Today is my birthday. I bought myself a new variety of yoghurt to start the day in a special way and it tastes too much like the yoghurt I do not like, thick and bitter, too authentic perhaps.
And so I will abandon my birthday yoghurt for the tried and true variety, good old Ski yoghurt, which one of my daughters insists is a bad choice because it has more sugar than other brands.
To hell with the sugar. I know what I like, and I suppose I can add, I like what I know.
I’m feeling narky this morning, which does not surprise me. Given my view that birthdays are special days, the only days on which you are entitled to matter, birthdays are also days of intense sensitivity.
I’m good at celebrating other people’s birthdays, but not so good at my own. I’m not as bad as one of my brothers who shuns almost all reference to his birthday and expects his kids to be likewise disinterested.
I figure if you make a fuss of your children’s birthdays, which we tend to do, then you have to allow them to make a fuss of yours.
To me birthdays have a quality of Christmas to the birthday person, Christmas or whatever other special religious event that marks a day when everyone is to be treated well.
Such days tend to raise our expectations. On ordinary days, on days other than our birthdays or Christmas, and I should speak for myself here, on my birthday, my expectations are heightened. I want it to be an especially good day.
Take my decision to spend extra money on this classy pot of yoghurt as a birthday treat and lo and behold it’s a disappointment. On an ordinary day I couldn’t care less, but on my birthday it’s not supposed to happen. It’s supposed to taste good and it does not.
It’s mango flavoured but I can’t find the mango. It has lumpy bits and I see now from the label that it was best eaten before yesterday.
See how narky I am. Nothing feels right and it’s not even nine o’clock on a Saturday morning.
Birthdays fuel narcissism. I must get off this topic and look to loftier thoughts, like the essay I’ve been working on about voyeurism and exhibitionism. It might be good to reflect here on what I’ve been trying to say.
An image here, as a diversion or distraction, one that relates to my theme, though at a tangent: a photo taken by my son-in-law in Berlin, it shows the back of my husband in an art gallery – a centre for creative voyeurism and exhibitionism – gazing at Elvis as a cowboy.
I consider blogging to be a somewhat voyeuristic and exhibitionistic act. The blogger exhibits herself, her wares, her work, her ideas and the reader becomes the voyeur.
These are not unusual occurrences in everyday life. Why attach such lofty and clinical sounding words as voyeurism and exhibitionism to such activities? What makes them different from the simple act of show and tell which we learn from our earliest days even at kindergarten?
One of my academic heroes, Paul John Eakin, uses the show and tell example, how we learn to tell our stories in childhood, as the beginnings of the autobiographical impulse.
From earliest days we learn to give an account of ourselves. ‘ My name is Mary and I live in Balwyn with my mother and my three brothers, and our cat and dog…’ ‘My name’s John and I live on a boat with my Dad…’ There are of course multiple variations on the theme of who I am.
As we get older our stories develop in sophistication. We learn to get to the point quickly. We learn all sorts of techniques: how to hold back information to create tension, how to provide just the right amount of contextual material to add to the richness of our story, how to give a beginning, a middle and an end. We learn to present ourselves to the world and no one would call this exhibitionism.
So what makes the difference?
I think of the peeping Tom of my childhood, the man who looked in through my window one night after I had crawled into bed. I saw him there peering through the glass. I saw his face, an orb of white in the darkness, and I looked to his eyes but his eyes did not look into mine.
As soon as he had disappeared I bolted to the lounge room to tell my mother. My father was away with his work. My brothers ran down the lane way at the back of our house imagining that they were chasing a peeping Tom. They did not catch him.
To this day I do not know whether the man existed in reality or whether I had imagined him there. But I can still see his face in my memory, the white staring face of a man peering inside, keen to take something in with his eyes. Keen to look.
Voyeurism in psychoanalytic terms has something to do with a desire to get some sort of sexual pleasure without having to do the work of relationship, the scopophilic impulse, and then the exhibition side might be the thrill of tantalising another, using one’s own body to shock and disturb.
Think of the flasher here, the proverbial man in his trench coat on a dark night who waits for unsuspecting passers by, women usually, to flash his penis at them as if to say, here now look at this, see what I’ve got. And the women are meant to quake and shake.
Why is it that of these impulses to show off, these impulses to stare at, some are viewed as creative gestures and others as perversions? Perhaps it’s about degree, though motivation must surely come into it as well.
Why do we exhibit ourselves or peel open the pages of pornographic magazines?
When I was little I trawled through the pages of the art books my father kept at the top of his bookshelf. The sight of naked men and women thrilled me to such an extent that I felt I had to hide this activity from everyone. I stuffed the art book down my jumper and sneaked into my bed room. I pulled the blanket over my head and looked at the pictures by the light of a torch or through a chink in the blankets that let in the light of day.
I felt wicked, wicked beyond belief, both for doing this and, more particularly, for the way it made me feel. All hot and excited inside. The rape of Lucrece was my favourite, the naked woman dragged off a white horse by some man.
In those days I do not think I even knew the meaning of the word rape, but it sounded sexual and the thrill was there.
It disturbs me now to write about these things. My curiosity then, my curiosity now. No wonder these issues get under my skin. These unresolved questions from my childhood and beyond.