Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Narcissa on the Grand Canal

Selfies are ubiquitous in Venice: there are even three little-noticed instances of the practice in this detail from Veronese's "Martyrdom of San Sebastiano" in the church to which the saint gives his name.

It was early February during a difficult morning at the end of a bad week. But the sun was out, despite the chilly temperature, and there's usually some consolation to be found in a vaporetto ride on the Grand Canal between two points you usually traverse on foot. Well, at least in low season, and in that brief gap between the end of the commuter rush into town from the mainland and the start of the daily tourist invasion.

I boarded the number 2 vaporetto that runs between Piazzale Roma and the Rialto and found all the outdoor fantail seats empty. I chose one with my back to the cabin: protected from the wind, open to the sun.

But just as the boat pulled out of the shadow of the fermata and I felt the sun, gloriously, full on my face, she barged out onto the rear deck, her wheeled suitcase getting stuck behind her, as they always do, in the closing cabin door. A few moments later I glanced at her long enough to see the usual thing: a young tourist immediately turning her smartphone on herself, and turning the famous sights of one of the world's most beautiful cities into so many selfie backdrops. I turned away and shut my eyes against the 10,000 suns glittering off the water.

But try as I might to focus only on the warmth from all that reflected light, I couldn't help but sense her persistent presence just three feet from me, seemingly in constant motion. I reluctantly opened my eyes to a closeup of her glorious head of black corkscrew curls--there they were, springing from the crown of her head and hanging in a long dense curtain. She was in the act of shooting herself bent over at the waist, to showcase, I guess, the luxurious full length of her locks falling across her face before the backdrop of the Grand Canal.

Truly, she had an admirable head of hair. But, alas, I'd soon be seeing it, and her, from every conceivable angle--some of them almost in defiance of gravity, not to mention personal safety--as she engaged in a series of contortions just a yard from me.

Left profile, right profile, full frontal with a simper. Three-quarters from both sides; leaning well out over the deck rail, first forwards, then--arched so much as to risk spinal injury--way backwards. Her torso twisted to one extreme, then the other, hunched this way and that, tilting every which way; her face foreshortened from above, then from below.

Tintoretto had nothing on her when it came to depicting the body in space, though he studied the form of others while her attention never strayed from her own.

Insistent though her presence was, I tried to avert my eyes. I wanted simply to feel the sun on my face, to be aware of nothing else. Surely, this wasn't too much to hope for on a bad morning after a trying week.

But then she asked me, in Italian, if I would use her smart phone to film her. She thrust the thing into my face. So unprepared was I for this request, so stunned, actually, that had I taken any longer to reply I think that, in spite of her ardent self-interest, she would finally have given up on me as being deaf and mute, totally incapable of communication.

When I finally did answer I professed feebleness, saying I had no idea how to use a smartphone.

And this, as my wife can attest, was not even a lie. For the only thing you can be sure of when you hand me your smart phone is that I'll immediately touch some indiscernible part of it which will make the app you wanted to show me shut down, or the image disappear, or the video halt--or be entirely erased. Your long-neglected great aunt in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, or Hong Kong, or Papua, New Guinea (whose number you don't even recall having ever punched into your phone) will suddenly get a call from you, your stock portfolio will abruptly undergo profound (and costly) transformations, and in two days time Amazon will deliver 750 pounds of dog food especially formulated for Siberian Husky sled dogs to your primary place of residence in Miami or Cairo, Buenos Aires or Accra.

But she, having no idea of the very real risks she was running, would not take no for an answer. The more I shook my head--helplessly, beseechingly, finally quite pathetically--the more insistent she became.

And so I found myself with her smart phone (already recording video) in my hands, held gingerly with the tips of my fingers, and begrudgingly trying to keep her in frame as she turned away and took two steps from me toward the fantail railing, then spun back toward the smartphone with a look of utterly delighted astonishment. As if nothing in the world could have surprised her more completely (and thrillingly) than the discovery of this smartphone on the tail end of that vaporetto recording her of all people! Why, however in the world did it get there? Like Doris Day, brighter than the day itself, turning to face an audience of millions in the opening of her own eponymous tv series.

Then she turned away from the camera again, toward the city, and threw both arms out wide, as if to open her great heart to all the splendors of the Grand Canal, to welcome them into her very soul: utterly a-swoon in this experience of ecstatic communion. Or at least at the thought of what she would look like miming this communion on video--with all the affectation and self-consciousness, I might add, of an unemployable silent film actress.

I looked at the seconds passing on the video counter: a mere 30 since this recording had begun. But it felt to me like 5 of the most uncomfortable minutes of social interaction I'd had in a very long time.

She stepped toward me and reclaimed her smartphone. No small expression of gratitude, no remark of any kind. She was too ravenous to gaze upon herself in playback to even think of such things.

Which is when I realized that the discomfort of this particular social interaction came from the fact that there was almost nothing "inter" about it. There had been nothing reciprocal about what had passed not so much "between" myself and the young woman, as beside the both of us--or at least beside one of us.

On my side, of course, I couldn't help but be aware that here was a person asking me to engage with her in a way I didn't want to (ie, record her). I was well aware that I'd been called upon by another person to recognize, if not her per se, at least what she wanted from me at that moment.

But she gave no sign at any point of having a similar basic sense of me, even merely in the way we're typically aware of strangers. That is, of me as an unknown person who might not want to do something she asked me to do for her, and who actually had the right to refuse such a request.

This common (or perhaps once-common) sense of a stranger in all their inherent if unknown person-hood seemed to her not just beside the point, as we say, but beside or beyond or beneath even consideration.

Though she called upon me (or imposed herself upon me) to do something for her, the only interaction of which she seemed truly aware was of herself with her own depicted (or soon-to-be-captured) self. I was merely the means by which she could carry on what appeared to be her obsession with a version of her self she crafted and recorded and presented on social media. To this passionate love affair between her embodied self and her screen self I was merely an anonymous bystander--a watcher of her, at best, a tool for her, at least--even as she directly addressed me.

Now, this didn't offend me. I'd never hoped for anything more from her than to be allowed to sit anonymously and unnoticed with my eyes closed and the sun on my face. And this is what I tried to return to after I returned her phone to her.

But after she'd gazed upon the freshly-captured video of herself to a point of at least temporary satiety, she resumed striking poses, in a fresh, extended paroxysm of selfie-absorption.

One magnificent palace after another slid by on the banks around us, but she had eyes only for herself.

I began to feel dismayed for her, as I might if I found myself seated on the NYC subway beside some unfortunate person locked so tightly in their own private world that they babbled incoherently to themself.

Then I started to feel embarrassed for her. As if the person beside me on that imaginary NYC subway was maniacally swept so far beyond the main current of acceptable public behavior as to have thrust both hands down the front of their trousers in pursuit of some distinctly private pleasure.

But unlike the analogous people I imagined above, readily dismissed by most people as lunatics, this young woman was, in truth, right in the swim of today's mainstream.

By today's standards, set as they are by social media, she might have been considered a little bit excessive, but not much. On the contrary, she's merely an aspiring "influencer," as other ambitious youths with narcissistic inclinations in the backward days of yore (say, a decade ago) might quaintly have aspired to become models or actors or singers or, gasp, even writers.

No pitiful minor Narcissa was she, I realized, but a goddess of the age, far far removed from actual, material, three-dimensional, sentient life. As I suppose all goddesses and gods must by definition be--and as so much of our contemporary life is, and compels us to be.

It made me wonder (much more broadly) if, rather than an aggressively narcissistic celebration of the self, this was in fact an aggressive, preemptive melancholic defense against the inevitable loss of everything humanity has labored long and hard to create: capital cities much larger than Venice submerged by rising tides, cultural treasures pillaged, social bonds devalued to utter worthlessness, always-precarious human ideals blithely destroyed by flag-waving crucifix-kissing charlatans, thieves, and hate-mongers....

If the whole world can be turned into mere simulcra, digital images, stage-sets, properties (in all senses of the word), then there are probably even some last dollars and power to be squeezed out of the performance of the world's destruction--for an audience too intoxicated by the spectacle to realize that its end is also theirs

Down this rabbit hole of despair I found myself sliding... We hadn't yet reached the line's last stop at the Rialto, but I'd seen enough. I got up and left her there on the fantail, still (always) in the throes of capturing herself, a snake with her own tail in her mouth, an unbroken loop of self-regard, and walked through the cabin to the vaporetto's foredeck, open to the chill winter wind--happy to feel it in my face, the movement of the boat beneath my feet. The world is real. 


  1. Oh I love this - galvanising as your experience was, and we have all seen it at some level.. Of course the copyright for the video belongs to you! Perhaps this would be a purposeful future argument - you simply can't afford to give your work away! Cheers, Kent.

    1. That's a good suggestion, Kent, but I doubt it would get me very far, as the person I'd have to address it to seemed unwilling or incapable of receiving even the simplest message from outside her own sphere of self-absorption!

  2. I too hate seeing the way people are obsessed with "selfies" - perhaps it's that they are so interested in themselves because NO ONE ELSE IS??
    (You could have managed to drop it into the canal, perhaps?Someone I know in a similar situation said "I'm very clumsy" and "dropped" the 'phone onto the stone pavement)
    _But you wouldn't be so nasty...
    -Love the Veronese tricks!

    1. Well, there are degrees of selfie-absorption, Ella, this person just happened to be at the furthest reaches of the spectrum, but she wasn't doing any harm to anything or anyone (except, some might argue, herself).

      Regarding the Veronese: I found that at one point I'd gotten so used to seeing people in selfie-taking poses that I began to see such poses quite literally everywhere, even in 16th-c paintings. It became odd to see a crowd scene of any kind and from any century without at least a couple people so engaged.

  3. Replies
    1. I take it that such folks have begun to wear on you at times, as well, Bailey!

    2. I can only imagine she does some kind of YouTube channel and as a follower of some channels (but not that kind) I can see where she's headed.

      Who did the Veronese collage? It's terribly well done. I had to Google the original to check it wasn't some kind of optical illusion.

    3. Well, if so, she certainly works hard at providing content for her viewers, Rosalind!

      I altered the Veronese with my extremely limited Photoshop ability, but thank you. After a day spent seeing people taking selfies you really can while looking at the actual painting almost see the smart phones in those three figures' hands--alas!