Trapped in the Mirror

Trapped in the Mirror was the title of a book on narcissism by Elan Golomb. It’s a very good title. Unfortunately, as I recall it, the book never really fulfilled the potential suggested by its title, largely because of its limited clinical and psychological focus on the individual where it could have broadened into the historical, sociological, or cultural context. Christopher Lasch attempted to do this with The Culture of Narcissism. Even then, I think, Lasch, despite the excellence of his sociological insights, erred in thinking that this, too narrowly, was a problem peculiar to “American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations”, as the subtitle has it.

Narcissism is the state of being “trapped in the mirror” and is the human, all-too-human condition. It has been that since human beings became self-conscious. It was just what was formerly called “idolatry”, which is the same state of being “trapped in the mirror”. If it were not the human condition, the ancient myth of Narcissus and Echo would not have been composed, and an event like the “Axial Age” of the prophets would never have occurred. It is narcissism that lies behind the legendary “Fall of Man”, and the Fall of Man was to become trapped in the mirror. This is also referred to as “the Fall into Time”, or “The Kali Yuga“.

It is not, of course, simple coincidence that Jean Gebser’s four historical “structures of consciousness” — the archaic, the magical, the mythical, the mental-rational — appear to correspond also to the four ages or “Yugas”, or the “Four Ages of Man” of the Greeks — the Golden, the Silver, the Bronze, and the Iron — as this descent into Time. The shape of time and space figures very prominently in all Gebser’s interpretations of civilisations as structures of consciousness. That means, of course, that civilisations are largely narcissistic structures inasmuch as they mirror the consciousness structure. This is already implied in Anais Nin’s remark that “we see things as we are, not as they are”. And that is also implied in another of Gebser’s books, not yet translated from the German to my knowledge, Der grammatische Spiegel — “the grammatical mirror”.

Narcissus of the myth and the Prodigal Son of the parable cut the same figure. Both are representatives of the human ego-consciousness grown “progressively” estranged and alienated from the source of its life and true identity. Gebser calls this “distantiation” from the “vital centre” until it experiences itself as the proverbial “stranger in a strange land” — the “faraway land” of the Prodigal Son. This “distantiation” as journey into the “faraway land” is itself a double-movement — on the one hand, a forgetfulness that characterises the state of “post-historic man” and on the other hand, a movement into the mirror or “through the looking glass”. (And interestingly enough, in this regard, the word “perspective” originally referred to a “looking glass”). The “Emissary” of Iain McGilchrist’s book on neurodynamics, The Master and His Emissary, is just another name for Narcissus and for the Prodigal Son. What Gebser calls “distantiation” is what McGilchrist calls “usurpation”.

“Trapped in the mirror” and references to “the bubble of perception” and “the echo chamber” are all equivalent expressions for narcissism or idolatry. “Anomie” (Durkheim), “Iron Cage” (Weber), “alienation” (Marx), “malaise” (Charles Taylor), or what existentialists also call Angst, are all attempts from different perspectives to diagnose the same thing in various ways — the estrangement of the ego-consciousness from its roots and the sources of its life. They are all terms, in effect, for the same experience of being “trapped in the mirror” and the fall into Time.

The “mirror” is what is called Maya, samsara, Veil, Ulro (Blake) or more recently “the Matrix”. These are just other representations of the same “faraway land” of the parable of the Prodigal Son. Mumford’s “Megamachine” is of the same nature. It is the narcissistic construct of the mechanical aspects of the mental-rational consciousness structure — its mirror image.

The mirror world is, however, an inverted world. Others besides Sheldon Wolin (“Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Spectre of Inverted Totalitarianism“) have observed this inversion associated with the culture of narcissism. Lewis Mumford has commented on how what were formerly held as “the seven deadly sins” have become, instead, the seven deadly virtues through a strange revaluation of values. The topsy-turvy character of Late Modernity is also the meaning of “trapped in the mirror” — Alice’s white knight speaking backwards, as it were.

“Everything possible to be believed is an image of truth”. That is the character of Blake’s Ulro and of Plato’s Cave parable. (Blake has a number of proverbs that pertain to the inverted nature of the Ulro as the mirror of Urizen’s narcissism). The belief is an image, but it is only the shadow of a truth and not the truth itself. We are compelled by that fact to recognise a distinction between the mediate and the immediate, which most people confuse because they are trapped in the mirror. It’s this confusion of the mediate and immediate (and therefore the confusion of opinion or belief and truth) that makes propaganda and branding so effective, and Rolf Jensen’s dystopian Brave New World of “the Dream Society” seem likely.

An apocalypse is the shattering of the mirror. This Jesus called “the truth that sets free”. What did the Buddha call equally “enlightenment” or “liberation”? He called it “the empty mirror”. Jean Gebser calls this “the transparency of the world”. Rumi called it “the pure world”. Blake called it “seeing the infinite in all things”.

The frightful fragmentation of the mental-rational consciousness structure described by Gebser is, correspondingly, also a shattering of the mirror. That is, in effect, the gist of Gebser’s “double-movement”. It is also, potentially, an escape from being trapped in the mirror. Truth very seldom is revealed except as a “shattering truth”, because it breaks the spell of narcissistic enthrallment. This is the meaning of a “new heaven” and a “new earth”.

An apocalypse is death. It is the dance of Shiva. Blake called it also “the dance of Eternal Death” performed by his “transhuman” character Albion upon his awakening from his slumbering as a slave in “the dark Satanic mill”. “Glad Day”, Blake called it. This is why so many traditions honour Death as the teacher and liberator (but which is exactly what our techno-transhumanists deny and seek to dodge). The “truth that sets free” is only approached once one learns to “die to oneself daily”, as the Christian gospels put it.

Transcendence has always been about transparency. It’s not a movement from here to there. It has ever been about escaping the condition of being “trapped in the mirror”. There are plenty of book titles that refer to “the trap of history”, but that’s not the essential thing about the trap. The narrative form we call “history” is only another mirror, and often only a cosmological mythos itself of the origins and development of the mental-rational consciousness.

The mirror is actually very useful. The mirror can teach us a great deal about ourselves. The mirror — or Maya or Ulro — exists for that purpose. The mirror isn’t the problem. The problem is “opacity”, which is forgetting that it is a mirror and mistaking it for the “natural order of things”. When Marshall McLuhan described the technological society in terms of “the extensions of man”, this also was in terms of narcissistic construct. This actually isn’t the problem. It’s in the nature of creativity, and it is purposeful. We learn about innermost ourselves and our essential potentialities by projecting ourselves into spacetime through our artefacts. A “civilisation” is a collective artefact. The problem arises when this process ceases to be transparent and we become, in those terms, trapped by it — trapped in the mirror.

That’s essentially what Blake means by,

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could percieve.
And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity;
Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood;
Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.
And at length they pronounc’d that the Gods had order’d such things.
Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

That “forgetting” was the “original sin”, as it were, of the Prodigal Son. For this reason, the fall into Time is also the fall into narcissism, and into the trap of the mirror.






15 responses to “Trapped in the Mirror”

    • Steve Lavendusky says :

      Just about done with a book called ” The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light ” by William Irwin Thompson. Wow, what a thinker. What do you think of him Scott?

      • Scott Preston says :

        I’ve read a few essays by Thompson. I’ve read Evil and World Order some time ago, and a few things from Coming Into Being. I think he’s a marvelous historian and thinker. I regret not having caught up with his other writings as yet.

        My chief interest, always, is getting to the bottom — to what it is that underlies — these various diagnoses of the modern “malaise” as mentioned in the post — Durkheim’s “anomie”, Weber’s “iron cage” or “disenchantment of the world”, Karl Marx’s “alienation”, or what the existentialists refer to altogether as “Angst” (Gebser’s “anxiety”). I’m sure there were other terms for it in earlier times — “melencolia” and the “Black Bile” during the Renaissance, for example. Probably earlier it was blamed on “witchcraft”.

        I think each of these only had a piece of the puzzle. I think it is narcissism, but narcissism in a broader sense not much appreciated or understood by clinical psychology/psychiatry (or what Gebser calls “psychism”, even Jung). I think what underlies it is this being “trapped in the mirror” which gives rise to a certain feeling of confinement, of limited being, even a sense of being unreal.

        I don’t think any of these thinkers — Durkheim, Weber, Marx, and so on — dove far enough into the sickness they described because of their allegiance to the mental-rational and its need for precise “definitions” — which is, of course, drawing limits or boundaries around or “framing”. I think this self-imposed limiting to the merely “logical” also limited them to any deeper insight into the spiritual problem they were attempting to address.

        Gebser does probe deeper than these ever did, but then I also tend to think that his Christian commitments, however so enlightened they may have been compared to today’s fundamentalism, also played a limiting role in Gebser’s cultural philosophy.

        for one thing, I’ve always thought that he got the myth of Narcissus as “the discovery of the soul” quite wrong. This interpretation doesn’t take into account that the myth is a myth of Narcissus AND ECHO. Narcissus, after all, never awoke from his enchantment with the image in the reflecting mirror-the reflecting pool.

        Gebser’s interpretation might be correct, not for Narcissus per se, but for the mythological consciousness structure itself, particularly if it was beginning to perceive that the “gods” were simply images and echos of the soul’s own nature. In other words, that the mythological consciousness was awakening to the mental, in which case, it would also be awakening from the dreaming of the mythological to the perception of soul or psyche, and that the myth of Narcissus and Echo was, in a sense, critical judgement upon itself.

        • mikemackd says :

          I read The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light in 1982. I agree with Steve’s assessment. If I were to write a list of, say, the 20 books that had the greatest influence on me, that book would be on it.

          As Tim Ruggiero says at: “A good book is one that parades my stupidity and ignorance before me and leaves me with every incentive to take corrective action. It jogs my conscience and flings open wide the doors of understanding and insight.” Then, that book did that for me.

          P.S. Tim Ruggiero has another post on the same home page, called “The Perfection of Non-Existence at:, which touches upon that theme.

          P.P.S. Scott, if you and W.I. Thompson ever met, you would probably do a happy jig or two around the room concerning your opinions of Ken Wilber. Using Ken’s terminology, I have differentiated, but not dissociated, my thoughts from his. I wish that Ken’s amazing quantity of reading – you should have seen the library at his house! – had enfolded more breadth and depth of Mumford.

          Once, at Ken’s place, I waltzed up to him and Don Beck and said, “perhaps your hierarchy is more like gears in a car: they have to be engaged for road conditions, and your hierarchy has to be engaged for life conditions. Neither responded, so I waltzed off.

          However, I still think that mechanist metaphor was apt. If Wilber had read Mumford, perhaps he would have better distinguished between the megamachine and global consciousness, and been more wary of mechanistic thinking’s limitations in holonic contexts as distinct from designing, producing and maintaining artefacts, in the manner described by McGilchrist.

          He would have then owned that the megamachine does not own consciousness: it is bestowed upon the Emissary by the Master. Mechanistic thought is qualitatively, intrinsically, much less valuable than organic thought. Often it has to be, to be extrinsically valuable. But a monological gaze upon extrinsic value, as Wilber recognized, is disastrous. Yet that is all the megamachine values. The idea that a machine thinker from the West is per se more spiritually advanced that an organic thinker from anywhere, is, I contend, preposterous beyond the bounds of sanity.

          Yesterday I read a PhD online by Gretchen Gano called “The Soft Megamachine: Lewis Mumford’s Metaphor of Technological Society and Implications for (participatory) Technology Assessment” at

          In my experience, that soft megamachine is manifesting now. All around the globe.

          • Scott Preston says :

            Did Thompson do a critique of Wilber somewhere?

            I just recall, too, that I did read Passages About Earth: Explorations of the New Planetary Culture many years ago. something I have to take up and read again.

            • mikemackd says :

              “We have so replaced [high] culture with psychology, psychotherapy, and simplistic workshops on how to fix the depressive flats of our lives that we prefer the compulsive mappings and textbook categorizations of a Ken Wilber to the poetic insights of a Jean Gebser. Wilber seeks to control the universe through mapping, and the dominant masculinist purpose of his abstract system is to shift power from the described to the describer. As an autodidact from the Midwest, Wilber wants to promote himself as “the Einstein of the consciousness movement”… This mode of scholarship is really a mode of psychic inflation and self-magnification; it is a grand pyramid of systems of abstract thought, with Wilber’s kept on top. Never does one come upon a feeling for the concrete: a new look at an individual poem, a painting, or a work of architecture.”

              “Coming Into Being”

            • mikemackd says :

              The quote is from pp. 12-13 of “Coming into Being”. Thompson inserted it into a section in praise of Gebser, whom he considers “the real deal”, in stark contrast to Wilber.

              Be that as it may or may not, Wilber’s works for me still fitted Ruggiero’s definition of a good book, just as did the ones I have read of Thompson’s. If I confined my praise to books I completely agree with, I would be confining it to those which do not fit that definition.

              So, some of Wilber’s books would be on that list of my top 20 as well, and I will remain forever grateful for that.

            • Scott Preston says :

              That’s quite the deflation of Wilber. Translated, it means Wilber is too abstract and cerebral to effectively serve the integral consciousness. Reminded me though of something Jung said of Einstein after their meeting — “too cerebral”, which is surprising because Einstein thought of himself differently.

              Yes, Wilber is too abstract and cerebral to be an effective proponent of integralism. That’s shown by his AQAL model, which is only a modified Cartesianism. Taking the I-It relation (subject-object) and pluralising it as “We-Its” is not clever.

              In Wilber’s AQAL model, time has no place at all, and that’s utlimately what distinguishes Wilber from both Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy. Rosenstock’s “cross of reality” is simply superior to Wilber’s AQAL because it accounts for more reality than Wilber’s AQAL — especially the axis of times.

              Wilber, like his hero Einstein apparently (and like Descartes) wants to start with the assumption that time is an illusion. Like Thatcher’s “individuals and families”, for Wilber only subjects and objects are real — the polarities of space.

              Wilber, like the techno-transhumanists, wants to be disembodied being completely — that is to say literally timeless. But to be embodied is to be temporal being, and while time might be an illusion (the shadow of eternity as it were) that illusion is highly relevant.

              Wilber, I think, inasmuch as he has taken anything away from Gebser, simply misunderstands what Gebser means by “time-freedom” and our anxiety and “guilt about time”, correspondingly also what Gebser means by “ever-present origin”. Time and space evolve or “unfold” from the ever-present origin. That’s the meaning also of Rosenstock’s “cross of reality” — radiance. You only have to compare the two models to see the Wilber’s is static, while Rosenstock’s is radiant.

              this is really key to understanding why men like Blake, Gebser, Rosenstock, Nietzsche are so at odds with “modernity”, by which we mean rationalism and the mental-rational. They address “man” as embodied being, not as an abstract being, and that means taking the temporal dimension seriously. Rationalism always strived to be disembodied — timeless and abstracted, but that’s what Rosenstock dissed as “Egyptianism”.

              “Eternity is in love with the productions of time” — one of Blake’s proverbs. That has a lot more depth to it than I think most understand by it. It’s not just a restatement of “God so loved the world that…” In fact, its also a restatement of “the body is the temple of the living god” and “temple” is “temporal” — time.

              Therefore, loathing for the body and for embodied existence (which extends to contempt for Nature) is profane. It’s the desecration of the temple.

              Has Wilber understood at all what Gebser means by “the transparency of the world”? And that means, too, the transparency of time? No. He just ignores time.

  1. abdulmonem says :

    I do share your keen interest in deciphering the connection between the divine mirror and the human mirror and how to work toward avoiding the trap of the human mirror by realizing that humans do not have a separate mirror but only a reflective mirror once they forget that truth they lapse in self-loss irrespective of the expressions we use in identifying that loss. It is an internal journey from the ego-consciousness to the higher consciousness which our soul represents to facilitate the journey on the humans and to easify the process of his understanding as how to leave the state of far land to the divine near land which is present all the time inside and outside us only if you pay honest and sincere attention solidified by devotional intention. The unity of life, of consciousness, of will etc., that is why one has to be careful as to what he registers in his book because everything is going to count for him or against him. Nothing goes unregistered in the world of the divine.

      • Scott Preston says :

        History in English Words is a work I’ve always wanted to get around to, and would certainly be a nice accompaniment to Gebser’s own method and his “grammatical mirror” approach (as well as Rosenstock-Huessy’s grammatical method”). I’m sure Barfield’s book validates the approach of both Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy.

        With so much good and wise material around you have to wonder how we managed to ignore it all and descend into the mess we’re in today. Perhaps I shouldn’t even ask that question, since it’s rather obvious. We know. We just choose not to act on what we know. We leave “choice” to the decisions of the Megamachine. I think this accounts for the strange duplicity or double-think of the “New Normal” especially. Gebser’s notion of our “guiilt about time” would make no sense at all unless we did know better, but chose not to act on that better knowledge. Otherwise, it makes no sense to speak of bad conscience about time.

        Our bad conscience about time is expressed in statements like “do time”, “waste time”, “pass time”, “kill time” even “buy time”, and so on. There is, in such statements, a sense of guilt about the betrayal of life and life-time. There was something of that in the movie Revolutionary Road that I saw.

        That’s really what’s behind Mumford’s critique of the Megamachine — the betrayal of life and lifetime, and exchanging that for the tempus mortuum.

  2. abdulmonem says :

    As Aleksandr Solzhenlysn said , nothing awakes the omniscience( god consciousness) within us but the insistent thoughts about one own transgressions, errors and mistakes that awakens us to move toward perfection, a process that can not be achieved without the a fore-mentioned emptying.Talking about issues is not the same as using the wise issues as a step stone toward our own self realization . Changing one self is the first step in wanting to be of use in changing the world. Once I saw Wilber putting a naked photograph of him on his blog and thought that was not the wise human one can learn from. Mental chattering is not the road to him despite its apparent deceptive assistance in the way to him. It in not a human will unsupported by the divine will the main ingredient in the process of human spiritual maturity. All prophets proved that the knowledge they are delivering from the source ,to remind us to aspire to that knowledge and not to be arrogant as to depend on our sole will. They also remind us not to forget that the human knowledge is prone to stagnate over time that is why there were so many prophets across the time charged with the responsibility of renewing the loss effectiveness of the language that has lost its luster. Of course there are no more prophets because humans have matured enough to be their own prophets as it is clearly seen from what is going in our present human situation where we are hearing the claims of so many humans boasting of their abilities to run the show and it seems god has responded silently in the way of accommodating their wish, only to prove to the humans their stupidity, No wonder we are hearing, all these voices calling for the renewal of consciousness because the prevailed consciousness has strayed so far as no one can be sure as of the two paths our misled humanity is going to take ,the safe path of which the russian visinary identified or crush into the abyss. From what is going on in our world, all signs are not encouraging. It is the influencing names of the domineering divine force that reacts to the human situations negatively or positively in light of the human conditions that the humans have created. We are receivers of divine thoughts and recreators of these thoughts anew in light of our receptivity and preparedness that our awareness of him demands. We are not mechanical machine to reproduce the thoughts of other humans machines and this the fight of all those we are reading about to remind us of activating our internal resources in coordination with the the only divine energy the sources of all energies we are using or talking about. Of course Scott knows my Whiteheadian temperentI in reading but I surely never stop pondering in his presence. I am not of those who read a lot but work on themselves not. It is only my compassionate urge to see others see what I see and leave the realm of identifying the ills but to move to rectify at least in oneself.

  3. abdulmonem says :

    Our life is a movement between silent or oral yes or no,so please put not at the end of my comment.

  4. abdulmonem says :

    I like to add that it seems that humans are in need of constant psychological adjustment due to his paradoxical construction that contains both the forces of good and ill, in line with the paradoxical nature of our god and our cosmos. Religion is our personal psychological school which we need to be in a continual study of the divine curriculum prescribed for the school.
    . The problem does reside in the deniers of such divine curriculum and made their so-called their curriculum which is stolen from the divine curriculum but in those who do not honestly abide by the curriculum despite their attendance to the so-called schools of god irrespective of the labels. I feel we are in a time when god will manifests his power through some of his prepared creatures to show that there is nothing run haphazardly made and to expose the liars., who used his knowledge and turned against his creativity through falsification and mental perversion.

  5. Charles says :

    Scott, I appreciate your writing. Glad to see the name of W. I.Thompson mentioned. I feel he is one of the most imaginative and erudite cultural historians writing today. His book Darkness and Scattered Light (1978) set me on a path of seeking an understanding that is ongoing. His scenario for a transformed vision in that book is still relevant for the present. Over the years he has written about his appreciation of Gebser’s ideas especially this pattern

    But often evil in history becomes the annunciation of the next level of organization.

    Here is a quote from one of his earliest books -The Edge of History.

    “Western Civilization is drawing to a close in an age of apocalyptic turmoil
    in which the old species, collectivizing mankind with machines, and the new
    species, unifying it in consciousness, are in collusion with one another to
    end what we know as human nature. We are at one of those moments when the
    whole meaning of nature, self and civilization is overturned in a
    re-visioning of history.”

    Here is a link to some ideas about Thompson in the blog that I write.

    Scott, I agree that narcissism is at the root of many of humanities deepest problems. I mentioned this book – Out of Weakness – Healing the Wounds That Drive US to War – Andrew Bard Schmookler The book articulates how narcissism plays into the history of civilization and ongoing problem of violence and power.

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