Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

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

Academic journal article Canadian Slavonic Papers

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

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-USASCII text omitted.).

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


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. Reasoning by metaphor, it seems, can be as important to literary theory as metaphorical imagery is to literature.

In Gogol" s contemporary Romantic age, the trend was against viewing the mimetic function of art as deficient, even in cases when artist-theorists appealed to Plato's Ideal Forms, by means of romantic Neoplatonic readings of the dialogues. These looked toward Diotima of Symposium, who argues that Eros and the quest for immortality through creation result in the connection of Beauty to Goodness and Truth, thus promoting both creative art and physical matter to more elevated positions than those they occupied among the Platonists or the "original" Neoplatonists of Plotinus. In Abrams's schematic, then, the traditional "mirror" idiom is eventually combined with (and overtaken by) the romantic emblematic analogy of the "lamp" - conveying the outflow of light and truth that the poet discovers through contemplation of higher truths and the imagination that enables him to perceive them. Abrams writes much of Shelley, who "like many of his contemporaries, reverses the aesthetic mirror in order to make it reflect the lamp of the mind," thus creating a "combination of Platonism and psychological empiricism, and of the mimetic and expressive point of view. …

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