Sunday, January 27, 2013

Magic Mirror

Magic Mirror

Snow White

In the deepest winter, a childless queen sat sewing at her window. She pricked her finger with the needle and blood dropped onto the snow. She thought to herself that the red of the blood looked beautiful on the snow and wished that she might have a child who was “white as snow, red as blood and black as the ebony wood of her window frame.”

Nine months later she gave birth to a little daughter who was indeed white as snow, red as blood and with hair black as ebony. However, the queen herself died in childbirth. The king married another woman who was beautiful, but very proud and jealous of anyone who might rival her beauty. She had a magic mirror and often stood in front of it and asked,
Mirror, mirror on the wall,
who in this realm is the fairest of them all?
And the mirror would answer, “You my queen, are the most fair of all.” With this reply, she was happy because she knew the mirror NEVER LIED.
As Snow White grew she became every day more beautiful. and then, one day, when Snow White was seven years, old the queen asked the mirror who was the most beautiful of all. It replied,
You, my queen, may have a beauty quite rare,
But Snow White is a thousand times more fair.
Naturally the queen was furious to hear this and she came to hate Snow White so much that she never had a moment’s peace. She ordered a huntsman (Jager) to take the girl into the forest, murder her, and bring back her lungs and her liver as proof that Snow White was dead. But when the hunter had Snow White in the forest, he didn’t have the heart to murder her. He let her go and killed a wild boar instead, and brought the boar’s lungs and liver to the queen. The queen ordered the cook to boil them and she ate them up that very night.

Meanwhile Snow White had run deep into the woods where she discovered the home of the seven dwarves. They were ‘delirious with joy’ when they discovered her in their house. They told her she could stay with them and they would provide everything she needed if she would “keep house , cook, make the beds, wash, sew, and knit, and keep everything orderly.” 

Brief summary of rest of the story: Soon the queen learned from her mirror that Snow White still lived. She was enraged and made a total of three attempts to kill Snow White. In the last attempt, with a poison apple, the queen believed she had succeeded. Later, when the dwarves found the lifeless body of Snow White, they felt she was too young and beautiful to bury so they placed her in a transparent glass coffin for all to see.

In time a prince came along and fell in love with her. When he ordered his servants to carry the coffin containing Snow White to his castle, they stumbled, and jolted Snow White. The piece of poison apple that was lodged in her throat flew out, and Snow White was revived. She loved the prince in return, and at their wedding ceremony, the evil queen was punished: she was forced to put iron slippers that had been heated in a fire and to dance until she died.
We can see here that the mirror certainly plays a central role. What, then, is the symbolic meaning of mirrors? I want to describe two important aspects of mirror symbols. First, mirrors represent a threshold between consciousness and the unconscious. A second point is that they represent an important psychological function.

The mirror as threshold

In her book Projection and Recollection, ML von Franz (1990) has studied the symbolic meaning of the mirror. She demonstrates how throughout the history of humans, in many different cultures, shiny surfaces have been experienced as being numinous. In other words, reflective surfaces have always held a fascination for humans because they seem to have some extraordinary (buitengewoon) qualities.
In February we heard Dr. Jacoby discuss the myth of Narcissus in which the reflective surface of water in a pond was the central image of the myth. Dr. Jacoby stated that Narcissus was entranced by his own reflection in the water, because the surface of the water reflected the Self, or at least the possibility of coming to know the self. But why and how does it reflect the Self? We know that Jung has demonstrated that water itself, with its reflective surface, is a symbol for the unconscious. Von Franz, again in Projection and Recollection (1990), describes the relation between the reflective surface and the unconscious:
The symbolization of the unconscious by water with its mirror-like surface is of course based … on a projection. Nevertheless, the analogies are astonishingly meaningful. Just as we cannot ‘see’ into the depths of the waters, the deeper areas of the unconscious are also invisible to us… . But on the surface, on the threshold area between consciousness and unconsciousness, dream images appear spontaneously, not only seeming to give us information about the depths but also mirroring our conscious personality. … The mirroring is always by way of the symbolic image that has a place in both worlds.
Thus, a mirror symbolizes the threshold between consciousness and the unconscious, and by looking into it, one may look towards the depths of the unconscious. And, the image that a mirror produces is symbolic and can be made sense of in both the unconscious and the conscious worlds.

A well known example of this symbolism in literature is the magic mirror in Goethe’s Faust.
Mephistopheles brings Faust to the kitchen of a witch. Faust discovers there a magic mirror and becomes entirely entranced with what he sees in it. And what does Faust see when he looks into the unconscious, as it were? He must, by definition, see the opposite of his conscious personality. Faust is portrayed as a totally dried up and exhausted University scholar, who is so lost in the world of intellect that he has lost all lust for life. In the mirror, he sees a healthy and vibrant young woman, who can be seen to symbolize everything he is not. For Faust she is the world of feminine beauty, sexual desire and instinct. We will recognize her as what Jung calls the anima of a man. A point to remember for later is that for women, the face of the unconscious is the animus. Once Faust has seen this woman in the mirror, he is driven to pursue her and, thus, to eventually transform his life.

Mirroring in psychological development

Reflection and the mirror are extremely important themes in modern psychology. They are central to our understanding of how infants and young children develop consciousness and a healthy sense of self. Many psychologists have recognized the importance of the mother-child relationship in this process, but perhaps Donald Winnicott, a British Child Psychoanalyst writing in the 1960’s, has made the clearest and most convincing definitions of this process. One of his key papers on this subject, is entitled, “Mirror-Role of Mother and Family in Child Development” (Winnicott 1967). Note that he assigns the role of mirroring to both mother, also to be understood as primary caretaker of the infant, and the family in general.

What do we mean by mirroring? I recently saw a talk by the Jungian child psychotherapist Brian Feldman who used this beautiful painting by Leonardo da Vinci to illustrate mirroring.

Oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci,
St. Anne, Madonna and Child

Here we see the Christ child being lovingly looked upon by his mother. And as happens countless times in the early phases of childhood, he looks back into her face. Winnicott’s basic idea is that as the newborn infant gazes into the face gazing back at him, he ‘sees’ himself – he cannot distinguish himself from mother yet. He mother are effectively one. Eventually, the child begins to recognize that this face of mother is something ‘other,’ and perhaps wonders what is that something other doing? The child then begins to realize increasingly that this other “is looking at ME.” “And this means that I EXIST.” These are the first steps of consciousness. This process continues and the child begins to learn things about himself through interaction with this ‘mirror.’ For example, when the child laughs, mother laughs in return and eventually the child understands, “I am laughing.”

Needless to say, the quality of this exchange is central to how a child experiences himself. In order for a child to develop a strong sense of self, the input from the primary caretaker, and later the family, needs to reflect the child’s genuine ‘own’ experiences. For example, if only happy outbursts were answered with happy mirroring by the mother, but unhappy outbursts were met with no response, the child would have difficulty learning to recognize the unhappy aspect of his personality and integrating it into his sense of self.

If this mirroring process is severely disturbed, the adult can develop what has been called a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Narcissism as such, is a problem of not enough mirroring where not enough mirroring refers to both the total amount and the quality of the mirroring.

But how much mirroring do humans, even as adults, need? And who provides mirroring that is meaningful? The Jungian analyst Nathan Schwartz-Salant, is a recognized authority on Narcissism. He maintains that we humans require some degree of mirroring from others, throughout our entire lives, and certainly in times of difficulty. Providing this mirroring is naturally a part of psychotherapy. In this painting by Da Vinci, we can see that the Madonna is also receiving mirroring. Her mother, St. Anne gazes upon her with love and acceptance. Indeed, the Madonna is actually sitting on the lap of her mother while St. Anne seems to hold and support the entire exchange between Mary and Jesus within her loving gaze. We can imagine that both the mother and the child benefit from the mirroring that St. Anne is providing.

As we said, in early infancy, the “primary caretakers” provide the mirroring. But as the child grows, all of the primary figures in a child’s life become important: thus school teachers, older siblings, and especially in the early teen years, friends and famous figures. If we combine all of these people, starting with the parents, we can say they reflect the culture at large. Thus, one can say that in addition to the parents, the entire culture functions as a mirror to the individual.
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