The Writer and the Mirror

Hemingway writing in Paris

Hemingway writing in Paris

Gide, who used to keep a careful journal of his literary projects, writes in 1893 about one of his petty idiosyncrasies as a writer. He has installed a full-figure mirror in across his desk so he can glance at himself after writing each sentence. In his own words, his reflection “listened and spoke” to him, “kept [him] company” and “encouraged” him. Gide’s strange habit should not be understood as a form of narcissism. Quite the contrary. He was documenting, avant la lettre, a concern that would haunt many twentieth-century writers.

Lacan advanced the theory that the “mirror state” is the period when infants recognize their reflection for the first time, thus beginning the construction of the ego. This process, which goes from the sixth to eighteenth month, is crucial to prepare children to be subjects of regulations imposed upon them by the external world (the symbolic order). Some critics such as Jenijoy La Belle argue that Lacan forgets that, in addition, this process creates a permanent break with the world around us, so that, from that moment on, we become conscious of our fundamental loneliness. No matter how much we might agree with them, every time we look at ourselves in the mirror, our reflexion feeds the mental process that we identify as the “I” when we speak, think, feel or dream.

It is possible that Gide was not the first writer working in front of a mirror. In fact, it is quite possible that many, from Cervantes to Flaubert, have done the same. Nevertheless, it is quite surprising that around the time when others were concerned with the construction of the self, Gide would be concerned with the opposite process: the splitting of the self that happens every time a writer sits down to work. Even more. It seems to suggest that writing can only happen when such a split happens.

Ernest Hemingway, who wasn’t precisely conspicuous about his creative process, never mentions the issue in A Moveable Feast where he chronicles even his smallest habits. He writes, for instance, about the tangerines he used to eat between pages, or his walks along the streets of Paris, but never about the role mirrors played in his writing process. He was not, of course, under any obligation of being thorough. Nevertheless, there is proof that he, at least on that particular aspect, was following Gide’s footsteps.

In a grainy photograph in black and white, Hemingway, perhaps in his late fifties, is revising a paragraph he has just written. The paper is still rolled in the typewriter, and he, perhaps in an unconscious gesture, grazes his short beard while pondering—perhaps activating his famous “garbage detector”—whether he should keep it or not. The photograph shows also a full figure mirror just across the desk. Like Gide, he probably glanced at himself in the mirror once in a while, but every time he did so, exactly as Gide, he was not writing anymore. In fact, not Hemingway nor Gide could see themselves in the act of writing. Every time they raised their gaze, t,mhe person at the other side wasn’t the writer anymore, but the person—the Gide that fled to London with his lover, the Hemingway that ran ahead of the bulls in Pamplona—in the act of looking at himself.

It is not clear whether Borges, who was fond of mirrors and labyrinths, wrote in front of a mirror. Considering the diminishing eyesight of his latter years it is quite possible that, at least in that period, he didn’t. Nonetheless, Borges manages to express in his concise style the same concern that used to assail Gide. In “Borges and I” he writes: “It is to the other one… to whom things happen.” The piece seems to imply that the other is the writer. Citing Spinoza, Borges writes that it will be the other that has a chance to be remembered because he is destined to vanish forever. But leaving things so clearly distinguished wouldn’t be Borgesian enough. Close to the end of that piece he asks himself who is writing that particular text. Leaving us unsettled, and, in a postmodernist fashion, unsure about who is Borges and who is the I.

José Saramago, who also had a keen postmodern register in his writings, also followed the tradition of the writer in the mirror. In “Letter from José to José” he writes: “From this side of the table or from the mirror, you follow the upside down words.” The poem adds a simple but powerful observation. When writers looks at themselves in the mirror they are not really looking at themselves, but rather to a flipped, and therefore, inaccurate image of themselves. Saramago’s comment reminds us that, even if the split happens, it is not in the power of the writer to witness it.

Perhaps the writer who has best addressed Gide’s concern is Joyce Carol Oates. In “JCO and I (after Borges)” she turns the original text on its head. “In fact, it is to the other,” she writes, “to whom nothing ever happens.” Unlike Borges, who blurs the line between the biological person and the writer, the public persona and the private human being, Oates embraces the split. The other is the Oates in the process of writing. The key word seems to be “process.” Because it is a process, it is impossible to look at it when you are engaged in it, because, as soon as you stop and look at yourself in the mirror, whether it is a literal or a figurative one, you cease to be the one who writes to become the one who observes.

To most writers none of this is really new, because even if they haven’t articulated it as an ontological problem, they know that at the moment of writing, when they are part of the process, they are at the mercy of several forces, some of which are difficult to understand, but which for a few minutes, sometimes hours, render them into someone else. It is someone else that writes in the same way that it is someone else who performs any task that demands total concentration—from neurosurgery to the construction of a shoe. Nevertheless, what Gide, Borges and Oates seem to forget is that in order to see the split, in order to wonder who is doing the writing, there is another instance needed, an “observer” able to see the difference between the writer and the other. It is the “observer” who intuits the split. It is the observer who is able to take distance and ask herself: “I don’t know who is writing this page.” Or to affirm: “It is not her, but me, who writes this page. Or, at least, that’s what it seems to me.”

The nineteenth century brought the Romantic idea of the writer as a vehicle sometimes taken over by a superior, ineffable spirit that spoke through him. Perhaps it is not completely inaccurate, if we ,m;believe what Foucault writes in “What is an Author?” But Foucault was concerned with the discourses that speak through the writer. Gide’s concern, on the other hand, resonates more with the Cartesian question: “Who am I?” Now that postmodern thought, and new developments in the study of the mind suggest that perhaps the self is not as unitary as Descartes would have liked, nor split in just two as Gide, Borges and Oates believed, but rather an illusion, it might be high time to start thinking about a third instance. The consciousness capable of seeing such a split: not the one conditioned by biological needs, nor the writer in the process of writing, but rather that who observes both and notices the difference.

January 15, 2012

Leave a Reply