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The Looking Glass

There I am. Of course, I am not really there, but yeah, am I there! I look at myself and I assess myself and I think to myself—well, am I there. I am aware of myself posing, my mouth closed, lips pursed, jaw dropped, teeth apart, my cheeks slightly sucked in, my forehead bent forward. My wife hates when I do that—what I always do when a camera eye is pointed in my direction, or when I find myself before a mirror. But I can’t help myself. This, in front of me, is what I can’t help but make myself into, this man with sucked-in cheeks and a forehead bent, looking straight ahead, serious, eyes wide open behind large black heavy-rimmed spectacles, eyebrows arched, alert, quiet, motionless, handsome I hope, but not just handsome—rather handsome just so far as I am the me I hoped to find.

The funny thing is that, as soon as I look at myself, over there but not over there, I have the sensation that I am no longer lost. Surely I had been lost to myself all that time up to now, that time when I wasn’t looking at myself, when I was sitting at the table in front of the screen of my laptop and studying, getting away from myself and into information about the world, or an image, or words and images together—they could be anything, since my curiosity is omnivorous and my job takes me to a lot of places. I was sitting in front of my computer. I could see my hands in front of me on my keyboard, and a little bit of each arm, bare just now, and if I looked down I could see a bit of my tummy and my legs—but that wasn’t me, that was just bits and pieces of me, connected to a central machinery which was out of my line of sight. The rest of me, the center of me, my face, my expression, was lost. I did not have the center of me before me, because the center of me was busy with something else. It had abandoned me for the time being.

But now, gratefully—but why am I grateful? to what can I be grateful? for how I would be grateful to myself, as if were doing myself a favour which required a degree of generosity, of disinterest, when all this personal business is rather inherently, necessarily selfishness, a greediness of identity?—I am back. Back am I, dude! I have found myself—there. Yet right away I notice some of the hairs of my trim grey and black beard are sticking out. Immediately I take a scissor to them. I cannot have the hairs on my beard out of place. Meanwhile the hair on the top of my head seems okay. No need to fuss with it. But my beard—there are several stray hairs on the right of my face, springy twirls of grey, looking, well, stray, out of place, contorted, anomalous, as if disarranged by an unseen troublemaker. They interrupt a line, a contour, a regularity, a hoped for me. Snip. It is important to keep the beard even, whatever the length.

So maybe I am not returning to myself. Maybe I am disciplining myself. Maybe I am—returning to a position where I am exerting control over myself, this self which I am and am not, who confronts and doesn’t confront me as I gaze into my reflection. I thought I was lost, but maybe I wasn’t so much lost as disheartened—disheartened as at the fact that I was not in control, and that, being out of control, I could not be sure of myself. I might be too, well, stray. I might not be good enough, finished enough, admirable enough. I had better go check. I had better check myself out, which means that I had better check myself in. Into the bathroom, of course, for that is where the mirror is, the safe mirror, the mirror to which I can have recourse without guilt or shame, without worrying about what it would look like if someone saw me standing in front of a mirror checking myself out, or without worrying about the shame I would feel even if no one was looking and I was aware of using a mirror that wasn’t in the bathroom.

Mirrors have multiple uses. Some of the first mirrors, made out of polished stone, going back some 8000 years, were used for catching the light of the sun and starting fires. There are two mirrors hanging in the room where I am/was sitting which were used to catch light and not start a fire but amplify the space in the room, opening up the space of the room by optically redoubling it. Ornamental mirrors, we call them, and the large ones have been common since the eighteenth century, when the technology for making them was figured out. They were grand things, those ornamental mirrors, made for grand rooms, where reflected light and an illusion of space was to be desired: ball rooms, dining rooms, show rooms. By the late twentieth century mirror-making was so cheap and easy that mirrors became a kind of building tool, a common cladding for furniture items and interior walls, and even, in the form of thick reinforced glass mirrors, the sturdy exteriors of hi-rise corporate headquarters in Dallas and Houston and Dubai and any other city that, in spite of all the reflectedness, the endlessly duplicated reflectedness, is supposed to count…supposed to add up.

It is beyond my understanding how mirrors, once so rare and precious, could now be so cheap. It is beyond my understanding how mirrors could be made so durable that they could be used as a building material. That mirrored glass hi-rise on the skyline—no one ever worries about the glass breaking. And it never does and I don’t know why. But how mirrors affect us in our unique inner/outer worlds: about that I think I have some understanding. Understanding some because I am a mirror person. Some of you out there are capable of walking past a mirror without looking: I wonder about that. But I imagine at least half of you are like me: you can’t resist. The mirror is not just a mirror, it is a looking glass, and you have to look. You have to see, to connect, to return to yourself and discipline yourself if necessary, even if you suspect that there is something shameful about the process, and endlessly duplicable, endlessly beyond any discipline.

And when you see your self—Lacan speculated that for the modern “subject” this was key: for when you see yourself what you actually do not see is your self. You see a mirror image of yourself. You see something that is not really you, only a fantasy of you, brought into being by an odd piece of technology: you really not. And all through life modern subjects are doomed never to be what they think they see, what they think they are, as a whole, given the evidence of the mirror. I can never be that, over there, even if over there I see myself. I can never return to myself, discipline or shame myself, looking over there, at me really not, because that is not me. And yet it seems to be the closest I will ever get to me.

Or are there even better “me’s” that I can contemplate, in need of myself and in bad faith too? The cell phone has become a looking glass. I can turn the camera onto myself. I can look into the camera and see what the camera sees—me, but not quite me. And I can even snap myself, saving an image of myself for a long long while, I won’t say to eternity but it feels that way. I can snap myself. I can even do something that the mirror forbids. I can discard an image of myself. I can delete myself, and will do so if I decide that that, over there, in that device I am holding in my hands, is not really me, or not really the me that is supposed to be me, that does not fit the way I imagine I really am, or really ought to be and therefore am: that self absolutely self-disciplined, without too many hairs out of place, or with only the right hairs out of place, and with the right face, the right expression, not too artificial and not too plain, not too posed but not too nondescript, not ashamed of myself but not too arrogant either—that me that has to be me, that must be me, or otherwise I will delete it and try another.

The looking glass is essential to our sense of ourselves, our sense of the truth of ourselves, but what has it ever been but the technological device of a lie, a lie so powerful that I—you—we would feel lost without it? And undisciplined, and unaccountably not really there?


Robert Appelbaum is Professor of English Literature at Uppsala University and the author, most recently, of Working the Aisles: A Life In Consumption and Terrorism Before the Letter.