Friday, May 23, 2008
Haven't you always wanted to be invisible, or at least have the power to become invisible whenever you choose? As soon as I heard about "The Invisible Man" - not seeing the movie or reading the story or anything, just hearing the phrase - I knew I had found a hobby. My first thought, I regret to say, was that I could sneak into ladies' locker rooms and watch them undress.
At the time, I thought that was the only way I'd ever get to see a lady undress. Later on, it turned out that I could do that without becoming invisible. That was, need I say, really good news.
But being invisible has lots of other uses. Disappearing in embarrassing situations, for instance. Fighting crime by hitting criminals who can't see you. Riding free on trains and planes. Acting as a spy for nice governments. And, of course, saying to people at boring cocktail parties, "Watch this."
So I have been reading "Vineland" by Thomas Pynchon. I know it was published 18 years ago, but I've had a lot on my mind. Last night, I came across the excerpt quoted below. I shall attempt to provide context here, but Pynchon plots do not yield to easy linear explication.
A teenager named Prairie has been rescued (or kidnapped) from an uncomfortable situation at a gangster wedding and taken to the mountain retreat of the Sisterhood of Kunoichi Attentives, described as "a sort of Esalen Institute for lady asskickers." There she meets Sister Rochelle, the Senior Attendant, or Mother Superior, of the place. After a day spent in the mess hall (don't ask), Prairie is invited to a meeting with Sister Rochelle:
"Prairie went along watchfully, at her own tempo, making a point of inspecting a few assembled casseroles as well as checking on the baloney spin rate before leaving the kitchen, reminding herself of a cat. Upstairs, in the Ninjette Coffee Lounge, the head Ninjette, with a mug of coffee in her hand, slowly emerged, as they conversed, from invisibility. It seemed to the girl that this must be a magical gift. She learned later that Rochelle had memorized, in this room, all the shadows and how they changed, the cover, the exact spaces between things ... had come to know the room so completely that she could impersonate it, in its full transparency and emptiness.
" 'Could I learn to do that?'
" 'Takes a serious attention span.' "
I suppose it would, yes. But in the Pynchon formulation, it almost seems doable. It's a matter of merging with the shadows and remaining very still, plus, I dunno, a certain way of standing or thinking. I'm not exactly clear on this evolved-consciousness stuff. Besides, I don't think there's as much of it around as there used to be.
I realized that I'd already been invisible, many times. I have been in a room, reading quietly or even just staring out the window, and someone has come into the room and not seen me. I was there to be seen; I wasn't hiding. But neither was I waving my hand and barking a hearty "Good morning!" I was just present. I was not interacting. And I thus, without even trying, rendered myself invisible.
If I finally do move, the other person will almost always say, "Oh, you startled me." If the other person were a chickadee or a cat, he would have just run away. But humans are more prideful than that.
I suspect it all has to do with our animal brains. We are programmed to recognize threats by detecting unexpected motion, and when there is no motion, we ignore it. (Good predators depend on this; the stalking of prey involves a lot of motionless watching.) We're social animals, so we want to respond to greetings or grunts with complementary greetings or grunts. In the absence of either, we lapse back into our own worries and plans. Perhaps we are in a creative fugue. But we are not noticing.
If I am motionless and you are not, I have an advantage. I probably am not going to leap forward and rip your throat out, but I could. Another fine advantage of invisibility.
Sister Rochelle's trick is that she can remain invisible while talking. And yet, I have done that too. Humans tend to look for things at eye level. (People who hide things know that.) If you are standing on a deck, or leaning out a second-story window, and you start to speak to someone, that someone acts as though it's the voice of God. He looks all around him like a cartoon character. Then you shout, "Up here," and suddenly his perceptual universe expands. "There you are," he will sometimes say, as though you'd been invisible the whole time - which, practically speaking, you had.
Ain't invisibility fun?
How to be invisible in one easy lesson, based on things you already know and keep forgetting. You have hidden powers! Use them.