The So-called Mirror Image Has Become Oddly Suspect
The Mirror, Sir William Orpen, 1878-1931. Oil on canvas, 1900, The Tate
Mirrors are so common we tend never to notice them. They’re everywhere, much of the time nowadays as ornaments rather than tools. Over millennia they have existed in one form or another according to recorded history, paintings in Egyptian tombs, the Bible, and literature.
Our relationships with reflections of ourselves are doubtless as varied as the images we see. For some, they are merely literal and useful. As symbols, mirrors offer superior metaphors. They're revealing literally and figuratively. We all depend on them almost unconsciously to tell us something about how we appear to those who see us.
There's a teenager who feels less than handsome. In short order, the mere sight of a mirror is unpleasant. It becomes something to be avoided, even to the extent of not wishing a plate glass display window to show a reflection. There is as well the inverse of this feeling about mirrors for the ones who are pleased with what they see. We all can spot the vain very quickly wherever a reflecting surface is available.
So-called 'primitive' people have an enormous curiosity when presented with a mirror. If superstitious fear doesn't overcome them, they crowd to see what is revealed in a mirror.
For some of us who no longer see an image in a mirror with which we feel familiar, we may be incredulous, or discouraged, or simply saddened or resigned, or all of the above. Looking into a mirror, one can't avoid facts.
Yet, there are unrealities that face us when we look into mirrors. The most obvious is that we don't see precisely what others see because what we're looking at is reversed. Except for that rarity, perfect bilateral symmetry, what we see is subtly different from what we appear to be to anyone looking directly at us. It's surprising to see the effect of covering half of a portrait with a card, for instance, so that only half the face in the picture is visible, and then changing which half shows. The so-called 'mirror image' has become oddly suspect.
Consider those for whom mirrors are purely utilitarian, often the military. The necessity of using reflection to amplify light, to see around obstacles and corners makes mirrors essential. There's the submariner who depends on his periscope to tell him what he needs to know but can't see. The same is true for the driver of a military tank. Mirrors enable telescopes to reveal images of otherwise unimaginable sights. The past decade has emphasized that vital role more than perhaps at any other time in history. Imagine modern surgery without the aid of mirrors.
The ubiquitous cameras of our daily lives may is some ways replace some of the older functions of the looking glass, but they don't give rise to the emotional resonances stirred by passing a household fixture or treasure that has seen most of one's years of consciousness. The missing image of a loved one who saw the same reflected surroundings we can still see becomes a nearly visible ghost. There's a forbidding precision in a photograph, precious as it may be. A shared home, visible in reflection behind the viewer is like an echoing chord of familiar music or the faint scent that memory never erases.
There comes a time when one is looking in a mirror and sees much more than a likeness.
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