Watching/reading private things.

🚨 Assume there are spoilers everywhere. 🚨

The idea of watching/reading private things appears in two books that were recently mentioned in the audio episodes: “The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine and “The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman. “The Spectral Arctic” is a nonfiction book and “The Silent Strength of Stones” is a fiction book with supernatural elements.

In “The Silent Strength of Stones,” the main character works in a vacation town and likes to watch visitors unbeknownst to them. There are various mentions of what he would do and wouldn’t do, or others should do or shouldn’t do, knowing that they can be watched.

People with money used the Lacey’s as a hideout, some of them people whose pictures I had seen in magazines. If they had a reason for hiding out, I figured I had a reason to be interested in them, even though I never told anybody any of the things I discovered.

“The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Haha. “If they had a reason for hiding out, I figured I had a reason to be interested in them.” Is this true? Don’t hide, and folks won’t be looking for/at you? This reminds me of the saying, “Be useless so no one can use you.” It’s both hilarious and sad, that one should make decisions on one’s own usefulness based on the possibility of getting used by others.

Anyway, for various reasons, I wasn’t creeped out by all the secret watching going on in the book despite the watcher placing the burden of the responsibility on the watchee.

  1. “The Silent Strength of Stones” uses beautiful lyrical language.
  2. The protagonist, who does the watching, is an under-aged boy who misses his mother, who left without any word, and has a pretty mentally-absent and practically-useless father. (I consider using your child’s labor and relying on it, while barely paying for it, nothing to be proud of. It might not be something to be ashamed of, sure. Also, it might not be avoidable. But couple that situation with mainly communicating via yells, and that makes a mentally-absent and practically-useless parent. If you rely on your child’s labor and barely pay for it, the least you can do is to not yell. The boy isn’t responsible for your unfulfilled desires, but perhaps you the parent are for the boy’s. Given this whole situation, I was only half surprised by how the boy thought the watchees were responsible for his watching. One parent left without a word; the other is “there” to mainly yell.)
  3. Later on, the watcher becomes the watchee, which is somewhat of a relief. The watcher gets to feel what it’s like to be watched.
  4. Those who are watched, and are mentioned at length, aren’t helpless beings. In fact, they are more powerful than the person doing the watching, which can give the reader a weird sense of worrying for the watcher instead of the watchee.

Here is a beautiful scene.

I was almost to Willow’s cabin when I heard a splash from the little inlet a stone’s throw from the cabin. I veered, walking quietly, and dropped down behind bracken and a fallen log, then peered between fronds and saw Willow naked and beautiful in the water. Where she stood, close to shore, the water only came up to her knees. She dipped both hands in, scooping up water, carrying it above her head, then tilting her hands. The water traveled from her hands to the lake in a way I had never seen before: in silver threads instead of droplets. Morning sun snagged in the water-threads as if they were dew-pearled spiderweb. Willow murmured something. She lifted more handfuls of water and let it run down her body as she sang.

I watched and imagined I was the water, sliding down her body in the closest possible embrace. It got tangled up in a winter memory I had, of a time just after Mom left. I went out on the lake after it had frozen, lay down, took off my mittens, jacket, and shirts, and tried to freeze my upper body to the ice, except I had felt heat from the ice, warmth and comfort like I was feeling now, only now I felt even warmer and not so comfortable. Icy heat against my skin, water against Willow, and the lake, talking to each of us, talking to both of us, tasting us.

I tried to stop thinking about it because there wasn’t much I could do to ease myself, but it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen, how the sun touched the wet edges of Willow and glowed, how free and comfortable she was out there in the open air, no self-consciousness, confident in her aloneness, how she was talking to something or someone who wasn’t there, but it didn’t matter. How wrong it was for me to watch her when she couldn’t know I was there.

What a weird thought. I thrived on invading people’s privacy. If they wanted to do interesting thing where other people could see them, was that my fault?

The hairs were prickling on the back of my neck. Maybe she really wasn’t alone. Maybe somebody else was watching me. I glanced behind me. Nobody.

I should leave, I thought. I could always watch Willow some more when she had clothes on. I pushed up, ready to climb to my feet as quietly as possible and sneak off, but I couldn’t resist one last look.

Willow still had her back to me, but now her arms were stretched straight out toward the rising sun. Light glowed around her hands, spun around her body like liquid tinsel. She turned, still singing, her wet hands weaving in the air about her, and she flickered and was gone.

“The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

I felt a sense of solace, through the sense of solace that the protagonist seemed to feel, of “merely” being a witness. Perhaps the absence of the protagonist’s mother led to this behavior of watching; perhaps there is a need to witness things before they happen to him, so that he isn’t surprise-attacked by a traumatizing event again.

Perhaps, also, he hopes someone is watching him. And he does/doesn’t do things based on this assumption. It’s a soft form of self censorship–an expectant one, almost, at times. The boy wishes someone were interested in him enough to be watching him.

But later on, he says:

The ironic thing was that if I were watching all this stuff through a window and it was happening to someone else, I would have been fascinated. At least at first.

“The Silent Strength of Stones” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Gradually, he stops watching people… because interesting things start happening, actively and directly, to/with/around him.

In “The Spectral Arctic,” the watching has to do more with politics.

By the nineteenth century, the records of expedition commanders were supposed to be sober narrations of events, rarely interrupted by references to the author’s body, emotions or passions (see Parry, 1826, 41). Partly, this was due to the fact that officers’ journals and diaries were no longer purely their own, as they were collected by the naval commander on returning home and given to the Admiralty Board and Colonial Office for a period of time. Scientific styles of discourse, including hydrographical, geographical and magnetical data, were privileged and if an officer wanted a promotion or subsequent employment it would be unwise, for instance, to include one’s true feelings about the commander or details of the men’s violence or sexual involvement with local women. Barrow therefore praised Parry’s Journal of a Voyage for the Discovery of a North-West Passage (1821) for not including any ‘marvellous stories’ and for sticking to ‘a plain statement of facts and occurrences, and a detail of scientific observations, made with unimpeachable accuracy and recorded in the clearest and most simple and unaffected language’ (Barrow 1821, 177).

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

This is just terrible: “officers’ journals and diaries were no longer purely their own.” My goodness. What tyranny. The main reason this behavior might not be called censorship would be that censorship elsewhere is too terrible to make this here seem serious enough. But it is serious.

For literate crew and officers, shipboard publications and satires also served to express the poetic and dreamlike details of life in the Arctic, details that could not necessarily make it into a published narrative after it had been edited back home.

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

In other words, someone thought themselves important enough to determine the direction of the published narrative. Thank gods I don’t live in that spacetime.

From 1818 onwards it seemed that one particular polar publishing network might come to dominate, comprising John Barrow, the John Murray publishing house, and a range of ‘approved’ Arctic authorities (explorers and scientists) (Craciun, 2011, 440). Through vitriolic policing of knowledge about Arctic exploration in the conservative journal the Quarterly Review, Barrow tried to freeze out critical, literary or otherwise unauthorised voices, while contracts with John Murray promised preferred commanders a prestigious publisher for their narratives. In reality, Barrow was not always successful in his policing efforts (see Cavell, 2013a) and some officers were not beholden to John Murray at all: John Ross and Alexander Fisher published with Longmans for instance. Nevertheless, what did happen in the 1840s, alongside the deaths of John Murray II and John Barrow, was a transformation of the media landscape by spiritualism, the telegraph, penny presses and mass readership, allowing voices very different to Barrow’s to increase in volume, make claims and seek credibility on the Arctic.

“The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration” by Shane McCorristine

Elsewhere in the book, the author states an important point: “Arctic facts were always opinions.”

Again, thank gods I don’t live in the spacetime depicted in “The Spectral Arctic.” Everything I do is affected by the fact that it will be put out there; but no one else makes that decision for me. In a similar vein–if I happened to be useful or useless, I hope it is so because I am so. I hope to not change my usefulness or uselessness based on whether I will be used or not.

And I often wonder why “used” became synonymous to “abused.”

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