A Conversation with Mark Pendergrast, author of MIRROR MIRROR: A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection
What made you think of writing about mirrors? You seem to pick eclectic topics – coffee, Coca-Cola, false memories, and now mirrors.
I like to pick a specific, narrow topic that allows me to look in-depth at the vast panorama of human history and culture. When my first book, For God, Country & Coca-Cola, came out in 1993, I was labeled a “business journalist,” but I have always considered myself a sort of cultural historian. I’m interested in how people work, what they value, how their minds function or malfunction. Mirrors were the perfect subject for me, since they really don’t mean anything without a human observer. We literally bring ourselves to their study. I must admit that I thought it would be a simpler story than it turned out to be.
What do you mean? Was it more complicated than you thought it would be?
To say the least (laughs). The story of mirrors goes from the Big Bang to the most futuristic use of mirrors in space or nanotechnology. It’s possible that invisible “mirror universes” were created in the moment following that first explosive burst. Actually, I only wrote about that in the final chapter, though. I started the book with an imagined scene in which the first hominid looks into a still pool and realizes that the reflection is him – or her, as the case may be. It turns out that humans are among the few animals who can recognize themselves in mirrors, along with a few other apes (chimps, orangutans, bonobos), and perhaps dolphins and elephants. The implications in terms of self-awareness and evolution are fascinating.
That reminds me of the story of Narcissus.
Yes, and it’s amazing how frequently the myths and religions of Greece, China, Central America, Russia, and other places use mirrors. The ancient Egyptians – as well as the Etruscans, Romans, and many other cultures – buried people with mirrors, probably because these magical surfaces were thought to capture the soul and help preserve it in the afterlife. Similarly, the Chinese thought that demons only became visible in mirrors, so they put them on their backs to defend themselves from malevolent forces. And it worked! The demons avoided the mirrors, so no one ever saw demons there.
I notice that Chapter 2 is called “Magic Visions.” Is that demon-avoidance story the sort of thing you wrote about there?
Yes, but mostly that chapter is about the art of scrying, in which people stare into reflective objects – mirrors, oil, water, crystal balls, knives – and go into a sort of trance. These scryers see visions, often of things happening far away, or in the future or past. They can also see and converse with angels and devils. It’s amazing how wide-spread scrying was. It was practiced by Olmec shamans, Greek priestesses, Roman magicians, and medieval wizards. The chapter ends with the story of one of my favorite characters, Dr. John Dee, who was an advisor to Queen Elizabeth I and one of the foremost mathematicians and scientists in Europe. But he fell under the sway of his scryer, Edward Kelley, who persuaded him that he was talking to angels. Eventually, the angels in the magic mirror told them to trade wives for a night in 1587.
So the story of mirrors involves some pretty racy bits?
I’ll say! I’m afraid people will accuse me of being sex-obsessed, but this theme kept turning up. For instance, there is the story of Hostius Quadra, a decadent Roman who had a giant metallic concave mirror in which his orgies were magnified. And one of the pieces of evidence researchers found to indicate that dolphins recognize themselves in mirrors is that they engage in sex play for hours in front of mirrors. If they drift out of view, they break off and reposition themselves again so they can view their own activities.
Interesting. So is Mirror Mirror mostly filled with anecdotes like this?
Well, the history of mirrors has some pretty wild stories and characters, so I think it will supply fodder for quite a few dinner conversations. But most of the book is solid science. John Dee was a pivotal figure, because he was one of the last magician-scientists. After his death in 1609 – the year Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter with his telescope – magic and science finally split, although mirrors remain central to both subjects to this day.
Let’s talk about the scientific aspects of mirrors, then.
Chapters 3 and 4, called “Fields of Light” and “The Rational Mirror,” are really a short history of optics, from Aristotle to Newton. Have you ever thought deeply about the nature of light? What is it exactly? Even though it allows us to see, it is itself invisible, unless it bumps into something like dust, which allows us to see that it travels in straight lines. For years, people thought that we saw by emitting visual rays from our eyes. Anyway, it’s fascinating stuff, and mirrors were central to the Greeks, Arabs, medieval scientists like Robert Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, and then to Isaac Newton. What a strange man Newton was, nearly blinding himself by staring at the sun reflected in a mirror.
Then you really get into the history of astronomy, don’t you?
Oh, yes. Newton made the first working reflective telescope, but it was William Herschel, a German military musician who ran away to England, who really launched modern astronomy and cosmology by making ever-larger specula, as they called metallic telescope mirrors in the late 18th century. Herschel is one of my heroes, a real genius. He realized that the bigger the mirror, the better its “light grasp,” as he called it. When he was an old man, he told a visitor, “I have looked further into space than ever human being did before me. I have observed stars of which the light, it can be proved, must take two million years to reach the earth.” He concluded that we were circling a small star somewhere in the Milky Way and hypothesized that there were millions of other galaxies. He turned out to be right, but no one was sure until the 1920s, when they used even bigger mirrors. The story of astronomy is really the story of larger and more accurate mirrors. And nowadays, they use what some have nicknamed “rubber mirrors,” small deformable mirrors that correct the distortions of light as it comes through the earth’s atmosphere.
You also write about radio and x-ray astronomy, don’t you?
Yes. I hadn’t thought of this when I first planned the book, but visible light is only part of the vast spectrum of electromagnetic radiation that goes from long radio waves up through energetic gamma rays. It turns out that we can learn a lot about this amazing universe of ours by reflecting these different wavelengths, using special mirrors. For the longer radio waves, you can use mirrors made of chicken wire. But you can’t reflect powerful x-rays with normal mirrors, since they just plow right into them. You have to use “grazing incidence” mirrors that look like tubes, where the x-rays are barely deflected at one degree or less, like a bullet ricocheting off a wall. And of course you’ve got to send those x-ray mirrors into orbit, because the earth’s atmosphere blocks all of them.
Speaking of sending mirrors into space, do you talk about the Hubble Space Telescope fiasco?
I certainly do. It’s an amazing story, since the Hubble mirror was touted as the world’s finest for years, but it turns out they used only one testing device for it, and it was defective. By the time they discovered this, the thing was orbitting the earth. Fortunately, the opticians were able to design small mirrors that re-corrected the errors, and now the Hubble produces extraordinary pictures.
What other effects on human life have mirrors had?
Well, until the 16th century, most mirrors were either made of expensive metal or cheap convex glass made by pouring lead into blown glass balls. Then the mirror-makers on the island of Murano perfected a method of backing larger sheets of glass with a tin-mercury amalgam. In the first act of industrial espionage, the French under Louis XIV bribed Murano experts to come to Paris. After apparent threats and poisonings, they returned to Italy, but by then it was too late, and the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles was one result. From then on, mirrors got bigger, cheaper, and more pervasive. I have two chapters about the results for literature and art.
So what were the results?
To put it in a nutshell, it was a movement from the sacred to the secular. When mirrors were rare, small, and expensive, they were often used in religious texts as a symbol of God or the purity of the Virgin Mary. Ecclesiastical texts were often called Mirrors or Speculae in Latin. Then as mirrors became more common, the titles reflected more secular topics like politics or even early Elizabethan self-help texts. For instance, in 1555 a book was published with the title, A Mirrour of Love, Which Such Light Doth Give, That All Men May Learne, Howe to Love and Live.
What about the mirror’s effect on art?
I think that’s one of the most fascinating chapters in the book. The artist David Hockney came to a lot of the same conclusions I did. Around 1425, European artists, particularly in the Netherlands and Italy, almost miraculously developed sophisticated perspective, painting with the most extraordinary accuracy and detail. How did they do it? I argue that the Italians used flat mirrors, while the Dutch painters like Jan van Eyck used convex mirrors, and later on they both used a camera obscura. This chapter covers Filippo Brunelleschi, Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Pieter Bruegel , Caravaggio, and Rembrandt, among others.
I also cover anamorphic art in this chapter. Beginning in the 17th century, the Chinese and Europeans painted severely distorted pictures, leaving a round circle in the middle. When a tubular or conical mirror was placed there, it reconstituted the picture so that you could see what it really was. And guess what many artists painted? Pornographic scenes. So there’s that pesky sexual angle again.
What about the “fair sex” and mirrors? Or is that not a politically correct subject?
I don’t think that women have a corner on vanity, as I pointed out in Chapter 10, “The Vanity Business.” In our culture, however, and in many others, females have been stereotyped as being obsessed with mirrors, even though men, too, frequently consult their reflections. This chapter covers the rise of the American cosmetics industry, particularly in the 1920s and 1930s. Before then, only prostitutes (“painted women”) and actresses used makeup. During the Roaring Twenties, a huge beauty industry sprang up, and it became socially acceptable to carry a compact and to fix lipstick and makeup in public, using portable mirrors. During this time, mirrors proliferated in homes as well.
How long did it take you to research this mirror book? It is beginning to sound like the history of civilization.
It took three years of research, which included a lot of time in libraries and archives, but it also meant traveling around Europe and America in search of various mirrors. It was quite an adventure, which took me to a giant solar mirror in the Pyrenees, to French magic museums, to German glass factories, to classic mirror mazes in Prague and Lucerne, to Birr Castle in Ireland to see what used to be the world’s largest reflecting telescope, to a silo converted to the world’s largest kaleidoscope in upstate New York, to New York City to see myself in a True Mirror that does not reverse right and left (a disquieting experience), to the tops of various mountains to visit observatories, including Mount Palomar. One of my frustrations in writing the book was that I could include only a fraction of those experiences.
So now do you look at yourself differently in the mirror? What conclusions did you draw about them?
Actually, I have ambivalent feelings about mirrors. At the end of the book, I talk about the Biami, a tribe in New Guinea who had never seen a mirror until the mid-1970s. Their initial reaction to seeing themselves in mirrors was apparent terror. Yet within days, they were using mirrors to groom themselves. I think that the prevalence of mirrors in our society has perhaps made us too vain, too self-conscious, and at the same time, it has made us forget how magical mirrors really are. I hope my book provides a bit of a corrective.
As I wrote in the final chapter: “Mirror Mirror has been an attempt to untarnish our mirrors, allowing us to look into them with fresh wonder and to help us understand their extraordinary place in human history. Sometimes, however, I admit that I have thought we might be better off without mirrors, especially when I read that 850,000 Americans a year pay for botox injections to smooth their facial wrinkles with a paralytic poison, or when I consider other such attempts to manipulate image and deny mortality. But without mirrors, we would still be human. It is not the blank slate of the mirror that I deplore — it is what we sometimes reflect from it….In the developed world, we would do well — as we look into the myriad mirrors that surround us daily and as we use innovative scientific mirrors to look ever farther into the reaches of space and time, to send messages ever more quickly over beams of light, to direct deadly laser weapons – to learn from the Biami. Mirrors should inspire terror, wonder and comprehension.”