Friday Takeaway: Ilan Stavans

  • Ilan Stavans, Amherst College Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture, at his Amherst home, Monday, June 5, 2017. —KEVIN GUTTING / Gazette Staff

Friday, December 01, 2017

I abhor mirrors. There is something eerie, unsettling, even supernatural about them. I especially don’t like their insistence on reproduction without permission. One of me is more than enough.

My dislike for mirrors isn’t new. Perhaps I despised them more in my adolescence than I do today. But I have always felt there are too many mirrors around: in elevators, in gyms, in stores and restaurants. And in houses. There are as few as possible where I live, though it is dangerous to exile them completely from one’s life. If I enter the bathroom, for instance, I am aware of the way I avoid the mirror on the wall. Yet I have to surrender when I shave. Otherwise the results — I know this firsthand — are painful.

It isn’t that I don’t like mirrors telling me how I look. The truth is, within a reasonable spectrum of decorum, I don’t much care how I look. It is simply that mirrors seem to care who I am and how I look, even when I don’t.

Maybe I’m simplifying my aversion. Just as I despise mirrors, I’m also grateful to them. I’m fascinated by how they shamelessly copy everything around. I like the opportunity they offer of allowing us to be inside and outside of who we are. And while I avoid mirrors whenever possible, I will spend hours considering art that portrays mirrors. Work by da Vinci, Vermeer, Éduard Manet, and M.C. Escher. Or Nabokov, Borges, and J. K. Rowling.

When an amusement park has a hall of mirrors, it is likely it will be the only place I will be interested in. Once I acknowledge that I’m about to see myself returned a million times, I am thrilled with the experience. I like convex mirrors because they don’t hide their intention to distort, exacerbate and even lie about reality.

Among my favorite paintings is Diego Velázquez’s “Las Meninas.” It was made at a time — the Baroque Age — when mirrors were sources of metaphysical meditations. The effect the painting creates is infinite. Velázquez looks at us looking at him. But there is no getting around the point that we are usurpers. The mirror at the back of the chambers reflects those who stand exactly where we are: Spain’s monarchs, King Philip IV and Queen Mariana.

Philosophically, I see mirrors as a symptom of exacerbated narcissism. As a friend of mine says, narcissism is like cholesterol. There is a good type and a bad type. But advanced societies have no interest in that distinction. Since they just can’t get enough of themselves, they do anything to multiply the possibilities. Of course, it is foolish to suggest that other societies don’t care for mirrors. Mirrors have been fixtures of civilization at least since the Mesopotamians thrived in the fertile land where the Tigris and Euphrates converge.

The number of mirrors has increased exponentially since the mid-19th century. This is because there are many more people today than at any previous time in history. It is also because manufacturing silver-glass mirrors, which are the most common type, is cheap. I can think of two others reasons: One is that mirrors are essential for science and technology; the other is that beauty isn’t only an aesthetic value but an excuse for consumer frenzy. To be beautiful these days is to live at the mercy of mirrors.

All of this probably explains why, whenever I am in the middle of an extended travel that places me in the desert or in the jungle, I experience a sense of liberation. The only images around me are natural. I hate the mantra attributed to Eugene O’Neill: “Life is for each man a solitary cell whose walls are mirrors.” The impression it leaves in me is of absolute solitude. Life, in my view, isn’t about solitude. It is about being with others.

I often feel mirrors represent gateways to a parallel dimension. Lewis Carroll’s sequel to “Alice in Wonderland,” in which the girl goes through a glass darkly, isn’t for children. I see it as a horror story. And there is a connection between mirrors and dreams. Menacing creatures lurk on the other side. Yet at times I, too, would like to be on the other side.

To a large extent, the reason why mirrors create discomfort in me is because they make me overly conscious. Like everyone else, I have an internal perception of who I am. I imagine how I look to others, how I sound, the reactions I generate. Looking at myself outside of myself is altogether different. It creates a rupture.

Something similar happens whenever I hear my voice on a recording device. When I speak to others, I hear myself although I don’t really listen to my voice; I’m so busy concocting thoughts I can’t pay full attention to how that voice sounds. However, when my voice is played back to me, I literally get uneasy. This is peculiar because I work in radio, an activity I adore. At this point, listening to my voice shouldn’t be awkward. But it is. The more my voice is available to others, the less it feels like my own.

Over time, I have come to understand that peace isn’t always the best state of affairs. Mirrors have been good to me in countless ways, to the point where I’ve resigned myself to the realization that only in death is such peace attainable. By then, it is too late to reflect.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.