“All my men! Here now! All-l-l my men!”
The cry would ring out across the schoolyard, almost every recess or lunch-break, and hordes of eight-, nine-, and ten-year-old boys would scamper to a grove of elm trees adjacent to the playground.
The boy they rallied around was an object of ridicule among my friends, we grade-eight boys playing soccer and baseball. We had no time for his foolishness.
A classmate of ours, he called himself Marvellous Marv, without a shred of embarrassment. We called him Starvin’ Marvin, and not because he didn’t have enough to eat. He was porcine, in fact, taller than I, but physically uncoordinated, and somehow out-of-place wherever he was. The girls we sought to impress thought he was icky.
Once gathered, his acolytes would listen to whatever he was telling them there in the shade of the trees. And then, at his signal, they would swarm across the soccer pitch, across the ball diamond, sixty or seventy strong, yelling like banshees. They never accosted any of us—we were older and bigger, after all—and they never stopped, even when we’d trip as many of them as we could, angry at the interruption to our games. They simply picked themselves up and kept running, rendezvousing eventually back in the trees where he awaited them. Never once did he accompany them on their wild raids.
Marvin’s voice had deepened sooner than most of ours, so his clarion call to his much-younger followers was quite distinct. But his eyes, not his voice, were his most distinctive feature, squeezed between plump cheeks and eyebrows, squinting pig-like at everything and everyone. We used to wonder why his younger acolytes continually obeyed him, but I think it was probably the impact of his eyes. Although unafraid of him personally, even we were unsettled when he’d stare at one us in class, as he often did. There was a disturbing aspect to his eyes, as if the brain behind them were somehow untethered from our reality.
Today, as I contemplate influential people we’ve come to know in our society—political, military, entertainment, criminal—I try to understand what it is that makes them attractive to many of their peers. Lots of easy reasons spring to mind: a compelling message, brute force, overarching talent, a pathological audacity, a promise to make us great again. None of these, however, would be sufficient on its own if we did not become convinced that the person, him- or herself, is authentic. Conviction is key.
And it’s in the eyes we find that messianic fervor, that zealous certitude, that passionate persuasion that ensnares us. That conviction.
Consider the gazes cast upon us by some historic influencers, for better or worse, during the past century—
Evil or brilliant?
Safe or dangerous?
Mad or conniving?
Stone-cold or warm and loving?
Visionary or murderous?
When I see their full faces revealed, I’m drawn to the eyes of these people, even if just in photographs. In person, I imagine, I would be transfixed. But I don’t know if I could ascertain their true character or purpose by simply returning their steady stare. I could easily be fooled.
It’s been said that a person’s eyes are windows into the soul; deep wells from which we are often compelled to drink; pools of mystery into which we sometimes plunge, occasionally in spite of our better judgment. Our eyes may be sorrowful, laughing, blazing, blank, wide, squinty, even Irish—and, for the most part, unremarkable.
Not so for those who aspire to lead us, and for many who have in the past—whether in war or peace, good times or bad, for good or evil. More often than not, they captivate us with their remarkable, magnetic eyes. We can easily be misled, and have been in that same past, because we misread the message those eyes convey.
The eyes portrayed in this piece are, left to right, top to bottom: Charles Manson, Grigorii Rasputin, Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, Muhammad Ali, Donald Trump, Pierre Trudeau, Golda Meir, Paul Newman, and Winston Churchill. Some we venerate, some we abhor.
But all have influenced us, and others continue to—in part because, despite our best intentions, we cannot help being drawn into those compelling eyes.
The eyes have it.