The Beauty of Invisibility


Arts & Culture

Modified from John Singer Sargent’s Lady Agnew Of Lochnaw, 1892

Akiko Busch is a writer and a swimmer. She teaches environmental writing at Bennington College and seems to live as off the grid as one can in 2019. Much of her writing feels drawn from understated encounters with nature and the pastoral sublime, such as observing water eels in a brook or chopping vegetables in a Hudson Valley home. Her 2009 book The Uncommon Life of Common Objects has an entire chapter devoted to vegetable-peelers. So when her new essay collection, How to Disappear: Notes on Invisibility in a Time of Transparency, touches on things like Barbie dolls that can connect to WiFi and smart refrigerators, the reader begins to worry that no one, not even Aniko Busch, can order a new vegetable-peeler online without worrying who’s tracking her and why.

In How to Disappear, Busch contemplates how government surveillance, smart technology, and our own desire to be seen have all contributed to a perhaps irrevocable loss of personal privacy. She does this circuitously, eschewing the alarmist and Luddite tropes that encumber many studies of our technology-dependent culture. Instead, Busch meanders across a broad cultural landscape to locate the source of our beliefs, fears, and desires about invisibility. She looks at the role of invisibility in children’s stories (from imaginary friends to Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak) and the Huldufólk, the invisible people who are thought to live inside Iceland’s lava rocks. She visits a physics lab at the University of Rochester where scientists study “transformation optics,” the practice of bending light waves around things to render them invisible. Another essay reconsiders Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway to think through aging, and the invisibility of older women. Busch explores camouflage, anonymity and unsigned works of art, and police surveillance of minorities. By drawing from natural science, children’s literature, folklore, art history, and more, Busch takes the timely issue of privacy and makes it timeless.


Whenever I’m at a party and people ask me to say something in Russian, my go-to is У меня есть право иметь секреты—“I have the right to have secrets.” It both satisfies the desire people have to hear their stereotypes about Russia confirmed and makes it sound like I lead an interesting life. I was reminded of that sentence when I read Busch’s exploration of the French term jardin secret, “secret garden,” a catchall phrase that can refer to any private passion that provides what Busch calls “a psychic cloister” from the demands of the outside world. “Implicit in the jardin secret,” she writes “is that small personal histories need not always be shared; that human experience and imagination are sometimes a matter of private intentions, actions, or rewards.” While Busch insists a jardin secret can include such innocent pleasures as “a private collection of feathers, stones, books, or fans,” I couldn’t help but feel like they must be sensuous things, these secret gardens, pleasures more guilty than innocent. I certainly feel that way about my imaginary Russian secrets.

Why do we so often believe that secrecy must necessarily mask transgression? Busch unravels that association in How to Disappear. The laborious, sometimes caustic recipes for invisibility ink and potion included in the book (some from mythology, some from military history) themselves suggest something nefarious. Take for instance the hulinhjalmur, an invisibility-granting symbol from ancient Iceland that had to be smeared on a person’s forehead with a mixture of “blood drawn from your finger and nipples, mixed with the blood and brains of a raven along with a piece of human stomach.” Busch writes that our tendency “to associate [invisibility] with wrongdoing, degeneracy, malice, even the work of the devil” is not accidental. It is inscribed into many of our oldest myths, including the Ring of Gyges, retold famously by Kristin Scott Thomas’s character in The English Patient. Gyges, a simple shepherd who discovers a ring that confers invisibility, uses his newfound power to kill the king, marry his wife, and take the throne for himself. This idea, that invisibility can lead  “an otherwise ordinary and honorable person to commit transgressions and behave unjustly,” has stubbornly stayed with us.

Ironically, we engage most wholeheartedly in invisibility when we are supposedly at our most innocent, as children. In the opening chapter, Busch recounts a story of her two-year-old son throwing his grandmother’s gold earrings out of the window. “Appropriate reprimands were made,” she assures, “but I was curious: was this some experimentation with gravity?… Did I have a thief on my hands?” Busch ultimately concludes that her son was simply marveling at something child psychologists refer to as “object permanence,” the idea that “objects and people can continue to exist even though they may not be seen.” Tracing the importance of invisibility in children’s literature, particularly the “capes, raps, rings, shields, potions” that confer the power to make a child protagonist go unseen, Busch reminds us that “learning to manage disappearance is intrinsic to childhood play.”

In essence, Busch argues that growing up is part and parcel with the independence groomed through secret adventures, hideaways in the forest or on urban rooftops, and imaginary confidants that adults can’t see. Reading How to Disappear, I wondered if we aren’t, as a society, continuously in the process of learning object permanence. If we really believe that things continue to exist when they’re not visible, then why must they always be geotagged, photographed, shared, аnd optimally filtered?


One of the most powerful aspects of How to Disappear is Busch’s exploration of the ways that artists experiment with invisibility, erasure, and vanishing as sites of creative force and even political resistance. There is Irina Ratushinskaya, the Soviet dissident writer who, while imprisoned in a labor camp, wrote poems on bars of soap using the end of a matchstick. She washed the verses off after she committed them to memory. In recounting Ratushinskaya’s story, Busch disentangles the erasure of art from the legacy of censorship, mounting a case for invisibility as protest. She writes about Jonathan Safran Foer’s die-cut panegyric to Bruno Schulz, Tree of Codes, a book composed entirely of cutouts from the Polish author’s short-story collection, The Street of Crocodiles. I wondered why she didn’t mention the work of Alexandra Bell, whose Counternarratives series, made up of redacted news articles, uses strategic erasure to expose racial bias in media coverage. Bell’s 2017 piece, “A Teenager With Promise,” deletes all but those words from a New York Times headline about Michael Brown.

Visibility is, of course, a political issue. But Busch cautions us against thinking that our society’s most marginalized communities are necessarily invisible, as they are often thought to be; in many ways, she attests, they are hypervisible and surveilled, and I would add, tokenized, held up to the spotlight as signs of progress when practically none has been made. In teasing through this idea, I was reminded of the Martiniquan writer Édouard Glissant. Writing about the challenge postcolonial writers face in finding a global readership without losing local identity, Glissant famously declared, “We clamor for the right to opacity.” Rather than call for representation, Glissant believed in the political potency of inscrutability, of resisting attempts to dilute black art until it was comprehensible to white audiences. Opacity is a theory of concealment, not quite the same as invisibility. Glissant wanted to be seen, not looked through.


I think Busch’s interest in invisibility began, fittingly, with water eels. In her book The Last Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science, she observes a glass eel in a stream; the aptly named animal is perfectly see-through. Its insides, including its heart and its dinner, can be seen with the naked eye if you look closely enough. Busch remarks, with amazement, that something could be transparent and still a complete mystery; it would seem to challenge our most basic assumptions about the relationship between being seen and being understood. “How is it possible,” she wonders, “to hold something so utterly small and transparent in the palm of your hand and still know so little about it?” Indeed, maybe what we are all searching for is a way to move through our new world like a glass eel, on full view and yet, somehow, still mysterious.

I have never been mysterious, sadly. And so, I have always been attracted to people who can manage duplicity, who can disappear into the night and never tell anyone where they went. A friend once stole my car keys and did just that—it’s one of the reasons I like him. Reading Busch, I often thought of the short story “The Lady with the Dog” by Anton Chekhov. The main character, Gurov, is having an affair with a woman he met on vacation in Yalta. Having returned home to Moscow, he finds himself living a double life. One life is “open, seen and known by all” and the other is carried out in secret. That secret life contains “everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life.” Perhaps there can be a sincerity to invisibility. Perhaps we can, like Gurov and the water eel, lead two lives, one visible and one just for us.


Jennifer Wilson is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.