people watching

That 7-year old kid at the fun-fair was quite a charmer, despite his quirky mood-swings. Or maybe, he charmed thanks to those shifting moods, because, truly, they were a delightful spectacle to watch. The boy was the youngest of a bunch of kids which had been set loose (under benign parental guidance of course) amongst the attractions of a local summer fair. As small as he was, he looked very brave amongst the bigger kids.
But then, as swift as a cloud passing over the sun, his face would fall, his lips would tremble, tears would start rolling. And soon he'd be sobbing as the unhappiest little boy in the world. To be all smiles again five minutes later, eyes sparkling and ready to go for it. Oh and then how combative he would look, with anger flaring up in his eyes, when he didn’t get right away the coveted red football…

As adults too, we get bombarded all the time by multifarious emotions of frustration, despondency, anger, elation, … but thick layers of self-control smother most of those emotions, before they even make it to the surface of our face. Haven't we all had years & years of training in self-control. Dignity! Restraint!

Indeed, “could anything be more puerile than a mankind howling because it isn’t happy” (1) - surely we all have been told something to that effect at some stage in our education (even if only by our own, sterner alter ego).

Therefore, watching adult people in public spaces, is usually not very exciting. Adult people have perfected strategies of non-expressiveness, routinely deployed when they're on their own in, say, trains, waiting rooms etc.

When I first started working (oh, ‘the horror the horror’ (2)) all those years ago, I had to commute each day by train & underground. If I wasn’t reading, I used to watch people – trying to guess their lives. But all those silent people on the 7.12 morning train, wrapped up in their thoughts or their newspapers ..... – it was impossible to guess what they thought or felt.

It was on that same morning train, wrapped up in my own somber Monday morning thoughts, seeking support in a book (3), that this brilliant passage (about people in a train-compartment) by Virginia Woolf struck me:

“Life’s what you see in people’s eyes; life’s what they learn, and having learnt it, never, though they seek to hide it, cease to be aware of – what? That life’s like that, it seems. Five faces opposite – five mature faces – and the knowledge on each face. Strange though, how people want to conceal it! Marks of reticence are on all those faces: lips shut, eyes shaded, each one of the five doing something to hide or stultify his knowledge. One smokes; another reads; a third checks entries in a pocket-book; a fourth stares at the map of the line framed opposite; and the fifth – the terrible thing about the fifth is that she does nothing at all. She looks at life. Ah, but my poor, unfortunate woman, do play the game – do, for all our sakes, conceal it!”

trying to confine the footnotes to credits only
(1) From the “Lost Girl” by D.H. Lawrence – must confess I never finished reading that book. But well, I did retain this piece of dour-governess- morality at page 60 : "Happiness is a sort of soap-tablet – he won’t be happy till he gets it, and when he’s got it, the precious baby, it’ll cost him his eyes and stomach. Could anything be more puerile than a mankind howling because it isn’t happy: like a baby in the bath!”
(2) 'Ever so useful, Joseph Conrad' – as Moss would put it. She (Moss) also coined the brilliant expression “life’s penitential status” which, coming to speak of it, was indeed how I thought of life when first being subjected to the harsh and inimical discipline of working life.
(3) Virginia Woolf: An Unwritten Novel (as published in ‘the complete shorter fiction’)


Roxana said...

the picture is also brilliant, not only the quote. do play the game – do, for all our sakes, conceal it. yes.
but what about the people who abandon that laborioulsy acquired reticence and accept to reveal their most intimate nature before the eyes of strangers, by sleeping in public? isn't this a kind of exposing one's nakedness and vulnerability? I am fascinated by this.

ffflaneur said...

indeed, roxana - sleeping in public is quite a transgression of the rules of public restraint - usually i avert my gaze when spotting a "public sleeper" : not wanting to intrude upon them, but perhaps also feeling vaguely threatened ...

took the photo at the Cologne station, while waiting and looking from above to an endless stream of people passing by - the photo came out blurry all by itself ...

Roxana said...

yes, of course it came out blurry by itself, I could never believe you are the kind of person resorting to such type of boring post-production, applying blurring filters a.s.o. :-)
I hate this actually.

why vaguely threatened? could you elaborate on this? because you suddenly have to face the fear of the dark, deep biological life escaping our conscious censorship, that lurking force now taking control of the person, right under your eyes? I am only trying to guess.

ffflaneur said...

you're quite good at guessing, roxana: your score is 1/2! :-)

1/1 for the perceptive speculation about fear of "life escaping conscious censorship" - i indeed have this thing about privacy & dignity - meaning that i feel we're all entitled to show only a public persona in public; and to keep private what's, well, private: and thus protect from public view our non-censored emotions & deepest urges (including our vulnerable sleeping self)

0/1 for having me as a person never resorting to post-production: alas, mostly my photos (taken furtively with modest automatic analogue camera)do not of their own accord show what I saw. So without any qualms I will crop & zoom & blur & drain'm off colours just to reproduce my initial vision....

But i humbly praise the true photographers who can capture their decisive moment, like that, on the spot, through astute exploitation of lenses, shutter times etc. (& i suspect you're amongst those true photographers)

Roxana said...

ha :-)
no, 50 % is not good at all, my pride is hurt! :-) but I have this to have in my defense: I should have been more specific when talking about post-production, because there are so many things one can do there. no, I have already told you, I am myself - alas - not one of those pure photographers, I do also cropping and all possible experiments with colour, I have nothing against it. what I don't like is blurring, mostly because the picture looks then artificial, other types of violent distortion, applying such filters as to make the image look old, for example, or superposing images (any type of collage). I don't like this because the photograph doesn't look like a photograph anymore, one can clearly see that it has become a digital work of art. and I haven't seen such images here, that is why I failed at my guessing :-) but this is such a big discussion and I always fight with a photographer friend about it, if one allows computer-postproduction into photographic work then why make such distinctions as the ones I make and on what basis one can establish such limits etc.

Phoenix said...

ah, people-watching, masks and role-playing...familiar territory, this. :-)
in tubes and trains and airplanes... very few make eye contact or smile, but thankfully there still are some who let down their guard and share a moment. I love guessing what their stories are, I get absorbed in the tableau before my eyes...that maybe since the people in my part of the world are a highly expressive lot...and I do not mean the creamy sophisticated Dior-exhaling bunch. they're boring, vapid and the same everywhere. but this disarming vibrance also takes its toll on being private in public.


I love Woolf. she's intensely vague and vaguely intense.

ffflaneur said...

@ phoenix - :-) ah, but it is a true catastrophe when one is seated next to a dior-exhaling person!!! usually one can avoid any unsollicited expressiveness of fellow-passengers by blocking one's ears (headphones), closing one's eyes, but holding a handkerchief over one's nose during an entire journey is quite awkard!


do adore your Woolf-characterisation: intensely vague & vaguely intense . That's her!
and (one really should add) outrageously funny! Orlando is,(of course) my favourite book, just as her diaries and letters.

ffflaneur said...

@ roxana - well, i think we can agree on this: whatever we do :-) to the photo on the PC, is not post-production but discreet enhancement of the photo's potential.:-)

the blurring of which i speak, is actually quite un-intrusive and discreet! really :-) (it's called the "gaussian" blur, & quite akin to the blur of many of my un-attended-to photos - as i am tripodless and never use flash)