On Reflection

Mirror art which says "Are You Really Here"
Mirror artwork by Jeppe Hein, photo at curator.com

One fun gift I received for Christmas was a book for making short daily bullet point lists, such as “Things to Do on my Next Day Off,” “People I Miss,” or “Advice for my Future Self.” Like a blog post prompt, it lets you do a little self-reflection and riff on the stream of consciousness that ensues. There’s space for three years’ worth of thoughts, so it will be fun to look back on what you were thinking–not to mention that you don’t have stick to three years. Yet, after a few days entering highlights and fun memories from 2019, I was taken aback by the suggested entry for December 30:

Some Things to Say in the Mirror Today:

Ugh! To be honest, this is a detestable thought–looking in a mirror! That seems like a recipe for self-criticism of disastrous portions. I immediately resisted the thought with every fiber of my being. I have never liked looking in mirrors, considering it a necessary requirement of life, rather than an enjoyable pastime. Rather like laundering one’s undergarments, looking in a mirror is a needful chore, not one to get excited or thoughtful about. Does anyone like looking in mirrors?

Bronze Egyptian hand mirror
Mirror from the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, @1700 BC. Metmuseum.org.

Ancient Mirrors, Ancient Self-Absorption

Apparently, the Mespotomians did, or at least they had mirrors, made from polished obsidian and bronze dating roughly back to 4-6000 BC. Found in Turkey, Egypt, and even Central and South America from millennia ago, mirrors seem nearly as old an invention as the boat. Greek urns and Roman busts depict looking in mirrors, so that preparing one’s self to go out into the world seems nearly as ancient as writing or collecting taxes.

It’s not just women looking in the mirrors, either. One well-known Greek myth is of Narcissus, who fell in love staring at his own image in a pool of water. Actually, there’s a little more to the story. Echo, a mountain nymph, fell in love with Narcissus and started stalking him. He turned to ask, “Who’s there?” but all she had the courage to do was repeat, “Who’s there?” Eventually, she revealed herself to him, but he rejected her. Heartbroken, she withered away until all that was left was her voice. Nemesis, goddess of revenge, devised the mirror/water punishment for Narcissus’ cruelty. But did he know it was himself or think it was another?

Carvaggio painting of Narcissus looking in water
Narcissus, by Caravaggio, from Wikipedia

The Roman poet Ovid suggested that Narcissus didn’t recognize himself, and eventually burned from the inside out with passion for this creature he could never reach. In contrast, another Ovid contemporary named Conon claimed that it was a young gentleman, Ameinias, who was in love with Narcissus and committed suicide at the beautiful youth’s doorstep when the love was not returned. Conon’s story was that the revenge on Narcissus was for him to fall in love with himself specifically, and that he wasted away knowing he could never have the object of his desire. Thus, the ancients were known to use mirrors and to recognize the dangers of them.

Yet Socrates, at least according to biographer Diogenes, thought the mirror beneficial:

He thought it proper for the young to look constantly in the mirror, so that if they had beauty they might prove themselves worthy of it, and if they were ugly, that they might conceal their ugliness by their accomplishments.

from The Life of Socrates by Diogenes Laertius, Bartleby.com

Socrates was fond of telling young people (men) what to do, but I suspect he didn’t spent all that much time looking in the mirror himself. Such advice also doesn’t seem like a prescription likely to create the intended result. A beautiful youth looking in the mirror seems likely to become even more vain rather than hoping to “prove themselves worthy.” As for ugly youths, well, isn’t that fairly subjective anyway? And what about the rest of us who, I would argue, are suspended between beauty and ugliness, looking simply like ordinary expressions of ancestric genetic alchemy. The mirror’s purpose ought to be for us to look the like the best version of ourselves, working with what our parents gifted to us and with whatever face creams and hair stylists we can afford.

Escher painting of hand holding mirror reflecting artist
Magic Mirror by M.C. Escher, photo at Wikipedia

Into the Looking Glass

While the earliest of mirrors were polished stone or bronze, the most reflective materials of their time, later mirrors were glass. Glass as a surface was smoother and more free of crystal boundaries, which created reflections less likely to blur or hard to scratch. However, glass itself isn’t reflective, which led scientists in the first and second centuries to coat the glass with metal. Flat glass was especially hard to produce, thus the earliest glass mirrors were created from blown glass bubbles where a circular section was then cut off. Small and concave or convex, such mirrors were highly prized, even though crude. It was said that the 17th century Countess de Fiesque once traded an entire wheat farm for a mirror.

During the Renaissance, the improvements in glass blowing in Venice were highly sought, and experiments in alchemy would have tested mixtures of silver, tin, and mercury to use for coating. Justus von Leibig, a German chemist, is credited in 1835 with creating the silvered-glass mirror with its coating of silver nitrate, a that led to cheap and wide mass manufacture. That brought mirrors into ordinary households. After all, those Grecian urns and statues didn’t depict washerwomen or farmer’s wives looking in mirrors.

Manet painting woman looking in mirror
Before the Mirror, by Manet, photo at Guggenheim.com.

That means mirrors weren’t broadly available until relatively recently in our history, after the Declaration of Independence and only slightly before the ballcock, which revolutionized the flush toilet. Bathrooms must have changed radically, transforming entirely within the 19th century. Is that why we in the 21st century have taken to this piece of technology with such heart? Mirrors are everywhere now and even regular photos have started to be usurped by selfies. As much as I claim to prefer not to spend much time looking, I will admit to having eight mirrors in my house, not quite one in every room but almost.

All I can do now is cover the mirrors.

Artist Helene Aylon

Things to Say In the Mirror

I would much prefer to write about history or technology than about things I ought to say when looking in the mirror. Notice how far I got in this post (1000 words) without plunging into the subject at hand. But now is the time for full confession. My first impulse of what to say was “Those cowlicks are so persistent!” I have so little hair–by choice–you would think what little there is would be cowering in fear, browbeaten into behaving better else it will be cut off. I always worry that I will look like Alfalfa and not know it.

My second impulse was a reminder that the holidays are over, and it’s time to trade all the chocolate for vegetables and rice. I’ll refrain from the exact wording, which even for my Enlarged SuperEgo Inner Schoolmarm was a bit harsh. This is really the problem I have with mirrors. They dump a bucket of cold water on you just when you’re having the most fun. Mirrors are the enemies of festivities.

Which leads to my next entry on the list, “Don’t have anything better to do with your time than look in a mirror?” The first time I read this suggested list, two days ago, I found myself immediately resenting whatever Younger Generation person thought this was a good idea. I’m still a child of the Protestant Ethic. There’s nothing like hard work to manifest a little happy. But folks who came after created all sorts of systems of belief that you can self-actualize by repeating positive thoughts to yourself. You can manifest happiness, allegedly, by telling yourself to be happy. Look in the mirror and tell yourself you are a good person and you will be.

Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.

Kahlil Gibran

I call BS on this mirror manifestation stuff. Not on the positivity part; I completely agree that your happiness is a function of perspective. If you believe the world and you are rotten, then you will feel rotten. If you believe the world is a miracle and that horrible things are challenges to make you stronger or lessons to teach you that you should focus on what you should control, then life is a miracle. But looking in the mirror tends to shatter my fantasies of inner strength. I never liked the way I look, and that’s not getting any better over time, just droopier.

Yet, there is one last bullet point I put on my list because I ought to give myself credit. Thus, maybe this was a good exercise, whether invented by Millenni– er Younger People or not. Next to my reminders to acquire more hair gel, to stick to my diet resolutions, and to be more productive, I did add: You are a writer.

Apparently, I am.

Mirror art "You Are Already Everything You Want to Be"
More mirror artwork by Jeppe Hein, at curator.com.

Kajmeister’s Things to Say in the Mirror Today:
a. Those cowlicks are persistent!
b. Eat less. A lot less.
c. Don’t you have anything better to do with your time than look at yourself?
d. You are a writer.

One Reply to “On Reflection”

  1. I had a therapist who suggested that I’d learned very early on to make myself invisible. She suggested I put mirrors up in my home. Thus began a years-long quest for quirky and distinguished-looking mirrors. Which was fun, but I still never look in them.

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