Mirrors have interesting cultural connotations. They have been superstitiously seen as portals to another dimension through which spirits or demons can traverse, as status symbols for the wealthy to collect because silvering and glass-making technology was so difficult, rare, and new, and they have been tools for magicians to create entertaining illusions with to wow audiences by impossible acts of disappearance. However, perhaps the most philosophically fascinating of the way mirrors are imagined is as a device for seeing and discovering ourselves. We see this use of reflectivity—the throwing of an image off of a glossy surface—as early as the Greek myth of Narcissus. The reason that this story is so fascinating may be largely psychological—the tragedy of self-absorption—but the mirror itself is really the enigma in the tale. It is an object whose function is to merely show whatever is before it, to reflect it back to the viewer, but what is seen is really an inversion, and illusion.
Any animal that does not see the narrow part of the light spectrum as we see it might see something very different when looking into one of our mirrors, perhaps nothing at all; imagine how different it might look to something that sees in thermal imaging. Even more, consider how different we might imaging ourselves to look had we never been able to look at ourselves in a mirror. We would have to rely on other people’s descriptions, which are not always very detailed, accurate, or illustrative. Consider, for example, a time when after reading a book you see the film adaptation of the story and think to yourself how the actor playing one of the characters doesn’t look like what you imagined that character looked like. It is almost jarring—you formed your own portrait from the author’s description, which does not match the person playing that part. Had you never seen yourself in a mirror, you might have that kind of experience after a lifetime of descriptions that suddenly don’t correspond to your first glimpse at your own face. This is something that as we age often happens too: our internal image of self starts to slip away from the wrinkling and aging face we see in the mirror. The tool of this observation, though, is rarely considered itself.
To explore this object as a metaphor based on its denotative qualities, let us start with an example, a painting. Norman Rockwell’s piece, “Triple Self-Portrait” from 1960, offers a good subject for exploring the complex role this optic tool represents to self-awareness. (see Figure 1)
Figure 1. “Triple Self-Portrait” by Norman Rockwell,
from the Feb. 13, 1960 issue of The Saturday Evening Post.
In this painting, Rockwell depicts himself as a silly, somewhat clumsy artist whose work portrays him more ideally than he really is. This self-revealing aspect is most apparent in the juxtaposition between what the viewer sees in the mirror versus what the artist in the image paints. In the reflection, Rockwell has clouded glasses with a drooping pipe in his mouth, looking a bit goofy and somewhat aloof of what is going on around him as he focuses on his likeness. In the metal bucket beside him, a thin stream of smoke rises from what is likely the ash he tapped out of the pipe, but which is still smoldering and may at any moment burst into flames. To this potential conflict, he seems utterly unaware, suggesting a bit of carelessness on his part.
The painting has the subject of the image—the artist—with his back to the viewer. This is an unusual move for a self-portrait, which is apparent in the four other recognizable self-portraiture pinned to the canvas, work by Dürer, Rembrandt, Picasso, and van Gogh. Their painted selfies contain only their faces in the frame, which Rockwell’s has three of himself: the artist sitting with his back to us, the reflection of his face looking back from the mirror, and the large painting he is sketching out on the canvas using his reflection as a reference. His actual face cannot be seen; we see only a reflection and an illustration. A pencil sketch with five variations of his own face are also pinned to the canvas, but the artist in the painting—the subject—never turns his head to show his actual face.
The reason the mirror matters in this painting is that it is an active participant in the artistic process and also in the viewer’s experience. It is the closest we can get to seeing the artist’s most identifiable feature: his face. Even so, we know that it is only a bit of smoke and mirrors, to be a bit tongue in cheek about it (his glasses are even foggy). While the reflection shows the face of the man looking into the mirror, we cannot see his eyes; they are occluded, and thus the so-called windows to his soul are veiled from us. We never get to look at him eye to eye; only he ever gets to see what is there.
Perhaps this is meant to represent the conflict that a mirror creates for the observer. While it shows us what is before it as its properties are able to throw back, we can never really see ourselves as we are. We always see something different than what others who look at us see. Our image is always an inversion, the mirror image is flipped so that the right hand of the observer is the left of the reflection. That is how two dancers can create the illusion of a mirror by facing each other and moving in synchronization. It’s an entertaining effect, but one that reveals what a mirror does: it flips the picture.
All of this really goes to show just how fascinating this object really is, and how we are easily fooled by its appearance. People rarely look at or are able to see a mirror for what it looks like because the reflection is so affective, so convincing, so pervasive. A non-reflective surface we can look at and remark on its texture, color, shape, size, and so on, but a mirror, we only ever see what it throws back at us. Its properties make it an active magician—an object that forever hides in plain sight. It is something that we appreciate for what it does rather than what it is, and something that we rarely attempt to engage beyond its surface appearance. It reveals our sensory limitations, how easily the mind is tricked into looking at itself, and just how shallow our observations really are. In some ways, then, the mirror may be argued to be the least understood and most ignored of objects: we never look on it for itself, but only to find ourselves, and never give it credit for its work but often blame it for not showing us what we want to see. It is loved for the same reason it is hated—because we used it only to find ourselves. Rockwell, too, abused his mirror, enslaving it to his art but never giving it an image of its own. Then again, what artist can make a mirror a subject without its reflection getting in the way?