3 reflections

May 7, 2014 § Leave a comment

In the first, man didn’t recognise his own reflection, any more than an animal does. Show a cat a mirror and it reckons it’s a window with another cat beyond. It hisses, prowls around the mirror. Loses interest eventually; some cats ignore their reflected image altogether.

Man was no different to start with. One hundred per cent subjective. An ‘I’ that could question a ‘self’ did not exist.

Second stage: Narcissus discovers the mirror image. The greatest sage of Antiquity was not Prometheus, who gave fire to man, but Narcissus. Henceforth the ‘I’ sees a ‘self’. There was no demand for psychological insight at this stage, for man was to himself what he was, mamely his mirror image. Whether or not he liked what he saw, his self did not betray him. I and self were symmetrical, each other’s mirror image, no more than that. We lie and our reflection lies with us. Only in the third stage were we dealt the blow of truth.

The third stage begins with the invention of photography. How often do we think our passport photos do us justice? Hardly ever! In former times, when people had their portraits painted and they didn’t like the result, they blamed the artist. But the camera can’t lie, as we all know. So it is revealed to you over the years through countless photographs that you aren’t really yourself most of the time, that you and your self are not symmetrical, indeed that you exist in a variety of strange incarnations for which you would refuse all responsibility if you could.

The fear that other people will see him as he appears in the portraits he disapproves of, that they might never see him in the way he likes to see himself in the mirror, has caused the human individual to fragment into a general plus a band of mutinous soldiers. An I seeking to assert itself amid the constant clamour of alter egos. This is the third stage, in which self-doubt, previously a rare state of mind, flared into consternation.

from Beyond Sleep by Willem Frederik Hermans, translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke


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