in the image and likeness of God. I wonder, sometimes, if a better gaze — which is to say, a better paradigm of attention — might be the prophetic one, modeled on the jeremiads of the Old Testament, in which the world’s foibles are treated with fury and sometimes impotent rage. Dostoevsky, a writer whom I deeply admire, is a master of this. I think of Ivan Karamazov, raging to his brother Alyosha about the suffering of innocents in things world, demanding to return his ticket to a world that allows such things to come to pass.

And yet that gaze, filled as it is with rage, with a justifiably appalled stance of its own insufficiencies, fails to take into account not just the world’s goodness but its gentleness: the small (and yes, sometimes silly) ways in which we are vulnerable to one another, misunderstand one another, change each other, love one another, the ways we are always looking for the wrong things, like characters in an English pantomime, steadfastly ignoring the good to which we are called, while God and a whole host of angels are shouting “it’s right in front of you.

My faith calls me, ultimately, to see the world not as a tragedy — although there are elements of tragedy in it, inseparable from the sinfulness that warps the human condition — but as a comedy: a world that promises, in the world to come that is not separate from this world but rather part of and prefigured in it, all the elements of a happy ending. We are promised, at the end of all our misspent wanderings, not the grandeur of a tragic ending but rather reconciliation and joy. We are promised, at the end, not death but marriage.

To see the world as a comedy, though, requires not a prophetic gaze but a gentle one, a loving one. Such a gaze is no less “clear-eyed” or “realistic” than the ironic gaze, nor the purely cynical gaze of a Sade or a Houellebecq. Rather, it acknowledges that attention, observation, seeing are always interpretative acts, carried out with and through moral reasoning, that what we see is always contextual, in the light of our understanding what it means to be in the world. 

The loving gaze, as a narrative act, is a gaze that sees our human foibles clearly, and acknowledges them for what they are: they are, themselves, defects of vision. We are all blind; we are all foolish; we are all completely missing the point all of the time, and whatever ending might come to us will come not as a result of our tragic flaws but rather by the deus ex machina of grace. It is is a vision that is clear-eyed precisely because it sees our foibles in the light of our purpose, which is, I believe, the knowledge and love of God, and the love of God in one another. “Christ plays in ten thousand places,” the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “to the Father in the features of men’s faces.”

My second novel, The World Cannot Give (shameless plug: it’s out next March and available for preorder here) is, on the surface, more of a tragedy than Social Creature. Without giving away too much of the plot, it’s a story about people who want to see the world prophetically: who rage against the world’s insufficiencies, and think the solution is brimstone and apocalypse, and live that out.

But, when writing it, one of my deepest convictions (as I wrote about for Breaking Ground) was that I treat, and consider, everyone in the book — no matter how flawed their vision, no matter how deep their self-delusion — with that loving gaze. The characters might mock one another — but I hope that I never mock them.

If I have one regret about Social Creature, it is that there are some minor characters in it that exist only as a source of narrative mockery. The World Cannot Give is a book about how everybody is wrong, and how maybe everybody deserves what they get, but somehow you have to go on loving them, anyway. In some ways, it’s also a book about writing, or at least about telling stories, and the moral as well as intellectual quality of vision. Once we were blind, the song goes, but now, but now, we see.