Look At Me
We consume images at an ever faster rate and, as Balzac suspected cameras used up layers of the body, images consume reality. Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete. – Susan Sontag, On Photography
A few days ago I watched Lana Del Rey’s SNL performance for which she was widely panned for being “boring,” “cringeworthy,” and “stilted,” among other things. Lana Del Rey, for those who don’t know, became an internet sensation last summer after releasing two music videos (“Video Games” and “Blue Jeans“). Those videos enticed viewers with an artist whose voice was inviting, but whose pose was perfected to the point of discomfort. It’s an image that works extraordinarily well in the lab (or a music video), but falls flat in the real world. Watch the SNL performance and you’ll see nervous hands, aimless eyes, mindless swaying–visible cracks on her perfect facade. We want our artists to perform; we just don’t want to know they’re performing.
At the same time I was watching Lana, I was in the middle of Jennifer Egan’s 2001 novel, Look At Me.
Look At Me asks a very basic question: what happens when a semi-successful model (Charlotte Swenson) must have her face rebuilt after a horrific (and fiery) car accident? Charlotte’s new face, held together by eighty titanium screws, is virtually identical to her old face, but she finds that her new face lacks something ineffable, something indefinite. That ineffable “something” leaves her unable to continue working as a model.
Nobody enjoys being forced into early retirement, but few are as ill-prepared as a model. Charlotte describes her life as a model here:
My philosophy, if you will, was eerily suited to what became my life; different cities week to week, a constant flow of settings and people; as my surroundings dissolved and reconstituted themselves, it seemed only natural that I do the same.
Charlotte describes herself as having a chameleon-like ability to dissolve and reconstitute as needed. It’s an ability that made her particularly well-suited to modeling, but particularly horrible at maintaining or initiating intimate relationships. Meaningful, intimate relationships require peeling back the veneer and showing, what Charlotte refers to as, the shadow self–the internal self that houses our various fears, desires, and weaknesses. It’s a self that she goes to great lengths to protect, partially because it’s painful to be so naked, but mostly because even Charlotte does not have complete access to her own true self.
The self, it turns out, is difficult to pin down. It’s amorphous. It leaks out, “revealing itself in odd moments when we laugh or fall still” and is most often glimpsed simply as a “nagging, flickering presence.” It’s in those odd moments when our guard is down. Consider the twin screen-captures below of Lana Del Rey taken from the same performance (video above):
The Lana on the left is the seamless, carefully choreographed Lana. The Lana on the right captures one of those “odd moments” where the magic of a cohesive identity falls apart for a split second. In that moment, we are reminded that Lana Del Rey is just an act. I’d like to suggest that the Lana on the right does not represent “the real Lana,” but rather that the real Lana lies somewhere in between. Human beings are wonderful at registering patterns and disruptions and the disruption like the one above is the origin of our discomfort in Lana Del Rey’s performance. It makes us uncomfortable because it reminds us of just how difficult it is to maintain a seamless exterior.
When Charlotte’s face finally heals and she looks in the mirror for the first time, the first thing she does is search for a photograph so she can inspect her new face for discrepancies: “I’d held up old pictures of myself beside my reflection and tried to compare them. But my sole discovery was that in addition to not knowing what I looked like now, I had never known.” Charlotte never kept a bad photograph because “bad pictures reveal you in exactly the light you wish never to be seen.” All of her photos are perfect (perfect lighting, perfect makeup, perfect focus, perfect angle). As she stands there in front of the mirror holding up her perfect picture next to her poorly lit, unmade-up face, Charlotte, for the first time in her life, realizes she doesn’t know who she is. Both the person in the photo and the person in the mirror are her, but neither yield the entire picture of who Charlotte really is.
The best we can do is infer from glimpses, flickers, and traces. We never have the whole picture; we can see bits and pieces and we do our best to understand and make a picture intelligible. But things are left out and it’s important to remember that, as with any picture, often it’s what isn’t there that’s important.
Unfortunately we rarely remember what isn’t there. We take people at face-value hoping they’ll do the same for us because it’s easier. Take the colloquial expression “How are you doing?” and its equally colloquial brethren “not bad”–we say this because it moves the conversation along; we say this because we want to believe it; we say this because at bottom we really don’t know.
Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the number one deathbed regret people have is, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.” Guessing what people want is a losing proposition and, more importantly, a waste of time. Instead remember that beneath the seamless exterior of the people you love is a bubbling, mysterious self.
Oh, hell, Egan says it better than I can:
Life cannot be sustained under the pressure of so many eyes. Even as we try to reveal the mystery of ourselves, to catch it unawares, expose its pulse and flinch and peristalsis, the truth has slipped away, burrowed further inside a dark, coiled privacy that replenishes itself like blood. It cannot be seen, much as one might wish to show it. It dies the instant it is touched by light.