The Mirada

February 12, 2016 § Leave a comment

But while they are receiving sensory information, the senses are also transmitting information on their own behalf. Once again, the eye sees but also watches. By watching, it exposes, it casts before itself something of what it is for it to see and be seen. And always, in addition to this, knows it is incapable of seeing itself. All this is given in a glance of the eyes, where, as Proust writes, “the flesh becomes the mirror and gives us the illusion that it allows us, more than through the other parts of the body, to approach the soul.”

Proust’s sentence, all things considered, is not without strangeness, for while it is possible for me to see myself in another’s eyes, it is not this optical mirror function that justifies the sentence. Rather, it expresses the fact that in the eyes of the other, I see myself gazing and, consequently, also gazed upon—and always in keeping with this fundamental extra-version that will never let me see myself and which, therefore, exposes me absolutely.

Jean-Luc Nancy: Demande

I include this lengthy quotation from French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy not for its erudition but because it reveals something of the complexity of the underlying elements of the mirada. The notion of the mirada, or gaze, is a story as old as myth and expressed most profoundly, in the Western tradition, in the tales of Narcissus and of Orpheus and Eurydice. Ironically, in both cases, its effect was fatal. Eurydice is lost (again) to the underworld, Narcissus commits suicide or, in some versions of the myth, dies of sorrow.


While the cabeceo is an open question seeking a response, the mirada is the path through which that response is given, or the response itself. Certainly, our gaze can wander but, if we are alert, it will direct itself to the one who seeks us out. (As a practical matter, this can work only if we are attentive within the surrounding confusion. Socializing and conversation distract from careful observation. There is something solitary about this. We are alone in the act of looking and our momentary solitude is the necessary price of potential connectivity.)

In the mirada, a direct and immediate channel of communication is opened. We are visible, public, present; but the mirada is subtly private and intensely personal. It is the beginning of a dialogue that is continued in the dance. The practice of the cabeceo is presented to us as a matter of convenience and etiquette, allowing us to engage in a private conversation across a public space while unheard and unobserved. Of course, in practice, it is never quite that simple. For, we must first observe and put ourselves in a position to do so, and in doing so, in reorienting ourselves physically (and psychologically), in directing our focus outward, we also announce the fact of our looking.

The concept of the gaze is one that has been written about at great length in critical and psychoanalytic theory. In film theory it is often treated as gender-biased and typically associated with the “male gaze”; a similar approach has been taken in the literature on the phenomenon of the gaze in the fine arts, painting primarily. Lacan famously said that “desire is the desire of the Other.” Famously ambiguous as well. Like desire, the mirada is bidirectional, we are simultaneously subject and object, both the initiator of our gaze and the object of another’s. When we see in another, another sees in us.

Notwithstanding the various, often exhausting, theoretical studies of this complex subject, it suits my purposes simply to note that the beauty of the mirada lies in its ability to provide a gender-neutral framework for invitation (nothing says that it must be initiated by the man) without calling undue attention to ourselves or our potential partners. More than a channel of communication between two people, it is a sign of mutual recognition. But it also makes us vulnerable, for in making the public private, it makes the private public.

In vain your image comes to meet me
But does not enter where I am, I merely show it
Turning toward me you would find only
Your dreamlike shadow upon the wall of my gaze

I am that wretched man, I am like mirrors
That can reflect but cannot see
Like them my eye is empty and like them filled
With the absence of you, which is its blindness

from Aragon, Le Fou d’Elsa


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