Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Seven

Diana had come to a new understanding of the havoc wreaked on her life by suicide. She realized as she never had before how much her father’s death had affected her. Pete’s death had made it difficult to think of anything besides suicide; she was having a hard time trying to think her way out of an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. Every thought led back to the realization that she, too, was capable of taking her own life.

A word often used for the process of thinking is “reflection”, and there does seem to be a connection between the physical process of reflection and the mental process of reflection that is characteristic of human thought. Of course it isn’t exclusively human: in an experiment conducted in 1970 Gordon Gallup showed that chimpanzees recognize themselves in mirrors, and more recently the scientists Diana Reiss and Lori Marino have shown that bottlenose dolphins also have this capability. By studying the development of reflective consciousness and the cognitive abilities of animals we may be able to learn how this capability evolved in earlier stages of our own history. We hope to discover more about ourselves, not just in these earliest stages, but in the way we live our lives now.

Of course the word “reflection” takes on a somewhat different meaning when considered as an attribute of either mental or physical processes. The reproduction of visual phenomena in a mirror (or something functioning as a mirror, like a body of water) would seem to be a less complicated process than what happens when our minds go to work (like those of chimpanzees and bottlenose dolphins). Is “reflective” thought any different than other kinds of thought? Since speech is also considered a marker for the threshold of human intelligence, is mental reflection somehow connected to the development of language?

One way of observing the processes of reflection, thought, and language in nature is to consider their occurrence in human history and culture. In the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis, their expulsion from the Garden of Eden occurs after they’ve eaten fruit from the tree of knowledge; at the moment they saw themselves as naked, was there was a corresponding insight that marked the beginning of reflective thought? Of course there aren’t any mirrors in the story, and there certainly isn’t any mention of a specifically reflective knowledge, but how could they understand that they lacked clothes when clothes had never existed before? It seems possible that they recognized their relative lack of fur and hair on their bodies. Or does “naked” here have some meaning besides that of being clothed? How much does the fall of man have to do with the dawning of higher intelligence? According to the story, the trouble came from the serpent, and though Adam and Eve are responsible for their own fall, it doesn’t originate in them. The fall came from disobeying God, and in that they had a little help. It didn’t come from thinking or talking; Adam and Eve were thinking before the fall (it’s tempting to wonder whether Eve did most of it while Adam took care of the naming), so thinking and talking can’t be bad in themselves.

There are several Greek myths in which mirrors play an important part. The story of Narcissus, which we have from Ovid, is probably the most famous. It’s a fable driven by several “what if” ideas: what if we failed to see ourselves in our reflections, or what if someone mistook himself for another? It also seems possible that by “others” we could understand not just “other than ourselves” but also “other than what we really are” – which is to say human beings capable of reflection and knowing ourselves as we know others. This story in which reflection is such an important factor seems (with respect to cognition) to be about the terrifying result of what might happen if someone lacked reflective consciousness. The young boy isn’t trapped by the infatuation of self with self, but by his infatuation with a self whose identity he fails to recognize. In that sense a fuller understanding of everything implied by ‘narcissism’ has less to do with an obsession about one’s own appearance than an inability to recognize one’s self in proper relation to the world around him, especially in relation to people other than himself. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate our common understanding of the word, but in addition to that common definition we should understand that the sad and sorry end of Narcissus was the result of a mistake, and perhaps even a kind of ignorance. It wasn’t just an excessive love for himself.

The mere appearance of Medusa, looked at directly, turns viewers to stone, and the hero Perseus was able to defeat her only by using the flat of his scimitar as a mirror. Making his approach by walking backwards and looking at her reflected image, he was able to determine her position and then cut off her head with that same scimitar. He then kept the head in a bag and pulled it out when he needed to turn his own enemies to stone. The safety in viewing Medusa’s reflection in the sword probably has something to do with the relatively imprecise reflective qualities of polished metal, but no reflection, however good, is really exact. The reversal of the gorgon’s image may also have played a part in Perseus’ protection, but in either case the mitigating power of reflection would seem to reside in the difference between the reflected image and the thing itself.

In the first letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians there is the famous verse, ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ That’s the King James Version. In the original Greek version the word for ‘glass’ is esoptrou, for which a more accurate translation is “mirror”. The phrase arti di esoptrou, “through a glass”, (“mirror”) isn’t quite the same as it was for Alice, of course, referring here perhaps to the simple fact that in looking at one’s reflection, it only seems to appear at a distance behind the glass equal to that in which the viewer stands in front of it. “Darkly” is a translation of ainigmati, and may refer to the fact that most mirrors in antiquity were made of polished metal, and therefore didn’t reflect quite so well as mirrors do today. And of course the image was reversed, as was the gorgon’s image in Perseus’ scimitar, as it would be in any other mirror. In his commentary on the letter, St. Thomas Aquinas takes his typically expansive view of the passage. He writes,

And so all creation is a mirror for us; because from the order and goodness and multitude which are caused in things by God, we come to a knowledge of His power, goodness and eminence. And this knowledge is called seeing in a mirror.

This comes after his description of the knowledge God has for himself and the knowledge that angels have of Him. Humans are to be understood as a third order of being that understands God through his creation. “Creation is a mirror for us,” through which we can come to know God, and since we are made in the image of God, we can come to know ourselves as well. Some day (“then”) it will all be cleared up, and we will see “face to face”, which Aquinas tells us we should understand metaphorically. We will understand ourselves as we really are and perhaps even God as He really is. Will we then be more like angels? Like God Himself? It’s well understood that there has always been some confusion about God and who He really is. Some people have even confused themselves with God.

Just a few decades after Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, the Roman emperor Vespasian lay dying and is reported to have said, “Woe is me, I’m turning into a god.” He was showing a bit of gallows humor with what by then had become the custom of declaring emperors gods after their death, an official practice that required ratification by the Roman Senate. Both of Vespasian’s sons, Titus and Domitian, reigned after his death, one after the other. Titus had been the general in charge of the sack of Jerusalem, and although he had a short reign himself (79 to 81 AD), he was also declared a god. Domition wasn’t so lucky. He ruled Rome from 81 to 96 AD, often with great cruelty, and the historian Suetonius reports that he had mirrors installed on the palace walls because he feared enemies in his own court so much that he that he was worried about being taken by surprise in his own home. He was finally assassinated, which means that his paranoia was an inadequate line of defense, and after his death the senate, rather than declaring him divine, declared him damnatio memoriae – literally, obviously, “damnation of memory”. It’s still possible to see where Domition’s name has been scratched out on one of the ruins in the ancient Roman forum. If one aspect of reflective thought is our understanding of our existence in time, the damnation of Domition seems to be an effort to remove him from time.

Although they didn’t do much good for Domitian, mirrors have been extremely important in the advancement of technology. In the early 18th century, Sir Isaac Newton used mirrors for the first time to greatly expand the power of the telescope, and though astronomers have long since moved on to telescopes utilizing high frequency radio technology, it’s still true that these new devices are based on the concept of reflection. Recently researchers at MIT have developed a new kind of mirror, a so-called ‘perfect’ mirror, which combines the best features of both metallic (traditional) and dielectric (nonconductive) mirrors to reflect light with virtually no loss of energy. Moreover, this reflective technology can be designed with alternating layers of a plastic and tellurium (a metal) to create a flexible material, usable in lightweight composite form, even fabric, and therefore practicable in any number of applications: weapons, electronics, clothes, as well as combinations thereof. All this is exciting, but it’s also a little frightening.

Many customs have developed around mirrors, some of them to deal with fears that run from the center to the very edge of our being. On an occasion of death, there is the Jewish custom of covering all the mirrors in the house so that mourners look to each other rather than themselves for sympathy. Shiva isn’t a time for vanity either; it’s a period of mourning, and as such, a time for community. Mirrors must have been found to interfere with this.

On the other end of the ontological spectrum, the time an actor spends in front of a mirror before going out to perform is for some a ritualized moment as they begin mentally transforming themselves from the persons they understand themselves to be into the characters they intend to bring to life. Magicians use mirrors on stage in order to alter the audience’s perception of reality. Of course, quite apart from their utilization by scientists and performers, mirrors have long been thought to have strange powers and even magical properties, and some of this may well be due to the fact that they share the property of reflection with the human mind.

From the brothers Grimm by way of Walt Disney we have the story of Snow White, which of course includes the character of the evil witch, who when looking into her magic mirror would recite her secret request: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” While the mirror in the story of Narcissus signified an imprisoned mind of limited cognitive ability, the witch’s mirror marks an expanded consciousness in which the glass becomes a kind of magic window or video screen that shows Snow White instead of herself. The combination of her chant (a kind of linguistic formula) with the mirror gives her the power to see more in the mirror than what is ordinarily possible. This striving to go beyond what is ordinarily possible is also one of the many charming aspects of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. The idea that there is another world on the other side of a mirror is every bit as enticing as it becomes, upon reflection, so obviously false. It isn’t possible to go through a mirror to an entirely different world. And yet words are a kind of mirror for everything to which they refer, and we use words every day. We’re using them right now.

Whether language is the result of reflective consciousness, or its cause, or something else entirely, the things of the world were reflected in words and then recreated with words towards whatever ends we saw fit. Adam began naming things around him. To this very day we continue what he started, and the result is this recreation we inhabit every bit as much as the world as it was originally given to us. Maybe more. This is especially true in any dimension of our lives involving the use of words. It’s true of Jeb when he’s reading poetry. Even more so when trying to write poetry, as sometimes he’ll sit there in his shack for hours at a time, barely conscious of the four walls around him. It’s true for Julie, and for pretty much the same reasons that it’s true for Jeb. As she talks to Dr. Cervantes she almost completely ignores the objects in the room in order to more fully inhabit the world she is creating for him with words. When she isn’t talking, it’s as if she were stuck to the objects surrounding her. It is perhaps less true for Diana, aware as she must be of the drinks she is pouring and the counter she is cleaning, although it’s certainly the world in words she focuses on in jokes and conversation. Even a laborer or a craftsman working in silence will somehow be working with the results of words. As Pebble pounds nails into 2 x 4s on the construction site or mops up the sweat of patrons at the gym, he is working with things, but they are things every bit as much the products of a linguistically differentiated consciousness as they are molded plastic or the products of trees and metallic minerals.

All of which is helpful in understanding a world forged by a consciousness that is to a greater or lesser degree mediated by language, and that this mediation will always give rise to a certain amount of tension. A woody thing growing out of the ground is not itself the word “tree”. On the other hand we are able to do with it what we want because we have named it, and of course trees and their wood have become part of the recreated structures we also acknowledge as reality.

There isn’t very much tension here, but what if we consider instead an object in space, whose gravity we can detect but which is otherwise invisible? Is there the same amount of tension, once it has been called a black hole? What about the most recently calculated last digit in pi? That might seem real enough, but what about that one after that, as yet uncalculated? Is that real? What about the “slithy toves” in Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky? Are they real? If not, then how can we talk about them? If yes, is there therefore more or less tension because they lack correspondence with the world as commonly understood? What about Adam and Eve? Perseus? Snow White? Diana, Jeb, Tom, Helen and Julie and all the others, how real do they seem? How well does their experience reflect the experience of people who read their stories?


  1. I'm afraid I skipped most of this because I am becoming interested in the story.

    So far I've probably liked the poems best, even though I didn't understand them, because they had more energy, and the chapters with Jeb in, and perhaps Julie, too.

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