Mirrors aren’t simple. Looking, real looking, is demanding and fraught with unknowns. The light-catching surface of a mirror can delight and transport us, prompt ecstatic revelation, and also bewitch and confuse. Long ago Ovid described the mirror’s powers of dizzying intoxication and heartbreak, but even the tale of Narcissus doesn’t capture the whole story. A mirror can be seductively dangerous, yes, not a tool to be taken lightly by callow and foolish youth. But mirrors also reflect the truth. Nothing unhinges ill-gotten power and champions the underdog like speaking truth, from Snow White to Edward Snowden. But the doings of mirrors do not stop with simple utilitarian truth telling, either. Part of the mirror’s slyness lies in the fact that even as it reflects the world-as-it-is, it also reverses. In a mirror, what we see is laterally inverted but not vertically inverted, so when a person looks into a mirror, the image is actually front-back reversed. Thus a mirror image is fundamentally different from the object. Perhaps this is why mirrors often seem to be a window into other domains, places where Right and Left and Up and Down have a different meaning, where people look kind of familiar but are not like us, places of mystery and possibility.
Undoubtedly mirrors are magic. Their magic is as complex as the world, their reflections full of shadows as well as light, shifting, hard to interpret, impossible to touch. Everyone understands that Magic objects have a life of their own, and Mirrors are no different, enabling Galileo his epiphanies and also stealing the souls of the living when left uncovered at a funeral. Their magic suffuses religion, and the human rituals surrounding birth and death and luck and love across many cultures. Dracula doesn’t see himself in a mirror, but we can. This is a mirror’s offering: the reciprocated gaze, the power of looking, which is after all a way of knowing, never simple.