LETTER NO. 6: ON MIRRORS
by Chris R. Morgan
In thinking about mirrors, it occurred to me that I could list all of the instances in which mirrors played if not a pivotal narrative role then at least a noteworthy one. And moreover I could probably make a case of their respective profundities towards the human psyche and morality that would cause Roland Barthes to burst from his grave and take up vaping. I could reference Candyman, The Prince of Darkness, Red Dragon, the Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror,” the Edogawa Rampo short story “The Hell of Mirrors,” the Jawbox song “Mirrorful.” Maybe for good measure I could tie in Stranger Things, which makes maybe one reference to mirrors in the entire first season, but can be so manipulated for my purposes because that is the business in which we have found ourselves. Such a whirlwind of intellectual vanity would reflect well on me in this examination of reflective surfaces. But these instances, while certainly fascinating and worthy of audience in their own rights, seem to confuse the matter.
Mirrors invite binary thinking. For instance, there are two kinds of people who deal with mirrors: those who see in it nothing but themselves and those who see in it everything beyond themselves. To the first kind the mirror is a servant and nothing more. It is a means of assembling ourselves for the sake of those around us. To the second kind, however, it is an entryway. Whether in a symbolic sense or in a more imaginative, escapist sense, they are dazzled by the possibilities in not only a self in reverse but an entire existence, wherein left is right, black is white, what’s bad out here is good in there.
At first I wanted to place myself within this duality—which would be the former, as I find nothing fanciful in exploring this theme. But then I thought the better of it. Dialectics in this matter, as in an increasing number of others I find, revealed itself more as a rhetorical trick out of which little lasting insight can be mined. (I think it would be best not to tell various Communists I know, let alone my twin brothers, that I wrote that.) Nuance is a kind of sickness that, with the right amount of acuteness, verges on otherworldly possession. I cannot help the conditions under which it finds feeding on my soul most optimal, such as the most pertinent desire to talk about selfies.
It used to be that I never liked having my picture taken. I was very uncomfortable with being shot either formally with directions from without (such as during the time my mother insisted that I and my brothers pose like the Captain Morgan rum icon), or in candid cinéma vérité, both resulting in a demonstration of the flexibility with which others may dictate when and how you are permitted to be dignified. But gradually it occurred to me that it comes down more to a dislike of being photographed by other people. When I got my first iPhone four years ago, my first photo was not a selfie, but a wide shot of Camden Yards from a hotel balcony. Nor was my first selfie of my own initiative. A photo was asked of me by an editor to accompany a biography and I had no better option. To be sure, it was not very good, taken quickly, with poor lighting and in a bizarre angle; Max Headroom comes to mind for some reason. But I’ve gotten better.
In taking mirror selfies, I have mastered the following: making the limiting contours of the bathroom an atmospheric asset, looking into the lens of the camera rather than into the mirror, keeping the phone itself out of view in the photo, and various positions of the head—I tried a profile shot while still meeting these standards just to see if I could, and I did. Kim Kardashian, going by Google image search, has not even managed such feats. (Though, in fairness, when one has full-sized mirrors, some of this is moot.) To admit this seems no great calamity, broadly speaking. A 1984 birth year puts me more or less at the head of the millennial demographic; this is my medium, my crowning contribution to culture. This is meant to be derogatory, and it is deserved in part, but I shall hold off on that for the moment.
To say that this act is our genius is puzzling even at a conceptual level. One of the earliest photographs ever taken was a selfie, by a weirdly contemporary looking Robert Cornelius in 1839. A good amount of August Strindberg’s photography consists of self-portraits; in fact he seems to have pioneered much of the aesthetic melodrama we tend to associate with MySpace dwellers. “I don’t care a thing for my appearance,” he said, “but I want people to be able to see my soul, and that comes out better in my own photographs than in others.” That said, there is a sense that Strindberg was born out of time. What he would have done with Instagram is a game of speculation rich with possibilities.
But even all the way into the furthest recesses of the 20th century, just as the idea of narcissism was gaining popular traction, Strindberg rejected its most obvious mode of expression. To certain social critics, social scientists, and take-writers, the millennials’ interest in their reflections—whether in the mirror or in the mirror function on their phones—is the central symbol of a social media-enabled desire to see themselves duplicated, triplicated, quadruplicated until much of the world is replaced by them, with a small clique of leftovers, like the earthly remnants of a rapture, left outnumbered to serve the New Order’s needs. The scenario deserves props for its horrific novelty, but it’s one that doesn’t interest the target of their critiques.
Think of the mirror not as a source of tribute but as a study in contrast. (What was it I said about the hollowness of dialectics?) Yes, the mirror posits that a person exists, but play with the mirror suggests no single mode of existence. The point is not to validate what is already known, but to explore or embellish what is hidden with all the risks that entail. The selfie brings home what was once in the imaginative domains of Dostoyevsky, David Lynch, and Maya Deren. The future allows us to build our own existential Others, our doppelgängers. Through this practice we do not simply copy ourselves, but assemble a new sibling of sorts, as much out of our own neuroses and dislikes as out of those positive qualities we find lacking. This not-so-modern self-portraiture, far from being solipsistic, is a desire to stand outside ourselves; to make strangers of ourselves. What could be more striking and perhaps more damning a source of self-examination?
Anna Kavan was said to have loved mirrors to an extreme degree. She filled her house with them, she wrote her novels in front of one, and applied them as metaphors in those novels. “There was a pause,” Kavan wrote in Let Me Alone, “during which she continued to meet in the mirror the strange pair of goblin-eyes, steady with strange malice.” “There was a small mirror on the wall and Kay stared into it for a while. She saw there a face not unlike her own except that it was rather deteriorated and had an expression of great anxiety almost of desperation,” she wrote in My Soul in China. Kavan applied this as much to herself, changing her name from Helen Woods Ferguson to that of her protagonist in Let Me Alone. And while she did not photograph herself, she painted a self-portrait that is so haunting as to constitute self-harm, which is not far off. She died of a heroin overdose in her 60s having horded enough of the drug “in her house to kill the whole street.”
No one is Anna Kavan. Anna Kavan wasn’t even really Anna Kavan. But critics doubtless see her as the model for modern mirror culture, even if they’ve never actually heard of her. They see ego and loneliness and condemn them. But the average critic being just as egotistical and just as lonely is merely condemning mediocrity. The offense is not that people are self-reflecting, but that self-reflection has its Model T, and everyone is on the road.
The bad moralist sees all this and finds self-adoration. The slightly better moralist sees this and finds self-voyeurism. The human being sees this and very quickly looks away. The etiquette that is required when someone stumbles upon someone else in the midst of vulnerability practice is quite unambiguous. Even when such a thing is posted it is a crosshairs in which one should not get caught. One does not see the wisdom in putting a pause on their business to consider the motives of why and the intricacies of how one car collides with another. Or that is usually the expectation, and it’s the expectation we should apply here. Though not as violent, or even as despairing, as any disaster, precisely how a person is encountering him or herself in reflection is no less chaotic and no more anyone’s concern. The burden is not on someone to abstain from sharing, but from someone to abstain from gazing.
This entry is part of the Christmas epistles series.