Under The Gaze Of Others
"Others prevent me from enjoying myself in all quietude, that's the problem: their cold gaze, their acerbic comments that dissociate me from my own existence...It is an intolerably arbitrary condition thus to be removed from oneself, to be defamed and trammeled, and that there should be so great a distance between one's sense of oneself and the sense that others have of you. I thus collapse under the weight of a vague accusation that I cannot formulate, since it is addressed directly to the fact that I am: existence is an expiation, one must pay continually for having the audacity to speak in the first person."
-- Pascal Bruckner, The Temptation of Innocence
Individuals who strive for an autonomous existence, a life distinguished from that of the pack, almost always incur the suspicion if not the wrath of their society. Moral reformers are often denounced; political dissidents are forced into exile or sent to prison; the lone wolf is banished from the group and tarred with the label of "other." It is not only the rebel or dissenter or free spirit, however, who has to contend with the judgment of the larger society; to a considerable extent we all do. At any time our actions can come under the gaze of our fellow man. We can be made to give an accounting of ourselves, to explain our life, our motives, our innermost thoughts to some tribunal or committee. At any time we can be summoned before the court of public opinion: this threat hangs over every one of us. It is a kind of tether.
The essayist Pascal Bruckner takes up this theme in his book The Temptation of Innocence: Living in the Age of Entitlement (Algora Publishing, 2000). The passages below have been culled from pages 20-21, 25 and 27 of that work.
"Affirming oneself as a consciousness that is both close to others and yet distinct from them is, from the very start, tantamount to making oneself guilty. With Rousseau, the autobiography takes the form of a plea, of an interminable defense that we hold up to others throughout our entire life, as if we were at fault simply for existing... Rousseau...mixes the two culpabilities: one applies to everyone who rebels against the social order and its laws; the other, more insidious, testifies to everyone's allergy to being watched and judged by others. The first, which tends to identify the individual with the figure in revolt, with the asocial, has enjoyed an endless posterity. By stepping out from the ranks, by claiming "to be free and virtuous above destiny and public opinion and to be sufficient in and of oneself," Rousseau caused a scandal and called down upon himself the reprobation of his friends, especially, who did not forgive him for his desire to be separate.
...[A] second form of guilt eats away at the individual: not that of the troublemaker who rises up against the established order (what could be more conformist in our day than seeing oneself as a rebel, a nonconformist?) but of the defendant, who lives under the gaze of the others and never escapes their spirit of inquisition. Others prevent me from enjoying myself in all quietude, that's the problem: their cold gaze, their acerbic comments that dissociate me from my own existence. St. Augustine set out to establish man's absolute indebtedness to God, "in respect to whom no one will ever discharge what He has, without any obligation, given us"...
Rousseau discovers in a more terrible way the hell of modern man: I am indebted to the others, all the others, before whom I must give an accounting. Even if our "true self is not entirely complete in us," even if one never manages, in this life, "really to be oneself without the concord of the other," the latter is first of all the one who talks about me without my knowledge, who objectifies me and by so doing, locks me up in an image. It is an intolerably arbitrary condition thus to be removed from oneself, to be defamed and trammeled, and that there should be so great a distance between one's sense of oneself and the sense that others have of you. I thus collapse under the weight of a vague accusation that I cannot formulate, since it is addressed directly to the fact that I am: existence is an expiation, one must pay continually for having the audacity to speak in the first person. The jury of the others never renders a final verdict: while I might never be condemned, I am never exonerated, either, to my very last breath. What Rousseau invents (and which will enjoy an astonishing fortune), is this: the desire to be oneself is not only an attempt to know oneself, it is the aspiration to be recognized by the others (to borrow a page from Hegel), i.e. to put oneself under the pitiless eye of his prosecutors.
...Rousseau's communion with nature is the exact counterpart of his divorce from mankind. Since I do not belong to myself, since I am scattered among the others, since I am composed of all that they say and think of me, I must constantly take control of myself again, reunify myself. Not only by taking up again that strangeness that I am for myself, and stamping it with the seal of my personality, but also by recovering the fragments of my being that have been scattered among the others. This is disturbing work: for delivering oneself to "the foolish judgments of men" means transforming one's existence into an eternal apology, it means trying to control, to rectify the image of oneself that floats in the world and makes us prisoners in the open air.
Rousseau is so full of himself that he sees the Other only as an occupier, and sees his presence, diffuse as it may be, as a judgment. And what face should one display to this assembly of inquisitors? Aren't we liable to merge with the appearance that others propose for us, even as we strive to defend ourselves from it? Isn't this the equivalent of setting ourselves up as a target for misunderstandings and mockery, of offering a grotesque view of ourselves?"
Works By Pascal Bruckner
Bitter Moon (a novel made into an acclaimed film by Roman Polanski)
The Tears of the White Man: Compassion As Contempt
The Tyranny of Guilt
Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy