From Maidens to Mugs: The Motif of the Mirror in the Works of Nikolai Gogol'

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT:

From Plato's times to our contemporary age, theorists have spoken of art as being a mirror of life and sometimes argued against the notion. In his nonfiction essays on art and literature, Gogol' was also fond of the metaphor. Due to the frequency with which mirrors appear in his work, Gogol"s oeuvre offers a unique opportunity for study of how the idiom of art-as-mirror transforms in the move from theoretical reflections to his fictional stories. Appealing to Meyer Abrams's claim that the mirror has become a "constitutive" metaphor, this article assumes that: a) the potential problems the metaphor introduces are fair game in general theorizing, and b) the questions introduced into the texts by Gogol"s fictional mirrors may also point toward problematic issues in his thought on art and development as an artist. The article surveys Gogol's use of mirrors in his fiction and relates them to their theoretical counterparts. Clear patterns emerge that parallel the geographical and meta-literary subject matter of his work. Ultimately, the article reveals how Gogol"s evolving treatment of the mirror metaphor may offer insight into the sources of the author's "creative decline."

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H. B. Torojib, ... (1847)

And the same things appear bent and straight when seen in water or out of it, or concave and convex because sight is misled by colors; and every other similar sort of confusion is clearly present in our soul. It is because it exploits this weakness in our nature that illusionist painting is nothing short of sorcery...

Plato's Republic, Book X1

INTRODUCTION

If you have ever spent a stretch of time as a houseguest in Russia, you may have learned to glance in a mirror upon reentering the home to pick up a forgotten item. If you fail to do this, you will be testing your luck during the journey. The Russian custom is one of dozens of mirror-related traditions and superstitions throughout the world. The enduring fascination with mirrors in folkloric spheres and beyond is easily explained by the unique properties of this everyday object. Chief amongst these, of course, is its ability to produce a real-time image of a person. The mirror is a principal metaphor for both sinful vanity and truthful introspection. Another property, the ability to create illusions of space, lets us imagine demonic worlds on the other side of the mirror. And a final feature is the mirror's dichotomous relationship to "truth" in its image-making. We look to mirrors as the only source of reliable information about our physical selves when the words of others do not suffice. But what we see, the "mirror image," is in fact a reversed and two dimensional rendering of our three-dimensional selves. The simultaneity of exactitude and futility in the mirror image can be a powerful metaphor for the problem of self-knowledge. Common expressions like "smoke and mirrors" and "house of mirrors" attest that optical trickery has brought distortion, deception and confusion into the mirror's metaphorical domain alongside truth-telling.

The idiom that "art is a mirror" (which often, but not always, denotes imitation of reality, whether material or spiritual) is so common that Meyer Abrams selected the mirror as an "archetypal analogy" in his history of literary criticism 77;e Mirror and the Lamp. Of such analogies he writes: "While many expository analogues, as conventional opinion proposes, are casual and illustrative, some few seem recurrent and, not illustrative, but constitutive: they yield the ground plan and essential structural elements of a literary theory, or of any theory."2 When the analogy does become "constitutive" in a theory, then the various properties of the object of comparison, such as those of the mirror discussed above, become both relevant and problematic. As Abrams discusses, this was already the case in Plato's Republic, in which art, like shadows on the walls of Socrates's cave or the heavens reflected in a mirror, is said to be a deficient imitation of the more real world of Ideas. …