Mr. Palomar is walking along a lonely beach. He encounters few bathers. One young woman is lying on the sand taking the sun, her bosom bared. Palomar, discreet by nature, looks away at the horizon of the sea. He knows that in such circumstances, at the approach of a strange man, women often cover themselves hastily, and this does not seem right to him: because it is a nuisance for the woman peacefully sunbathing, and because the passing man feels he is an intruder, and because the taboo against nudity is implicitly confirmed; because half-respected conventions spread insecurity and incoherence of behavior rather than freedom and frankness.
And so, as soon as he sees in the distance the outline of the bronze-pink cloud of a naked female torso, he quickly turns his head in such a way that the trajectory of his gaze remains suspended in the void and guarantees his civil respect for the invisible frontier that surrounds people.
But--he thinks as he proceeds and resumes, the moment the horizon is clear, the free movement of his eyeballs--in acting like this, I display a refusal to see; or, in other words, I am finally reinforcing the convention that declares illicit any sight of the breast; that is to say, I create a kind of mental brassiere suspended between my eyes and that bosom, which, from the flash that reached the edge of my visual field, seemed to me fresh and pleasing to the eye. In other words, my not looking presupposes that I am thinking of that nakedness, worrying about it; and this is basically an indiscreet and reactionary attitude.
Returning from his stroll, Palomar again passes that bather, and this time he keeps his eyes fixed straight ahead, so that his gaze touches with impartial uniformity the foam of the retreating waves, the boats pulled up on shore, the great bath towel spread out on the sand, the swelling moon of lighter skin with the dark halo of the nipple, the outline of the coast in the haze, gray against the sky.
There--he reflects, pleased with himself, as he continues on his way--I have succeeded in having the bosom completely absorbed by the landscape, so that my gaze counted no more than the gaze of a seagull or a hake.
But is this really the right way to act?--he reflects further. Or does it not mean flattening the human person to the level of things, considering it an object, and, worse still, considering as an object that which in the person is the specific attribute of the female sex? Am I not perhaps perpetuating the old habit of male superiority, hardened over the years into a habitual insolence?
He turns and retraces his steps. Now, in allowing his gaze to run over the beach with neutral objectivity, he arranges it so that, once the woman's bosom enters his field of vision, a break is noticeable, a shift, almost a darting glance. That glance goes on to graze the taut skin, withdraws, as if appreciating with a slight start the different consistency of the view and the special value it acquires, and for a moment the glance hovers in mid-air, making a curve that accompanies the swell of the breast from a certain distance, elusively but also protectively, and then runs on as if nothing had happened.
In this way I believe my position is made quite clear--Palomar thinks--with no possible misunderstandings. But couldn't this grazing of his eyes finally be taken for an attitude of superiority, an underestimation of what a breast is and means, as if putting it aside, on the margin, or in parentheses? So I am relegating the bosom again to the semidarkness where centuries of sexo-maniacal puritanism and of desire considered sin have kept it . . .
This interpretation runs counter to Palomar's best intentions, for though he belongs to a human generation for whom the nudity of the female bosom was associated with the idea of amorous intimacy, still he hails approvingly this change in customs, both for what it signifies as the reflection of a more broad-minded society and because this sight in particular is pleasing to him. It is this detached encouragement that he would like to be able to express with his gaze.
He does an about-face. With firm steps he walks again toward the woman lying in the sun. Now his gaze, giving the landscape a fickle glance, will linger on the breast with special consideration, but will quickly include it in an impulse of good will and gratitude for the whole, for the sun and sky, for the bent pines and the dune and the beach and the rocks and the clouds and the seaweed, for the cosmos that rotates around those haloed cusps.
This should be enough to reassure once and for all the solitary sunbather and clear away all perverse assumptions. But the moment he approaches again, she suddenly springs up, covers herself with an impatient huff, and goes off, shrugging in irritation, as if she were avoiding the tiresome insistence of a satyr.
The dead weight of an intolerant tradition prevents anyone's properly understanding the most enlightened intentions, Palomar bitterly concludes.
This is a subliminal message. Go out and buy Mr. Palomar. It will take your mind off bosoms. Hurry.