On mirrors and imperfect reflections

I've long been fascinated by lenses and optics, anything that bends and contorts, reflects and glows: Mercury glass, crystal balls, concave mirrors, prisms and lenses; the play of light and object, reflection and projection. Nowadays, we are surrounded by reflective surfaces. We inhibit most of them; the reflections from elevator doors and storefronts, from subway windows and car windshields. Still, even with all that, most of us don't seem closer to having an objective grasp of ourselves.

I'm always prepared to be surprised by my reflection. The lack of consistent feedback from mirrors can lead to utter confusion about what we really look like, about how we're objectively perceived. Mirrors mostly capture us unanimated and from a limited point-of-view. No wonder we're suspicious about how they hook up with reality. Of course, there are reflective surfaces in nature. But the first man-made mirrors were polished obsidian, dating back to 6000BC. This stone is black, so the reflection would have been somewhat obscured, like Narcissus' reflection.

Mirrors didn't evolve much beyond primitive pieces of glass until the pre-Renaissance. But by the 14th Century, convex mirrors were common and painters both employed mirrors to capture their subjects, but also featured them to show their skill, a sleight of hand like Van Eyck's famous mirror in The Arnolfini Wedding (Secret Knowledge by David Hockney is fascinating if you're interested in the use of lenses and optics in art).

In the 1600's, Murano was the heart of the mirror-making world. The technique was to apply tin and mercury to the back of glass. This was the best "objective" reflection a viewer had ever had and there ensued 100 years of espionage trying to hack the Murano formula. Louis XIV managed to lure a group of Venetian glassmakers to reveal their secret (they were then assassinated). But the cat was out of the bag - mirrors soon became ubiquitous.

In theory, a flat mirror presents a stable, exterior reflection of ourselves, not filtered through the perception of others. But we know too well that reflections offer no such objectivity, no such constancy. I remember when I was very young running inside from playing, I was breathless and giddy and had to change because there was mud on my dress. It was a rare occurrence to be upstairs on my own, and when I caught sight of my reflection in the dressing table mirror I was surprised. I looked calm, composed when I felt exhilarated and playful. I remember (and I must have been only six or seven) leaning in and look closer, to see if I could find myself in that reflection. And I remember crying when I couldn't.

We often seem to look to mirrors and reflections - literally and metaphorically - for a coherent narrative of self. If I've had a few glasses of wine I tend to do this, to see if my reflection matches my mood, or to look at my reflection for a clue as to what my mood really is. Perhaps we use the mirror, our reflection, as a talisman for introspection. I always think of Lizzy Bennett sizing up her reflection before blowing out her candle in the BBC Pride & Prejudice. Was that vanity or was she searching for a glimpse of her own mysterious inner world in her mirror image?

Siri Hustvedt: "Infants and most animals do not recognize themselves in mirrors. My dog Jack had no interest in his own reflection and had no idea that it belonged to him. At some moment in their development, human beings, some primates, elephants, and a species of dolphin are able to know they are looking not at others but at themselves. It is a privilege of the highly evolved. The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan named this turn in human life the mirror stage (stade de miroir), identifying the moment when a child looks at her own reflection and sees herself as an externalized whole, as if she were gazing at herself through the eyes of another person. But most of the time we do not see ourselves whole. I see only parts of my body, my hands and part of my arm when I type, for example, or none of it when I stroll through the street taking in the sights and sounds and smells." (1)

But mirrors in all their multifarious manifestations are not the only reflectors; there are many other ways of viewing a reflection of yourself. Expressive art, certain writing, blogging all result in output that can be viewed as a reflection of self. Blogging is another way of holding up a looking glass to yourself. I'm always slightly surprised by the reflection that looks back at me from my blog. It's not fully me and yet it is wholly me. And I'm also aware of that narcissistic pull, of being drawn in too far, of substituting it for the real thing. And I'm sometimes guilty of doing that to other bloggers and artists too, falling for the smooth veneer of glass instead of inferring the much more flawed and complex reality.

Blogs aren't just reflections, though, they're also projections. Like art and conversation, poetry and theatre, they're a way of expressing something to others, not just staring at one's own visage. We send a part of ourselves into the world and others respond, a dialogue unfolds. Unlike mirror reflections, blogs and art remain once we've walked away from them, they have their own autonomy and are something in-of-themselves. They take on their own life independent of their maker, a life that sometimes grows beyond their maker's intention.

Is there such a thing as an accurate reflection? I'm not sure an objective external reality is any more fixable than a constant internal sense of self. David Hume: "Our thought is still more variable than our sight; and all our other senses and faculties contribute to this change: nor is there any single power of the soul, which remains unalterably the same, perhaps for one moment. The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, repass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations. There is properly no simplicity in it at one time, nor identity in different, whatever natural propension we may have to imagine that simplicity and identity." (2)

I'm inclined sometimes to think that the most accurate reflection of ourselves we see is neither in a mirror nor through introspection, but in the relational, the self you see reflected back in your most intimate friendships and relationships, the most frank and trusting kinds of exchanges. But those moments of being understood and understanding, of being fully revealed, unguarded and seeing one another can be fleeting too. We're constantly changing, aging, growing in and out of relationships and things. We refuse to be pinned down to one static self-portrait. So we mostly remain a mystery to ourselves, forever obscured from our own true reflection.

(1) The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves by Siri Hustvedt, p. 49-50
(2) A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume, Book I, Part 4, Section 6 'Of Personal Identity'

1. Narcissus by Caravaggio (1597-1599), via Wikipedia
2. Obsidian mirror (c. 15th-16th C AD), from The British Museum
3. Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (c. 1524) | Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola (Parmigianino), via Wikipedia
4. Detail from The Arnolfini Wedding (1434) by Van Eyck, via Wikipedia
5. Girl before a Mirror (1932) by Picasso, from MoMA
6. Self-Portrait with Leica by Ilse Bing (1931 and 1986), via Dieselpunks
Related Posts with Thumbnails