The eyes, they say – are the windows of the soul. But are they? I listened to a learned discussion recently between two artists who claimed that the mouth, told you all you really needed to know about a person. But throughout the centuries poets and writers have opted for the eyes, the all seeing, all knowing aspect of ourselves
Charlotte Bronte for instance, understood the role of the eyes:
“The soul, fortunately, has an interpreter – often an unconscious but still a faithful interpreter – in the eye.”
While US writer and TV presenter William Henry claims: “The eyes shout what the lips fear to say” and Paulo Coelho nails it : “No one can lie, no one can hide anything, when he looks directly into someone’s eyes.”
And such teachings and sayings have led us to believe that you can almost tell what someone is like by simply checking out their eyes. Hence we describe someone we don’t quite trust as being ‘shifty-eyed’, and remarking on how uncomfortable we feel when a person will not give you a straight look. How many of us remember Prince Andrew’s unfortunate TV interview with his eyes roaming all over the place instead of straight to camera.
So in our collective understanding – being able to be comfortable with anyone, you can look them straight in the eye. Which is fine until one day you come across a creature where it is forbidden to look into their eyes, and when that happens all you really want to do is look deep into their soul.
So it was with Maheshe. We met in a clearing in Parc Nacional des Volcans in the emerald hued mountains of Rwanda. Over 200 pounds of anthropoid ape sat straight in front of me, no more than 15 feet away. My breath stopped although the noise of my heart pounding reverberated throughout my body. This was my first trip to Africa, my first time in the wild, and my very first sighting of a wild animal in the wild – I knew I was going to die. Whatever you do, my guide warned, do not make eye contact!!! Gorillas think this is an aggressive action (in a watered down version this might be what your mother meant when she told you never to stare at somebody). Slowly, gradually my breath returned as I stood stock still too terrified to move, while el Magnifico before me just glanced in my direction with a look of amused boredom on his face, a face so huge but so gentle that I couldn’t take my eyes off him, and I knew then that if only I could look deep into those eyes I might find the meaning of life. But of course I couldn’t, but the desire was so compelling. So we remained in situ while my guide spoke gently to him in French, (‘doucement, doucement Maheshe’) and instructed me to take photographs, as this was going to be the best chance I would get. I did, halfheartedly, because all I wanted to do was stare and savour.
After a few minutes the great one got bored and with amazing grace and a few languorous movements climbed a nearby tree, from where he looked down on us, farted on top of us and moved silently away. For a long time I stared in the direction he went where not a tree, a leaf, a bamboo stirred hoping he would return. I wept and I knew I would never forget him and my lost chance of staring deep into his eyes.