How Vivian Gornick's book Approaching Eye Level offers an exploration of the streets emptied of life during lockdown.
If the world is Shakespeare’s stage on which we are all players, the year of the pandemic – the year of near-global lockdowns, the year of life reduced to the staging space within one’s home, the year of pixels standing in for people – has been a year of solo performances to audiences of no more than six. It has been an experiment on the human psyche (to say nothing of its soul) that makes me wonder what its effects will be on our performances once the show has been allowed to go on again. How many of us will have forgotten how to act? What changes will have been made to our characters by being off-stage for so long?
This image of people performing their lives is at the heart of an essay that opens Vivian Gornick’s piercingly insightful book Approaching Eye Level. Discovering her collection of seven essays during lockdown has felt, in the realm of my private life and registered on its own scale of profundity, like a miracle. How is it that her descriptions of life on the streets of New York in the mid-nineties, “the landscape of marginal encounters”, speak so urgently to a man in the next century, on another continent, unable to set foot on his own city streets because of a global health crisis? And yet, here are her words, ready to save my life, if not literally then literarily, which are not always so different.
An anecdote in the first essay of the book illustrates her claim that “on the street nobody watches, everyone performs”. She spots two men lingering in the “glare of noise, heat, dust, and confusion” as only city-dwellers can, the men observing their two yapping dogs. One of the men wishes mournfully for his dog to shut up; the other encourages his animal to make more noise. Gornick, passing by this teasing exchange between friends, laughs out loud and makes both men grin appreciatively. “My laughter,” she understands, “had given shape to an exchange that would otherwise have evaporated in the chaos.”
I wonder what it means for us in this strange time to be so lacking the “flash of experience” that in ordinary times we “extract again and again from the endless stream of event”. So many of our actions, our performances and line-deliveries, our outward expressions of the selves we hope to nurture within, are evaporating in the silence of being alone. With no one to witness our being, do we lose the shape that their seeing gives us?
In the beginning, I took easy joy in wearing comfortable tee-shirts and sweatpants to work in my studio. The studio is on the top floor of my apartment, so I could dress this way any time outside of a pandemic, but I usually get properly dressed to feel ready for the world. Once the lockdown was locked down, I knew I would not be running out for a coffee or entertaining unexpected guests, so sweats became the norm. This greatly reduced the number of trips I had to make each month to the laundrette (excursions into the public realm that ran the risk of my catching and spreading the virus). It turns out that a person spending most days sitting at a desk in front of an open window can get through a whole month with only four or five shirts, two pairs of sweatpants, and a willingness to “shower wash” these items once a week.
In the beginning, this was the costume I wore to play the role of Good Citizen. I wore these clothes, in this manner, as one of many small efforts that all of us were making every day to keep one’s family, friends, and neighbours safe. As the weeks congealed into months, this noble meaning withered away; the missed haircuts and the all-day pyjamas ceased to be parts of a costume and became a uniform, a characterless, choiceless dressing to an identity I couldn’t quite grasp. I wasn’t so much comfortable as I was a slob; not as much Matthew at home as I was anyone of the everyone else alone.
Thankfully, I have my partner to get dressed for, to reflect who I am back at me, to give me an example of how someone else in the same circumstances might be different. My partner’s workplace has remained open throughout the year, so five days a week the one person I have left for company is also absent, except for a few hours at the end of each day. I discovered that when lacking all human contact for a full day (no lunches with friends, no work meetings, no close or meaningful interactions with strangers on the street or with shop assistants), I sometimes don’t know that I am elated or grumpy until she comes home and my personality has a canvass to paint – my harsh tone twists her smile, tightens her face; my laugh makes her laugh, and it bounces back to me, telling me, This is you today.
In Approaching Eye Level, Gornick watches a street vendor break his sales patter to greet a young woman he knows. She smiles and responds, then continues on her way. Their faces express pleasure and relief. “Thirty seconds a day these two rescue each other deep in the middle of the anonymous crowd.” In witnessing each other’s performances, they conjure each other into full existence. Each sketches an outline of the person they play in life, and the interested gaze of the other person acknowledges those lines, fills them in with colour. We give form to the abstractions of other people, give body and weight to the performances others give (just as they give the same to our own performances), which would otherwise “evaporate in the chaos”.
Once a fortnight, my father and I meet up for a socially-distanced walk around our shared neighbourhood, and we metaphorically resist the literal sanitisation required of the rest of our lives by discussing every conversational third rail that polite society says we shouldn’t touch. This worked well for the first month or two of lockdown, but the emptiness of the world at large soon dried up our conversational well. As my father is not the kind of reader I am (the kind who can discuss literature in its specifics and in general for hours on end), we were reduced to recycling the same few social and political matters left to us (the pandemic, the incompetence of different governments, and, later in the year, the US election). The problem, besides the paucity of topics, is that I can maintain enthusiasm for a single, largely unchanging political subject for only a limited number of repeat performances.
To circumvent this obstacle, I occasionally attempt a telling of some event in my unseen life, the lonely one I live the majority of the time. But life is to be lived, not recounted, and the small events of a day that might bring hilarity, or unity, or intimacy when shared in the present tense become distant in the retelling, dead. Life is about the live performance. The events that make up my days are no longer given shape by others, as there are no others, and bit by bit, day by day, it feels as if I am evaporating in the chaos.
Life in lockdown has been one of living with small details. The world outside – having given in to the friction applied urgently to its brakes by governments everywhere – has slowed to a near-total stop. In this stasis, we have had to supply ourselves with micro-narratives, the shortest of short stories written by the mundane details of the everyday. An entire three-day weekend was made up of rearranging the furniture in my front room, movements that suggested smaller adjustments to decor. When I’d finished with that, a pointless game of knick-knack Tetris ensued with minor adjustments made to the detritus – chopsticks, paperclips, and other leftovers from never-to-be-repeated occasions – that moved from this drawer to that drawer. Eventually, they all went into the bin. These were the increasingly pedantic details I used to hide from my boredom.
When I next walked with my father, I had been fully active with that home refurbishment for days, and yet it gave me nothing interesting to tell him. He too had kept busy with his own unrelatable details. We were both glad for the company, but eager for something worthwhile to share. In Approaching Eye Level, Gornick’s musician friend tells her he is moving out of his apartment because the bathroom is a little too far from his bedroom. “I know it’s only a small detail,” he concedes sheepishly. “But when you live alone it’s all details, isn’t it?”
There are mornings, Gornick writes, on which she wakes with a sense of having “more” of herself. Many mornings now, hundreds of days since that first morning on which I woke to a world forbidden to me, I wake with the feeling that there is less of me. It feels as though I could drift out of bed (now or later, it barely matters) and my feet might pass through the floor. I can ghost through walls, float in place above the sofa, breathe another day away in one desperate sigh. What I share with Gornick’s experience is that my lessening makes me desire, as she does, to take myself “down into those noisy, dirty, dangerous streets” and explore the city “in the midst of that crowd”.
Ah, Gornick, how innocent you are, writing before this plague year, of how “dirty” and “dangerous” those streets are! And yet if it were only a question of my health, if I did not have to think also of the health of others, I would be willing to risk even greater danger to be fully immersed in life again. I turn back to Gornick’s writing for her description of walking the busy streets, losing myself in her words, happily lost in the crowds:
“The sidewalk is mobbed, the sound of traffic deadening. I walk slowly, and people hit against me ... Here and there, a face, a body, a gesture separates itself from the endlessly advancing crowd ... I begin to hear the city, and feel its presence ... The city is opening itself to me. I feel myself enfolded in the embrace of the crowded street, its heedless expressiveness the only invitation I need to not feel shut out.”
Many of us for so long now have missed being “enfolded in the embrace” of loved ones we make ourselves stay distanced from. I am realising lately how I also need the embrace of the city, the street, the stranger.
I understand in a painful flash, a crunch down on hard truth with a sore molar, that being read is to the performance of writing what being seen is to the performance of living. My writing – all writing, every novel, every story, and extend the principle to every movie, every song, every painting, every act of communication – is incomplete if it does not sound off of something and return to us, if it drifts away unseen and unheard through an uncomprehending (worse, uncaring) cosmos. The miracle of transubstantiating the performance of a person into a living, breathing being, which Gornick describes as “street theatre”, can happen anywhere – but it “requires enough actors (bit players as well as principals) to complete the action and the rhythm of extended exchange”.
The magic of the written performance is that there is always an audience of one that can benefit from the reading and can witness the writer. After all, where there is a writer there is his or her own reader. The performance of life is both the telling and the living of the story in the same moment. This is also what happens as I write, explaining me to myself as much as to the external reader. I sense the same for Vivian Gornick, that this strange alchemy pervades her own performances on the page. And in the telling of her story, she tells me something of mine. I recognise myself in her, and I am seen.
Even the most interesting times produce their own boring truisms, trite observations we make or take part in. One for this pandemic period has been that all of this downtime stuck inside our homes, with only books and streaming services to service our need for entertainment, has meant that we’re all catching up on reading and watching movies. No doubt, this is a phenomenon that must have the heads of Netflix, Disney Plus, and the rest seeing a sliver of silver in the dark cloud of lockdowns.
A genuine upside here is that what we read and watch might remind us what to look forward to as we idle away our days, looking ahead to meetings with friends, to chance encounters with strangers, to the need for wit and intellectual acuity, the need for not only skill in conversation (and in flirtation, in negotiation, in banter) but a certain flair or style as well. Books and movies may demonstrate to us how we might act again, one day. Soon, we will be able to see ourselves in others; until then, we might find ourselves in art.
• Approaching Eye Level, Vivian Gornick (1996)