Private tyranny and public image

<i>The Mirror: a history</i> by Sabine Melchior-Bonnet (Routledge, &pound;16.99)
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

I doubt if many readers of this page think of the mirror primarily as a piece of domestic equipment. The mirror is how we experience ourselves. It gives us a self which is also an other. But mirrors are also manufactured objects, whose workings can be explained by physical science without mystery.

I doubt if many readers of this page think of the mirror primarily as a piece of domestic equipment. The mirror is how we experience ourselves. It gives us a self which is also an other. But mirrors are also manufactured objects, whose workings can be explained by physical science without mystery.

Spanning both narratives, this book tells us how and why we have had certain images of ourselves, and why we believed them. It shows how photographs and videotape have radically undermined our faith in the truth of the image. The provisional end of Sabine Melchior-Bonnet's story is both depressing and provocative.

In fact, there are two endings to The Mirror. After examining Francis Bacon's distorted self-portraits, the author suggests that, having given up the humanist aim of "know thyself", we face madness, with an artistic culture indifferent to truth and which denies itself all symbolic function. Her second ending, woven around a Magritte painting, sounds more like what many of us feel. "The subject demands the right to turn his back on mass reproduction, on easily consumed images, on the inquisition of an all-seeing society that assigns and enforces rigid identities. He proclaims the right to hide his face and to protect his secret." Indeed: we've had enough.

The experience of reflection is Western culture. The moment the subject looks at her image and says "This is me", she begins to know herself from the outside. The Ancient Greeks feared in romantic fashion that the image at the bottom of the pond or in the burnished metal might turn out to be an undermining double.

Plato and his medieval successors removed the problem by insisting on the divine contents of the mirror. In reflection, our soul becomes visible. This is how we are in the mind of God (though with obvious room for improvement). But the most famous Greek to stare at his reflection in the water was Narcissus, whose name has remained synonymous with the moral dangers of mirror-gazing. To become obsessed with an imaginary self, rather than focusing one's energies on the real other of society, is a sign of self-indulgence and delusion. In the moralistic 15th century, when Sebastian Brandt wrote his novel Ship of Fools, there was hardly an illustration of a mirror-gazer (usually a woman) which did not contain the Devil. Women, constrained by society against finding any other outlet to realise themselves, lost their souls to vanity.

In the psychological age of the last 200 years, the mirror has preferred to show us the split self. We see ourselves and yet not, and the difference is frightening, driving us back to thoughts of an elusive integrity and goodness. Melchior-Bonnet quotes Oscar Wilde saying that only stupid people don't believe in illusion. Our mirror-inspired worldliness can passingly subdue the fear of disintegration and death. But what about Dorian Gray and his terrifying portrait? Once we invest too much fantasy in an untrue image of ourselves, it can destroy us.

The philosophy and theology in this book dovetail with the actual business of glass-making. The glass for mirrors needed to be colourless and flat, with a metal tain applied to the back. The Germans and Bohemians were early masters, but it was Venice that triumphed in the 16th century. Van Eyck's painting of The Arnolfini Marriage shows the kind of Venetian convex mirrors, cut from flattened cylinders, which returned a spherical and divinely all-inclusive image.

The French resorted to industrial espionage and advertised their breakthrough, 200 years later, in Louis XIV's Hall of Mirrors. Themirrors at Versailles broke up the unity of the medieval image, echoed the new science of optics in liberating perceiver and object from God and made people who saw themselves for the first time passionately conscious of their bodies. Mirrors have meant light, glamour and the public projection of a sexy self ever since - and a quiet private tyranny.

The reviewer's most recent book is 'The Secret Artist: a close reading of Sigmund Freud' (Quartet)

Comments