AN ESSAY BY MARA FISHER
Since the first human caught a glimpse of their own image reflected back toward them, we’ve been transfixed. The mirror reveals an echo of our bodily self in an exchange where we are both subject and object, witness and victim, original and replica. Confronted with a realistic picture of our physical forms, we’ve sought for generations to understand and reconcile the relationship between our images and our identities.
EVEN TODAY, REFLECTIVE SURFACES ARE THOUGHT BY SOME TO BE GATEWAYS TO THE WORLD OF THE DEAD, AND CHANNEL TO THE AFTERLIFE.
Among its more widely known cautionary tales, Greek mythology tells the story of Narcissus, a youth adored by all around him for his beauty, who discovers and becomes beguiled by his own reflection, which leads him to his swift demise. In medieval Europe, the mirror was an object to be feared — for preachers, it was an instrument of the devil that triggered a trance state for those that gazed upon it, tempting them with the sins of imitation and lust. Even today, reflective surfaces are thought by some to be gateways to the world of the dead, and channel to the afterlife.
In an article inspired by Lacan’s essay on the mirror stage, 20th century English psychoanalyst D.W. Winnocott expresses that the first mirror is the mother’s gaze — it is the earliest affirmation of existence and the primal inception of identity. The idea takes on multiple vantage points in Mary Cassat’s 1905 painting, Woman With A Sunflower, which frames a woman and a young girl in an intimate portrait where the two mirror to each other a past and future identity. Using double mirrors, Cassat illustrates the notion of feminine identity captured in two stages.
In Orson Welles’ 1947 film noir The Lady From Shanghai, a sailor named Michael O’Hara meets Elsa, the wife of criminal defense attorney Arthur Bannister. In the climax of the film, which takes place in a dizzying carnival hall of mirrors, Elsa makes one last appeal to O’Hara to run away with her after he realizes her role in orchestrating a murder plot. Elsa and her many mirrored reflections are then confronted by her husband, Arthur. As Arthur approaches her, accusing her of deception, the mirrored images of the couple overlap one another and Bannister observes, “Killing you is killing myself. It’s the same thing.” The pair then begin firing — neither is sure of which image is the real opponent, but they eventually mortally wound one another. The prism of mirrors in this scene alludes to the double-dealing of Elsa just as the film’s plot has at various points obscured and revealed the true motivations of each character.
Jean Cocteau’s 1950 Orpheus explores the mirror as a portal to the other side — in this case, as a gateway into the underworld where the poet Orpheus must bring his wife, Eurydice, back from an afterlife that she has been prematurely taken to. Cocteau’s rendition enchants with its use of ingenious special effects — the director filmed hands being plunged into pools of water to create the convincing effect of Orpheus passing through the mirror, and there are several instances in which footage is played in reverse to illustrate the inverted physics of the underworld.
“MIRRORS ARE THE DOORS THROUGH WHICH DEATH COMES AND GOES. LOOK AT YOURSELF IN A MIRROR ALL YOUR LIFE AND YOU’LL SEE DEATH AT WORK.”
Cocteau’s retelling of the famous Greek myth is set in modern-day Paris and begins in a bustling café where the famous poet Orpheus meets a princess he later learns is “his Death.” Orpheus eventually falls in love with this personification of his shade, and like Narcissus, his infatuation with this mirror image leads him through the liquid surface of the threshold to the underworld, and thereby to his potential downfall. Before the poet passes into the mirror, the angel Heurtebise, imparts him with the sagely analysis, "I’ll give you the secret of secrets: Mirrors are the doors through which Death comes and goes. Look at yourself in a mirror all your life and you’ll see Death at work.”
In film and art, the mirror may symbolize duality, human imagination or consciousness, the impermanence of physical beauty or the inevitability of death. Though mirrors reflect the formal realities of the visible world, they tempt us with a deceptive promise of revealing our true spirits. In his book Camera Lucida, French theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes laments that a photograph can never capture his profound “self,” writing, “’Myself’ never coincides with my image; for it is the image which is heavy, motionless, stubborn (which is why society sustains it), and “myself” which is light, divided, dispersed.” Photographs, like film or painting, produce a flattened sliver of identity. Through paint and canvas or light and sound, these mediums capture a moment excerpted from a million moments, a laminated picture that can be rewatched or revisited countless times. Similarly, the smooth, featureless faces of mirrors perfectly encapsulate the tension between art and life — they are the voids that we fill momentarily; a glimmer of physicality with no true semblance of the soul.