Falling through the looking glass

 

‘The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.’

Meister Eckhart

 

This morning I looked into the mirror and experienced an unsettling alienation from my own face, as if the lifelong identification with my own reflection had started to falter. I was leaning on the sink and watched layer after layer of meaning falling off my face, the now full-grown rendition of the same face I have once, as a child, in a past before language and beyond recall, learned to call my own.

I imagined myself as a baby in front of a mirror, my young parents cheerfully repeating my name while pointing at my reflection – Look, that’s you ! – and I, eager to construct a world, and in need of a semantic foundation, smilingly accepting everything I am told. A ritual of words and gestures that magically installed the identification of myself with the face that so faithfully appears every time I look into a mirror.

But now, decades later, I was looking at my features as if I had been incarnated in this full-grown body just a minute ago and had hurried to a mirror to see what kind of face I had been allotted. The more attentively I observed it, the more trouble I had to recognize the face in the mirror as my own.

When I brought my face a little closer to the mirror, I noticed that the whole of its reflection was in its turn reflected in the shiny blackness of my pupils, which were functioning as a mirror within the mirror, thus reflecting back and forth an infinite number of ever smaller images of my face, containing an endless tunnel of eyes within eyes within eyes. I imagined Infinity being shown its own reflection – Look, that’s you ! – causing it to gasp at the sight of its own boundlessness, and in that gasping ever so more expanding itself.

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I brushed my teeth and lost myself in speculations about the infinite tunnel effect created by two opposing mirrors, wondering if the seemingly infinite depth of outer space might be a similar illusion, a side effect of the original schism, the division of the primordial One into object and subject, who came to face each other as two opposing mirrors, and thus created what seems to be an infinite depth, but is actually nothing more than an optical illusion of our consciousness.

Could it be that the seemingly infinite depth of outer space, the darkness beyond the reach of our telescopes and computations, is only an outward projection of the unenlightened part of our own mind? Could it be that the universe out there is nothing but a veil we have woven to hide ourselves from ourselves?

I was looking into the eyes with which I was looking into my eyes. My gaze sank ever deeper into the mirror. Thus far the strangeness of my reflection had still been within the limits of what is human, but now it became utterly unrecognizable, as if I was looking at a member of an unknown species, its eyes looking into mine from the depths of an unfathomable otherness.

What is this thing that so confidently calls itself I, therewith meaning me, and yet cannot answer the simplest and most fundamental of questions : what am I? It seems that I am the one not knowing. But maybe this doppelgänger in the mirror is the real ignoramus. Maybe my ignorance is just a superimposed reflection of the blindness of this it that calls itself I.

There was a slight crackle in my brain, as if my thought process had been short-circuited. Unwilling to accept the defeat of my human understanding, I sought refuge in scientific classification. I started examining the creature in the mirror with the eyes of a zoologist. The shape of its skull, the dark brown fur on top of its head, the pinkish, hairless ears, the two lines of fur called eyebrows.

All in all this creature has a lot in common with a monkey, I thought, but less hairy, smoother and paler, with a higher curvature of the skull and a finer nose. But as hard as I tried to break the face up into insignificant fragments as to avoid dealing with its incomprehensible totality, I could no longer ignore its aliveness, the unknown principle that at every moment glued the meaningless fragments of my analysis back into a meaningful but ungraspable whole. And I could no longer ignore the obvious, but for some reason unsettling fact, that the being in the mirror was watching me in return.

I looked him in the eyes. There was an imperturbable calm about him, without appearing indifferent, on the contrary, he seemed to look at me with a warm but nonetheless detached attentiveness. I took a deep breath and fixed my gaze more steadily on his.

What followed was both absolutely strange as totally familiar. His eyes seemed to come forward from behind the surface of the mirror, with a gaze so full of kindness and goodwill, that all of my perplexity evaporated. There was a sigh of relief on both sides of the mirror. A profound and mutual recognition started bouncing back and forth from our faces. Of course, I thought, I know you – I just can’t seem to remember where from.

Then, unexpectedly, the being in the mirror, who seemed to have guessed my thoughts, spoke to me : ‘My eyes are the mirror in which you see I live in you as you in me’. And although I felt I couldn’t fully grasp what was meant by that, I nodded, smilingly, and felt an overwhelming sympathy for the unknown creature in the mirror. I wished him well, with all my heart. I took a deep breath and plunged into his twinkling eyes. The blackness of his pupils was a universe in itself, a star-filled infinity. We both smiled, in silent recognition.