Mirror, mirror

From Story Act 2, 2017

Helen Razer considers the intent behind intense self-gazing and whether Snow White's Evil Queen and her mirror get a raw deal.

In one way or another we all seek and project our own reflections on shiny surfaces, in the perceptions of others and in a dazzling array of constructed and apparently candid social media tableaus. Writer and broadcaster Helen Razer looks at the intent behind all this intense self-gazing and whether Snow White’s Evil Queen and her mirror get a bit of a raw deal.

You’ll never believe this but, Once Upon a Time, all those charmed by an image of themselves were held to be more than a little bit wicked. Once Upon a Time, such habits were punished. Now, of course, we more often call this self-enchantment “positive body image”. And we even reward some of its better known proponents.

For the crime of vanity, Narcissus is drowned in a pool and Snow White’s Evil Queen is put to death in a pair of burning shoes. For the virtue of empowerment, Kim Kardashian, who recently published Selfish, a collection of self-portraits, is widely celebrated—that is, when she’s not being narrowly despised by hellfire traditionalists who would prefer a return to redemptive drowning and burning.

“Value yourself, says the mirror, as Rousseau does. But do not allow the register of that value to be other people.”

If you’ve ever given over a serious afternoon to the question “who am I?”, it’s entirely likely you’ve reflected on the human need to be reflected. You’ve probably thought, as many professional thinkers have, about the things that divide the state of just being to that of the kind of being that occurs when we’re being looked at, by ourselves or by others.

You may have come to the conclusion, as old French guys Descartes and Rousseau did, that you are the same being, no matter who else is around. You may have complicated things a bit, as slightly less old French guys Sartre and Lacan did, and thought: hmm. Maybe I am being in a different way when I’m contained in a gaze? Perhaps you’ve then thought, “omigod, you guys! Am I even here?” and run off to look in a mirror. If you have found yourself in an existential loop of the type: congratulations. It might have been painful to doubt the very foundation of your being, but it does put you in the company of history’s greatest thinkers—Hegel. Freud. Nietzsche.

They’ve all had your issues. And, you’re also in the company of the best dressed fairy tale monster, the Evil Queen. It is true that Queenie has suffered a few centuries of very bad press. It is also true that she and her mirror are immensely instructive, especially for those of us who have found ourselves in the eye of an existential storm. There’s a reason that Snow White has been interpreted by Disney, Preljocaj and every psychoanalyst ever, and it’s not nearly all down to our troublingly nice titular heroine. It’s Queenie that makes this text richer than a butterscotch latte. It’s Queenie. And of course, her talking mirror, whose purported origin story is now worth our brief gaze.

The small mirror-making town of Lohr am Main claims to house the “genuine” Snow White looking glass. Lohr, the sort of place that looks like the lid of a Brothers Grimm brand box of chocolates, has been trying to convince the world for some time that it is the true home of Snow White.

If you make it to Bavaria, you can tour one of the orchards which may have produced the poison apple, trek the escape route the innocent brunette may have followed and visit the Spessart Museum where you’ll see the blacksmith instruments that may have made the Queen’s hot and deadly slippers. You will also see a chatty eighteenth century mirror that certainly flattered some imperial lady.

The mirrors of Lohr were said to always reflect the truth and so became a favour exchanged by European nobles. If a lady didn’t care to look at the bare truth of her reflection in fine glass, she could look to the frame of the “talking” mirror, such as the one held in the museum at Lohr. In one corner is inscribed the message, “She is such a beauty!” But in another, the hazard of unnatural self-love, or “amour-propre” is described.

If you have previously taken your doubt to a philosophy department, you’ll recognise this phrase from the work of Rousseau. He was just as keen on warning against excessive self-love as fairy tales, Greek myths and critics of Kim Kardashian.

Rousseau borrowed from a French tradition that saw the love of the self when it was derived from the opinion of others as corrupt. In short, it is okay to love yourself for the natural Cartesian being you are— which is to say, you can get off on “I think therefore I am” as much as you want, but you must not value yourself in the terms of the other. At first glance into the mirror, amour-propre might seem like a sin. But, it’s sin status is problematised by the twentieth century psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan—we’ll get to this mirror-obsessed descendent of Freud in a jiffy—but also by Queenie. Who may, or may not, have been inspired by an imperial countess of Lohr. Fabular science—a posh term for the attempt to prove that fairy tales are real—makes a convincing case that a lass called Maria, Baroness von Erthal, was Snow White and her stepmother, Claudia, Countess of Reichenstein, was the Evil Queen. (The dwarves, by the way, were likely to have been mine workers whose growth was radically stunted by the poor diet of the German proletariat. What a charming story.)

“It is true that Queenie has suffered a few centuries of very bad press. It is also true that she and her mirror are immensely instructive, especially for those of us who have found ourselves in the eye of an existential storm.”

Regardless of its basis in fact, the mirror, which luckily remains unbroken, is an artefact that tells us about the conditions that makes Snow White the sort of tale we have so long loved to tell. Value yourself, says the mirror, as Rousseau does. But do not allow the register of that value to be other people. As much as the cultural tolerance for selfies and other public reflections has increased in the centuries since the mirror was cut in Lohr, this message is strikingly similar to the sort of thing we might see written on the virtual mirror of Instagram, or in a brochure for Botox treatment.

“I am doing this for myself,” say our era’s social media celebrities. “I am not doing this for other people.” What utter, deluded rot. Like most people with a smartphone, I have taken and published selfies. I didn’t do it “just for me”. I didn’t do it to “empower” myself beyond a state of amour-propre. I did it, as everyone does, for attention and to see myself as others do. And, of course, to assuage the persistent human fear that I don’t really exist.

Lacan, who had as little time for the moralising of Rousseau as he would have for the Instagram claim “I’m doing it just for me!”, is quite famous for adding the concept of the Mirror Stage to the history of thought.

A threshold moment in a toddler’s life, says Lacan, is that in which he or she sees himself for the first time in a mirror. This Mirror Stage, which is an elaborated version of Freud’s Oedipal Stage, marks that instant in which the human first sees itself as a separate entity. Here, the idea of self and other is created and this division, which begins in the moment of mirrored spectacle, occurs again and again throughout life.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a mirror. We can “see” ourselves in the embrace of a care-giver and all people, even the vision impaired or mirror-deprived, have a moment when the I, or the ego, forms in the separation from others. So, says, Lacan, amour-propre isn’t really a sin. Unless you live in a lonely forest and never encounter another human, this being for others is not something you really have any kind of say in. You’re going to keep on checking in on your own reflection.

And, if you’re a woman, the self-gazing is usually going to be a little more tempting and a whole lot more intense. After all, Queenie, you have learned since you were a girl that much of your value inhered not just in the fact that you are visible, but in the beauty of that vision. So the female star of Instagram, or just the chick looking in the mirror, must manage two quite different messages.

Both of which are written on glass in Lohr. One is “be beautiful according to an acceptable standard” and the other is “but make sure you’re only doing it for yourself”. I mean. No wonder our poor Evil Queen was driven, allegedly, to murder. And, no wonder that her story endures through history’s hall of mirrors. The human subject who must, somehow, live as herself while also living as a spectacle produces a fascinating evil. And, she produces a dangerous dance.

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Helen Razer

Once mildly known for her work with national and local ABC radio. Now that the national broadcaster very rarely permits her to talk in exchange for money, she writes for it instead. Razer’s work currently appears in Crikey, The Saturday Paper, Daily Review, SBS Online, The Big Issue and Frankie. She has previously worked as a columnist for The Age and The Australian. Her fifth book, A Short History of Stupid, was coauthored in 2014 with Crikey’s political editor, Bernard Keane. Both of them were surprised when they found that a book on the history of rotten thought could produce a royalty cheque. Keane and Razer have commenced work on a second collaboration on the topic of freedom. Razer has written a miserable non-fiction book on love scheduled for release by Allen & Unwin in November 2016. She is a slow but regular runner and an enthusiastic but unproductive gardener.

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