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What happens when we look at an image of a person’s face—a painting, a drawing, a photograph? What the mind registers at first glance is not the parts but the whole: the expression, the demeanor, the visage. Only after we have instantly taken in the whole, recognized the face as the face of a person—a subject who addresses us, and not just an object—do we take in the various parts, as our eyes move over curve of nose, bloom of lip, shade of cheek. But what first gives us entrance to the image of the other is the eyes. We have to stop ourselves and unlock our gaze in order to attend to the various parts that show us what else the face is telling us, what it is disclosing to us about the person whose image it is, the world that the image is a part of and participates in. The face is the map, but the eyes are the legend of the map. A disorientation is required that leads to a further, deeper reorientation—sundering, as the poet Richard Wilbur says, “things and things’ selves for a second finding.” Seeing the image, rather than merely looking at it, draws us deeper into it, illuminates things we failed to notice in the first, necessary instant of recognition. Seeing involves an attentiveness to the face that allows that first moment of recognition, and it deepens our encounter with the person represented in the image.
Gazing in devotion at an icon involves this double movement—a glance, a disorientation, a second finding. The face in an icon demands that the viewer enter into its world on its terms; and its terms are submission, suffering, holiness. One must find oneself addressed. One must first be mastered by the image before one can enter into it—before, as Jean-Luc Marion says, “the gaze of man is lost in the invisible gaze that visibly envisages him.” When we look at the face of Christ in an icon, we are looking at the face of a man, but not only a man. The gaze of faith sees the face of God.
These reiterative attentions—and the demands they entail—feature prominently in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Parker’s Back.” In a tattoo parlor Obadiah Elihue Parker hurriedly flips through a book with options for tattoos of God. He dismisses several images as he rifles through them: “The Good Shepherd, Forbid Them Not, The Smiling Jesus, Jesus the Physician’s Friend.” But then: “On one page a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly.” In a long series of sentences in which Parker is the acting subject, this is the only one in which he is not. He is caught in a passive moment of address, the image exerting a kind of agency. When he turns back to the page he sees “a flat stern Byzantine Christ with all-demanding eyes.” Later, when he has gotten the tattoo, he looks at it in a mirror, and “the eyes in the reflected face continued to look at him—still, straight, all-demanding, enclosed in silence.” The eyes disorient his life, turn it completely upside down. “The eyes that were now forever on his back were eyes that were to be obeyed.” What choice does he have but to obey? Under the gaze of those eyes, “he was as transparent as the wing of a fly.” It is this gaze that is the catalyst of Parker’s transfiguration.