#4 – Février / February 2022
The mirror, the fire
Around 158 AD, the Latin poet Apuleius was accused of practising magic to win over, marry and obtain the substantial inheritance of the widow Pudentilla. One of the pieces of evidence presented by his detractors was the presence of a mirror in his house. The writer defended himself with every rhetorical device at a tribunal, responding to his detractors by stating that this was the fundamental duty of a philosopher and reminding them that Socrates, ‘the wisest of men’, used the mirror as an ‘instrument of moral discipline’. The mirror, Apuleius explained, is useful for everyone: those who are proud of their appearance should look at themselves and ensure that that they do not dishonour the splendour of their bodies with the darkness of their hearts; those who do not consider themselves to be beautiful, should use it to try to overcome their apparent ugliness with the glory of their virtue.
To mirror oneself, in other words, is to know oneself. The Socratic requirement for life to be reflected and examined takes the form of a mirror. It is the proposed confrontation with the stranger who regards us. Ultimately, alterity is already at the heart of identity – the mirror split is not a passing childhood phase: the desire for recognition and the reconstruction of our unity are a permanent project. In this process of identification, Socrates taught Alcibiades that the best mirror is the eye of one’s interlocutor. An eye seeks out another eye, the mind seeks out the mind. A desire for recognition that, in Hegelian terms, we can translate as follows: a Self that is a We. The community of those who see and are seen.
In front of the mirror, in the process of self-knowledge, we must maintain a healthy distrust: mirrors deceive. One should not be satisfied with the apparent immediate reflection, images in the mirror can and must change. As the Stoics taught and practised, ‘self-care’ demands constant spiritual exercises, constant attention and vigilance: ways of knowing oneself, of knowing what depends or not on one, of rising above oneself and becoming universal. The mirror as an instrument of virtue.
As painted by Giotto, Prudence looks at herself in the mirror: she grasps a convex mirror with her left hand while holding a writing instrument or compass in her right. She thus seems to be reflected twice over: in the mirror and in what she writes/draws/measures. Double mediation. Her face is also a double, the legacy of Janus: an elderly face looks towards the past, a young face is turned to the future. Ultimately, even the small mirror allows her to not only look at herself but also to see what is behind and around her. Prudence is the humble virtue of one who knows how to honestly assess his or her abilities and limits, but also to understand the past, the context, the panorama of possibilities, in order to act wisely, with discernment and with foresight. In other allegorical representations, in addition to the always present mirror, Prudence holds a serpent instead of the writing instrument or compass, evoking the Evangelical reference: ‘be wise as serpents and harmless as doves’.
The mirror, like all symbols, is a ‘coincidence of opposites’. An ambiguous place where there is a meeting between interior and exterior, identity and difference, illusion and truth, fascination and terror. It can teach virtue, yet also foster vanity – and here the serpent can be another…
In 1651 Father António Vieira shocked his audience of nuns at the convent of Odivelas when he stated: ‘the devil (…) enters religious cloisters, passes through corridors and dormitories, and being a thief and needing no false key, enters the cells no matter how tightly shut they are and lives calmly within them. Indeed, ladies, many of you have left him in your cell and will find him there when you return’. Frightened, the nuns would not have immediately understood that Vieira was talking about a ‘silent devil’ who subtly seduces and bewitches: ‘God created no two things more alike and similar than the devil and the mirror. The devil was first angel and then devil; the mirror was first an instrument of self knowledge and then of self love, which is the root of all vices.’ Vieira’s rhetoric becomes so inflamed that he says to them that if, in Eden, the serpent had promised Eve ‘You will be like God – And the mirror had said to her: You will see in me your beauty – that Eve would have taken the side and the offer of the mirror and not the promise of the serpent.’
Deception and disillusion. As a model baroque preacher, Vieira uses the motif of the mirror to paint a vanitas: ‘What is beauty but a well dressed skull?’. Vanity of vanities. What better mirror for man than an open grave, a reflection of his finitude, of his irredeemably temporal nature. To find true beauty, another mirror is needed: if we were made in the image of God, it is that face of the ‘man within’ that we should seek. For this, there is the mirror of his thoughts, words and works. ‘A mirror in three parts’. These mirrors lead through fire, they are ordeals.
In 1543, the poet Claudio Tolomei wrote to the painter Sebastiano del Piombo: ‘You know how many times you have said to me you wanted to paint my portrait. When, as I wish, it is finished, I will have acquired a mirror, which I shall call a divine mirror, because in it I will see you and me together. You, because I shall see, in my image, your singular skill and your marvellous talents; me, because I shall see my image vividly expressed in your art, which will encourage me constantly to purge my soul of its many defects… It will set my soul alight with the desire for honour and glory.’ Tolomei undoubtedly knew the story of Archimedes destroying an enemy fleet in a Sicilian port by making mirrors that he used to direct the rays of the sun and set fire to the ships. The mirror is a weapon. And the work of art – not only a portrait – can be an incendiary mirror.
In addition to its capacity to mirror the viewer, painting was also (and from earlier times) regarded as a mirror of the world. Leon Battista Alberti proposed that Narcissus was the first painter: ‘What is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of the pool?’. Alberti’s proposal not only examines painting but takes us to the heart of reflection upon the image: its mode of existence and the relationship we establish with it. Narcissus’s desire (which we should not confuse with Narcissism, since according to the myth he did not know that he was in love with himself) is destructive because it does not comprehend separation: the image is not the object, nor is it an object. It is not an idol, stated Byzantine theologians, releasing the icon from this anathema and teaching that is an empty centre, an absence, a separation.
The image on the reflected surface is an ex-tasis. Something out of place, displaced from itself. As John Peckham recognised in the eighteenth century, the image is the appearance of an object extra locum suum. Outside its own place. Separated. While on the one hand this might make it, ontologically speaking, dependent on something else – in a form of weak existence – on the other hand, the split also gives it an autonomy. The autonomous life of the image, which reaches its apogee, according to Guy Debord, in our ‘society of the spectacle’, the age of ‘separation perfected’: ‘The concrete life of everyone has been degraded into a speculative universe’. George Berkeley appears to have triumphed, in media theory and practice, over his critics: esse est percipi (aut percipere), to be is to be perceived (or to perceive). To be, today, it is necessary to be continually seen (or to see). Contemporary iconocracy, where it is fundamental to seem and to appear. Seeing and existing appear to be interchangeable.
How can one overcome speculative alienation, without falling into narcissistic fusion? How can we escape both ‘separation perfected’ and our presumed transparency to ourselves? How can a work reflect?
We need a relationship with the image (and the work of art) that respects separation but that does not leave viewers outside themselves. It is necessary to come out of oneself, in a displacement specific to the viewer, in order to return to oneself, who is now another. We need diversions, as Paul Ricoeur explains: ‘Contrary to the tradition of the Cogito and the subject’s claim to know itself directly through immediate intuition, one has to say that we only understand ourselves through the long detour of the signs of humanity expressed in the works of culture’. This diversion through cultural mediations, a game of mirrors, is our possibility of indirect access to the world and to the self, discovering previously unknown possibilities in ourselves. The work of art is, in this sense, a mirror-mediation that produces and conveys a split: a distance between the artist and the work, between the work and the viewer, between the viewer and the world that the work opens up, between the self and oneself. Mediations should take on the positive role of the distancing that they introduce. We must look at mediations face on and consider what they are.
Throughout the twentieth century, many artists focused their attention directly on the medium. Many of them sought to ‘embrace the surface’ and not what the surface reflects, in a self-reflective practice already evident during the Baroque period that gives rise to a metalanguage: the painting within the painting, questioning what it is and what it can do. If it is a mirror, how then can the mirror be painted? This is more difficult than painting what the mirror reflects. It involves a restraint and renunciation as described by Clarice Lispector in ‘Água Viva’: it must not be tarnished by the personal touch, one must ‘abstain from oneself’. This erasing or renouncing of oneself, to enable the medium itself to be revealed as a medium, is very close to death.
Let’s not forget Paul’s sceptical warning to the Corinthians, contradicting Western ocularcentrism: Now ‘we see through a glass, darkly’ – and mirrors were small, dim and dark. We see in a confused and imperfect way. Yet we cannot escape this condition: the way we are able to see the world, and ourselves, is through mediations. Plural, divergent, deforming, returning: we live in a speculative labyrinth. And it is in that garden that we play out our lives.