At heart, this is not just a book about mirror scenes, interesting as they are— and they are interesting. It’s also a look at passion, at collection, at personal taxonomies and the game of creating order from disorder (do we ever win that game?). It’s about how we read and why we read. And it’s about the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself.” Motte explores how characters look for (or suddenly catch) themselves in mirrors, as well as how (or whether) the act of writing is a reflection, distorted or true, of writers themselves. — Julie Larios
Softcover, 295 pages, $35.00 U.S. / £ 24.00 UK
Warren Motte admits early on in his strange and thought-provoking new book Mirror Gazing that his habit of collecting mirror scenes in literature is a little obsessive. “For a very long time now,” he says, “I have been fascinated by the way that characters in fiction encounter mirrors, and by the different things they see when they gaze into those mirrors. That fascination looms exceedingly large in my mind, grossly out of proportion with the many other fascinations that literature exerts on me. It is irrational and largely inexplicable, but there it is.”
There it is, indeed – that’s his book in a nutshell. It’s a gathering of mirror scenes culled from a collection of 12,000+ examples, all of which Motte jotted down on index cards over several decades of reading. He has rules for his burgeoning collection (“admittedly arbitrary and extremely quirky,” is how he characterizes those rules): First, he has to encounter the scenes spontaneously while engaged in otherwise “undirected readings”; second, he has to find the scenes in books he has in his own personal library. In other words, Motte, who is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado, doesn’t go looking for mirror scenes. He doesn’t take suggestions from colleagues, family, friends or helpful acquaintances who hear of his interest, nor does he find these scenes in books he cannot pull down and refer to later – nothing from university or city lending libraries, nothing borrowed. He doesn’t cast a wide net on social media, begging for examples to be sent to him like someone less well-read might do, someone with a narrower frame of reference. All the examples he comes up with (and there are many, many examples) arrived via his own reading of his own books.
When reading non-fiction, I usually look for precise explanations of why authors are interested enough in their subjects to begin the long journey of writing it all down in a book and sharing it. I look for the passion to shine through, even if the origins of that passion are “inexplicable,” and Motte doesn’t disappoint:
The notion that we might actually have not one, but two selves (or more!), and that the mirror might put that duplicity (multiplicity!) upon display, is reason enough for us to tread lightly when in the presence of that object. Because in many cases, specularity escapes from our control. It ramifies instantly and inevitably, duplicating as it does so, and positing thus a fundamental question of authenticity that cannot fail to trouble us. What is “real“ in a reflection of the real, and what is not? Or, in other terms, what is it that a mirror reflects?….My own sense is that problems such as that one do not bear too much thought. Like the paradox of the Cretan liar, or like certain Zen koans, one could wander into it and never find one’s way out….I myself have been caught for a very long time, I confess. Perhaps not by the mirror itself, but by these mirror scenes. I’m counting on this project, you will understand, to help me find my way out. But I’m not particularly sanguine about my prospects.”
What fun to read a book that tackles an obsession and confesses to it being mysterious and labyrinthine and slightly out of control. How exciting to find a book where the author doesn’t pull back despite his own confusions. As we watch, Motte works to construct a reasonable narrative from his collection, almost as if he were both personal tour guide and curator of a large natural history museum. Motte’s observations about these mirror scenes put me in mind of an old-fashioned wonder cabinet, filled with a few familiar objects but even more unfamiliar objects, brought back from Terra Incognita. And Warren Motte is the slightly grizzled explorer, willing to share his journey with us, sea serpents and all.
I found myself wishing that I could see even one photo of the author with his collection of 12,000 index cards. I imagined the cards organized in multiple shoe boxes – a little disheveled – with labels on the outside for easy identification: “Implicitly Implicit Non-Mirror Scenes” and “Explicitly Implicit Non-Mirror Scenes.” How does one organize such a collection? Much of what is delightful about this book is not its surface subject matter but its subterranean one; we read between the lines to see how Motte himself reads these mirror scenes and conducts the art of classification. At heart, this is not just a book about mirror scenes, interesting as they are— and they are interesting— it’s a look at passion, at collection, at personal taxonomies and the game of creating order from disorder (do we ever win that game?) It’s about how we read and why we read. And it’s about the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself.” Motte explores how characters look for (or suddenly catch) themselves in mirrors, as well as how (or whether) the act of writing is a reflection, distorted or true, of writers themselves.
Motte is a born taxonomist; he enjoys categories. That the examples he presents are a little fuzzy around the edges (fuzziness usually impedes categorization) was not a problem for me. I get the feeling many of his examples could slip easily into and out their categories, according to Motte’s changing perspectives. Readers like me who can relax and go with a little disorder during the classification process will be happiest with this book. In the almost seventy pages of examples that are not true mirror scenes the author offers up his thinking about the following distinctions (and remember, these are only the NON-mirror-scene categories):
- Definitely Not
- Probably Not
- Me, Me, Me
- Close Shave [Yes – a collection of scenes of shaving in a mirror]
- Fathers and Sons, Mothers and Daughters
- On the Other Hand
- Implicit Mirror Scenes
- Metaphorical Mirrors
- The Eyes of Others
- Fools and Churls
- Writing as Mirror
- Whys and Wherefores (in which, about a third of the way into the book, we discover some things that might have imposed more order on the material at the opening of the book.)
It’s clear from this list, I think, how elaborately Motte studies the nuances of any scene in literature that includes a mirror (actual, implied or metaphorical) and makes his decision about which shoebox (my own metaphor) to put his index card into. What’s not quite as clear is why the book itself is organized the way it is. Motte shoots for a system of classification for his mirror scenes, but he does not appear to be particularly wedded to the idea of orderliness in his own writing. In the middle of the section about non-mirror scenes, he offers one example and then says, “The temptation to call this a mirror scene is very real. And indeed we must give in to it, because this is in fact a mirror scene, and a fairly mainstream one at that.” Let’s just say some drifting occurs, organizationally. It’s unsettling, but not uninteresting. Motte speaks often of trying to get his explanations under control and to get back, amid the decision-making about yes-true-mirror-scene vs. no-not-true-mirror scene examples, to a more regulated presentation of his material. He calls his thoughts “scattered,” which they occasionally are (charmingly, I think, though some might be annoyed), and he says, in the section titled Fictions, “Let us re-visit together, briefly and on tiptoe, but nonetheless a bit more systematically, the terrain which that notion occupies, bearing in mind how uneven and slippery that terrain is.” A given reader’s tolerance for slippage (mine is high) will determine whether Motte’s book is appreciated.
I did find myself wondering one thing consistently: Could Motte have been persuaded to offer up the definition of a true mirror scene before the nearly seventy pages of definitions of what it is not? The opening chapter is a speech presented at Johns Hopkins University which makes a stab at summary but feels a little tacked on (even the font is different.) Would it have been possible to integrate the speech into the text more smoothly and present a more concise version of the non-mirror-scene rules, holding off on elaborations of those until after we understood true mirror scenes a bit more? The author’s trust that we can fill in the gaps and understand, via negative space, what really constitutes a mirror scene by understanding what one is not is a little out of whack. The book could just as comfortably – and less confusingly – have started with the brilliant lines that open the section titled “Imagine My Emotion,” which go like this: “Imagine my emotion when I learned, a few years ago, that elephants are self-aware! A team of scientists had just discovered (so it was reported in my morning newspaper) that elephants are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror.” What immediately precedes these lines (the Whys and Wherefores section) and follows them (a fairly precise presentation of what true mirror scenes do) helps steady the boat. Mirror scene shows characters looking for themselves, Motte says, and recognizing themselves or not. That might just be the goal of all stories (again, the adage Motte referes to several times: “Know yourself”…gnothi seauton.) We – and a few other species, including elephants – engage with our self-images either seriously or playfully. If the book opened there, readers might get a firmer grasp on the idea of a true mirror scene (and its nuanced shadings) before the boat got rocked. On steadier ground then, readers could look at the non-mirror scene examples and discern the differences more easily.
That reservation aside, I come back to the strengths of this book, not the least of which is Motte’s ability to make a work of scholarship un-fusty and conversational. He talks directly to his readers as if his thoughts were being delivered to friends around the dinner table. He recounts being baffled by the word “heresay” via a personal story about pedaling uphill (literally, not metaphorically) on his bicycle and being “misperceived” by bicyclists riding downhill (perception of ourselves by others being part of what Motte terms “specular encounters.”) We feel like we know Motte personally, because of his chatty delivery – in fact, by the end of the book, I concluded Motte was bright, compulsive, amiable, confused, and just silly enough (dolphins, he jokes, look at themselves “on porpoise”) to wish he were a friend. “Oof! There. That’s better,” he says at the end of the section about non-mirror scenes. “So much for that,” he says at the end of another section, “for the time being at least.” And after his quick dismissal of anything television has to offer (maybe he hasn’t seen some of the good writing television offers up lately?) he says, “But there. My prejudices are showing. Not for the first time, certainly, but still.” Every once in awhile we see self-mockery; that’s rare in an academic. And what’s not to love about a writer who can say at the end of his book, in a completely relaxed way, “…things have not turned out exactly as planned. The categories that I postulated have broken down under close inspection….I can live with that, quite happily, in fact.”
As for Motte’s intelligence, that’s made clear in the 32-page, single-spaced list of works cited. A more well-read author is hard to imagine, especially given those rules I mentioned previously (all examples came from his personal library of books and were found during “undirected” reading.) The list of books cited is deep and wide. It includes work by pop-culture authors (Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Archer, James Lee Burke, Agatha Christie), science fiction and fantasy writers (Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs), poets (Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valery) and even writers for children (Kenneth Grahame, Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown.) Translated authors are well represented – Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, Czech, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, the list goes on; they include many writers of the Oulipo school (Motte’s book Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature is a fine guide to that movement.) He includes songwriters (Bob Dylan), critics (Harold Bloom), philosophers (Johan Huizinga) psychologists (Sigmund Freud) and even politicians (Barack Obama.) I am leaving out many dozens of writers, especially contemporary American and British, who made it onto those index cards and into the book. It’s not everyone who can refer to both Yahweh and Popeye in the same sentence (“That’s the best and most reassuring lesson of the mirror: like Yahweh and Popeye, we are what we are.”) One of the loveliest passages Motte offers us of a true mirror scene (subcategory: what Motte calls “doubling”; that is, “a recognition of one’s own alterity”) is this quotation from Andre Gide’s Si le grain ne meurt:
The desire to seem exactly what I felt I was, what I wanted to be, that is, an artist, actually prevented me from simply being, and made of me what people call a poseur. In the mirror of a small writing desk that I had inherited from Anna, and that my mother had put in my room, and which I used for writing, I contemplated my facial features tirelessly, studying them, training them like an actor does, seeking out on my lips, in my gaze, the expression of the passions that I longed to feel. Above all I would have liked to make myself loved; I would have given my soul for that. During that period, I could not write (I almost said think), it seems to me, elsewhere than in front of that mirror. In order to understand my own thoughts, I felt that I had first to read them in my eyes. Like Narcissus, I was bent over my own image; because of that, each sentence that I wrote in those days remains a bit curved.
Motte ends Mirror Gazing in a self-effacing way and leaves me convinced he is the kind of scholar I would love to work alongside (and have as a dinner guest) and whose books I will continue to seek out. He describes what he sees in his own mirror: “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. I confess that I’m more attached to the latter sort of image, for reasons that will be, by this time, massively apparent.”
Of course, the down side to this fascinating book is that Motte ruins things for us – we can never encounter a literary mirror scene again and just speed past it without slowing down and pausing to reflect (pun intended.) I’m satisfied with that sacrifice. Slowing down is not a bad idea when what we’re doing is complicated, and Motte manages to make us feel the complications of self-knowledge. One moment we’re over on the dark side of the mirror: “The things that we fear the most may be those that lurk right inside us, for goodness sake. An encounter with the mirror and the introspection that it entails present the very real danger of recognizing that tough truth.” The next moment, we’re having a fine time at a little road-trip game called “Mirrors.” We’re not sure what the rules are, exactly, but we’ll learn them as we go. If the ride gets bumpy, well, the bumps keep us alert, and a smooth road, as often as not, puts us to sleep. The thoughts I had as I came to to the end of Mirror Gazing were these: Reflection – as in a mirror – is pervasive, and reading itself is an act of reflection. Motte’s journey into reflection is an on-going process, he’s in the driver’s seat, he’s having fun on this road trip, and for several days I rolled down the window, got a little windblown, and had fun alongside him.
Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children. Her unpublished collection for adults, A Quiet Day in the Arm and Leg Shop, awaits acceptance by some discerning editor. She contributes to the blog Books Around the Table, as well as writing for her own blog, The Drift Record. The photo above, with her grandson, was taken at the Ochoa Brothers diner (best carnitas north of the border) while visiting Hillsboro, Oregon. Highly recommended.