The World in the Mirror: Quirks and Perks

How the World in the Mirror appears in fiction and the surrealist story of Gisèle Prassinos.
Narcissus by Caravaggio (1599)


Mirrors enlarge spaces, they double and reflect, and at night they reveal eerie shadows standing behind you. Mirrors achieve what paintings have been struggling to achieve since the discovery of perspective: their images are a planar phenomenon that revels in realistic depth.

There ought to be something more to the silvery surfaces than physics; they ought to be a gateway to another world.

Our imagination obliges.

Narcissus dies in love with his image, unable to reach it, unable to hold it—the cost of hubris.

Snow White imbues Mirror, Mirror with the power of taking an instantaneous beauty census and reporting it, but no cross-over occurs.

Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass (1871), however, goes all the way and sends Alice into the Looking-glass House. Moments before she steps through, she stands on the mantlepiece in front of the huge wall-mirror gazing inside:

You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our drawing-room wide open: and it’s very like our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond.

A question indeed: is the World of the Mirror the same beyond the bits you can see? Which has a similar paradoxical feeling to it like, Does a falling tree make a sound if there’s no one around to hear it, or, What is the sound of one hand clapping? 

It’s tantalising.

Last week I explored Borges’s Bestiary: The Book of Imaginary Beings (1957) and I mentioned that he included the myth of the so-called Fauna of Mirrors. Back in the times of the legendary Yellow Emperor whole armies clashed through the looking glass:

In those days the world of mirrors and the world of men were not, as they are now, cut off from each other. They were, besides, quite different; neither beings nor colours nor shapes were the same. Both kingdoms, the specular and the human, lived in harmony; you could come and go through mirrors. One night the mirror people invaded the earth. Their power was great, but at the end of bloody warfare the magic arts of the Yellow Emperor prevailed. He repulsed the invaders, imprisoned them in their mirrors, and forced on them the task of repeating, as though in a kind of dream, all the actions of men. He stripped them of their power and off their forms and reduced them to mere slavish reflections. Nonetheless, a day will come when the magic spell will be shaken off.

The boundaries of sleep often inspire us to imagine the unimaginable. But as we see in the examples above, mirrors can spur the waking mind to reach beyond the ordinary. Indeed, surrealism—this week’s topicaims to reflect the deepest, most disordered creative processes of our minds by resorting to free association and automatic writing.

In The Unnatural Act, I quote from a rather sensible collection of surrealist stories by Leonora Carrington. Today, I’d like to quote the work of another, less well-known surrealist, Gisèle Prassinos, and in particular from her collection The Arthritic Grasshopper 1934–1944

Unlike Carrington’s stories, I found about half of Prassions’s collection almost too bizarre to read (she wrote these stories between the ages of fourteen and twenty-four, so perhaps it is due to her youth). However, the short story I give in the Quote below—a mere 184 words—is one of the more intelligible. It has to do with the World in the Mirror. I could almost call it a surrealist take on the Yellow Emperor myth.

(Take your time reading it.)
Candle Mirror by Escher (1934)



A troop of soldiers passing by looked in a mirror. They saw a big whitewood bed, and behind it an embroidered curtain holding up rows of glass corks. The bed was covered in a fur-trimmed coat riddled with holes, woven from intertwined feathers. The whole thing floated slowly by on a white sea populated by merchants.

One of the soldiers left the rest and stationed himself in front of the swaying mirror. He took a silk pompom from his hat and watched it open up like a flower whose petals evaporated in the light. Once all of the petals had disappeared, the stem transformed into an enormous jug full of wine that spilled onto the mirror and added to the volume of the sea. The big bed was immediately lifted up and thrown to the side, pushed by undulating arms covered in sinewy calluses that followed the movements of the water. And so the big bed went off, pulling along the soldier, who gestured to his friends to accompany him. Soon they were all following along, and the mirror reflected a different image.

(Translated from the French by Henry Vale and Bonnie Ruberg)

A fantastic run through the wildest dream, right?

Surrealism is like that: specular and selcouth, and something to read when you’re in a verbal rut. It’ll help you form new associations, I promise, faster than you can say Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

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

36 thoughts on “The World in the Mirror: Quirks and Perks”

    1. Btw, I recently came across a lovely mirror quote (I hunt them) from one of my favourite authors, John Banville, in Ghosts. Thought you too might appreciate it:

      “Worlds within worlds. They bleed into each other. I am at once here and there, then and now, as if by magic. I think of the stillness that lives in the depths of mirrors. It is not our world that is reflected there. It is another place entirely, another universe, cunningly made to mimic ours. Anything is possible there; even the dead may ocme back to life. Flaws develop in the glass, patches of silvering fall away and reveal the inhabitants of that parallel, inverted world going about their lives all unawares. And sometimes the glass turns to air and they step through it without a wound and walk into my world.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Have you read any Banville before? His writing is so lyrical in places it’s a wonder he’s not writing poetry in prose. Ghosts is the (loosely) second book of a trilogy, and whilst it has an innovative approach to narrative POV shifts that might be interesting in itself, I think you’d miss quite lot if you didn’t read the first one: The Book of Evidence. Now that book is quite something, a murderer confesses, a bit like Camus’ Stranger or Ernesto Sábato’s Tunnel, though again done completely à la Banville.

        (If you’re curious and haven’t read the Tunnel that’s one I enjoyed too. The emotional build up towards a paradoxical love, completely opposite to Camus’:

        Also, if you’d like another taster of Banville, and I’ve done quite a few posts on him, this might be something you like because it focuses on the artistic centrepiece of the novel:

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Haha, I like the expression “post tennis”! Did you put the link to your comment elsewhere or did you mean “here”, as in “here in this comment where I forgot to paste it”?

        Let me know where to find it, and feel free to attach any other to keep the “comment ping-pong” going (alternative expression? Or wait, is this called “modern online dialogue”?). Speaking of which:

        …a bit of proof I do enjoy a good back-and-forth.


      3. Though, for anything to count, it must exist in the first place! How often do you actually worry about something you’ve said/done, rather than something you didn’t? (Rhetorical or not.) It’s one of those questions where an extended answer can be quite revealing.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Is that actually true? And if so, how do you cope with it?

        I find ambiguity to be a matter of context. It is hard for a human mind to maintain ambiguity given a comprehensive enough context (of self or other). Usually there is not enough context about the “other” so ambiguity is rife between individuals—it is easy to interpret something as a smokescreen or to set up one yourself. (I’m not implying it has to be malicious. It’s human nature etc.)

        But self before self? Of course, humans are supreme self-manipulators. Though, if the self-manipulation is done well, there should be no ambiguity because the perceived context is sufficient and the deception is complete. If the self-manipulation fails even partially, then ambiguity persists but so does the nagging idea that context is lacking. This leads to an uncomfortable position which, again, I think, needs to be resolved somehow. Resolutions include everything from “not thinking about it” (which is tenable only under specific circumstances) to acceptance of paradox (which I would like to see a good discussion of), to mental instability and other extremes.

        There is at least one other resolution (my preferred).

        What’s your take?

        Liked by 2 people

      5. You have summed up the tensions inherent in ambiguity perfectly. I long to escape irony for simplicity and sincerity only to find such a state is unsustainable. Rather like solitude, I long for an uncontaminated solitude, yet when it is achieved I long for it to stop immediately.

        Liked by 2 people

      6. Yes it has a great opening line if I remember. Interesting point but subject to abuse I think, the struggling person trails and tribulations are noble is good propaganda for the ruling classes.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Hm, still haven’t actually finished Camus’s book, but I think that’s a highly biased interpretation… (What I sent you was a summary of his position. The first line of the book is actually way more societally sensitive and incisive: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” )

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Wow! I was completely blown away by the pictures….learning about surrealism in my creative writing class….so was looking for surrealists in wordpress…I am glad I stumbled upon your page

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The last quote was a typical dream where the actions and items move and change without logic. Perhaps all those strange stories about mirrors are just the authors try to come to to terms with last night’s puzzling dream.

    Liked by 1 person

Questions? Comments? Reading recommendations? Let me know.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: