In the Eye of the Guinea Pig
Parmigianino’s Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror


It’s an old expression.

Before-Christ old.

Lots of people have said it.

Shakespeare has said it: Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye (Love’s Labour’s Lost).

You probably know it as beauty is in the eye of the beholder. 

I know it as T-shirt slogan and the vision of the credits from the James Bond film, GoldenEye, with Tina Turner singing the soundtrack in the background (speaking of farfetched memory and meaning overlay).

In More Mileage for Your Metaphorical MoneyI gave a few clichés a new polish. Today, I look at Anne Carson‘s version of what is to be found in the eye of the beholder; her Quote isn’t as snazzy, but in some grotesque way it is memorable. Towards the end of Autobiography of Red the protagonist, Geyron, attends a meal where guinea pigs are served … as food. He does not eat the poor cooked beast on his plate (it’s a she, we’re told). Geyron and his friends get up to leave.

Quote: In the cooling left eye of the guinea pig / they all stand reflected / pulling out their chairs and shaking hands. The eye empties.

What makes the Quote quiver?

Unadorned, cinematic detail.
Van Eyck’s 1434 Arnolfini Portrait


It doesn’t get more visual than the Quote. (Pun intended.) Think: this is the kind of macabre detail a camera would focus on. Dead guinea pig, dead eye, the creepy factor—boom!—movement of the living world reflected in the cold gaze of vermin. Goosebumps galore.

But would the Quote have worked two hundred years ago? How about five hundred years ago? More pertinently, did anyone think to write about the reflection of a scene in such a small (erstwhile alive) convex mirror?

We pay a lot of attention to our primary light-gathering medium: the eyes are mirrors of the soul, we look into them, they can twinkle and glaze over. But perhaps the most relevant linguistic evidence for today’s post is that we call the dark circular opening in our iris a pupil, from the diminutive form of the Latin word pupa, meaning doll; it is so named because we see a tiny version of ourselves and the world reflected in the curve of the eye.

This still doesn’t mean that anybody thought of describing whole reflected miniature scenes, or that such descriptions would have been of interest or meaning in the times before cinema. If you know of literary examples, I’d be curious to hear them. In the world of painting, there certainly existed skilled artistic precedent as early as the fifteenth century. For example, Van Eyck’s 1434 Arnolfini Portrait (above), which depicts a convex mirror at the back. But that was a large mirror, not a small eye.

There’s Parmigianino’s 1524 Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror (pictured up top), and of course a whole host of others later.

What is at the core of the Quote?

No figures of speech. Proof that you need none to write a striking quote.

Hand with Reflecting Sphere by M. C. Escher. Lithograph, 1935.
Hand with Reflecting Sphere by M. C. Escher. Lithograph, 1935.


Addendum: other body parts

The (human) body is a chief source of metaphors and similes. Today’s Quote used eye in a plain, unadorned fashion, but what of the other extreme, where a body part is used to humanise an inanimate object? I do not mean full-blown personification, as when Death is a caped skeleton with a scythe. I mean what of walls with ears and laws with long arms? (I refer to more inventive examples.)

Here is a curated list of my favourite ribs, fists and fingers taken from various places in Carson’s book.

  • New moon floating white as a rib at the edge of the sky.
  • Giant ribs of rain shifted / open on a flash of light and cracked together again, making the kitchen clock / bump crazily.
  • The car was enclosed in a dense fist of fog.
  • The town is held in a ring / of bare sand rock mountains / but to the north rises one sudden angular fist of total snow.
  • Wrongness came like a lone finger / chopping through the room and he ducked.

Carson’s is a novel in verse, which you might say is as close to prose as poetry can get while remaining poetry. On the other hand, John Banville‘s lyrical prose is probably as close to poetry as prose can get while remaining prose. Here’s his take on fistful in a fairly similar context to some of the above.

A fistful of rain swept against the glass with a muffled clatter.

Could you tell one from the other? Sure, the context and the typographical arrangement may be different, but on a local level the boundary between poetry and prose is porous indeed. Like skin, shall we say?


Reading & Viewing Recommendations

  1.  Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse, Anne Carson.
  2. Other QQ posts featuring quotes from Anne Carson.
  3. Depending on your age and inclination, you may like to indulge in a jaunt down memory lane:

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of

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