Mirror (Victorian and Modernism)

MIRROR – Lady of Shallot, Mill on the Floss, Decay of Lying, “Telemachus,”Mrs. Dalloway, de Koven

Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot (1832/42) uses the mirror to establish the tension between the world and the representation of the world. Turning away from the mirror in order to live precipitates her movement from Shallot to Camelot, yes, but also her movement to death. In terms of the form, the poem itself achieves the transition from Shallot to Camelot through rhyme (AAAABCCCB?)…there’s a mechanical quality, as if all the poem has to do to achieve its end is keep rhyming. But relinquishment to the mere life of form is a sort of death. So Lady of Shallot is stuck: between a world that merely reflects reality and world that, in order to be directly accessed, requires the death of the subject, and, the death of the world (mechanism).

The mirror that cracks in Tennyson looks forward to the cracked looking glass of Oscar Wilde, which in turn looks forward to the opening of Ulysses and the many mirrors there.

But first, I think George Eliot gives us a mirror in the river. Will claim that the only way we can access the idealized past is through the aesthetic itself. So Maggie and Tom are taken under by the vast, formless masses of history, industry, etc. but they are immediately recuperated in an aesthetic that reads the river as “golden” (opens up a can of worms that we can talk about…Marius, Th Yellow Book, Picture of Dorian Gray, the “golden” hair of Sidney Carton’s imaginary substitute, etc.). This is the only way to access that past, etc. The “mother tongue of the imagination” no longer speak except through forms of mediation.

In the twentieth-century, the mirror becomes the way we come to know ourselves. So, mrs. Dalloway literally putting herself together in a mirror, or Malte Laurids Brigge dressing up in old, baroque robes, looking at himself in the mirror and thinking himself a monster, and Bloom in Nausicaa looking at the pool of water and seeing his reflection. What all of these instances are reflecting is a sense of subjective displacement, or exclusion. They are reflecting back a self that does not perfectly cohere within the social coordinates.


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