SOME TIME AGO, VISITING A COUple I will not name in a city I will not reveal, I asked to use the bathroom. Directed to go up the usual stairs, proceed to the end of the hall and there to make a right (or was it a left?), I made a left (or was it a right?) and, after knocking, entered the bedroom by mistake. This sort of accident -- and I swear it was nothing but that -- brings out the Margaret Mead in all of us. Suddenly, we are anthropologists, searching for clues to how other people live. These people, I deduced, lived quite well. A video camera mounted on a tripod was aimed at the bed.
Moments later, I was back in the dining room, resuming my place at the table. A subtle smirk graced my face as I studied my host and hostess. They went about their business, pouring wine, clearing plates, totally oblivious to the fact that I knew this most dark and deep secret about them. Here they were, carrying on about foreign affairs and important issues, when I knew that what was really on their mind was closeups and long shots -- in short, the making of pornography or erotica. Call it what you will, I know it when I see it.
These videos, I am now told by Time magazine, are really quite common. "More and more couples" are making them, although how Time knows this, it does not reveal. Neither does Time tell us how it found the couples it interviewed for this article. One of the couples, "Joe, a lawyer, and Tara, a financial analyst," concede (admit? boast?) that they have videotaped their lovemaking, but nowhere in the piece does it say how Time discovered this. Was Joe, for instance, the lawyer for someone at Time, and was he asked, in the course of making up a will or maybe at a real estate closing, "Say, Joe, did you ever videotape yourself while making love to your wife -- Tara, isn't it?"
Anyway, now that this subject has appeared in Time magazine, and now that I know with absolute certainty that "more and more couples" are videotaping their sex lives, I have retroactively taken that smirk off my face. It has occurred to me, lo these many years after the event, that what I stumbled upon in that bedroom (it was an accident, I swear) had almost nothing at all to do with sex, either erotic or pornographic. It was I who had the dirty mind. I had merely stumbled upon the American compulsion to make a photographic record of everything.
What accounts for this compulsion, I shall never know, and what makes it more mysterious is that the only other nation that seems to share it is Japan. For years, Americans seemed to worship the Goddess of the Instamatic, imbuing it with truly magical powers. I have seen people shoot pictures at the night sky out of airplanes, as if their tiny flashbulb would light up all of Europe. I have watched people move back a step or two and then, with total confidence, squeeze off a nighttime picture of the Washington Monument.
There are people I know who seem always armed with a camera. Go to a party and there they are, prowling and trying to catch you in a candid moment. Everyone then pretends not to notice the camera, all the time maneuvering to get into picture after picture. If you are not in a picture, you were not at the party. Later, at great expense and even greater effort, they mail you the pictures. This is supposed to be a kind and friendly act, but I take it as nothing of the sort. I never look as good in pictures as I do in my own imagination. I am always letting myself down.
"That's you," somebody will say. It is not. I am who I choose to be. I cannot be captured by a silly little camera, video or otherwise. Depending on my mood and how I am dressed, I can be any way I want to be -- ruggedly handsome, suave, even sort of bookwormish with, you understand, a certain hint of menace. I am my own invention and there is nothing I hate more than seeing someone skulking around a party with a camera. Must I hold in my stomach all night?
At this particular juncture in my life, I do not even own a camera. Not a one. When I come back from a trip and people ask me if I took pictures, I answer, smugly, no. My pictures are in my head, and they are better, much better, than any that could be taken by a camera. In the first place, they are all of me -- me in Venice, me in Paris, me on the sands of Arabia.
Once I circled the pyramids by camel. Do I want a picture of that event? Not at all. It would show a silly American tourist, hanging on to the beast with, I might add, a certain frightened look in his eye -- mine, not the camel's. The photo in my head is quite different. I am astride the camel, secure in the saddle. Ahead of me is the Sahara. Were it not for a lunch date, I would cross it. I have all the copies of that picture I need.
I suppose it's literalism that I abhor. Our age -- the age of Cohen and Gorbachev -- will hold no mystery for the people who come after us. But more than that, I suspect that many people travel, hold a party or whatever JUST TO HAVE PICTURES. I think the pictures have become more important than the event itself, a conclusion I reached one day after seeing people at the Grand Canyon marvel at their Polaroid picture of the canyon and not, I swear, at the canyon itself. Future historians will have millions of photo albums, billions of pictures. Nothing will be left to the imagination. Nothing will be left to interpretation. Now, they will even know how we made love, but they will not know WHY we did. For too many people, I suspect, it was for the pictures.