Friday, 29 February 2008

One's own reflection

In his essay, The Uncanny, Freud discusses the uncanny qualities of "the double". In a footnote he writes:

... it is interesting to observe what the effect is of meeting one's own image unbidden and unexpected. Ernst Mach has related two such observations in his Analyse der Empfindungen (1900). On the first occasion he was not a little startled when he realised that the face before him was his own. The second time he formed a very unfavourable opinion about the supposed stranger who entered the omnibus, and thought 'What a shabby-looking school-master that man is who is getting in!' - I can report a similar adventure. I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jolt of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a travelling cap came in. I assumed that in leaving the washing-cabinet, which lay between the two compartments, he had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realised to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass on the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance. Instead,
therefore, of being frightened by our 'doubles', both Mach and I simply failed to recognise them as such. Is it not possible, though, that our dislike of them was a vestigial trace of the archaic reaction which feels the 'double' to be something uncanny.
Sylvia Plath describes something similar in her 1963 novel The Bell Jar:

I slid into the self-service elevator and pushed the button for my floor. The doors folded shut like a noiseless accordion. Then my ears went funny, and I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.
Later in the The Bell Jar, Plath repeats the motif with a more dramatic effect:

'Why can't I see a mirror?'
'Because you better not.' The nurse shut the lid of the overnight case with a little snap.
'Because you don't look very pretty.'
'Oh, just let me see.'
The nurse sighed and opened the top bureau drawer.
She took out a large mirror in a wooden frame that matched the wood of the bureau and handed it to me.
At first I didn't see what the trouble was. It wasn't a mirror at all, but a picture.
You couldn't tell whether the person in the picture was a man or a woman, because their hair was shaved off and sprouted in bristly chicken-feather tufts all over their head. One side of the person's face was purple, and bulged out in a shapeless way, shading to green along the edges, and then to a sallow yellow. The person's mouth was pale brown, with a rose-coloured sore at either corner.
The most startling thing about the face was its supernatural conglomeration of bright colours.
I smiled.
The mouth in the mirror cracked into a grin.
A minute after the crash another nurse ran in. She took one look at the broken mirror, and at me, standing over the blind, white pieces, and hustled the young nurse out of the room.
There is a similarly disturbing scene in George Orwell's 1949 novel 1984:

'You are the last man,' said O'Brien. 'You are the guardian of the human spirit. You shall see yourself as you are. Take off your clothes.'
Winston undid the bit of string that held his overalls together. The zip fastener had long since been wrenched out of them. He could not remember whether at any time since his arrest he had taken off all his clothes at one time. Beneath the overalls his body was looped with filthy yellowish rags, just recognisable as the remnants of under-clothes. As he slid them to the ground he saw that there was a three-sided mirror at the far end of the room. He approached it, then stopped short. An involuntary cry had broken out of him.
'Go on,' said O'Brien. 'Stand between the wings of the mirror. You shall see the side view as well.'
He had stopped because he was frightened. A bowed, grey-coloured, skeleon-like thig was coming towards him. Its actual appearance was frightening, and not merely the fact that he knew it to be himself. He moved closer to the glass. The creature's face seemed to be protruded, because of its bent carriage. A forlorn, jailbird's face with a nobby forehead running back into a bald scalp, a crooked nose and battered-looking cheekbones above which the eyes were fierce and watchful. The cheeks were seamed, the mouth had a drawn-in look. Certainly it washis own face, but it seemed to him that it had changed more than he had changed inside. The emotions it registered would be different from the ones he felt. He had gone partially bald. For the first moment he had thought that he had gone grey as well, but it was only the scalp that was grey. Except for his hands and a circle of his face, his body was grey
all over with ancient, ingrained dirt. Here and there under the dirt there were the red scars of wounds, and near the ankle the varicose ulcer was an inflamed mass with flakes of skin peeling off it. But the truly frightening thing was the emaciation of his body. The barrel of the ribs was as narrow as that of a skeleton: the legs had shrunk so that the knees were thicker than the thighs. He saw now what O'Brien had meant about seeing the side view. The curvature of the spine was astonishing. The thin shoulders were hunched forward so as to make a cavity of the chest, the scraggy neck seemed to be bending double under the weight of the skull. At a guess he would have said that it was the body of a man of sixty, suffering from some malignant disease.
There is an eerie scene in Mikael Hafstrom's 2007 horror movie 1408 in which the central character, Mike Enslin, looks out of his window across the street and sees a figure in a room in the opposite building. He attempts to attract this person's attention and signal a message to him, but the figure responds by mirroring his movements and on closer inspection is indeed a reflection, but a supernatural one (the room and clothing do not match up). This realisation is quickly followed by a 'shock'. Click below for a video clip of this scene:

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