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Narcissus by the Italian Baroque master Caravaggio, painted circa 1597–1599


I’ll be your mirror

Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know

I’ll be the wind, the rain, and the sunset

The light on your door to show that you’re home

Lou Reed (The Velvet Underground and Nico)

At the beginning of the week, the Director was fortunate to attend a meeting here at Tiffin.  The meeting comprised discussion and presentation on the topic of what might broadly be titled, The Future, What Does it Look Like and How are We to Get There? In the course of our get together, the indisputable Mrs O’ Connell reminded us that the word ‘curriculum’ derives from the Latin for run way or race course. Thus in a school context, it can best be understood as meaning a roadmap for both students and staff.  We were invited to reflect on what our curriculum should look like and so here I am, once again thinking out loud in your ever patient, what I take to be, presence.

I don’t know about you, but over the last week or so, the Director has noticed a rise in the number of ants roaming purposefully around the garden area. Yesterday, I decided to see if I could locate a nest or two.  Sure enough I did.  But the whole process got me to thinking: What is the correct way to understand the world?

An ant colony from some way away seems like a solid identifiable black moving mass but as you get closer, individual ants become apparent.  But then, why should you stop there?  You could go further into the ants themselves, and then you would see particular cells.  And then you might carry on down, and be seeing molecules, and indeed you could continue, very much in the style of Ant-Man and the Wasp in Quantumania.  The point is that there is no way which could be called the ‘right way’ to see these ants.  I think I may have mentioned in previous columns that everything is seen from a perspective.

Freeman Dyson had an interesting observation on this question of scale. He said when you look at a frog you can see it in a sort of mechanical way.  Certainly when you get down to the level of a cell it seems more mechanical and then when you get down to the DNA, it seems perhaps more mechanical still, but as you get down into the molecules that compose DNA, it stops being mechanical and starts to obey principles that we don’t entirely understand, those of the probabilistic nature of matter.

Coincidentally, I purchased a book just this very morning called The Magic of Reality by dear old Richard Dawkins.  Now Richard and I are seeing eye to eye so far, but wait, here’s the subtitle:  How we know what’s really true.  Oh dear.

What Richard and his pals seemingly miss is that yes, we can see an aspect of reality at any one time but it’s only one aspect.  We don’t ever get near seeing reality, whatever that is, at all.  And of course, what we do see can only be a representation.  I mean to say, we do actually get a reality but we only get one part of it, if you like.  Or even if you don’t.

A lovely illustration of this idea can be found in the Ryoanji Temple rock garden in Kyoto. The garden contains 15 stones which are arranged in such a way that  there is no place in the garden from which you can see all 15; you can actually never see more than 14. Those Zen gardeners knew a thing or two about reality, and in this case, that there is always something more that we might be missing when looked at from our own perspective.

Which of course begs the question, ‘what is my perspective?’

In my role, I’m often asked to explain why anybody would make the effort to bother reading anything beyond the bare minimum.  At such times I will recall the inspirational words of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop: “Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror.”

Beautiful as these thoughts are, seeing yourself reflected in a text is not always as straightforward as it might seem.  The conditions do need to be just right.  And these conditions are often only ever generated from looking through a lot of windows and walking through a lot of doors.  I also humbly suggest that the reflection metaphor must be coupled with an appreciation that our take on what is there, is only ever a particular perspective on what is there.  More specifically, there is potentially a problem of seeing yourself as being a reflection of yourself. Just ask Narcissus.

Bear with me.

Now, if we pay any attention to Lacan and we probably ought to, we should pay attention to his thoughts on mirrors which he outlines in what he called the mirror phase (le stade du miroir) of our psychological development.

Apparently, if you show a mirror to a roughly six month old human baby, it will usually do two things which no other animal does. One is, it will recognise that the image presented is an image of itself. It will not, like a cat does for example, behave as if there is another animal there: our human baby will know that the mirror shows the self. Secondly, it will laugh. There is pleasure in this realisation.  Which is nice.  Maybe.

Lacan argues that when the child sees themselves in the mirror, they think “that’s me; that thing over there is this thing in here”. So ‘me’ is at once here, safely inside the skin, as always, and also there, outside the skin, in the reflection. And there ‘me’ is seen as others see it: namely it is objectified. Along with this comes the realisation that there is an inside and outside, that ‘I’ exist objectively to others; ‘I’ am now only another being, and no longer everything.

And with that comes yet another realisation: that is what I’m like. I now have a way of imagining myself, an image to live by: an image of me. This is the primary image, against which I can compare all other images I see, that are either me or not me. I am about to build up my image stock, my kit for making sense of the world. I am entering into the world of images. Lacan calls this the imaginary world.  Or as he would have and did say, the imaginaire.

The most important images are those that I use to make up my self-image.  But here’s the rub, dear reader: this self-image is false. It is made up of things that are not me. An image, not a reality. This self-image built in the child’s mind, seems more and more real, as the child sees more and more images: it sees other children, pictures, adults, etc. and so it builds up a self-image out of these broken fragments. It makes a sort of ‘me’ out of that which is not me. Dr Frankenstein, who makes a composite creature out of the parts of corpses, who in trying to create a human perhaps creates the opposite, does precisely what a child does.

Lacan, always a sucker for puns, calls this new being, that the child thinks is itself, an hommelette: a little man, made out of broken eggs. Haha indeed.

So, the ‘me’ that wants to see ‘relevance to me’ in the world is not a straightforward thing at all. And so neither is the whole business of seeing myself reflected. Ask Narcissus.

Read and see the world as a window, sliding doors and a mirror.  Just don’t be fooled that what you see reflected back at you is who you are or indeed all that you could be.

Until next time, Happy Reading/Being yourself!

Director’s Tip #3

Steamed-up bathroom mirrors

Can be avoided.  Before taking a bath or shower, use a clean cloth to rub a drop or two of shampoo onto your mirror.