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Book Review

Narcissus' Fatal Flaw Is Part of Dazzling Reflections in 'Mirror'

THE MIRROR A History; by Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet; Routledge $27.50, 308 pages

March 09, 2001|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"The Mirror" is an amusing jewel of a book, a sparkling reflection of the history of the mirror in Europe and the role of the mirror in the European imagination. Sabine Melchoir-Bonnet moves elegantly from the techniques of creating mirrors to their role in fashion, art, philosophy, the occult and religion.

Thoroughly French in her delight with the play of the intellect and in her unwritten assumption that Europe is the center of civilization, Melchoir-Bonnet offers us a view of Western civilization from an angle not often presented.

Water, metal and stone were the first elements used as reflective surfaces. The myth of Narcissus most famously illustrates the reflective property of water, and indeed his fate gave mirrors the bad name so eagerly attached to them by medieval Christian moralists and modern psychiatrists. Saint and shrink sternly warned that preoccupation with one's self could lead, for the one, to devilish works, and for the other, to unhealthy obsessions.

As for Narcissus, enchanted by his beauty reflected in a still pool, but unable to embrace the object of his ardent desire, he wasted away into nothingness and was changed into the beautiful spring flower that bears his name. Its verbal root in Greek, she points out, is related to narce, or numbness, for the narcotic effect of the plant's bulbous root.

Misty myth, one learns in "The Mirror," has given a nobler role to the creation of metal mirrors. Sent to slay the Gorgon (monster) Medusa, whose sight turned men to stone, the hero Perseus took the goddess Athene's bright metal shield and used it to view the monster's reflection rather than look directly into her horrid eyes: He cut off her head with the sword that the gods' messenger, Hermes, had thoughtfully given to him.

The book also surveys the presence of mirrors in art, such as Velasquez's "Las Meninas" and Vermeer's "The Allegory of Painting." And, in philosophy, Plato believed that the soul was the reflection of the divine; St. Augustine, that the man who sees himself in the mirror of the Bible sees both the splendor of God and his own wretchedness. More intimately, and touchingly, Melchoir-Bonnet quotes the modern French writer Simone Weil: "A beautiful woman, looking at herself in the mirror, might believe she is only that. But an ugly woman knows she is not only that."

History is also surveyed, with Melchoir-Bonnet noting that in early Europe there were mirrors of stone; the Romans, for instance, used polished black obsidian. Here Melchoir-Bonnet's exclusive concentration upon Europe leads her to ignore the importance, real and symbolic, of mirrors in other cultures. In his book "The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World," for instance, Carlos Fuentes intriguingly wove together the European uses of mirrors and their counterparts in the New World, polished, concave mirrors buried with the dead, apparently to guide them through the underworld.

"Is not the mirror both a reflection of reality and a projection of the imagination?" Fuentes asked.

Yes, and yet more, would be Melchoir-Bonnet's reply. For her, mirrors tell the tale of Europe's rise from the torpid Dark Ages toward the Renaissance and then toward modernism, as emerging trade and eventually capitalism aroused both the desire for decoration and luxury and provided the means to satisfy them. The Venetians rose to command the heights of the production of glass mirrors, which they still in part occupy from the glass-producing little island of Murano. The art of glass-making was a Venetian state secret, and its glassworkers were virtual slaves.

The rising power and wealth of France gave its 17th century king Louis XIV an intense desire to have his own glass production. One of the most entertaining parts of Melchoir-Bonnet's book is her account of the French court's dogged attempts to buy or steal the Venetians' skills. Eventually they succeeded and established outside Paris the Saint-Gobain Co., which rivaled Murano in its output of brilliance. The French triumph was the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, then, as now, the preeminent example of the mirror as reflector of light and later of the glorious Sun King--306 panes of reflective glass that give the illusion of 18 huge, solid mirrors.

Yet even as she reveals the rise of the mirror in fashion and elegance, Melchoir-Bonnet unearths its darker sides. "The medieval church opposed all experiments with mirrors," she writes, and recounts how questions about work with mirrors was part of the Inquisition's routine inquiries into heresy. People who sought support of the devil through mirrors were guilty of a practice known as catoptromancy. One also senses this spookiness in that chilling fairy tale question, "Mirror, mirror, on the wall / Who's the fairest one of all?" Such cultural echoes seem endless in Melchoir-Bonnet's "The Mirror," which enthralls and instructs even as it glitters.

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