Reflections on Mirrors and the Gothic

Posted by Matt Foley on October 04, 2010 in Blog tagged with , , , , ,

Some Reflections on Mirrors

By Matt Foley, University of Stirling

The first thing that comes to mind when ruminating over the specific role mirrors and reflections have to play in the Gothic mode is a negative instance: namely, that the vampire has no reflection. Immediately there is the problem, then, of talking about something that is missing and foreclosed, and I will come to this shortly. In general, though, what is clear is that any uncanny fall out from the staging of a subject’s encounter with the mirror is symptomatic of just how important (mis)recognising our own semblance in the mirror is for us as humans. This centrality of seeing our own reflection to the development of the human subject has most famously been propounded by Lacan. In Lacan the infantile mirror stage is crucial in the development of the subject as “the I is precipitated in a primodrial form, prior to being objectified in the dialectic of identification with the other, and before language restores to it, in the universal, its function as subject” (Lacan Écrits 2006, p.76). Moreover, “the form would… have to be called the “ideal-I”… in the sense that it will also be the rootstock of secondary identifications… But the important point is that this form situates the agency known as the ego, prior to its social determination” (ibid). The ego then is first, before beginning to wrestle with the pressures of traversing the social world, situated in relationship to the Ideal-I (in Freud the Ideal Ich) that is (mis)recognised in the mirror stage. Crucially, this mis-recongition is an imaginary movement and is therefore subject to slippage. The Gothic, as a mode of excess, takes anxieties about such imaginary slippages, enhances them, and shifts them into the register of the horrific. The trailer to Alexandre Aja’s Mirrors (2008) accentuates this misrecongition by drawing out several neurotic conclusions from the smaller anxieties that perforate our relationship to our reflection. Here the person in the mirror is someone else or, at the very least, a fully figured manifestation of our own shadowy double:

To return to thinking about the vampire, though, we have to start by revisiting the process of identification in more detail and indeed, in some senses, to play with it a little. As mentioned above, there is the primary identification of the mirror stage, something that cannot fully be undone, and there are also secondary identifications through transference. Perhaps, too, there is an element of secondary identification that occurs when we invest ourselves in watching a film. As viewers we identify with the characters acting out in front of us. We transfer desires and set up identifications, both in terms of aligning the characters with imaginary notions of ourselves and also with the attributes and desires that we specify as belonging to the other. In the clip below, in the moments when we encounter the space of Dracula’s missing reflection in the small mirror Van Helsing holds, we experience the fictive, secondary identifications that we have made with Dracula as remaining present, on a psychological level, and yet the image of the character is missing. This sets up an irreducible dissonance that manifests itself as a feeling of surplus or excess in the space where the reflection should be. Our identifications with the character still exist and we expect to recognise these in his reflection but instead they are projected onto a blank space (see 2.00-3.30).

Also of interest here, and this begins more clearly to take us into more recognisable Lacanian territory, is the impossibility of staging Dracula coming to terms with his lack of reflection. He beats the mirror away, abjects and denies it (see 3.30). This hints at the impossibility of being a self without a semblance, as without the moment of imago identification that Lacan puts forward in his essay on the mirror stage, the opportunity to later become a symbolic and imaginatively autonomous subject is foreclosed. If this basic crux is taken away from the subject, if the subject has no reflection against which to misrecognise itself as fully formed, then it crumbles.

However, while, in the above, I have discussed a purely personal experience of the failures or holes in the phantasmatic lozenge that sustain all the assertive, life and ego affirming encounters with the mirror, the encounter with the mirror can also be conditioned by how we believe others view us. This is a super-egoic element to the encounter and in order to untangle this a little we can make reference to Shelley’s Frankstenstein [1831]. The creature, in the process of coming into being after his creator has abandoned him, sees himself in a pool after learning the ways of the De Lacey family:

I had admired the perfect forms of the cottagers – their grace, beauty and delicate complexions: but how was I terrified, when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and mortification. (Fr: 116-117)

The creature here feels an excessive difference from the human forms of the De Lacey family and experiences both “despondence and mortification”. However,  he controls these feelings, comes to terms with them, and it is only when the family reject him later because of his appearance that despondency turns to rage, anger, bitterness and revenge. In turn, it can be surmised that the terror at one’s own reflection can be mediated if the subject is accepted by society and is desired by the other, in whatever way that may be, in spite of his or her seeming deformity. We can live with the anxieties surrounding our own relfection if others accept our social selves. The subject therefore remains reliant on, but at a distance from, two forces: the ego making identifications with the mirror on a personal level and the other accepting the subject’s own perception of themselves that has been mediated to fit the social world. The Gothic works by presenting the neurotic limit of everyday anxieties that, due to the imaginary nature of the (mis)recognitions of our own reflection and its ability to slip, remain persistent.  The vampire is inhuman and impossible partly because it has no reflection – having a reflection is fundamental to the subject. Seeing our reflection is also an experience of personal alienation that can be soothed by the other (like the De Laceys could have done for Frankenstein’s creautre) but their remains the anxiety, due to an imaginary slippage, that the person looking back from the mirror is not a true reflection of ourselves and, horrifically, someone else all together (as the trailer to Alexandre Aja’s Mirrors suggests). The Gothic mode, then, rather than create anxieties around the subject’s experience of the mirror, actually enhances and foregrounds existing ones. The examples cited above are excessive representations of the binds, fears and anxieties that the subject has to handle in their everyday interaction with their own reflection, particularly if their fantasy of being an autonomous self, like a broken mirror, begins to crack.

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