Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Death-Watch: Terminal Illness and the Gaze in Sharon Old's 'The Father.'

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Death-Watch: Terminal Illness and the Gaze in Sharon Old's 'The Father.'

Article excerpt

The publication of Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema" in 1978 initiated a dialogue about the function of the "gaze" that has subsequently moved beyond the boundaries of film theory. Mulvey's discussion of scopophilic viewing in the cinema identified a voyeuristic dynamic in which the erotic identity of the viewing subject is clearly separated from the object (usually a woman) on the screen; the viewer derives pleasure from objectifying the screen persona and subjecting that persona to the power of the controlling gaze. The success of film criticism in denaturalizing the act of looking in the cinema--i.e., exposing the way in which the viewer's gaze may be constructed to enforce hidden assumptions or authorize conclusions that appear "natural"--has led in turn to the need for unveiling the way that the gaze is constructed in other forums and the need for defining the power dynamics that result from that construction.

In relying heavily upon psychoanalytic models that stress viewing as a form of visual pleasure, however, film theorists and adaptive critics following in their wake--in literary theory, gender studies and cultural studies--have paid little attention to the consequences of a gaze that is painful or uncomfortable, a gaze that moves away from a lingering focus on the seductive fetish to a flitting confrontation with disease and death. The way in which we as individuals and as a culture look at people with terminal illness raises questions about how the act of seeing can serve to naturalize assumptions about the dying body and the embodied subject framed by that body. When the object of the gaze changes from an attractive female form that the viewer objectifies or from a screen protagonist with whom the viewer identifies to the wasting body of a terminally ill patient, the structures of looking that Mulvey located within a dynamic of visual pleasure demand to be revised. The act of looking at a person with terminal illness may perpetuate the dynamics of objectification that Mulvey associated with the fetishization of women in the cinema; it may, also, however, upset the very distinction between subject and object to allow for the possibility of a gaze that dissolves the distance between the two.

This essay attempts to understand the intimacy of the gaze not as a means of negotiating sexual difference but as a way of establishing connection between a healthy subject and a person with terminal illness. The first section of the essay lays the theoretical groundwork for my investigation; using the work of theorists such as Mulvey, Foucault and Kristeva, I will explore the way that the gaze constructs the experience of dying: both for the terminally ill patient who perceives the self as an object of the gaze and for the watcher who negotiates the idea of death through the visual apprehension of a dying body. The next section of the essay expands this dialogue of critical voices through an analysis of Sharon Olds's The Father (1992), a volume of contemporary American poetry that serves to raise important theoretical questions about how the dynamics of watching are implicated in the construction of a relationship between the dying body and the embodied subject. In this volume, which focuses on the slow process of her father's death from cancer, Olds offers an unflinching exploration of what it means to turn the gaze toward the dying body. Opening with a description of watching--"I would be there all day, watch him nap, / be there when he woke, sit with him / until the day ended" ("The Waiting")--the volume continues by probing the way that looking and being looked at not only reflect but constitute identity. The Father, I will argue, offers a response to theories of the gaze that focus exclusively on eroticized and sadistic power dynamics; Olds presents not only an unflinching investigation of the gaze's dehumanizing power but a model for balancing the uneven distribution of power that marks the projection of the healthy gaze onto the diseased body. …

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