Mirror, mirror, on the wall…

I finally bought a mirror yesterday after three months of moving into my new flat. I remarked to a friend that living without a mirror has been a good exercise in ego reflection, and although I’d meant it as a joke, it made me think about mirrors, and ego reflections.

Mirrors are funny things, both as functional objects, and metaphors. Do they let us see ourselves as we are? Or do they let us see through to another reality through which a version of ourselves exist? In our age of precision engineering, we presume that mirrors reflect perfectly the object being reflected. However, the idea of perfect reflections is a fairly recent one. Ancient mirrors were made of polished metal. Their more modern incarnations of glass coated with a thin sheet of reflective metal originated in Venice in the 16th century, though other sources indicate that it may have originated in Roman times. And even so, image distortions were not unexpected.


In popular culture, the twin idea of a mirror as reflection and distortion, has served consistently as a warning of believing too much in what you see. The myth of Narcissus, later appropriated by Freud, warns against the excesses of self-love. Of course, what you see on the other side could also be a projection of your twisted desires. Think of the evil queen in the tale of Snow White.

If you were like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, and pretended that the looking-glass ‘has got all soft like gauze’, ‘turning into a sort of mist’, and walked through to the other side, you entered into a dream-like world which seems so much more illogical, and yet sensible, than your own. A world which was both like and unlike ours. Think also of Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’, who wove ‘the mirror’s magic sights’ of the world beyond her window, but whose mirror ‘crack’d from side to side’ the minute she sought to pursue that dream. Beyond mythic and fairy tales, mirrors continue to fascinate as doorways into the occult.

What is this quality of the mirror that holds us in such rapture? Jacques Lacan famously writes of the ‘mirror stage’ in our psychological development. Lacan’s ideas have been applied beyond the theory of the physiological and cognitive development of an infant to the psychological and psychical development of the ego as it undergoes a process of self-identification. The latter process, as anyone in practice can testify, can be life-long. Some animals, it is said, cannot recognise themselves in a mirror. How true is this of humans too as they gaze into their psychical mirrors?

A Zen teacher I once heard mention (it might’ve been Gil Fronsdal, I forget) that the wall we face in Zen practice acts like a mirror, a mirror for our thoughts, and the self we project through those thoughts. Looking at the wall affords us an opportunity for looking at ourselves — reflections, projections, distortions, all.

Images: Venus with a Mirror (Titian, ca. 1555), and Alice Through the Looking Glass (John Tenniel, 1871)

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