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.