A Worthy Witness

The pool and deck at Sierra Hot Springs.
The other night, I'm at the Sierra Hot Springs with my sweetie. It's Saturday night; I've only been to the springs twice and this was my first Saturday there. We were in the main pool which sits on a deck overlooking this incredible valley floor. Only it's at night. So we can't see the valley of cows and grass. But we can see the sky. The moon is quiet, yet to rise, making the sky teem with stars. The pool is, for me, shockingly full of people: a wet, naked cocktail party. And everyone is standing at one edge, staring up at the sky. There was a low hum of naked party banter punctuated every few minutes by collective gasps. Oh! Ahhhhhh! Wowwwww! There were shooting stars, it seems. (We positioned ourselves away from the crowd, choosing to float and cuddle under the pool's canopy, muting the explosive sky.)

What happens in this collective experience? Why do we — and why would or wouldn't we — turn to others when experiencing something poignant such as a meteor, the Grand Canyon, a car crash? Why do we want or seek a witness — or, in my case, neither want nor seek a witness?

Few things are as disheartening as a photograph of a shooting star. Still.
I remember the first shooting star I saw. It was the first time I took LSD and I was lying on my back with two friends in a field in my home town in Westchester, NY. Holy moly, the sky was awesome, this great labyrinth of light and shadow. And then: wooosh! My heart jumped. My whole body jumped. That was over 30 years ago and I can still feel that sensation resonating through me, teaching me the power of the universe, giving me a taste of my non-I, my becoming rather than my ego.

I don't remember sharing that experience with my cohorts, verbally or otherwise. I know they were there; I liked having them there. But the experience excluded them, the event summoning me and me alone: Behold! the universe commanded. In one fell swoop, I knew the movement of the cosmos, its big banging, its flair and flare, it explosive accelerations (most things in the sky appear stationary; clouds and meteors give us a glimpse of cosmic power, cosmic flux).

What do we want from the one sitting next to us? Well, confirmation: Did that unusual, intense thing actually happen? But that confirmation can be more existentially profound: not only did that just happen but am I still here? In a world in which something like that happens — the sublimity of a shooting star — am I still me? This mode of witness is fundamentally ethical; it seeks to bond human beings in a society. We are here together.

This is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be quite beautiful, a calming salve for existential angst, a way to stand amidst the tumult. But when I experience something that resonates deeply, that takes me out of myself, I often don't want to be brought back to myself, at least not right away. I want to be stretched.

There is another look we can give each other, another mode of witnessing sublimity together. The universe declares itself with a certain virtuosity — a rock hurls through our atmosphere traveling eons and epochs at nonsensical speeds — and it rings out, sends a ripple, a Doppler of affect taking up all willing participants in its wake.

And suddenly I too am hurling through the atmosphere, burning and screeching with that space rock. I turn to you and together we say Yeah — not as confirmation of the known, not as a way of bringing each other back into the fold, but as the universe seeing itself, creating a conductive circuit, letting the wave flow between us, each of us edging it on as we flow with it. Yes, we look at each other seeking acknowledgement — You see that, right? — but this is not an ethical acknowledgement, not a social agreement: it's a cosmic acknowledgement. We are not agreeing to go back to the norm; we are edging each other on into the great teem of life. It is a downright giddy experience.

In that mutual nod, in that one look, we create a circuit that flows through us. We all know this experience of looking someone in the eye — a stranger on the subway or in a bar that hints at imminent violence or sex. This is a living circuit of energy we can open up or close down, the universe mining itself for energetic flows. Usually, we close it down, look away, look down, look anywhere but at that stranger. The force is too much, threatening the social order and our egos with sudden blows of love or hate or both.

But at that moment when a screaming comes across the sky, when that meteor tears through the atmosphere in a billowing wave of intensity, we are that billowing. We go with it, not as witnesses but as so much cosmic stuff. Such is what it is to see. Vision is a taking in, a taking up, a metabolic function. When we look each other in the eye and holler as it's happening, we are not just two people watching a shooting star as if the sky were a stage and we were its audience. No, as elements in the universe moving along with everything else — with sun and moon and stars and light and whales and wind — we become a productive propellant, a live circuit that amplifies the energy, like looking into your lover's eyes as you come.

These two modes of seeing together — the ethical and the cosmic — are not always distinguishable from the outside. Or even from each other: a look, a witnessing, is multiple. And, no doubt, there are many other modes of seeing together, of bearing witness. I imagine an elaborate litany of such gazes (including the phallic and Bracha Ettinger's matrixial).

In case it's not obvious, the idea of a witness is new to me so excuse my flailing about. I'm still feeling my way through as I write this. Because the fact is I always felt any remnant of the social impeded my revelations, my becoming — all those obligations, judgements, prejudices seeing me in a box before I've even had a chance to express myself (we are hailed, as Althusser says, before we're even born). And so I imagined I had to be alone or with the clouds to be wisely, intensely, passionately at peace with the universe — Kierkegaard's Abraham on Mt. Moriah, alone with his faith (well, except for Isaac who was probably freaking out), infinitely far from the social. Or Nietzsche on the mountain top, the air too cold for most people's lungs. Indeed, all my great moments of revelation have been alone, even if others were around me. How could it be otherwise? Wisdom — Kierkegaard's faith, Nietzsche's self overcoming, Buddhist transcendence — is an internal movement. Something shifts inside me. So why a witness?

And then something happened to me this past Fall, an intense internal movement as I found my ego scaffolding collapsing quickly and violently. What once worked for me to get me up and out — a concoction of ideas, words, meds, gin, and shtick — no longer sufficed. I was in a glorious, if painful, free fall. Yet all I had to do was wipe the tears from my eyes and no one knew what was happening to me. I was disintegrating incognito. Or, rather, my scaffolding was disintegrating as I was reconstituting myself. It was a violent and necessary internal movement.

What astonished Kierkegaard about Abraham, among other things, is that Abraham could return to his life, to his wife and community, after his experience on Mt. Moriah — and no one was ever the wiser. The knight of faith, Kierkegaard tells us, is incognito just as Jesus was incognito: the son of god, which we all are, runs errands like everybody else. There's no glow, no halo, to declare him. With every step, he walks into the infinite and back, beyond the ethical and back. (See Fear and Trembling, as funny and delightful as it is poignant and sharp.) And so I imagined that this call to faith, all done incognito and beyond the pale of the social, meant I had to reckon this alone.

But this internal movement that blew through me did not leave me alone. On the contrary, it repositioned me in such a way as to welcome, or even demand, a witness. I suddenly saw that, alone, I could not ascend that mountain. I could not make that infinite leap of faith. At times, for sure, I knew great peace and certainly even greater pleasure when alone. And no doubt my revelations were and would remain solitary affairs. But, solo, I can't summon the energy to take me up and out and beyond myself. Maybe this movement was just me being lonely, a social desire for others. But this internal movement was greater than a sense of loneliness, more than a middle aged curmudgeon forced to reap what he's sown (although it was that, too). This opening to a witness had an ontological weight, a whiff of necessity. Or perhaps another way to see it is as a matter of physics: I simply need the energy from the gaze of another to move me along.

When I was a young teen, I used to lie in bed and try to come without touching myself. Oh, I'd get so close, my whole body straining, twitching, every cell at the brink. But I could never do it. In order to come, in order for that little death and rebirth, that temporary disintegration of ego that is orgasm, I needed touch. Sure, it was by my own hand. But the point here is that the internal movement alone did not and could not suffice to carry me along, to move me past my ego and into the great cosmic seethe. I needed a nudge.

So now I not only welcome a witness to my own becoming but see this witness as necessary. Practically speaking, I need those eyes to invite me to taste the world outside of my all too comfortable zone of smart guy-Jew-drinker and then take me farther, take me further, to propel me into fearless bliss. My ego can't seem to disintegrate on its own. It needs the force of another, a force that comes from being witnessed.

Which is why not any witness will do. My witness is not the traditional witness; it is not a call to the ethical I primarily seek, even if I do enjoy a lovely, loving companion. No, it is that productive circuit, a witness outside the fray, capable of fomenting the frenzy, willing and able to see and be seen without the all-too-human encumbrances of reason, ethics, and ego, someone who can stand there naked with me naked and not turn away, not become shy or, worse, coy: a witness who can see what I'm offering, what I'm doing, how I'm going as I scream through the atmosphere.

We usually have a friend or two who can play this role. But friendship is often tempered by a beautiful letting be, especially as we get older. Ah, he's all right, we say and get back to our business. Family is of course mired in the ethical, constantly calling us back to the very thing we're trying to shed — our selves. A therapist could be a way to go but, alas, the therapeutic industry is run and dictated by the worst impulses — a return to work, to ego, to the basest bourgeois institutions and, of course, meds. (I found one, however, who makes no claim to being a therapist, not anymore. But he's a rare find, perhaps the only one.)

A lover is an ideal witness, someone who actually loves you so is open and wants the best for you without ego, someone who's around a lot, and someone you fuck so you can visit that place beyond the pale together and often. Alas, most relationships do anything and everything but bear witness. They judge and block as two people try to keep each other tethered within the other's petty grasp. We all know this all too well.

A worthy witness, for sure.
But sometimes a witness comes along who can look at you with a gaze that doesn't seek to own, that doesn't seek to master or even know you with a probing interrogation (isn't this the horror of dating and jealousy — that look across the table that doesn't open up but judges and shuts down?). A witness who looks at you with the eyes of the cosmos itself, the world streaming through her, with her, as her, a look with the vital surge and seethe of life itself, open and generous and abundant, at once indifferent and passionately engaged, a witness who in turn knows how to be witnessed, who invites you to see her just as she sees you.

This is the only way the circuit can be created, a circuit capable of summoning the non-I: a mutual gaze that forges a propellant with a look that doesn't judge but that doesn't let me be, either: a look that edges me on, whether I'm standing naked before a meteor shower, before myself, or before her. It's all cosmic surging asking for a worthy witness.


Lindsay Meisel said...

I always thought about love this way, and I thought I got it from your 'seeing seeing' class, but I worried I must be misinterpreting it because you seemed to have a much more curmudgeonly take on the same ideas.

The stuff about hailing made me me think of my favorite poem, esp the third stanza: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/morning-song I think it's about social witnessing in a way that's more vampiric than transcendent. Poor Sylvia.

That picture of you two with the light streaming down is my favorite. It's so beautiful.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I have talked about love and seeing images like this — this kind of openness. But I never saw it in relationship to other people! The social always exhausted me. My new witness has changed my perspective rather radically.

That's some poem! I've never read Sylvia Plath before. And, oy, that picture of me and her slays me every time. Thank you.

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