By Nancy Smith
Warren Motte has been collecting literary mirror scenes for the past twenty-five years—a remarkable, if somewhat curious, undertaking. Motte, a devoted reader who absorbs “a healthy mix of so-called ‘serious literature’ and so-called ‘popular literature,’ ” has kept 3×5 notecards within each book to record the author, title, and page of each encountered mirror scene. His fascinating new book, Mirror Gazing, is a lovely reflection on these many mirror scenes and the peculiar pursuit of collecting.
What is a mirror scene? In the most literal sense, a character actually looks into a mirror, but characters also catch their reflections in train windows or coffee cups. And then there are bodies of water or dark, rainslicked streets. In the modern world, we cannot escape screens. We are, in a sense, surrounded by mirrors, and as often as we encounter them in real life, so too do characters in fiction.
There are many ways that we look metaphorically into mirrors, perhaps gazing into our souls while listening to a record. But mirror gazing, for Motte, cannot take place on this purely figurative level. He writes, “I do not consider Roquentin rereading his diary in Nausea a mirror scene, however, because the level of abstraction therein is unacceptable, stretching the working definition such that it might eventually include everything in literature—and everything outside of literature, as well. The scene in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover where the narrator describes her ruined face is not an example of the breed, for me at least; the scene where a man who used to know her when she had been young tells her he prefers the face she has now, ‘ravaged’ (3), just barely clears the bar; and the scene where the narrator looks in a shopkeeper’s mirror, and says, ‘Suddenly I see myself as another’ (13) is an almost perfect example of the genre.”
Motte has collected around ten thousand mirror scenes from roughly 1,500 books. This, in and of itself, is noteworthy, but the book is not simply a reprinting of quotes from various books. It is a deeply considered analysis of what it actually means to look into a mirror. For the serious reader, this book will serve as a trip through your reading past. I was reminded—somewhat nostalgically—of much of the literature that has defined the early part of my adult life. From Nabokov to Salinger to Rilke to Calvino, the book makes its way into just about every corner of American and European literature. Some books have no mirror scenes, and thus are left out, whereas others have just a few. Motte says, “The record, insofar as my own readings are concerned, is held by William Gaddis: I’m pleased to report that The Recognitions contains no less than eighty-three mirror scenes.”
When digging through these ten thousand passages, one has to wonder where to begin when writing such a book. Motte suggests that this project is emblematic of “the kinds of impossible situations that certain, stubborn, fixated academics get themselves into.” But, as someone who spends her days in the academy, I found the book to be a refreshing departure from much of the dense, arcane text that lives within the university. Mirror Gazing reads like a lively conversation with your favorite English professor. When thinking about the project, it is easy to wonder how might we productively look at or analyze these index cards. In other words, what is the point? This is not, I believe, the right question to ask of such a book. I’m not sure that we need an explanation for such a project, because the fundamental concept of collecting requires a certain kind of intellectual inquisitiveness that justifies itself. At any rate, Motte is such a thoughtful and engaging writer. The explanations he offers for these mirror scenes are, simply put, an absolute joy to read.
The project is not as haphazard as it may sound. There are, in fact, some rules to the collecting. Motte writes, “First, I have to come upon each scene myself, in the course of otherwise undirected readings. That is, I have never gone in search of mirror scenes, nor have I accepted them when upon rare occasion benevolent friends aware of my project have contributed them. Second, they have to occur in books that I own, and have shelved in my personal library. For how else would I find them again, one day, with only page references to go by, in an age when editions change so quickly?—and I confess, too, with some chagrin, that I am as loathe to leave the comforts of my own library as Oblomov was to leave the comforts of his couch.”
And so, with the ever-evolving collection in hand, Motte begins the process of categorizing the mirror scenes. As I began this book I could only think of a handful of reasons that one might even look into a mirror in the first place, but I soon learned that the reasons (and contexts) are infinite. The sheer variety of mirror scenes is perhaps the most absorbing thing about this book. To name just a few of the themes that run through the book: narcissism, avoidance (or the unavoidability of looking into a mirror), banalities, voyeurism, conscience, skepticism, alienation (on being a stranger to oneself in a mirror could be a book in of itself), ageing, shock, self-loathing, truth, difficult recognition, and happy events (let us not forget that these do exist in literature from time to time). In fact, a happy mirror scene (of which there are few) is a nice example of how the book arranges itself:
“The limit-case of these happy recognition scenes is one where happiness swells into something approaching ecstasy. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, Raymond Queneau’s Zazie reacts in a way that leaves little room for doubt, alienation, or otiose introspection: ‘Zazie gazed at herself in the mirror, salivating with admiration’ (Zazie dans le métro 63). One easily understands her, and my own feeling is that we ought to allow ourselves to share her admiration—otherwise, where is the plaisir du texte? In a more macho vein, a character in Elmore Leonard’s Stick expresses his pleasure with an eloquence all his own: ‘Cornell buttoned his blazer, turned sideways to the dresser mirror to look at himself. “You a lean, handsome motherfucker, ain’t you?” ’ (105). Sometimes the mirror serves to correct and improve an impression of the self, and that correction can be a very dramatic one indeed: ‘Though she and Youqing’s wife had similar figures, the blouse seemed a bit tight in the waist. But when she looked in the mirror, Yumi nearly jumped out of her skin. She’d never looked so good—as pretty as a city girl’ (Bi Feiyu, Three Sisters 48).” The juxtaposition of such vastly different characters and writers is typical of Mirror Gazing, and Motte effortlessly moves through book after book making connections and observations along the way.
Beyond the literature itself, there is something about the very nature of a collection that is captivating. We often encounter collections in the public space, in museums or shops. Consider a collection of paintings or butterflies or buttons. There is something quite curious and beautiful about the arrangement and cataloging of things for our viewing. But what of the personal collector? The basement full of National Geographic, the drawers full of maps, or the shelf lined with antique dolls. For my part, I collect cigar boxes. It’s something I took up over a decade ago, when I discovered a small, worn box filled with letters in the basement of my childhood home. Over the years, I have picked up unique cigar boxes at flea markets and antique stores, often as mementos from trips. These boxes are lined up on my windowsill, and when people come to visit, they often become a topic of conversation. When people ask why I collect boxes, I am never able to provide a satisfactory explanation because I really don’t know. Motte says, “Any collection, undoubtedly, is a way for the collector to impose order upon the world, his or her world, or at least a very small corner thereof.” This is the best explanation I have come across. It is something that is all mine, a collection unlike any other, and one that I can carry with me as I make my way through this world.
For Motte, the project of collecting seems to have become something that is almost unconscious, an inexplicable task that is an ingrained part of his reading life. It is the kind of project that can happily fill a lifetime. He says, “One thing I know, for example, is that my fascination with these mirror scenes is both endless and end-less. That is, it is ongoing and uninterrupted, with no end in sight. Moreover, it is not directed toward any particular goal; it is largely disinterested; it is playful. If I felt an absolute need to bring my activity to a close, I guess that I could restrict myself to reading only those books that I’ve already read—or indeed to stop reading entirely. But I’m not likely to do that. More than anything else, it’s a question of quality of life.”
Perhaps what makes Mirror Gazing such an extraordinary book is that there is something deeply human and deeply personal about looking into a mirror. One of Motte’s collected scenes neatly sums up the experience of looking in the mirror: “For there are at least two ways of looking into a mirror: ‘The first is to see your face. The second is to probe your conscience. When we size ourselves up in the mirror, we are always struck by the different forms of the self that we see there’ (Patrick Roegiers, L’Artiste, la servante et le savant 12–13).”
Can we really see ourselves in a mirror? This is the question—if not literally—that every great piece of literature asks. How are we to perceive ourselves? How are we to understand the face that looks back at us when we gaze into a mirror? And how do other people perceive that face? Motte’s book doesn’t answer these questions outright, though they are at the heart of the project. He writes, “The fact of the matter seems to be that the face, considered as a crude image, is never entirely congruous with the image of ourselves that we construct in function of our desires, our hopes, our fears, and our obsessions. There is always—almost always—a distance between the two. And a close consideration of that phenomenon suggests that it is the face, rather than the self, which mostly bears the weight of difference.”
At the end of the book, Motte reflects on twenty-five years of collecting mirror scenes: “When I gaze into the mirror of this project, I see different things. A sixtyish professor, beavering away at a piece of scholarly writing. A person who lives a great deal of the time in his imagination, giving full rein to that imagination. A committed reader, surveying the particulars of his commitment. A collector, perusing and arranging his collection in order to put it on view. A man at work. A boy at play.”
Reflection is at the core of Mirror Gazing. Of course there is the literal reflection of characters looking into mirrors, but there is also the theoretical task of reflecting upon one’s life. We often open up a piece of literature in order to find ourselves, to understand how we measure up. Even beyond the books, this is an endless pursuit. Like the collector who socks away trinkets, we are all, always, cataloging and arranging our lives, if only to make sense of the face that looks back at us in the mirror.
By Warren Motte
Dalkey Archive (April 2014)