Sunday, 19 February 2012

Novel: The Mirror Stage

I was not well equipped to do a PhD, being incapable of reading a book from beginning to end. I had a pile of books on the dressing table in front of my huge mirror: The Worst Journey in the World, Farthest North, South, Home of the Blizzard, In the Land of the White Death. I hadn't read any of them, not even The Worst Journey, which was my reason for wanting to do a PhD in the first place. I had started them all, then found myself compelled to skip, first, a few pages, then a whole chapter, then several chapters, then, finally, to put the book down and pick up one of the others and do the same with that. I didn't think my head was big enough to contain a whole book. Even if I did succeed in finishing one, I knew it would start to evaporate from my brain the moment I put it down again - worse, the beginning would already have evaporated by the time I reached the end. The more I thought about reading the more convinced I became that it wasn't actually possible, or at least not for me. One of my reasons for signing up for the PhD was simply to force myself to confront this problem: I could no longer claim that I didn't read books all through because I didn't have the time now that reading was the only thing I was actually supposed to do. That and writing. There was a jumble of index cards on the desk beside the books, on which I had written extracts from them, each one marked with a page reference and an abbreviation indicating which of the books it came from:
For me it was a very bad night: a succession of shivering fits which I was quite unable to stop, and which took possession of my body for many minutes at a time until I thought my back would break, such was the strain placed upon it. They talk of chattering teeth: but when your body chatters you may call yourself cold. I can only compare the strain to that which I have been unfortunate enough to see in a case of lock-jaw. WJW, p. 237.
I was never sure which bits I ought to be copying, and what use I would be able to make of them afterwards. Perhaps I ought to copy the whole of each book, in index-card-sized chunks. And then what? Since they were index cards, I needed to apply some kind of index to help me find them when they were needed. I had written lockjaw and teeth, chattering at the top of this one. It was the only one of all my index cards that had either of those keywords, and indeed, sifting through the pile I could hardly find any keyword that was used more than once. Penguin, snow, and frostbite were the main exceptions. 'What do you want to say about Polar exploration?' Linda used to ask me. (She had been assigned as my supervisor, though I was beginning to suspect that she knew nothing about the subject.) I just muttered something about courage, endurance, testing yourself to the limit.
     'That's what those guys would have said, too,' Linda told me, 'Scott, Shackleton, Cherry-Garrard, all those guys. That's a phallogocentric, liberal humanist position. You need to be looking to beyond that, seeking to deconstruct them. The North Pole is a metaphor, Daniel, and your role is to discover what the signified is.'
     'The South Pole,' I told her pedantically, since it was The Worst Journey we were talking about that day.
     'The South Pole is a metaphor, too. In fact you should be trying to abolish the difference between them. The first task of the deconstructionist is to abolish the binary opposition between polarities. And if the North Pole and the South Pole aren't opposing polarities, then, then..' Her eyes went vague and she scratched her right breast.
     'Sorry,' I said, not sure if I was apologizing or trying to get her to finish the sentence.
     She shook her head and gave a little inward-looking smile as if at something she could see that I couldn't. '...then where are you, Daniel?'
     Linda's influence was responsible for the second pile of books on the dressing-table: Of Grammatology, A Theory of Literary Production, S/Z, Critical Practice, above all, a selection from Lacan's Écrits with a shiny silver cover so reflective I could hold it up in front of my mirror and produce a shimmery approximation of those reflections-of-reflections-of-reflections effects which had fascinated me since I was a child, the Hall of Mirrors, as I used to call it. The cover, of course, was a metaphor, too, and its signified was the Mirror Stage, which was the only bit of Lacan I sometimes thought I might possibly understand. Apparently the moment a child first recognized itself in the mirror was a crucial stage in the development of the sense of self. From now on he (it had to be a he, apparently, though I wasn't sure why), had entered into the Symbolic Order, or possibly the Imaginary Order. Having had this childhood fascination with mirrors, I thought I could relate to that. The child sees himself and understands that it is him there, and yet it isn't: it's a version that's whole, three-dimensional, can be seen from the outside, me and he at the same time. I wasn't sure I had ever got past the mirror stage, and it wasn't helping that I was doing all my reading in front of one.
     I put down my book, halfway through 'The Mirror Stage' for the third or fourth time. I was always halfway through 'The Mirror Stage'. There was my room on the other side of the silver barrier, perfectly simulated in every detail except that the writing on all the books was back to front and the me that was sitting there staring back, short, skinny, with dark hair and freckles that should never have existed in someone of that colouring, wearing a shapeless outsize polo-neck sweater inherited from a dead uncle, a me I couldn't see any other way. And those light-brown eyes, hypnotic, fascinating, malignant. I stared at them until I was no longer sure which of the two I was. Maybe I was going through the mirror stage backwards, becoming an infant again. I shook my head the way Linda did, and was momentarily surprised to see my reflection imitating me (not altogether convincingly, I thought). Those eyes - they were slightly sanpaku perhaps. But when I sat up a bit straighter so that my mirror self was exactly level, the little crescent of white under the pupil disappeared.


  1. "Perhaps I ought to copy the whole of each book, in index-card-sized chunks."

    has that kind of Flan O'Brien buzz.

    I'm really enjoying this blovel. Please keep me supplied.

  2. Could be a while, Patrick, as I am playing chess this weekend. But thanks for the feedback so far - it's really encouraging.