115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Don’t Look Now: The Drama of Forbidden Sight

Scott Nadelson, Willamette University

This hybrid-form paper combines narrative and critical analysis to celebrate dramatic moments that revolve around witnessing rather than action and argue that the creative act itself centers on artists’ willingness to look at what is off-limits or forbidden in order to catalyze language and image into transformative deed.


When we think about the “drama” of a narrative, we’re often discussing the external action that impacts a character’s internal experience, especially that which leads to the character’s transformation. But often the most dramatic moments in stories are those in which protagonists aren’t actors but witnesses. They catch sight of what’s off-limits, not meant for their eyes, too mysterious to be understood, or outright forbidden, and as a result of what they see, they’re forever changed; their perspective has been broadened and deepened, and they return to ordinary life with a new, more complex view of love or suffering or death, often spreading the word to others and transforming not just themselves but the world they inhabit.


This hybrid-form paper combines narrative and analysis of writing craft to argue that some of our most compelling and dramatic narratives revolve around looking rather than acting; and even more, that the creative act itself arises out of artists’ willingness to look at what others turn away from or refuse to see. Examining examples from Turgenev’s First Love, Ovid’s Metamorphosis, and performance artist Chris Burden’s Through the Night Softly, I explore a tradition of the artist as reluctant voyeur, modeled on the Orpheus myth. Just as Orpheus returns from Hades after having cast his forbidden glance at death with the power to change the landscape, by choosing to look at what is forbidden and subsequently revealing it to a reader/viewer, the artist becomes not only truth-teller but agent of change.