Looking In Onto: Robert Frost on Surveillance.

This is a short poem by Robert Frost, called ” A Mood Apart”:

Once down on my knees to growing plants
I prodded the earth with a lazy tool
In time with a medley of sotto chants;
But becoming aware of some boys from school
Who had stopped outside the fence to spy,
I stopped my song and almost heart,
For any eye is an evil eye
That looks in onto a mood apart.

In many ways the poem works as a touchstone for remembering why we have reason to fear being watched without our knowing, which we tend to lose sight of, and get drowned out by the nothing to fear nothing to lose lobby.

In the poem the narrator has withdrawn into a state of peaceful activity that has the quality of a daydream or reverie. While he is out of contact he is not withdrawn or isolated. It is not an unhealthy state, nor is it the basis of an anti-social project. He is gardening, he is humming, he is on Walden Pond. It is somewhere between public and private worlds. We all know what this state is like, and that it is important as a means to regenerate our ability to go back into the big public world.

But in this case he is overseen by schoolboys, and that sudden awareness creates a breathless and immediate halt to the reverie and the gardening;he is vulnerable in the midst of contentment. The understanding of the threat here is shown in the phrase “looking in onto”, so the voyeurism of the looking in (as if through a window) is taken further by the “onto” so we get a sense of the internal landscape that is intrusively viewed by the looking in. In fact, it is impossible when in a voyeuristic situation not to imagine in a crude and hostile way the internal worlds of the persons who are being watched unknowingly. It cannot be done benevolently. Thus the evil eye.

Of course, there are all kinds of circumstances today in which we are observed more or less without our knowing, and we are so inured to a mode of being in public that involves being invulnerable ( we hope) withdrawn and defensive, that it doesn’t seem to matter much whether we are observed, because we are hardly there anyway. The fear of crime and anti-social behaviour has created a hollowed out public world to which CCTV seems to be the answer, although in some respects the CCTV makes the public space even more degraded than it was already.

So the poem shows us a type of withdrawal from the world which we would be unlikely to try in public, and that, I think, makes it difficult to prevent it becoming a mode of isolation and privation when we do try it, because it has to be done in specially protected circumstances.

Far from sleepwalking into a surveillance society, it is precisely because we cannot sleepwalk in public that we know we are under surveillance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *