Through the Looking-Glass

On Reflection 16-December 13, 1998.

by Jonathan Miller. catalog of an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, September
National Gallery Publications/Yale University Press, 224 pp., $40.00

Mirrors were invented in order that man might know himself, destined to attain many benefits from this: first, knowledge of himself; next, in certain directions, wisdom. The handsome man, to avoid infamy. The homely man”—but here we must interrupt the Loeb translator of Seneca the Younger, who has succumbed to an attack of the euphemisms. Deformis means ugly, deformed, odious, disgusting, base. “Homely” doesn’t cover it at all. “The ugly man, to understand that what he lacks in physical appearance must be compensated for by virtue. The young man, to be reminded by his youth that it is a time of learning and of daring brave deeds. The old man, to set aside actions dishonourable to his grey hair, to think some thoughts about death.”

This is Seneca’s answer to the question: What was the intention of Nature in creating real objects, and providing reflections as well? What is the meaning of the reflectibility of the material world? Above all, he asserts, mirrors were not made for shaving in front of. Or rather, as he puts it, “Surely it was not in order that we men may pluck out our whiskers in front of a mirror or make our faces smooth. In no respect has nature made a gift of hard work to luxury.”

The abuse of mirrors is a subject on which Seneca waxes hot, suspiciously hot. He tells us in some detail the story of one Hostius Quadra, whose slaves grew so sick of his licentiousness that they eventually murdered him, an act which the Emperor Augustus not only refused to condemn but even seemed to condone. Hostius lusted after both men and women, and, Seneca tells us,

He had mirrors made of the type I described (the ones that reflect images far larger) in which a finger exceeded the size and thickness of an arm. These, moreover, he so arranged that when he was offering himself to a man he might see in a mirror all the movements of his stallion behind him and then take delight in the false size of his partner’s very member just as though it were really so big.

Seneca’s ostensible moral purpose is to remind us that “crimes avoid the sight of themselves,” that it requires a particular baseness to take delight in the viewing of one’s own misdeeds. But as the story is elaborated, and we learn more about what actually went on in this sexual hall of mirrors, we begin to wonder whether what we are being told is true, or whether this moral essay is not rather an exercise in pornography. The Loeb translator seems to think the latter, since he chooses to remind us in a footnote about “gossip that Seneca, in addition to adulterous affairs with women, took delight in older boys and taught this vice to Nero.”

What would these magnifying mirrors have been made of? A trawl through the various histories of technology seems …

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