Did you look in the mirror today? Just once? With longing or loathing? Was it a glance or a gaze? Were you surprised? Mirror mirror on the wall, who is most narcissistic of them all? I believe the answer is everyone, to a lesser or greater extent.
The ubiquity of mirrors is something I find not only nauseating but baffling. I don’t have any quarrel with the concept of a mirror on a purely existential level. No- mirrors are undoubtedly useful objects for the very basic reason that they are equipped to inform you if you look ridiculous: if you have toothpaste on your chin, or if your hair is revoltingly misshapen, or if you failed to notice your trouser leg surreptitiously tuck itself into your sock. If mirrors are a necessity then they are necessary only towards preserving your dignity.
But why the surfeit of mirrors? They’re everywhere, even when they’re not. You walk past a glass-fronted building and your peripheral vision is alerted to an opportunity to gaze-glance, riveted by the irresistible striding seraphim whose movements are synchronised with your own. You walk past a car, and that beatific being comes to life again, and gazes with deep admiration into your eyes- but not for too long, because someone might be sitting in the car. You are watching the television and when you switch it off, it sits gracefully before you, in the matt-black mystique of the TV screen.
How many mirrors are there in your house? If there are more than two, then this must be accounted for. We have small mirrors and large mirrors, zoom-in mirrors and zoom-out mirrors; all manner of mirrors unrelentingly mirroring our miserable selves. Have you ever observed another human being look into a mirror? It is quite an unnerving, almost physically intimate experience. Two illustrations from my experience come immediately to mind. I have two friends whose mirror-gazing mannerisms I find particularly fascinating. Let me set the stage for them.
I shared a house with these guys some time ago, and we would frequently congregate in the kitchen, purporting to be cooking or doing some other chore, but in fact taking it as an opportunity to have all-night socials. The kitchen ran parallel with the bathroom, and if you opened the door of the bathroom there was a large mirror directly in front of you. So we would be standing in the kitchen, gossiping, when one of us would position himself deftly in view of the mirror. This strategic alignment would surely have gone unnoticed had it not been for what followed: my friend would take his hand, stroke his barrelled chest in circular motions, and proceed to explore every bump and crevice of that titanic torso. And as he did so, he would tilt his neck one way, then another, in Zen-like movements. He would be in a state of the utmost absorption, in a timeless realm where only his bulging pecks lived.
I have also spied a second friend in his mirroring routine. I recall that this friend would squint- very resolutely, with some great sense of purpose, at his mirror. It was a surreal experience to be talking to him one moment and then to witness him for a few moments with lips puckered, eyes almost sealed, neck gyrating this way and that. I think I will ask him what he hoped to achieve by it. (I think that if he reads this he will ask me what the hell I think I’m doing before I have the chance).
This post would not be quite complete without alluding to a Greek myth that relates to mirrors, or more precisely, looking at our reflections. In the Myth of Narcissus, the character at the heart of the story is renowned for his beauty, and himself aware of it. One day he is attracted to a pool and as he lowers his face to it, becomes struck by the beauty of his own reflection. He falls fatally in love with this image of himself, and unable to leave it, dies. This is the myth from which the word ‘narcissist’ and its cognates are derived. Hence, we label a person narcissistic when we consider him self-absorbed or self-admiring.
Possessing many mirrors and looking into them a great deal may be harmless in most cases (albeit baffling), but there are, it seems, quite serious implications to our mirror-gazing. Yesterday, I was watching a program on BB3 about young people who are increasingly resorting to some form of surgical enhancement to ‘improve’ their appearance. It was alarming to see young people who looked perfectly ordinary, resort to mutilating their bodies because they felt that some physical deficiency curtailed their ‘confidence’ and that a bit of plastic would provide a suitable remedy. There was a young man who had to have a strip of scalp cut off from the back of his head to harvest some hair follicles so that he could have a hair transplant. There was the guy who had to inject himself with some poison so that he could look more ‘brown’ on holiday in Ibiza. And there was the utterly tragic case of the young woman whose buttock-implants killed her.
The Myth of Narcissus is more than a myth then. We quite clearly inhabit an image-conscious society where we are staring at ourselves unceasingly; at these surface bumps and bits. We loathe ourselves and adorn ourselves so that we might love the image of ourselves. Like Narcissus, many people are killing themselves, both spiritually and physically, by their obsessive behaviour. Our reflections are shattered into a glistening shower of glasslets and we are left to gaze into the blank hollowness of our inner selves.