The Scrambling True Mirror
If I ask if all be right
From mirror after mirror,
No vanity’s displayed:
I’m looking for the face I had
Before the earth was made
– William Butler Yeats, Before The World Was Made, 1933
There is a popular social media celebrity who has emerged in the last few weeks named Bunny. Bunny is a year old Sheepadoodle who is learning to communicate using more than fifty buttons that each play a recording of a word when she touches the button with her paws. Words like “friend”,”mom” or “dad”, “ball”,”tug”, “outside”, “upstairs”, “cat”, “settle”, or separate buttons for Bunny’s friends Beacher and Selena who she asks about playing with specifically. There is a button for Bunny herself and there are even more abstract words like “who”, “this”, and a question mark sound to indicate she has a question.
It is remarkable to see and can be very cute and wonderous to see and hear how Bunny expresses her desires and emotions in remarkable simple sentences. But none of her videos is quite as shaking as when Bunny sees herself in a mirror, looks deeply at the reflection, and then asks a profound question: “Who this?”
Her mom/owner, Alexis Devine, is astounded and repeats the question to Bunny and then proceeds to answer the question for Bunny using words and the buttons to reinforce the answer.
Watch the interaction here.
This clip is remarkable to me and it brings up so many questions. Should a dog learn to communicate like this without humans making a similar effort to speak their language? Or are dogs and humans so strangely bound evolutionarily that this is just making manifest what is already there? If the consequence is to devastate the notion of self in a dog is it still worth it? It seems as if Bunny is existentially shaken by the news. I’m not going to adjudicate or weigh in on those questions but it brings up lots of them. But it takes a mirror to bring them up.
There is something about mirrors and the soul, seemingly, for humans. In the western, literate, industrial world we see mirrors and our image so much. They are so commonplace that the eye is inured to them. But there was a time when seeing your image would be rare or even unheard of, so questions of the image and the soul may seem quaint to us and cast in another time. It is too easy to forget how overwhelming this kind of self-seeing and discovery might be.
In the folklore of Europe, vampires don’t have a reflection in mirrors because they don’t have a soul which is premised on the notion that there is something about mirrors that shows something of the soul. The old tradition in Turkey is that mirrors are kept face down and the backs of them bejeweled so that the mirror part doesn’t either inspire vanity or capture souls of dead people. In 1805 Chief Cameahwait of the Shoshone spoke of mirrors and of receiving mirrors from the explorers Lewis and Clark, “They gave us things like solid water, which were sometimes as brilliant as the sun and which sometimes showed us our own faces. We thought them the Children of the Sun.”
The story of Narcissus from Greek mythology speaks to the capturing quality of a reflection. Though Narcissus did not know the image was himself we still have the term ‘narcissism’ to speak about this strange quality of the destructively inclined self-reflected soul. The mirror in Snow White or the superstition about breaking mirrors each point to something powerfully alethiometric in the mirrored glass. Even Olmec priests made and carried small mirrors to scry into the spirit world and to mimic the glinting eyes of jaguars who penetrated the night with their flashing gaze.
The events of the last week or so in Washington DC have been described in many quarters as a mirror for the times, or the nation, or a mirror of the Trump presidency, or American history. Or whiteness or any number of other options. But somehow a true glimpse of something that must now be looked at. At that this reflection can’t be looked away from. I’ve heard this mirror/reflection imagery evoked by commentators, reporters, bloggers, and in the busy branches of tweets.
I wouldn’t disagree per se but I’m not going to adjudicate or weigh in on those particulars but hearing the language got me wondering about mirrors. Though there is certainly something being shown, I’m sure. That said, mirrors require looking into them to activate whatever it is they do. But mirrors are also a conceit that we have all agreed to despite the fact that mirrors are not true reflections. They distort proportion. They invert side (left to right) and direction. Reliably so. I’m not taking a shot at the utility of them at all but mirrors don’t just create blindspots in rearview mirrors in cars. But we are so used to the way that they invoke us to see that we might not notice how our looking itself might be changed by them.
Now I have never seen one or looked into one but I trust they do exist: the True Mirror.
Mark Pendergast writes in his truly amazing book “Mirror, ɿɿoɿɿiM: A History of the Human Love Affair With Reflection” of an encounter with a True Mirror as “unnerving” when he waved with his right hand and the mirror reflection raised his right hand and his own face looked unfamiliar to himself. Pendergast reports of a psychiatrist in New York City who has a ‘True Mirror’ in his office and the psychiatrist reports that patients say things like “I look cross-eyed” or “This isn’t me. I can’t see the world seeing me like this.” But also that “patients lose their balance and physically stumble when looking into it.” John Walter, a maker of ‘True Mirrors’ offers a two month return policy because so many people “run away screaming” when looking at it regularly.
Pendergrast quotes anthropologist Catherine Walter speaking of the ‘True Mirror’ in this way: “Because we have mirrors everywhere, we get much of our sense of self from them. But the virtue of theTrue Mirror is that it lets us connect with our authentic selves by gazing deeply into our own eyes – right eye looking into left and vice versa.” Allegedly plenty come to love their reflection in this mirror with comments like “It’s very confusing, but I like it. I look more alive.” And “It’s like looking at someone who looks familiar, but who I’ve never seen before.”
Now there is a very old judicial tradition from Congo that was performed when somebody was suspected of some kind of crime that a wooden effigy of the person was carved and a mirror mounted in the chest or stomach of the sculpture. And then the accused person was forced to look at their reflection in the mirror while nails were driven into the sculpture. If they winced, he was judged guilty. In other words, his soul entered the statue. What allegedly made this ordeal so effective was that seeing your reflection and your image wasn’t common but that a kind of disquietingness arises with self-awareness as seen with the True Mirror. Perhaps this old tradition is another kind of True Mirror.
I don’t know if the events in Washington DC are a mirror for all those things the commentators mentioned. Some of them, doubtlessly, could be well tracked. But I wouldn’t claim that “we” are like some ancient Congolese person who now must flinch or not flinch in this moment either. That would be reductive.
It seems to me that the work of culture might be fulfilling the function of the True Mirror – it unnerves and scrambles and unfoots in a deeply faithful way that doesn’t distort but allows the individual to see and to be seen plainly. And perhaps be enlivened by that fidelity of the way it is.
Marshall McLuhan said “When faced with a totally new situation we tend always to attach ourselves to the objects, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.”
If that is so, may it be that we march with a True Mirror in hand that shows, but not obfuscates, the soul in the living world. And if this little reminder from your skincare maker that is trying to contend with the same helps…all the better.
Thanks so much for your steady support of my little venture and of wonderings like this about culture and the time we find ourselves in.
If it brings up any questions or comments – send them along. They will be happily received and responded to.
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