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Warren Motte Watches Literary Characters As They Watch Themselves

Dec 5, 2014

When University of Colorado professor and French literature critic Warren Motte was a graduate student around 35 years ago, he noticed that he kept coming across scenes of people looking at themselves in mirrors in different works of literature.

“I started collecting these scenes, kind of as an antidote to the dissertation that I was writing at the time,” Motte says. “I collected these in my reading over the years and finally I ended up with somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 of them.”

Credit University of Colorado

What interested Motte most was the gaze itself, and the fact that through literature, he was able to see these characters see themselves.

“I saw in certain of these scenes the person would gaze into the mirror and recognize herself or himself, in other scenes that recognition would come with more difficulty and in others scenes still, the person wouldn't recognize herself or himself at all,” Motte says.

The reasons for looking in the mirror differed from character to character and were often fairly prosaic. Some were looking in the mirror to shave, others to brush their hair, others still were searching for meaning in the image of their own face.

“It can range from something very practical to something far more personal, even metaphysical,” Motte says. “I'm interested in that variety of gaze. The way that it can shift so dramatically. I think that in terms of my own approach to these scenes.”

In a book this daily habit takes on a great deal more symbolism and often addresses how the human subject sees herself or himself in the world.

“A mirror scene when a subject recognized herself or himself with difficulty might testify to that person's alienation,” Motte says. “A mirror scene where the subject failed to recognize himself or herself at all would testify to an alienation that was more catastrophic still.”

Mirror scenes can be found in literature dating back to before the mirror, as we know it was even invented. For example, the Greek myth of Narcissus, in which a young man’s obsession with his own reflection in a pool of water leads to his death, dates back to as early the year 50 BC. However, Motte believes that scenes of self-reflection have been steadily increasing in prevalence over the years, leading to a present in which we are constantly looking in mirrors, of sorts.

“Think about the 'selfie' for instance,” Motte says. “That's a very recent phenomenon indeed, but it’s basically a mirror scene: people taking pictures of themselves.”

Self-reflection is not only an American obsession. As a professor or comparative literature, and voracious reader in his free time, Motte has read books from many countries and many genres and finds that the mirror motif shows up in all of them.

“Whereas other features might vary, the relationship of characters in a novel to food, or family structures in the novel, or social structures in the novel and so forth and so on,” Motte says. “To my way of thinking, these mirror scenes are pretty international in character.”

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FULL TRANSCRIPT

GRILLOT: Warren Motte, welcome to World Views.

MOTTE: Thank very much. I'm delighted to be here.

GRILLOT: Warren, you've written a very interesting book about this concept of mirror gazing. It’s a book really about reading. It's like reading a book about reading. Can you tell us, first of all, what that means, mirror gazing, and how that relates to reading.

MOTTE: I can tell you that. About 35 years ago, when I was a graduate student, so a very long time ago, I started becoming interested in scenes in literary works where characters look into the mirror. I started collecting these scenes, kind of as an antidote to the dissertation that I was writing at the time. Just to have something of my own to do and so forth. As I started collecting I got more and more fascinated in them and I saw in certain of these scenes the person would gaze into the mirror and recognize herself or himself, in other scenes that recognition would come with more difficulty and in others scenes still, the person wouldn't recognize herself or himself at all. I collected these in my reading over the years and finally I ended up with somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 of them. In each of these scenes there's someone looking into the mirror and I slowly realized that what I was interested in was the gaze itself, the way people look at themselves or gaze at themselves in the mirror and I realized a little later still that I was actually looking at these people while they were looking at themselves. A lot of what interested my was the representation of the gaze itself in literary text and the representation in the gaze in reading. Reading is looking.

GRILLOT: Let me pick up on that. What they're looking for when they're reading. It sounds to me that you've found some consistency among multiple literary works in terms of people there are some scenes where people look at themselves in the mirror but you've taken that actually, physical doing of gazing at one's self in the mirror to extending that somehow to what you expect to see? How does that translate into what you expect to read in the book?

MOTTE: I think there's a broad spectrum of possibility. People can sort of gaze at themselves or look at themselves in the mirror for very pragmatic reasons, in order to shave, for instance or in order to brush their hair. People can look into the mirror in an effort to figure out who they are and how they want to try to be in the world. It can range from something very practical to something far more personal, even metaphysical. I'm interested in that variety of gaze. The way that it can shift so dramatically. I think that in terms of my own approach to these scenes, I'm a formalist. So what I'm interested in is kind of the shape that these scenes take rather than how they play out in every single instance and the kind of message that they convey or might convey about how the human subject represents himself or herself to himself or herself and how that kind of representation can be played out in literature and other forms of art as well. There are a lot of mirrors in other forms of art, but what I'm interested in is literature so how that kind of representation of the self is played out in literature.

GRILLOT: Why do you think it is that so many of these kinds of scenes are present in, you just mentioned you have more than ten thousand that you've collected. Why are they so often used and are they some sort of literary form that you actually use some sort of mirror scene to represent something, to reflect, if you will, a certain perspective?

MOTTE: You know, there were mirror scenes in ancient-- in fact there are mirror scenes before there were mirrors, as we know the mirror the object. Think of the Greek myth of Narcissus where Narcissus gazes at himself in the pond. There have always been mirror scenes I think, in culture but mirror scenes become more and more frequent as we approach the present. Our time is a very specular time. It's a time that is dominated by the mirror. Think of all the other analogous phenomena that attend our culture and think about the "selfie" for instance. That's a very recent phenomenon indeed, but it’s basically a mirror scene, people taking pictures of themselves. So I don't feel authorized to speculate about culture in a very broad sense, but I do know in literary culture, the topos of the mirror scene becomes more and more frequent as we approach the present.

GRILLOT: I think that's an extremely interesting analogy and the fact that you are connecting it to something else in our daily life today like the selfie. A selfie can be used in many different ways. Not only to reflect yourself but also to communicate something. There are certain applications like Snapchat, where you snap a picture of yourself and send it someone and you are communicating with a facial expression, or you're communicating something with your mirror as opposed to just typing in something with your thumbs. Is that the sort of similar thing that you are seeing in a literary form, is that the mirror scene, the mirror gazing, those are communicating something purposefully and not just a description of what someone is doing.

MOTTE: They are absolutely purposeful, yes, absolutely. Often the mirror scene testifies to the way that the human subject sees herself or himself in the world. A mirror scene when a subject recognized herself or himself with difficulty might testify to that person's alienation. A mirror scene where the subject failed to recognize himself or herself at all would testify to an alienation that was more catastrophic still. I guess in the literature of the 20th century, we expect somehow the human subject, the individual to be sort of alienated from the world. What we expect less, I think, is for the subject to be alienated from himself or herself and that's a prospect, I think that for most of us is very terrifying indeed. The notion that you might go to the mirror and look at yourself and not recognize yourself and those moments in literature are consequently very harrowing ones indeed but they all do communicate. 

GRILLOT: I think its also interesting that sometimes you pick up a book and you read it and no matter what the scene may be, you get something out of it. That’s unexpected and what I'm hearing from you is using this tool within the book itself, but that the book is actually providing you something you didn't expect to get.

MOTTE: Yes and books always do that. That's one of the great values of books. They're infinitely surprising, to me at least. I spent my life reading. I read bulimicly. It's terrible, but yeah, I've collected so many of these scenes and they never fail to surprise me. They still surprise me on a daily basis. One of the most interesting things for me was going back over all of these scenes that I had collected over the years because I went back through them at one point in order to write my book, one by one, and consequently, I re-visited a lot of books that I had read in the past 35 years. It allowed me to re-visit those moments of astonishment and pleasure in another way, in a different way, and to put those moments to use in a way that I hadn't anticipated. It was a very enriching experience for me.

GRILLOT: I want to shift a little bit to kind of the area of the world that you've specialized in in terms of literature that's written in the French language. Is this concept of mirror gazing, this reflecting that we're talking about, is this something that you see across cultures? We're talking about very human activities her, reflecting on oneself and perhaps seeing something you recognize, or not, this seems like something you would see very broadly. Is that the case even beyond French literature? 

MOTTE: It is, I can confirm that. I started out in English literature; I did a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature before I went to French literature. I teach comparative literature as well, so I read a lot of different kinds of literature. I read a lot of other European literature other than French. I read North American literature, English literature; I read a lot of Latin American literature, for fun! I read a ton of popular literature as well, detective novels, spy novels, things like that. I mix it up quite a bit and indeed in my book, Mickey Spillane rubs elbows with Marcel Proust and I think there are probably very few places where that happen. So, they're in conversation there. It's probably the only place they are in conversation, but I can testify that they have very interesting things to say to each other. I do read a lot of different kinds of literature and my own sense is that the incidents of these mirror scenes is neither greater or less in French literature than in any other national literature with which I'm familiar. The difference comes in time period. As we come toward the present, as literature becomes, like the rest of culture, more and more specular, then mirror scenes tend to multiply.

GRILLOT: So the mirroring going on in in a literary work is very much a reflection of one's culture in terms of timing, but yet it’s not something that varies from culture to culture in terms of how it’s used. I guess all humans, regardless of where they're from, use reflection in some way shape or form to communicate things or find meaning in something whether its themselves, their own lives, society, whatever it may be, but perhaps do it in a different time and a different way but that we all do it.

MOTTE: My sense is that there are a great many things in literature that are culturally coded far more so than these mirror scenes. To my way of thinking, these mirror scenes are pretty international in character, whereas other features might vary, the relationship of characters in a novel to food or family structures in the novel or social structures in the novel and so forth and so on. Those would vary from culture to culture undoubtedly, but these scenes are so fundamental it seems to me that they don't vary that much from culture to culture although they do from period to period.

GRILLOT: Well Warren Motte, thank you so much for being here today and helping us reflect on this topic. I appreciate it. It was very interesting.

MOTTE: It's a very great pleasure, thank you very much indeed.

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