Seeing the Unseen Exhibitionist in Hitchcock and Maes

by jdavidcharles

The Lacanian mantra that desire is the desire of the other always struck me as similar to the tat tvam asi (“thou art that”) of the Upanishads.  Each seems to have a double-meaning which presents itself as irreconcilable: what defines the “I,” what the interior is, appears as such only by its exteriority, and, likewise, the exterior is only intelligible because “I” am already (in) it. My desire is for or towards the other, i.e. to move outside the self, but this very desire itself is already outside of myself, already in the other.

This becomes more explicit through the gaze—the gaze is both for the interior, myself, “I must see this,” while simultaneously of the other, the exterior, “this must be seen (by someone: an implied onlooker).” Here we touch on the voyeur (who following this alterity of the libido set up by Lacan is also an exhibitionist as we shall see, just an unseen exhibitionist) or the “eavesdropper” trope in much of Dutch painting. The eavesdropper in this particular work by Nicolas Maes is seen outside of a presumed conversation which the viewer is literally “veiled” from seeing yet the voyeur is not. We are tempted to say the painting draws the viewer to “desire” to see precisely what the eavesdropper sees, i.e. makes a voyeur of the viewer, while also cutting off the viewer from the possibility of seeing. We simultaneously see too much, the voyeur who knows “too much,” and see “too little,” are veiled from seeing.

Yet the opposite strikes me as equally/more true. In other words, it is not so interesting to me that we become voyeurs because of the eavesdropper, but that our existence as an outside “meta-”voyeur is the very condition of the eavesdropper. This is the irony of the eavesdropper’s invitational gaze at the viewer which she cannot see gazing back no matter how intensely we stare—the eavesdropper knows this is something we want to see, and that is precisely why she is eavesdropping. The eavesdropper already has convicted the viewer, the “they”-self, the other, as a voyeur, and that is precisely what makes eavesdropping desirable. The desire outside of the eavesdropper “in” us is precisely the eavesdropper’s desire. The eavesdropper’s desire is “in” her in that it is outside of her.

The gaze as cinematic gaze, as the camera-as-eye (or train-as-camera-as-eye as in Strangers on a Train, The Lady Vanishes, North by Northwest, et al), is a common motif throughout the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock. The explicit theme of the relationship of an eavesdropper caught in the gaze (in both cases literally caught by physical constraint) appears in both Suspicion and Rear Window. Like the Dutch maid caught trying to gaze at an audience outside, so too Jimmy Stewart and Joan Fontaine are caught (wheelchair/bedridden) gazing. But the gaze is dialectical—they would not be gazing if not for being in this movie we desire to see, but, likewise, we would not be so fascinated if not for their desire to gaze—in both cases to see the murder (remember Jimmy Stewart slept through the murder he was obsessed with seeing, that he had to see). And this is what I meant by the voyeur as already being an exhibitionist, just an unseen one. Like these protagonists or Maes’ maid there is a glance back towards the theyself, the always already presumed other, an audience. This glance is the desire to be seen seeing, to be the site of the gaze. The desire to be caught trespassing and found complicit in the crime.

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