'Past the looking glass'
in my grandparents' home, on the passing of someone connected with the family , the mirrors were always covered. I don't know what arcane Druidic notion this harks back to: suffice it to say that notwithstanding St. Patrick and the shamrock, the "old religion" is alive and well in the Irish Consciousness still.
I had always been uneasy about mirrors, and I didn't know why. It is of course well known that they do not reflect vampires, and at first view this would seem to be a source of comfort. Lewis Carroll's Alice climbed through a mirror into an a-logical world. In "The Third Policeman" Flann O'Brien's De Selby reasoned that since light took a certain time to travel, it should be possible (by reflecting his image to infinity with two mirrors) to see himself as he was in the past; and discerned (far back, and in his own words) a youth "of singular beauty and nobility." ". . . Mirror on mirror mirrored" was Yeats's account of the world of appearances -- a trick with mirrors (in his poem "The Statues"). In "Being and Nothingness" Sartre brilliantly describes how, in a sense, human identity is constituted by the mirror of the gaze of others.
What is at about mirrors which, at night in a deserted house, can make one avoid looking at them? Has it to do with the suspicion of there being something else,m a parallel world where, for all we know, the rules are different?
Is there more to mirrors than there seems? I think so. It is not what they arem but what they do. For the real source of unease is precisely not the fear that they might constitute a reality in themselves, but the underlying knowledge that they do not:m that the reflection has no depth, substance, or reality in itself: that, where it seems to be, there is exactly nothing.m The unease which mirrors produce is due to nothing.
And I do not mean that the unease has no cause. The source of dread or angstm is, I believe, precisely the deep understanding of the nothingness of the world of appearance: and it is this nothingness that mirrors reveal.
. . . Because Yeats, I think, was right. The whole thing is a trick with mirrors -- from the moment when we are caught in the mirror of our parent's desire and gaze, through our lives in which, mirroring the gaze of others, we reflect them in our gaze. "Branches on branches on branches," I once said to myself -- "where is the tree?"
Any dread of mirrors is an existential dread: the dread behind relative existence, the fear which the relative world covers up, soothes, and almost (but not quite) annihilates: of chaos, aloneness, meaninglessness. It is as if, in a blurred, chaotic and out-of-focus world, we had attempted to construct an alternative reality. I remember once, as I sat in a bus in Greece where I knew not a word of the language, that I kept imagining I heard snatches of English around me: unable to come to terms with the meaninglessess (to me) of the sounds I heard, I was unconsciously attempting to formulate them into familiar phrases.
Mirrors tell us, not that their unreal world is real, but that our real world has not the substance we imagine it to have. With their clever production of an alternative reality, they remind us uncomfortably of something quite similar we all have done, we all have produced.
And perhaps also, by pointing to our predicament, our futile straying among the branches of relativity, mirrors may teach a salutary lesson: that the point is to see through the magician's trick, to discern ourselves not as we appear to others (and to ourselves in the mirror of others' eyes) but as immutably and immaculately as we really are and always -- beneath the blur and chaos -- have been.