Lockdown means many of us are spending longer than at any time in history with our reflections. From Shakespeare to Plath, can literature help us navigate this new era of the ego?
When the anthropologist Edmund ‘Ted’ Carpenter showed the isolated Biami tribespeople of the Papuan plateau a mirror for the very first time, they weren’t terribly keen.
‘Paralysed,’ is how the American described it in his account of the 1976 expedition. ‘After their first startled response – covering their mouths and ducking their heads – they stood transfixed, staring at their images, only their stomach muscles betraying great tension.’
My stomach muscles have similarly betrayed great tension towards a new and unwelcome reflection device recently – though you wouldn’t be able to tell, thanks to the clever way I’ve angled my laptop.
‘Jumping on a Zoom call’ is now, for many of us, as regular a part of daily working life as battling with photocopiers or apologising your way around a kitchenette was before the onset of These Strange Times.
You only ever ‘jump’ onto a Zoom call
You only ever ‘jump’ on a Zoom call – a bafflingly upbeat verb, when you think about it – which I have done every day for the past month, weekends included, pretending to look at the faces of various colleagues or loved ones. Instead, of course, I’ve just been fixating on my own as it ages in real time, the wrinkles around the eyes deepening with every blink, the corners of the mouth trembling under its rictus grin before wilting, by the end of the day, like the foliage of a forgotten celery.
‘He possesses for a moment the curious power of being able to frighten himself,’ is how John Cheever described the protagonist in Bullet Park as he looked into the mirror one morning. Now, we drag that moment of brutal self-examination out for entire hours (or 40 minutes, if you’re not a subscriber), trying to arrange our faces in ways that embody ‘sincere interest’, or ‘open-minded curiosity’, or ‘spirited enthusiasm’, all the while our brains quietly shrieking: What the hell is my hair doing, I look like the scary one from No Country For Old Men.
Grappling with this new reality, I have been thinking about Cheever and other writers who may have some wisdom to impart on the topic of confronting one’s own reflection. There is of course the foundation story of vanity itself: poor old Narcissus, whom meddlin’ Ted was reminded of the day he spoiled the Biami’s afternoon (‘Like Narcissus,’ his field report continued, ‘they were left numb and totally fascinated’).
In Book III of Metamorphoses, Ovid explains how, in Greek mythology, the young man renowned for his beauty gazed into the waters of a woodland spring and fell instantly in love with his own reflection. Would the same thing have happened if the stream was accidentally pointed halfway up Narcissus’s nose, and instead of a lush forest in the background, showed a half-dead rubber plant, a wonky Ikea print and a spare bedroom wall in desperate need of a lick of paint? Hard to say.
There’s a famous scene in Shakespeare’s Richard II when the hapless King looks into a mirror and ponders his own career failings – albeit in this case losing an entire kingdom, rather than misplacing a report or forgetting to forward an invoice to accounts.
Was this face the face / That every day under his household roof / Did keep ten thousand men?
He asks himself, incredulously, before smashing the mirror to the ground where it ‘cracks in a hundred shivers’. This is one way to deal with it I suppose, although the repair bill for a MacBook Pro would probably be a little higher.
Sylvia Plath was a poet who knew a thing or two about the toll confronting our physical bodies can have on our self-esteem, though she stopped short of blaming the technology itself.
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions. / Whatever I see I swallow immediately / Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
She wrote in ‘Mirror’, describing, rather fairly, a mirror. Later in the same poem, she talks about rising ‘day after day’ in its reflection ‘like a terrible fish’ – coincidentally the same two words that go through my head after hitting ‘share camera’ on Zoom, particularly when the meeting is before 10 am.
‘Too much self-awareness can definitely be a bad thing’
But the book I’ve been thinking about most in relation to the new normal is the relatively little-known (in the UK at least) science fiction novella, Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. In it, a hapless janitor called Charlie Gordon is selected for an experiment in which his IQ is artificially raised by science. Told in his diary entries, we see the dim-witted Charlie progress quickly from contented ignorance to being quite ruinously smart, his mind racing so fast with clever thoughts he becomes miserable and insufferable to others.
Too much self-awareness can definitely be a bad thing, and when you think about, in the old days of handshakes and eye contact, suspending your own consciousness for a bit was sort of how social interactions worked: I chat, therefore I’m not. You saw your friends and family as much to forget yourself and your troubles as you did to enjoy their company. In the Early Age of Zoom, when you are confronted with the sheer, farcical fact of yourself at all times and see your reactions to everything everyone says, this all feels rather more difficult. I can’t help but think that the newfound obsession with quizzing each other about capital cities and the dates of famous battles is a way to try and distract from all of this.
Perhaps it is merely the next logical phase in the solipsistic trajectory we’ve been on for a while now, hastened by a random global pandemic. The mirrors shown to the Biami tribe – the ones we hang on our walls and glimpse at in private moments – have only existed for around 200 years. In the past 20 or so, we’ve become accustomed to seeing our image more often via our phones, which we’ve then modified and distributed mostly on our own terms. Maybe now is simply the moment we have to surrender control completely and adjust to being full-time, living avatars of ourselves, trapped in an eternal ego feedback loop; Narcissus with his neck craned, King Richard unable to release his grip, Plath’s ‘terrible fish’ risen forever. Either that or learn to use the ‘hide own video display’ button, but somehow I don’t think that’ll catch on.