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?
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 topic—aims 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.)
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.