Stop Looking at Yourself: On the Dangers of Mirrors and Selfies
An image of yourself, seen for what it is, should be regarded with alarm. “I have been horrified before all mirrors,” wrote Jorge Luis Borges.
I look on them as infinite, elemental fulfillers of a very ancient pact to multiply the world, as in the act of generation, sleepless and dangerous. - Borges, “Mirrors,” translated by Alastair Reid
In the Book of Imaginary Beings, he wrote of a kingdom savaged by people who invade it through its mirrors. In the short story “Covered Mirrors,” he wrote of meeting a woman—“first by telephone,” in an uncanny premonition of modernity—with whom he shared his horror of mirrors. The horror, contagious, intensified after the transmission; she covered all the mirrors in her home and went insane.
That same Borges story begins with a reference to Islam’s injunction against the making of images. In the Hadith that Borges references, the Prophet declares that anyone who creates an image of a living thing will be challenged, on the Day of Judgement, to make it come to life. If the sculpture or portrait—or selfie—does not quicken (and it won’t, because there is only one Power than can quicken it), the maker of the image will be damned forever.
Notice that Borges combines two different objects: Reflective surfaces, and artistic images of living things. (The original warning, in the Hadith, is prompted by a glimpse of Aisha’s embroidered pillow.) Yet Borges’s insight here is sound. Both duplicate reality, and that duplication is duplicitous. Both are, in effect, one and the same. The portrait is a mirror image, frozen in time, for all time. It may be idealized, of course. But so might a selfie, that freezeframe of the phone’s mirroring screen, retouched or passed through a filter.
According to that Hadith, whose injunction goes back to the Second Commandment, the unreal, nonliving, generated image—“graven” or pixellated—offends the creator of living things. The image possesses the form but not the soul of the subject. That deceptiveness places it, like the “false idols” that prompted centuries of iconoclasm, on the side of the Deceiver. That is why the making of images, including images of oneself, is a psychological and spiritual danger.
But offending the creator of all living things is not the only danger. Later in his poem about mirrors, decades before people flipped their smartphone cameras to inspect and capture their own faces, Borges wrote, “The glass is watching us.” The constant sense of being observed by others, and constant self-observation as if one were another, is a still greater danger inherent in our proliferation of images of ourselves. The locus of your selfhood ceases to be in the mind, behind your eyes. Instead it rises to the surface of your body, as it is pictured there on the screen. And then, after altering your sense of self to conform perforce to your body, the image alienates you from yourself. You analyze it as strangers would. You become, instantly, and again and again with every effortless snapshot, self-estranged. The fixation on the body’s appearance becomes, paradoxically, an out of body experience. The Giver of Life, swiping through your selfies on the Day of Judgement, might ask you: Can you bring these images to life? Of course not: The act of taking them deadened you a little more each time.
Shakespeare adumbrated that connection. In fact, he links the mirror and death overtly on more than one occasion. As Hamlet enjoins the gravediggers: “Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.” He is holding a skull as he says it. Elsewhere the connection is made more explicitly. “For death remembered should be like a mirror,” says Pericles, “Who tells us life’s but breath, to trust it error.” The couplet refers to the use of pocket mirrors to check whether someone was still breathing. Pericles was one of Shakespeare’s last plays, but he carried over the mirror-death connection from his earliest narrative poems. These lines come from someone about to commit suicide:
Poor broken glass, I often did behold In thy sweet semblance my old age new born; But now that fair fresh mirror, dim and old, Shows me a bare-boned death by time outworn. O, from thy cheeks my image thou hast torn, And shivered all the beauty of my glass That I no more can be what once I was! - Shakespeare, The Rape of Lucrece.
There was a vogue among European aristocrats for the “memento mori,” art objects that featured foreboding warnings, either visual or verbal, to “remember death.” One of these was the memento mori mirror, to which Shakespeare’s image might relate. A Swiss example online, dated circa 1670, has a skull occupying the bottom half. It was sure to prevent vanity, the “deadly sin” of pride—yet another reason to fear mirrors.
A similar dread emerged, independently and through a different way of thinking about it, on the other side of the world. After European contact introduced them to the camera, many indigenous Americans refused to sit for photographs. Anyone who possesses your image, they believed, gains power over you. Your image is not devoid of your self. Your image snatches and entraps your self, or at least a portion of it.
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian expresses that indigenous American horror in literary form. At one point, Judge Holden, sketching some ancient artifacts in his notebook, offers to draw the portrait of one of his fellow adventurers. The judge honors the man’s refusal and tells a story of how “he’d once drawn an old Hueco’s portrait and unwittingly chained the man to his own likeness.”
...He could not sleep for fear an enemy might take it and deface it and so like was the portrait that he would not suffer it creased nor anything to touch it and he made a journey across the desert with it to where he’d heard the judge was to be found and he begged his counsel as to how he might preserve the thing and the judge took him deep into the mountain and they buried the portrait in the floor of a cave where it lies yet for aught the judge knew. - Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, XI
A pin in the voodoo doll causes a pang in the person it represents. To control the image is to control the person.
Centuries before the Prophet Mohammed, Borges, or Cormac McCarthy, the writer of Ecclesiastes proclaimed that “All is vanity.” The writer also pointed out how there is nothing new under the sun. Our vanity is no exception. The danger of images may well be a dissenting, minority opinion in all ages. We are no more or less in love with our own forms than people in the past. The earliest known mirrors are convex pieces of obsidian—and they date back eight thousand years. Portraits were painted, faces sculpted. And yet the historical and literary record complicates that notion. A museum’s portrait gallery may make it seem that people have been in love with their own images forever. But those portraits were commissioned by the wealthiest elites of their day—aristocrats in a wig and ruff, queens and duchesses in sweeping dresses and their best jewelry. People “in the public eye,” already warped by constant self-regard and constantly being regarded. An artist had to be hired at great expense, and the process took several hours-long sessions. Today, we proliferate images of ourselves because we can.
For centuries, commoners—that is, almost all human beings—never saw images of themselves as often nor in as much detail as we do. Certainly not as externalized paintings or images; sometimes not even in mirrors. While their kings were being painted by Francisco Goya or Hans Holbein the Younger, did regular Europeans, by our standards, see themselves at all?
In nineteenth-century [European] villages the barber was the only person who possessed a full-length mirror, whose use was limited to men.... Full-length mirrors were all but unknown in the countryside, where peasants still discovered their physical identities through the eyes of others and relied on intuition to control their facial expressions.... It is not hard to understand the taboos on the use of mirrors that existed in rural communities, where people believed that a child’s growth could be stunted if it saw its face in a mirror and that leaving a mirror uncovered on the day after a death was an invitation to misfortune. - Alain Corbin, in A History of Private Life, volume IV
The taboo on self-regard extended deep into people’s lives. Women clouded their bathwater with special powders to avoid seeing their own nakedness. In high-class bordellos, by contrast, mirrors were on every wall.
Jane Austen’s fiction reveals the disapproval of mirrors and the vanity a love of one’s mirror-image implies. When the family in Persuasion takes possession of a house, they make only a few changes. The main one relates to the former owner’s wall mirrors, which they find unbearable.
Such a number of looking-glasses! oh Lord! there was no getting away from one’s self. So I got Sophy to lend me a hand, and we soon shifted their quarters; and now I am quite snug, with my little shaving glass in one corner, and another great thing that I never go near. - Jane Austen, Persuasion, Chapter XIII
This is in the early 1800s, on the eve of the invention of the daguerrotype.
Today we live on the other side of a technological transformation that has overwhelmed the past’s moral and spiritual reservations about making images of ourselves—reservations that were often disregarded already. The proliferation of images took off in the nineteenth century, shortly after Austen published her novels, when technology democratized portraiture.
In 1839, Louis Daguerre brought the exposure time for his “daguerrotype” technique down from fifteen minutes to less than one. That same year, the first documented selfie was taken by an American named Robert Cornelius. The “tintype,” invented in the very next decade, served as a cheap, quick way for newly enlisted Civil War soldiers to memorialize themselves on the eve of deployment; hundreds of examples from that era still exist. By the end of the 19thcentury, family portraits and other portraits, often with props, became commonplace. Friedrich Nietzsche and his friend Paul Ree posed as horses pulling a cart; Lou-Andreas Salome, behind them, pretended to drive them on with a horsewhip. Charles Dickens posed on a reversed wicker chair, reading a book beside two adoring daughters. The potrait, like many social media posts, concealed the sordidness of his personal life; one of those daughters was the same age of the actress for whom he abondoned their mother.
The second such technological advance has taken place in our lifetimes. Almost everyone has an instant self-portrait device in hand. People have backed off cliffs, waterfalls, dams, balconies, and the rims of active volcanoes, falling to their deaths on the Grail-quest for the ultimate selfie. A remarkable number of people have climbed atop trains and gotten electrocuted by an unexpected wire. Others have tried to pose with a train and gotten hit by it. Drownings and accidental gun discharges abound. An entire Wikipedia page has been devoted to the macabre deaths of selfie-takers. A walrus drowned a Chinese businessman; a helicopter decapitated an Indian bureaucrat. The dangers are no longer just spiritual.
With the proliferation of selfies comes the proliferation of images of other people Offering up your own image grants other people power over you, but so does exposing yourself to their images. There is no such thing as a “local beauty” anymore. That is a quaint artifact of the past, of village life. Today, with the instant dissemination of images, all bodies are compared against the most beautiful bodies in the world. The bombardment creates a false impression of the ubiquity of beauty. Dating apps and hookup apps accustom the eyes to endless variety: Keep swiping, a better-looking face might be up next. What power chains us to the phone as we stare and swipe? The apple that compromised Eden came from the Tree of Knowledge. The devil could have accomplished the same end by handing Adam and Eve each a handheld screen that scrolled with endless images of mates other than Eve and Adam. Who could imagine the capabilities we have or imagine the entirely new dangers that come with it?
As I write this, actors in Hollywood are striking because they don’t want any studio owning and manipulating their images without compensation, using artificial intelligence to make their images act for free in as many shows and movies as the studio wishes to produce. The striking actors are protesting eternal onscreen enslavement. Whoever owns your image, owns you and can command you to do anything. Your likeness, a spellbound doppelganger, will obey. The technology that will command you already exists. AI programs can use pre-existing photographs—from FaceBook, or Instagram, or anywhere else—to insert anyone at all into a pornographic scene.
The making of images never seemed so haraam (forbidden) until the deepfake. Every image of yourself that’s out there is a hostage handed over to the father of lies. There is no cave in which you can bury your images, no way to gather and burn those vanities in a single bonfire. A falsifiable self, a falsifiable world of completely fake images are truly new things under the sun—but foreshadowed, maybe, in the taboos and restrictions of the past, in Borges’s fear of mirrors and the indigenous anxiety over photography.
This new vulnerability has developed rapidly, over less than two decades. Most of us are already thoroughly compromised. Rigorously guarding your image would require drastic and probably unfeasible changes to your way of life. It wouldn’t be enough to avoid posting images of yourself and your family, or locking a social media account. Only the introduction of veiling in public, for everyone, at all ages, could prevent “capture” by a stranger’s camera. Just a momentary slip of the silk would be enough to make all that meticulous privacy a waste.
We were not meant to look at ourselves too closely or too often. By not meant I mean not designed, psychologically, spiritually. We are not designed to endure a superabundance of sugar, either. The sugar doesn’t stop tasting good. It keeps tasting good even after it’s started killing you. What the founder of Facebook discovered was the same thing the founder of OnlyFans discovered: Given a chance, people will create and surrender their own images, eagerly. All is vanity. Scroll to the biographical note, glance at the back cover of my books. There it is, unaware of the irony, smiling blandly out at you, wanting your approval: the author photograph.
Amit Majmudar is a poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and the former first Poet Laureate of Ohio. He works as a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist and lives in Westerville, Ohio, with his wife and three children. Majmudar’s essays have appeared in The Best American Essays 2018, the New York Times, and the Times of India, among several other publications. His most recent collection of essays, focusing on Indian religious philosophy, history, and mythology, is Black Avatar and Other Essays (Acre Books, 2023). Twin A: A Life (Slant Books, 2023) is the title of a recently published memoir, in prose and verse, about his son’s struggle with congenital heart disease. Learn more at www.amitmajmudar.com. Tweets @AmitMajmudar