King Louis XIII, according to the journals of his physician Heroard, played hide-and-seek with soldiers as a small boy, and continued to enjoy the game at the age of thirteen. President Theodore Roosevelt played hide-and-seek in the White House with his children. The name “hide-and-seek” dates to the early seventeenth century. Hamlet refers to the game as “Hide Fox,” while for their classic study Children’s Games in Street and Playground, Iona and Peter Opie interviewed thousands of schoolchildren in England, Scotland and Wales in the 1960s and found regional names for the game that include “Boggle-Bush,” “Heddie-ma-Blindie,” “Shammy Round the Block,” and “Spinny Wye.”
Hide-and-seek is the most universal and the most ancient of children’s games. Possibly the earliest record we possess of it is an arresting little painting, kept today in the Museum of Naples, that dates from the first century CE. The painting shows three cupids at play, one peering from the shadows of his hiding place, the second running to find a hiding spot of his own, and the third evidently counting with his eyes covered. The scene was originally one of a decorative series that ornamented the colonnade around a huge open garden at the center of an elegant Roman villa that offered sumptuous views of the Bay of Naples before it was submerged, along with the rest of the town of Herculaneum and its neighbor Pompeii, under the wall of ash and gas vomited forth by Mount Vesuvius in the year 79.
Scenes of babyish cupids engaged in games and gently parodic versions of adult occupations were common in Roman art, and the score of paintings recovered from the villa show these plump little creatures engaged in artisanal tasks and cooking, offering worship to various Roman deities, and immersed in a variety of leisure activities from chariot races to masquerades. Yet the hide-and-seek painting stands apart because of the expression of serious and straightforward intensity we find in the face of the central cupid in the painting, running to find a hiding spot and looking back anxiously at his counting playmate in a kind of exhilarated terror.
There is, as every child knows, a unique and irresistible thrill connected with hiding. Robert Louis Stevenson declared that “hide-and-seek has so pre-eminent a sovereignty, for it is the well-spring of romance, and the actions and the excitement to which it gives rise lend themselves to almost any sort of fable.” Children’s literature is especially attentive to the excitement of hiding. There would be no encounter with either lion or witch without the initial enchantment of hiding in the wardrobe. Classic children’s books feature secret gardens and lonely islands. Harriet the Spy hides in a dumbwaiter to observe the mysterious world of adults, while the children in The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler hide out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From the Wind in the Willows to the rats of Nimh, and from Beatrix Potter’s bunnies and churchmice to Chester Cricket’s friends in their Times Square subway station hideout, burrowing creatures and their hidden lairs are a staple of children’s literature. Hiding can also be suggested through miniaturization or—with much the same effect—the gigantification of one’s surroundings, as in James and the Giant Peach, The Borrowers, and the many varieties of faeries and wee folk. And of course Tolkien’s hobbits are diminutive, hole-dwelling creatures noted for their ability to hide perfectly in natural landscape, while Bilbo and then Frodo possess a magic ring that turns them invisible besides.
What are the origins of the strange fascination hiding exerts? The psychotherapist Gabrielle Israelievitch observes that hiding develops the child’s sense of his own personhood as both separate from and valued by others. The earliest form of this game, she explains, is peek-a-boo:
The critical elements are that it is playful and it begins and ends with mother and child looking in each other’s eyes. It is about the loss and regaining of seeing each other in safety. It is a reminder of the first looking, of unmitigated pleasure in the seeing, in such gaze as he first felt his existence. It will be echoed when he next falls in love.
In a few years, peek-a-boo morphs into hide-and-seek, a game in which the child is “asserting his power, experimenting with his capabilities,” though, Israelievitch points out, “part of the fun is still having someone want to find you.”
The game is predicated upon the ambivalent allure of this possibility of escape, of a temporary disconnection from the awareness of others, a leaving and a coming home. The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes: “When children play hide-and-seek—or when adults are knowingly or unknowingly elusive with each other, playing at repulsion and enticement—what is being played with is the fear (and the wish) of never being found.” He continues: “Every successful game of hide-and-seek—and one way or another, barring tragedy, it is always successful—reassures the players that no one can escape, that there is nowhere else to escape to.” Phillips suggests that the psychological problems of adults, dissociations, concealments, disconnections from self and others, are like hiding games that never end.
Animal behavior and evolutionary biology seem to hold keys to understanding the allure of hiding. Concealment is critical for survival in the animal kingdom. Animals hide to elude predators, and predators try to move unseen in order to capture prey. Lairs and nests are designed to blend in to the environment and escape detection. Entire hidden worlds ramify beneath the ground, beyond screens of leaf and branch and bark, and even below the cover of snow. Biologist Bernd Heinrich writes of the halls and chambers that unfold out of sight beneath the snowpack of a Vermont winter:
[C]lose to the ground, where it is warmer than at the surface, water vapor from disintegrating snow crystals migrates upward and recondenses and freezes onto the upper snow pack crystals. In time, the growth of the upper ice gains at the expense of the lower, and a latticework of ice pillars and snow columns and extensive air spaces at ground level create the subnivian space that is, in a sense, a continuous snow cave inhabited by mice, voles, and shrews.
Nature’s ultimate hiders are those creatures that blend perfectly into their environment through camouflage: insects that look like leaves or twigs, moths that resemble tree bark, white hares in the snow, striped predators and dappled prey in the chiaroscuro underbrush.
On the other hand, the human experience of hiding seems to depend upon much more than animal instinct. Fundamental to this experience is an awareness of what one is hiding from. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Wakefield,” a man hides from his family for twenty years while living but a single street away in the city of London. As we see from his clandestine observations of his home and wife, his odd project consists not of mere invisibility, but of a voyeuristic distance from the social world. While animal camouflage entails a resemblance to the world, hiding involves a rupture with it. Hiding is, in short, a state of consciousness.
This consciousness can be one of terror. Many of us, when we think of hiding, do not first call to mind the charming thrill of children’s play, but rather people who must hide for their lives. Hiding can be associated with crime or horror or persecution—the priest holes of Catholic England, or the Federal Witness Protection Program, or, most terribly, the Jews who attempted to survive the Holocaust by hiding in attics and forests, in barns and in holes in the ground. Hiding in these cases is nothing like the game. It is not magical escape, but a hideous unfreedom.
Yet hiding, when unyoked from dire necessity, produces pleasure. The aesthetic doctrines of the picturesque movement in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries can be understood as an attempt to harness this pleasure. The painters, landscape designers, poets, and essayists who promulgated picturesque aesthetics display again and again their love of leafy bowers, peasant huts, moss-grown manses, shadowy eaves, country lanes disappearing around turns, clefts and grottoes and glens and ruins. Their aesthetic is implicitly based upon landscape affording one the possibility of hiding.
In his 1794 “Essay on the Picturesque,” Uvedale Price, one of the movement’s main theoreticians, described the aesthetic quality he called “intricacy”—which we might translate as a beauty deriving from the opportunity to hide. “According to the idea I have formed of it,” writes Price, “intricacy in landscape might be defined [as] that disposition of objects, which, by a partial and uncertain concealment, excites and nourishes curiosity.” He praised as picturesque those landscapes that appear to be somewhat wild, in which
the turns are sudden and unprepared; the banks sometimes broken and abrupt; sometimes smooth, and gently, but not uniformly sloping; now wildly over-hung with thickets of trees and bushes; now loosely skirted with wood: no regular verge of grass, no cut edges, no distinct lines of separation; all is mixed and blended together . . . . often some obstacle, a cluster of low thorns, a furze-bush, a tussock, a large stone, forces the wheels into sudden and intricate turns; often a group of trees or a thicket, occasions the road to separate into two parts, leaving a sort of island in the middle.
By contrast, Price criticizes the popular style of manicured, open lawns of his time for, essentially, its lack of hiding places. “[O]ne might suppose,” he writes, “from this military style having been so generally adopted, and every thing laid open, that our improvers are fearful of an enemy being in ambuscade among the bushes of a gravel pit, or lurking in some intricate group of trees.” Picturesque landscapes, by contrast, “invite the eye to penetrate into their recesses, yet keep its curiosity alive and unsatisfied.”
Closer to our own time, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard’s attempts to describe a phenomenology of poetic images led him to meditate upon the essence of houses, huts, shells, drawers, chests, wardrobes, and other enclosed spaces where one can dream in solitude. Though he never discusses hiding directly, his well-known book La poétique de l’espace orbits it throughout. “[I]n the house itself,” he writes, fluttering about the concept as he tries to distill the power of poetic images of childhood homes, “in the family sitting-room, a dreamer of refuges dreams of a hut, of a nest, or of nooks and corners in which he would like to hide away, like an animal in its hole.”
The British geographer Jay Appleton has developed a more biologistic theory of aesthetics based on an environment’s capacity to afford the ability to hide from predators and the ability to see predators approaching and escape from them—what he calls “refuge” in the first case and “prospect” in the second. “[A]esthetic satisfaction,” writes Appleton in his 1975 study The Experience of Landscape, “experienced in the contemplation of landscape, stems from the spontaneous perception of landscape features which . . . act as sign-stimuli indicative of environmental conditions favourable to survival.” Too much “prospect”—exposed, open and boundless terrain—elicits in us an experience of terror, which earlier aestheticians called “the sublime.” Too much “refuge” and we experience a nervous claustrophobia. Since “the ability to see and the ability to hide are both important in calculating a creature’s survival prospects,” he argues, “the ability to see without being seen [is therefore] an immediate source of aesthetic satisfaction” Appleton’s is, in short, a “hide-and-seek aesthetics.”
Hiding need not be a directly or even imaginatively physical experience, however. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Price suggested that the picturesque might apply as well to certain kinds of music as to painting or architecture. One could, he wrote, “call a capricious movement of Scarlatti or Haydn picturesque” because of “its sudden, unexpected, and abrupt transitions” and “a certain playful wildness of character and appearance of irregularity.” The listener hides, so to speak, in such music. There are paintings, books, even philosophies that offer a sense of hiding in the contemplation of labyrinthine detail, historical layers, atlas-like minutiae, the designs of time, in ways that are not spatial, or not purely so.
Reading itself can be an experience of hiding that is and is not dependent upon the physical world. “Who does not remember, as I do,” writes Proust in his 1905 essay on Ruskin,” “those experiences of reading during vacation time, that one used to take and hide, one after another, in those hours of the day that were peaceful enough and inviolable enough to be able to give them refuge.” For Proust, reflecting on his boyhood summer reading, the act of reading creates a hiding place in which one can separate oneself from the rest of the world in order to observe (and later recollect) it with so much greater receptivity. Reading, he says, “engraved in us so sweet a memory” that merely to leaf through the book one read as a child conjures all those impediments to uninterrupted reading that afflicted one at the time, the interruptions from the world beyond the book, recreating them as perfectly as his famous madeleine. One hides the experiences of reading within time, and then finds that one has hid time within experiences of reading.
Hiding is the first reflexive verb in the Bible, the act of the first man and woman in their sin and consciousness of their sin. “And the man hid himself and his wife from the Lord God amongst the trees of the garden. And the Lord God called unto the man and said to him, Where art thou?” Throughout scripture, human beings attempt to hide from God, fleeing His presence like Jonah down in the hold of the ship bound for Tarshish. And the God of Israel at times hides His face, leading the Psalmist to cry out in anguish.
At other times, however, hiding affords closeness to God, and God even becomes a hiding place. “Guard me as the apple of the eye,” says the Psalmist, “conceal me in the shadow of Your wings.” The great text of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar, is attributed to the second century sage Shimon bar Yohai who, hunted by the Romans, hid for years in a cave and learned the mysteries of kabbalah while in his concealment. Yet divine promises of redemption are most often figured as the promise of total transparency. The Gospels say again and again that all hidden things are to be revealed. “For nothing is hidden,” says Mark, “except to be made manifest,” and Matthew tells us that “a city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” One wonders if redemption is a condition in which hiding becomes impossible. And is that truly paradise or a kind of hell?
Hiding is not only a biological, psychological, or aesthetic phenomenon, but ultimately metaphysical. It posits something beyond the self, and something beyond one’s immediate environment. It depends upon the possibility of an Other who is not immediately visible, a presence that is not yet revealed. I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.