The Mirror: A History 
by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet, translated by Katharine Jewett.
Routledge, 308 pp., £16.99, January 2001, 0 415 92447 2
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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.

How, precisely, did science influence the history of ideas about the mirror? The shift from the concept of man as mirror of God to God as mirror of man does not seem to have taken place in response to any scientific evolution: after all, Narcissus’ river gave him back an image essentially no different from the ones in which we see ourselves now, and the mythology of mirrors is to that degree pre-technological. But changes in the methods of glass-making and the science of optics, such as the development of better microscopes and telescopes and the mass production of mirrors, revolutionised the very shape of the universe and profoundly altered the theological field on which the game of meaning was played. More specifically, the development of larger mirrors and multiple mirrors used in combination (something that couldn’t be done with rivers) allowed new perceptions of the human form, changing the consciousness of the body. Such mirrors enabled us, as Burns once wished, ‘to see oursels as others see us’ – from the back, for instance, always a sobering experience; an engraving from the mid-17th century shows ‘a woman craning her neck in order to see her back in a mirror. A skeleton emerges from the darkness to surprise her.’ Vasari describes a lost painting by Giorgione, in which St George is seen from the back, while the front of his body is reflected in the clear water in which he stands, his left profile in a polished breastplate and his right profile in a mirror, the painting presenting ‘multiple perspectives worthy of a Cubist painter’.

The oblique mirror gave the observer the power to see where there was no light, to see without being seen, or to be seen accidentally, as it were, when he wanted to be seen; or to see out of rooms that other people couldn’t see into, as our tinted windows on limousines (or, indeed, ordinary, let alone mirrored sunglasses) allow us to do. A tale from the 16th century mocks a man who placed a mirror at the end of his bed ‘to see if he looked well as he slept’. This line of thought led eventually to Foucault’s Benthamite panopticon, which allowed the gaze of power to penetrate into every corner of individual lives and perceptions: think of the windows that masquerade as mirrors in police interrogation rooms. But the multiple, panoptic mirrors that disciplined and punished in prisons also undermined and subverted in funhouses, which ‘taught the relativity of all points of view and fed scepticism’ through their use of anamorphosis, the calculated distortion of an image.

Earlier developments in technology brought about more subtle changes: ‘The convex mirror concentrated space and offered a global and spherical view of the world, embracing many perspectives, but its roundness distorted the image. The plane mirror, on the other hand, offered an exact but only partial image, a framed vision from a single point of view that controls what is seen like a stage director.’ And while convex mirrors dispersed the rays of the sun and were symbolic of the superficial world, concave ones concentrated the rays of the sun and were symbolic of the spiritual world. Not just technology itself but our understanding of it makes a difference: a Biblical phrase like ‘through a glass, darkly’ makes a lot more sense when you know that in Paul’s day glass in general and mirrors in particular darkened images considerably; it took the Venetians to produce a glass in which one could encounter oneself ‘face to face’, long before the final Revelation.

Mirrors were put to astonishing use in paintings; some, such as that in the Arnolfini Marriage, are depicted as objects able to provide alternative views of reality, while others – in Dürer’s portrait of himself as Christ, Johannes Gumpp’s self-portrait or Vermeer’s Allegory of Painting – reflect images not from the canvas but from behind the viewer, functioning as subjective lenses that change the perspective. In a 17th-century house, a mirror was placed above a drawing exactly reproducing the scene that the mirror was supposed to represent (thus foreshadowing Magritte’s La Condition humaine, in which a canvas placed in front of an open window exactly reproduces what would be seen if the canvas were not there).

The philosophical dilemma posed by the mirror is that of the reflection that tells the truth yet lies, or the ‘dubious resemblance’ that distorts what it represents. Singularity affirms itself by renouncing the reproduction. Yet a resemblance or likeness offers the possibility of knowing oneself, a hope romanticised in the idea of the lover as the true mirror – heir, in this, to the Winnicottian mother. Here, and elsewhere, the Anglophone reader may be reminded of the importance of this theme in English literature, as in Donne’s ‘The Good-Morrow’ (‘My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears’) or Shakespeare’s proto-structuralist joke about infidelity in The Merchant of Venice, when Bassanio, swearing his love to Portia, says, ‘I swear to thee, even by thine own fair eyes,/Wherein I see myself –’, and she breaks in: ‘Mark you but that!/In both my eyes he doubly sees himself;/In each eye, one: swear by your double self,/And there’s an oath of credit.’ Shakespeare here hints at the nightmare shadow of this dream of the mirroring lover: the mirror image as a sexual rival or fatal enemy, the split self or evil double. As Otto Rank has demonstrated, this was an important theme in 19th-century literature in France, Germany and Britain (in E.T.A. Hoffmann and Adelbert von Chamisso, for example). Freud epitomised the feeling of the ‘uncanny’ by recounting an occasion when he mistook his own reflection for a stranger. The opposite situation was reported by Michaux: ‘More than once when I turned a street corner and came upon a mirror in a store, I took the first man to arrive to be me, provided he wore the same raincoat and hat.’

Elsewhere, the notion of the double as sexual rival reveals its comic side: Melchior-Bonnet mentions a Korean tale of a man whose wife, seeing herself in a mirror, thinks her husband has another woman, while he, seeing himself, thinks his wife has a lover. She notes that ‘this tale has counterparts in many cultures’ but cites only a French one. A wonderful inversion of the Korean story, collected by the late A.K. Ramanujan in South India, tells of a woman who was caught with her lover by a guard employed by her husband; she persuaded the guard that the man was her husband’s mirror image, and when her suspicious husband returned, the guard simply had the husband look at his own image in the mirror and assured him that no other man had been there.

The Christian variants of the tale of the evil mirror image centred on Eve, who was tempted by the serpent in her own image, persuaded Adam to look into a mirror with her, was depicted (from the 13th century) brandishing a mirror, and was accused, by Tertullian and others, of having invented the mirror. Devils, too, use mirrors; one is depicted mooning in a mirror, while another has a mirror embedded in his arse, images which give new meaning to the phrase ‘that old devil moon’. The mirror’s way of switching right and left, as well as more generally distorting life, made it diabolic. Dante puts narcissists in Purgatory with the counterfeiters; he depicts Rachel and Leah (who mirrored one another in Jacob’s bed) holding mirrors, while Beatrice arranges an optical experiment with three mirrors. In Paradise Lost, Eve falls in love with her reflection, until God’s voice tells her that it is her self, and bids her follow him to ‘where no shadow stays/Thy coming, and thy soft imbraces, he/Whose image thou art, him thou shalt enjoy’ – that is, instead of loving her own image, she is to let Adam love his own image, her. Melchior-Bonnet might here have cited the early Gnostic tradition, which maintained that Eve used her reflection to protect herself when the evil powers tried to rape her; they fell for the reflection, while Eve herself escaped. In other Gnostic texts, it is Adam who loses his celestial nature as a result of falling in love with his own image glimpsed in the mirror of water. (These myths may be derived from the legend that Dionysus was conceived when Persephone admired herself in a mirror, and that Dionysus, in turn, gazed into a mirror made by Hephaestus, was seduced by the reflection and created the external world in his own image.)

Mirrors pervaded folklore, magic and superstition. A form of magic called catoptromancy made use of them to find lost objects. But mirrors were dangerous: Aristotle said that menstruating women who gazed at them soiled them, and it was argued that ‘any person who looks at himself in the mirror of a whore will resemble her in impudence and bawdiness.’ To this day, people cover mirrors after a death, which was originally intended to prevent them from stealing the dead person’s soul. Broken mirrors were (and still are) regarded as bad luck, but the fragments came to take on a deeper meaning for Lacan: ‘For the child who anticipates his unity by the mediation of the mirror, the kaleidoscopic fragments of the broken mirror reveal a protean self, with infinite virtualities . . . The mirror, instead of anticipating unity, breaks into pieces.’ The disparate images in funhouses reduced the individual to ‘a fragment or shrunken image of a shattered mosaic’. But in this Postmodern age, when the fragmentation of the self is the dernier cri de coeur, broken mirrors are what we need: ‘only their fragments can take into account a broken and fallen self.’ We all suffer like the young female psychoanalytic patient who could recognise herself in a mirror only when it was shattered: ‘the broken pieces caused an appropriate representation of herself to symbolically appear.’

A different sort of self is constructed when the fragments arrange themselves, through the use of a series of obliquely placed mirrors, in an infinite mise en abîme. Lacan’s child in the Mirror Stage is trapped within infinitely proliferating doubles of the self. In visual art, the mise en abîme depends on a technological advance, the invention of perspective, but it leads to complex philosophical speculations that go far beyond mere optics. Melchior-Bonnet sometimes glosses mise en abîme as ‘story within a story’, but it is also a painting within a painting, always with the implication of an infinite regress. Elsewhere, without using the term, she speaks of ‘the splitting of consciousness . . . the division of the being into a subject and an object, whereby the object becomes the subject’s double’. This, too, can develop into an infinity. Andy Warhol asked: ‘If a mirror looks into another mirror, what will it find?’ And the Swiss poet and philosopher Henri Amiel saw himself ‘like two mirrors that reflect each other and then reflect their reflections, as far as the eye can see’. In this mise en abîme, the infinite is nothing but repetition: the man watches the man who watches . . . and doesn’t recognise himself anywhere. But if the mirrors in a mise en abîme are placed at an angle to one another, they will not generate identical images: skewed, they allow us to see beside the frontal image to the ones reflected behind. On this model there is infinite variety, not sameness, in the views of the self.

Katharine Jewett’s translation is clear and graceful; the poetry rendered into rhyme works well, the occasional French jargon makes sense in English, and even the slang (‘ugly mug’, ‘500 écus up the ass’) is cleverly done. But the failure to supply the English reader with the originals of non-French sources (we’re offered Winnicott’s Jeu et réalité and even Freud’s ‘inquiétante étrangeté’) reveals a more serious flaw in the French original: the thinking is chauvinist. The book should be called The Mirror in Europe, Particularly in France. There are passing references to Shakespeare (Richard II’s famous mirror soliloquy) and there’s an excellent extended analysis of a passage in Rilke, as well as scattered references to other European writers; and many of the paintings are German or Dutch. But most of the literary sources are French, and the part of the world formerly known as ‘the Orient’ is simply not there. The one exception is a scholar merely mentioned by name, first as ‘the Arab Al Hazen’ and then as ‘Alhazen the Arab’, who is more properly called Ibn Al Haytham, and was apparently included only because his works were translated into Latin. True, the technology of the mirror was furthest developed in Europe: the mirrors so extravagantly displayed in the royal apartments in the palaces at Isfahan and Lahore came from Venice. But where mythology and philosophy are concerned, ‘the Orient’ can see Europe and raise it one, and we hear not a word about India, China or Japan, whose ideas about mirrors are very different from European ideas. Africa appears only in one footnote, which repeats, without attribution, the now discredited belief that ‘even today certain African tribes refuse to allow themselves to be photographed for fear that the soul might remain imprisoned by the image.’

It is also a shame that The Mirror largely ignores mythology, popular culture and film. Melchior-Bonnet cites a 19th-century legal case in which a young aristocrat locked his beautiful, unfaithful mistress up for eight days in a room whose walls were mirrors; but there is also a Romanian variant of ‘Snow White’ in which the wicked stepmother is punished for her vanity by being locked up in a room of mirrors. Indeed, even Disney’s Snow White preserves the most famous catoptromancy of all (‘Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?’), and Harry Potter encounters the mirror in which ‘anyone . . . might see what . . . he desires.’ Melchior-Bonnet records the belief that souls are often caught in mirrors, and that people often lose their mirror images when they lose their souls: why not mention Dracula, Jekyll and Hyde, and Dorian Gray? Or All of Me, in which Steve Martin, whose body contains both his own soul and that of Lily Tomlin, looks in a mirror and sees Lily Tomlin? When Sabine Melchior-Bonnet looks into the mirror, does she see Lacan looking out at her?

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