O Time, Thy Mirrors

by | Dec 15, 2011 | Writing

The passing of time always seems thinner, somehow, this time of year. More malleable, perhaps. As though the tense intervals of the infinite cycle relax, soften, and waver as if in the soft light of a flickering fire. Yes–life seems firelit, this time of year, and the shadows lengthen and recede unpredictably in the tenuous brightness of the passage of time.

And I feel more malleable, too. I feel myself changing in small ways for small lengths of time, until the momentary glimpses I have of my own identity seem blurred, distant, and incongruous.  My perception of what is and is not me seems more clumsy than usual. I am beset by newer, unfamiliar joys and deeper, more insistent regrets. What I am and what I should be seem loosened from each other disconcertingly.

Both time and self are so often assumed to be concrete things. Time has been chopped up into smaller and smaller fragments, years and weeks and minutes and nanoseconds. Why? So that we can better understand its oh-so-linear passing. It is generally accepted that people are a certain, definable way, and can only change if acted upon by some force. There are laws of motion, so to speak. But what if time is really nothing but our own diminutive understanding of it? What if our very self is nothing but our limited understanding of it?

Some of the most interesting and compelling fiction ever written involves time slips and inverted temporal structures. One of literature’s heroes, James Joyce, wrote entire books devoid of time in the way that we usually perceive it–I dare you to pick up Finnegan’s Wake some day and make sense of it. Audrey Neiffenegger awed us all in The Time Traveler’s Wife when she made one of her protagonists a time-traveler who involuntarily shifts in and out of periods in his own life. The book I just finished, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, is delicately and cleverly plotted so that the reader steadily spirals inwards from varying temporal “directions” towards a dizzying climax.


Like a Celtic labyrinth, meant to heighten spiritual growth. Image via astrolog.com

And can you think about great characters in literature who did not have some secret skeletons in their closets of identity? Batman is a vengeful vigilante; Bruce Wayne is a debauched womanizer. Just try and tell me that guy likes himself. Young adult authors from Cassandra Clare to Stephanie Meyer to Scott Westerfeld have become adept at giving their characters psychic disabilities centered around self-loathing and issues of identity. Oscar Wilde’s eponymous anti-hero from The Portrait of Dorian Gray literally cannot look upon his portrait, because the distorted, aging, loathsome face is literally a reflection of the emptiness and wickedness of his own forsaken soul.

I was thinking about mirrors today. I think there is something primordially unsettling about staring at our own reflections in the mirror. There is something that which we do not, and perhaps cannot, recognize that perpetually fascinates us in our own reflections. Perhaps it is because of this ultimate inability to truly comprehend the depths of our own selves that we so often find ourselves staring dumbly at a reflection of our physical selves. To ponder that self as other, and to attempt to understand that the other is inimitably and inimically self, for each of us.

La Reproduction Interdit, 1937, by Rene Magritte

La Reproduction Interdit
Rene Magritte

Often, in reading, we come across dark mirrors. Characters who may seem ridiculous, or amoral, or otherwise worthless, but upon closer inspection are actually reflections of the darkest aspects of who we are. Feste, from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is one of the classic examples of a jester whose humor is so layered and multi-faceted that he manages to both shame and inspire nearly every other character in the play. He plumbs the depths of his mourning mistress’s sorrow even as he shakes her out of her doldrums; he takes part in Maria and Toby’s tomfoolery only to show that those who assume themselves wise are often fools, even as fools can often be wise men; he holds up a mirror to Duke Orsino’s mercurial fancies and shows him that ultimately nobility is but a construct of men.

And then we have doppelgängers, paranormal doubles of living persons, who in traditional mythology were harbingers of doom and brought evil and misfortune wherever they were spied. Why would this kind of creature become so prevalent in the generative imaginary of cultures all over the world? I would guess that it comes down to a secret fear of our inner selves. We construct bitter masks from our own hatred or adoration of our secret selves, but we do not thank ourselves for the mystery that haunts us, unbidden, with its uncannily familiar spectrality.

To tie this meandering post up into something resembling a neat bow, I think we have to realize that our lives, and thus, the lives of the characters who grow out of us and reflect us, are fluid, malleable, and ultimately abstract. Our timelines, and our characters, do not need to be simple, linear, or concrete.

We are all haunted by the ghosts of ourselves, in the end.