- The Mirror: A History by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, translated by Katharine Jewett
Routledge, 308 pp, £16.99, January 2001, ISBN 0 415 92447 2
In Duck Soup, Harpo dresses up in exactly the same way as Groucho is dressed (moustache, glasses, nightshirt and nightcap) and, posing on different sides of the frame of a giant mirror which Harpo has shattered, each elaborately mimics the other’s gestures – until Chico, wearing the same outfit, breaks the scene up. This scene is mirrored in Big Business (1988), when Bette Midler meets her unknown identical twin, wearing an identical suit, in a powder room in which a series of mirrors is separated by a series of open spaces, and the two of them play the mirror scene until they realise they are twins.
Mistaking someone else for your own reflection is a very old gag. Ovid inverted it (mistaking your reflection for someone else) in his Metamorphoses: Narcissus was fated to live a long time, as long as he didn’t know himself; he fell in love with his own reflection in a clear spring but, unable to possess the image, plunged a dagger into his breast and died, giving birth to the narcissus plant and a psychological syndrome. Pausanias rationalised the story by giving it a heterosexual twist: when Narcissus’ identical twin sister died, he was inconsolable until he saw his own reflection. With an implicit pun on intellectual knowledge and carnal knowledge, the myth demonstrates the devastating reflexivity of perverse erotic love.
The old gag lives on in the writings of Lacan. The world as glimpsed through the Lacan-glass is generally glimpsed very darkly indeed, but with the help of Duck Soup we can see some of it face to face. In what Lacan called the Mirror Stage, the child, like Groucho and Harpo, thinks there is no one there but himself, while the supposed mirror image that makes him believe he has a stable social identity is actually another person: his mother. D.W. Winnicott, before Lacan, saw the maternal mirror as a positive source of a child’s identity, a ‘loving gaze’, but Lacan saw it as the site of both aspects of desire: distortion and true recognition. As the child in either case loses this mirror in growing away from its mother, it is also the site of the loss of a stable sense of self. For in the next, Symbolic Stage, the father breaks in with his phallus to generate the Oedipal conflict. Now language breaks the spell of the magic mirror, and the child develops into that mythological beast, the speaking animal. (Some animal behaviourists use the ability to recognise oneself in a mirror as a distinguishing sign of humanoid intelligence: not all primates can do it.)
Lacan makes only cameo appearances in this fascinating and elegant book by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, but his ghost hovers over it throughout (from time to time slipping in words like ‘alterity’), especially in the discussion of the role of mirrors in the replication of images of the self. Under the headings ‘The Devil’s Distorted Faces’, ‘Oblique Mirrors and Specular Trickery’ and ‘Mirror Fragments’, Melchior-Bonnet weaves together texts and images of madness and evil, perception and distortion, identity and subjectivity: all the psychological tricks that are, as we say, ‘done with mirrors’. This is the most creative and imaginative part of the book, the brilliant cadenza for which all the rest prepares us, a simultaneously poetic and historical meditation on self-reflection and speculation.
If Lacan had seen his own reflection only in a river, as Narcissus saw his, and not in a full-length Parisian cheval-glass (a mirror on a ‘horse’ or ‘frame’), would he have been inspired to formulate the Mirror Stage? Melchior-Bonnet does not actually ask this question, though her more general argument that the technology is midwife to the concept strongly implies an answer of ‘no!’ But concepts, too, are midwives: Rabelais imagined full-length mirrors that came into existence only a hundred and fifty years later. Throughout The Mirror, art and science mirror one another in an endless reflexive reciprocity. This history begins in ancient Greece, where mirrors were made of metal, mostly bronze, silver or gold, and were quite small. Small convex mirrors made of metal adhering to glass began to appear in medieval Europe by 1200, and from about 1500 the Venetians, who derived their glass-blowing techniques from the Romans, began to make much larger mirrors. Venice dominated the market, despite inspired industrial espionage by the French, especially after the founding of the Royal Company of Glass and Mirrors (later known as Saint-Gobain) in 1667 and the sensation caused by their masterpiece, the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, in 1682. Cheaper production techniques transformed mirrors from luxuries into necessities.