At its core ‘Portrait of a Lady on Fire’ directed by Celine Sciamma is a meditation on being seen. The critics have made much of this being a story about the female gaze. A painter in 18th century Brittany is given the assignment of painting a portrait of a young woman. This will then be sent as a calling card to a man in another country, a man her mother has chosen for her to marry, a man she has never met.
The painter pays exquisite attention to her subject who remains detached, sullen and cold. A painting emerges that is formal and conforms to the ‘rules’ laid down for artists, particularly women artists, of the time. The subject barely recognises herself in the dead, formulaic image. A new round of painting the portrait begins. This time the painter starts to see her subject as a complex, contradictory and sensual person. Being seen like this, for the first time in her life, starts to free her from the prison of others control and the tomb of her own rage and impotence. At a later point in the story she reveals that while she was being looked at she was also looking back. With new eyes she started to notice tiny details in her observer. Being seen, really seen, not just for her external image but seen to the core of her identity has changed everything. Now she is free to see herself and others with new eyes. Now, things that were just stories in books, things like love, are available to her. Much of the rest of the story tells of how she steps beyond her rigid and socially constructed persona to fall deeply and fully into the arms of love.
Jacques Lacan worked in the early twentieth century as a psychoanalyst. He also wrote about the importance of being seen. He argued that a baby discovers itself in the eyes of its mother. If the mother looks with love and acceptance upon her child the baby will internalize that look and see themselves through the same eyes. This is the foundational building block of an identity at rest and at peace with itself. If that maternal gaze is missing or replaced with absence, anger, judgment or rejection then the infant will take on those responses and see themselves in exactly the same way. If their mother (or father) is resentful of their presence, they will see themselves and their world through the lens of resentment, maybe for the rest of their lives. This may leave them with no safe internal space from which to view themselves, the world or others. They can live a life that is characterised by a desperate seeking after the love and approval that was missing at the beginning. Unfortunately though they are often unable to metabolize or absorb the love they so desperately crave.
This frantic state of unease has marked much of my own life. I was given up for adoption at birth. I had no eyes looking at me in which to find and accept myself, no consistent presence. I was looked after by shifts of nurses for my first two weeks of life. Of course, I am not alone in having a ruptured start to life. I am certainly not alone in growing up addicted to any number of experiences that would give me some sense of existing, being here, being seen. No surprise I became an actor, craving approval and yet unable to accept it. No accident I ended up leading an eating disorders unit full of people unable to metabolize or absorb life. No surprise that as a follower of Christ I have struggled to feed on the ‘bread of life’ and had an image of God as distant, remote and absent. No surprise that I have been constantly distracted by the dopamine rush of others approval, acclaim and acceptance. Facebook can still be tricky!
To some degree or another humanity seems somewhere on the continuum of compensatory behaviour for a lack of being seen.
To some degree or another humanity seems somewhere on the continuum of addictive behaviour.
And all because we were not seen fully, lovingly, unconditionally.
But it was not always so. In the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2–3 we read that they were ‘both naked and they felt no shame’ (Gen 2. 25). However once they had eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil ‘the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realised they were naked; so they sowed some fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.’ (Gen 3.7) When they heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.’ (Gen 3.8). When God calls for Adam and Eve, Adam explains they are hiding because they are naked and then God says this line that drops like a depth charge through human history
‘Who told you that you were naked?’
Eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil has fractured Adam and Eve’s vision. Before, they were unselfconscious and free to be themselves in the loving, accepting gaze of God. They were fully seen, fully observed and because they were fully loved and accepted they embraced themselves with the same deep enfolding. Now they are self- aware a film has occluded their vision. This is the miasma, the cataract of human judgment. They have lost touch with Gods gaze and fallen into the darkness of their own evaluation. Now they have entered the delusional state of self- assessment. And for the first time this fractured human wisdom becomes the lens through which God is also viewed. Humanity has shifted from being seen in the warm gaze of love to seeing through the dualistic and broken lens of knowledge. Could anything be more tragic?
So can we ever return to Eden?
The answer is that we never left. We just got some grit in our eye that made us believe all kinds of craziness about God and ourselves.
So how do we wake back up and stay awake to reality?
There are many answers to this but in essence it is remembering that we were always part of the tree of life. This is the source of true identity, flowing and dancing in the perichoretic dance of divine love. Here we can stand up straight before our creator and know once again those eyes of love, seeing us, really seeing…us. Not our fractured, egoic fig leaves, but us as we always were, always are, always will be. THAT is the gaze that melts our pathetic stabs at self-importance and addictive compulsions to blot out the pain of loneliness.
THOSE are the eyes that have never stopped searching for us, enfolding and embracing us.
When we know ourselves to be seen, like the woman before the painter we become free.
Free to see ourselves once again, as we always were.