I wonder how many hours I’ve spent looking out of windows. Stitched together, they would stretch into weeks, perhaps months.
Into the human harmony
Windows are points of connection between interior and exterior, framing a view and thereby inviting the act of looking out. Before I am fully awake, I lie and stare at the breeze-blown trees through my bedroom window; when I climb a staircase, I pause to lean on a sill, catching the view with my breath; and when looking up all-too-often from my work, I rest my gaze on the world outside.
To spend any amount of time looking out of a window is to watch a picture come to life. Often, one isn’t aware of the specifics of the changing picture, and yet these barely registered movements help one to daydream. They tug and nudge at your unconscious, lending their motion to your contemplation.
A chimney’s plume of smoke tatters into wisps and feathers. A crow lands on the roof opposite and a gull circles, squawking. A woman enters the scene, treads steadily along the pavement, and then exits. A child, tugging at her father’s hand, skips to keep up with his pace. A van crosses the frame in an instant, the burr of its engine growling until it stops, out of sight at the end of the street. These little movements act like the lift and fall of your feet as you walk; their rhythm flows into your head and loosens your thoughts.
Or, these criss-crossings of action, if they are paid more conscious attention, are reminders to the solitary onlooker that she is not alone. They are like breath on the glass, evidence of other people’s lives.
Kafka wrote that for someone who leads ‘a solitary life’, a window provides an essential, inescapable connection to the outside world:
If he is in the mood of not desiring anything and only goes to his window sill a tired man, with eyes turning from his public to heaven and back again, not wanting to look out and having thrown his head up a little, even then the horses below will draw him down into their train of wagons and tumult, and so at last into the human harmony.
A glimpse of another life begs many questions. What is the woman thinking as she walks, so steadily, down the street? What has she left behind her? Does the little girl have a brother? Is it a treat for her father to take her to nursery? In asking any of these infinite questions, the onlooker connects to these other lives, falls into step with the world outside, and thereby shifts her attention away from her own worries and preoccupations.
The word ‘window’ dates back to the early thirteenth century, when it replaced the Old English eagþyrl, meaning literally ‘eye-hole’. ‘Window’ has the Old Norse root vindr-auga, ‘wind-eye’. This replacement of ‘hole’ with ‘wind’ brings the outside into the word and thereby signals its paradox: the presence of ‘wind’ indicates its actual absence. For while a window lets you engage with the wind-swept movements outside, it simultaneously protects you from the wind’s blustering chill. Our thoughts may be blown free as we see into the wind, yet we see from a position of shelter.
The most ‘wind-eye’ window of which I can think is in Eric Ravilious’s painting, the Belle Tout Lighthouse.
The curve of the window projects it into the scene, emphasising the exposure of the lighthouse. It echoes the roundness of one’s own eye, and you feel almost as though you have shrunk back and can see your eye’s membrane. As you survey the immense landscape from such a vantage point, you are separated from the wind by nothing other than this glass membrane. You can almost hear the wind shriek past outside, and yet here, behind these emphatic rectangular frames, you are sheltered from it.
As he was working on this picture, Ravilious wrote to a friend:
Just now I am busy on the hills painting, in the greatest comfort with my jacket off, and seated in a magnificent Chinese chair. That is to say I am perched in the top of the Belle Tout lighthouse (I wish you could see this) in the lantern drawing the immense expanse below with a gale blowing outside.
Like the paradox contained in the word ‘window’, so in this picture the wind’s absence from the inside space makes its presence outside all the more keenly felt. Perhaps a sliver creeps through the edges of the panes, cold fingers lifting the hairs on Ravilious’s unjacketed arm. The prominent window reminds us of what we are sheltered from – the ‘gale blowing outside’ – while we are ensconced in the basky warmth of the sun-trap room. Here we have a real wind-eye.
Although usually perceived as a place of seeing, a window can make a good hiding place. During my childhood, I often hid in the space by the window, caught between heavy musty curtain and cold pane of glass.
Curtains are malleable walls, allowing a child to carve out his own space in the larger room. It is a quick means of making a den, a small enclosed area, which is intensely felt to be his own. There are spaces like this all over a room – under a table, behind the sofa, under the bed – but the edginess of a window space is unique.
In the winter, when it is dark outside, it is as though the wind-eye is closed, so preventing the hider from looking outside, while the curtain stops him from looking into the room. These barriers on either side make him feel neither in the room nor out of it.
On the one side, the curtains signal the comfort of the domestic interior. Behind them is the reassurance of the inside, with its lights and voices, stale smells and soft warmth. On the other side is the exterior: the window glass is shockingly cold, the outside dark and wild. In this intense space of comparison, the outside feels unknown and threatening. The den is sandwiched between the two, poised on the edge of comfort and fear, safety and danger.
Ten-year-old Jane Eyre escapes from the stifling domesticity of her cruel adoptive family by hiding in a window-seat. Leaving the bullying Reed children ‘clustered round their mama in the drawing-room’:
I mounted into the window-seat: gathering up my feet, I sat cross-legged, like a Turk; and, having drawn the red moreen curtain nearly close, I was shrined in double retirement.
Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day. At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.
In Jane’s sad case the domestic interior, for all its soft furnishings, is a place of horror. She is sandwiched between this and the inhospitable outside, with its ‘storm-beat shrub’ and ‘ceaseless rain’, so it is easy to see why the window is such a special place, her own tiny ‘shrine’.
This scene is at the very beginning of Jane Eyre’s coming-of-age story, for a window is the ultimate coming-of-age space. Here, still within reach of the inside, is where you first come into contact with the unknown outside. Alone, you can touch its coldness and feel its terror, while still half-belonging to the safety of the home.
Eyes upon the street
In The Life and Death of American Cities, Jane Jacobs argues that windows are essential for the safety of those walking on the street below. They act as ‘eyes upon the street’, a means of protecting ‘the many, many peaceable and well-meaning strangers’ who wander past. She writes of the ‘natural proprietors of the street’, the shopkeepers, bartenders and long-term residents, who watch the street from their windows, protecting its users from trouble.
I remember the rectangular orange Neighbourhood Watch stickers on the windows of my childhood home luring me to play the seemingly important role of sentry for our street. My head was just level with the cool air around the glass, and delicious warmth wafted around my tummy from the radiator below, flinchingly hot when my bare arm grazed against it.
As I grew up, I no longer relished the feeling of responsibility conferred on me by these orange stickers. Rather, I hated the lack of privacy they implied. Each stickered window was an eye on my street, so I had to go further afield to smoke an illicit cigarette, or hold, daringly, a boy’s hand. As I was beginning to venture forth into the world, leaving the safety of the home behind, I was graduating from the watcher to the watched. While Jacobs writes of her ‘eyes upon the street’ as a positive aspect of community, for all the reassuring safety they bring, they also act as stifling inhibitors to someone who is finding her feet.
So I was no longer a diligent sentry, when I happened to see an elderly lady get mugged by two men, terrifyingly large and quick, as she tottered towards the letterbox across the road. For all the eyes upon the street, none of us apprehended the muggers, but we did at least look after the old lady, taking her into the house next to the letterbox, and giving her a cup of tea while we all waited for the police. This was the only time I ever went inside any other house on my street. It was the act of looking through our windows and watching the same terrible thing that brought us together. The neighbourhood was formed by its watch.
Nowadays, it is only in these negative instances that neighbourhoods come together. More benign acts of connection feel nostalgic: no one leans out from a window to call down to a passerby, or is summoned to the pane by someone throwing pebbles from the street. Unless it is a crisis, curtains twitch and silence reigns, leaving the passer-by to imagine the uncomfortable force of overlooking eyes.
Our eye-beams twisted
There is nothing more alarming when window-gazing than for someone on the street to catch your eye. Your one-way act of looking out is ruptured by the stranger’s looking back.
Our eye-beams twisted, and did thread
Our eyes upon one double string.
A connection of eye-beams is an intensely intimate act, and, as in John Donne’s ‘The Ecstasy’, appropriate to lovers, not strangers. The extreme force of the connection brings a disconcerting feeling of exposure, for the window-gazer has inevitably forgotten that a window is in fact a two-way thing, that the subjects of his picture can look back and see him framed in theirs.
It is just as disruptive for the person on the street. From the inside looking out, a window gives an expansive view of the world, but when one is outside looking in, the expanse of the street shrinks to the cosy smallness of the hearth. The view glimpsed as one passes on the street is tantalisingly cropped. A table laid for dinner, a sofa on which a couple sprawl, a woman chopping vegetables in the kitchen, children on the floor in the flicker of the television screen. The window frames a metonym of the house. Each scene invites conjecture, gives rise to a thousand questions, and suggests as many stories. To have one’s imagination ruptured by catching the eye of an inhabitant of the house is a violent shock. Even more uncomfortable is to realise that in all likelihood this window-gazing stranger is imagining your story too.
Oh, but how surprising!
For me, the most uncanny view from a window is when it becomes a bridge between two interiors. Mrs Dalloway has a complicated relationship with windows. She remembers stepping through the French windows at Bourton as a ‘lark, a plunge’, but she also is also very affected by Septimus’s suicidal plunge from a window. Towards the end of the novel, she retreats from her own party to look out of a window:
Oh, but how surprising! – in the room opposite the old lady stared straight at her! … It was fascinating to watch her, moving about, that old lady, crossing the room, coming to the window. Could she see her? It was fascinating, with people still laughing and shouting in the drawing-room, to watch that old woman, quite quietly, going to bed alone.
It is indeed ‘fascinating’ to look from the snugness of one’s own home into the snugness of another. This peculiar leapfrog, a splicing together of two intimate interiors, with their radiator warmths and stale smells, makes the expansive exterior world disappear.
Looking between windows like this – travelling from ‘wind-eye’ to ‘wind-eye’ – makes me feel like the mythical Sandman, who goes from one person’s eyes to another, blowing his sleepy dust and leaving dreams in his wake. Both window-gazing and dreaming are solitary acts, done alone, and yet they are done by us all.
Seeing someone else mimicking your action at the window is unexpected. Yet, unlike the violent discomfort of the eye-to-eye connection between the looker-in outside and the looker-out inside, the link between two lookers-out is sympathetic. When you look out of a window and see a figure standing at another window, your window becomes a mirror, and this mirroring brings solidarity to two solitary people. Mrs Dalloway craves a moment of aloneness, escape from other people, and, looking out of the window, she discovers someone else indulging in the very same impulse.
It is reassuring, when we feel most lonely, to be reminded that we aren’t alone after all.
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