Mirror, mirror on the wall:How did you get there?

For centuries before the widespread availability of silver-backed, glass-fronted mirrors, the average person seldom got to see his or her own face. Indeed, as Sabine Melchior-Bonnet relates in her history of the mirror, many cultures have folk tales in which a person seeing his image in a mirror for the first time mistakenly believes he's being approached by a stranger.

Generally used as aids to grooming, mirrors have also been used for divination: Snow White's wicked stepmother consults her "Mirror, mirror on the wall." Shakespeare's Hamlet forces his errant mother to confront her wrongdoing by holding a mirror up to her face. But in some cases, instead of providing a reality check, mirrors open up a liminal space that helps deflect harsh reality: Perseus is able to withstand the sight of the monstrous Medusa only because he has the wit to look at her reflection in his polished shield. Tennyson's sheltered "Lady of Shalott" beholds the world only through a mirror, and when she breaks the spell by gazing directly out of her window, she is doomed. And sometimes, as in the case of Lewis Carroll's Alice, the mirror seems to hold not a reflection, but a mysterious realm of fantasy.

Reality and fantasy, technology and symbolism: There are two sides to the history of the mirror, and Melchior-Bonnet's study covers both. First, she tells the story of how mirrors are actually made, and the long process of trial and error that transformed them from expensive luxuries into common household items. As late as the end of the 17th century, a mirror could cost a small fortune, as this comment by a French countess illustrates: "I had a nasty piece of land that brought in nothing but wheat; I sold it and in return I got this beautiful mirror. Did I not work wonders - some wheat for this beautiful mirror?"

The art of glass-blowing yielded glass that was curved, and for centuries, it was difficult to produce glass that was clear. "Early glass," Melchior-Bonnet informs us, "gave off a blue-green hue that diminished its transparency. Attempts at decoloration ... resulted in glass of a dirty yellow or gray color." Until it became possible to produce flat sheets of clear glass, and to spread hot metal onto them without causing them to break, it was impossible to make a glass mirror larger than a saucer.

The story of how this technology developed is a dramatic one, filled with danger, threats, and spies. France's Louis XIV had an insatiable appetite for mirrors. Venetian mirrors were unsurpassed in quality, and Venice guarded its manufacturing secrets with a zeal worthy of the Manhattan project. A Venetian artisan who left Venice to ply his craft elsewhere might find the family he left behind imprisoned as hostages, and, according to Venetian law, "If he stubbornly persist[ed] on remaining in the foreign country, an emissary [would] be sent to kill him." Despite such threats, some Venetian artisans did leave home for lucrative work elsewhere. After countless false starts, the French company at Saint-Gobain discovered how to manufacture large quantities of mirrors of all sizes. Prices dropped. By about 1750, "two-thirds of the Parisian populace had a mirror." Melchior-Bonnet's accounts of technological processes lack crispness, but her glimpses of social history are aptly chosen.

In the second two-thirds of her study, Melchior-Bonnet looks at the complex cultural significance of mirrors in life, art, and literature, from the soul-searching of medieval spirituality, to the studied artifice of the Baudelairean dandy. The first looks beneath the surface for an invisible reality, the latter celebrates the realm of appearances as the only reality. This is rich terrain, and Melchior-Bonnet explores many parts of it. But after a while, it begins to seem as if she is operating on academic auto-pilot, yielding sentences like: "Deprived of its cognitive worth, the defective reflection does not cease to refer to a reflexive mechanism and affirms the value of all thought that imagines itself." She also has an irritating habit of quoting authors whom she identifies only in the notes, not the text, a practice that keeps the reader scurrying back and forth in the hope of finding out who said what.

By the end, despite a "Conclusion" that purports to wrap things up, one feels that the structure of this study has pretty much collapsed. But the reader will have nonetheless encountered many fascinating, suggestive, and memorable sights along the way.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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