Warren Motte - a book about reading and looking, about what people seek when they read, and about what stares back at them from the printed page. Motte has collected around ten thousand mirror scenes from roughly 1,500 books

Warren Motte, Mirror Gazing, Dalkey Archive Press, 2014.

Mirror Gazing is a book about reading and looking, about what people seek when they read, and about what stares back at them from the printed page. It is an archival project, based on a wealth of material collected daily by celebrated critic Warren F. Motte over thirty-five years and squirreled away for some eventual winter. It is also a love letter, a confession, a tale of deep obsession, and a cry for help addressed to anyone who takes literature seriously.

“I believe (and I’m choosing my words carefully) that this is the most extraordinary book about reading I have ever read” – Jacques Jouet

“Wonderfully luminous, entertaining, thought-provoking, and wide-ranging…an essential book” – Gerald Prince

What do we see when we read? For Warren Motte, the question is more properly stated, what do we see reflected when we read? This is a book first and foremost about the literature of self-regard. Over the course of his career as a decorated scholar of French and comparative literature, Motte has amassed a collection of over ten thousand scenes in which mirrors play some kind of role in the plot of a story. Mirrors are where we see people seeing themselves and, presumably, where we as readers are made aware of the way we see ourselves. Mirrors are stand-ins for the narcissism of reading. “We read,” writes Motte, “but we also watch ourselves read. In doing so, we construct a version of ourselves.” As Witold Gombrowicz writes in his autobiography, celebrating great readers everywhere: “Monday / Me. / Tuesday / Me. / Wednesday / Me. / Thursday / Me.”
Following Motte provides all the pleasures of following in the footsteps of a great reader. The trail meanders, but the vistas are always rewarding. Mirrors suddenly become newly fascinating (“mirror, mirror on the wall . . .”), and you won’t read about one the same way again. Mirrors are sites of banality, like learning how to shave well (Salinger, Franny and Zooey), but they are also sites of inspiration: “Art should be like that mirror / Which reveals to us our own face” (Borges, “Ars Poetica”). They allow us to try on new selves (Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms) or feel the pangs of conscience (T. C. Boyle, A Friend of the Earth). They can be reminders of time passing or intense moments of self-love: “Cornell buttoned his blazer, turned sideways to the dresser mirror to look at himself. ‘You a lean, handsome motherfucker, ain’t you?’” (Elmore Leonard, Stick). Mirror scenes can be straightforward (“‘I’m me,’ she whispered. ‘Me.’” (Toni Morrison, Sula), or they can be complex enunciations of the not-quite of resemblance. “The mirror showed her someone who was so nearly her that she had to lean forward to see what was missing from her face” (Robert Wilson, The Company of Strangers). In the end, as Motte ably shows, no two mirror images are alike. The hall of mirrors extends to infinity.
Motte has built an impressive array of examples, which he admirably tries to tame into a system of types. And yet the joy of this book is in its contradictions, not its resolutions. Mirrors are places of estrangement and self-knowledge, boring and intense, magical and mundane. They are themselves always double. One of the most poignant things about mirrors, as Motte notes, is that even as you see yourself, you can never see your back. Our need for self-reflection is endless because never quite complete. - Andrew Piper

Warren Motte admits early on in his strange and thought-provoking new book Mirror Gazing that his habit of collecting mirror scenes in literature is a little obsessive. “For a very long time now,” he says, “I have been fascinated by the way that characters in fiction encounter mirrors, and by the different things they see when they gaze into those mirrors. That fascination looms exceedingly large in my mind, grossly out of proportion with the many other fascinations that literature exerts on me. It is irrational and largely inexplicable, but there it is.”
There it is, indeed – that’s his book in a nutshell. It’s a gathering of mirror scenes culled from a collection of 12,000+ examples, all of which Motte jotted down on index cards over several decades of reading. He has rules for his burgeoning collection (“admittedly arbitrary and extremely quirky,” is how he characterizes those rules): First, he has to encounter the scenes spontaneously while engaged in otherwise “undirected readings”; second, he has to find the scenes in books he has in his own personal library. In other words, Motte, who is a professor of French and Comparative Literature at the University of Colorado, doesn’t go looking for mirror scenes. He doesn’t take suggestions from colleagues, family, friends or helpful acquaintances who hear of his interest, nor does he find these scenes in books he cannot pull down and refer to later – nothing from university or city lending libraries, nothing borrowed. He doesn’t cast a wide net on social media, begging for examples to be sent to him like someone less well-read might do, someone with a narrower frame of reference. All the examples he comes up with (and there are many, many examples) arrived via his own reading of his own books.
When reading non-fiction, I usually look for precise explanations of why authors are interested enough in their subjects to begin the long journey of writing it all down in a book and sharing it. I look for the passion to shine through, even if the origins of that passion are “inexplicable,” and Motte doesn’t disappoint: 
The notion that we might actually have not one, but two selves (or more!), and that the mirror might put that duplicity (multiplicity!) upon display, is reason enough for us to tread lightly when in the presence of that object. Because in many cases, specularity escapes from our control. It ramifies instantly and inevitably, duplicating as it does so, and positing thus a fundamental question of authenticity that cannot fail to trouble us. What is “real“ in a reflection of the real, and what is not? Or, in other terms, what is it that a mirror reflects?….My own sense is that problems such as that one do not bear too much thought. Like the paradox of the Cretan liar, or like certain Zen koans, one could wander into it and never find one’s way out….I myself have been caught for a very long time, I confess. Perhaps not by the mirror itself, but by these mirror scenes. I’m counting on this project, you will understand, to help me find my way out. But I’m not particularly sanguine about my prospects.”
What fun to read a book that tackles an obsession and confesses to it being mysterious and labyrinthine and slightly out of control. How exciting to find a book where the author doesn’t pull back despite his own confusions. As we watch, Motte works to construct a reasonable narrative from his collection, almost as if he were both personal tour guide and curator of a large natural history museum. Motte’s observations about these mirror scenes put me in mind of an old-fashioned wonder cabinet, filled with a few familiar objects but even more unfamiliar objects, brought back from Terra Incognita. And Warren Motte is the slightly grizzled explorer, willing to share his journey with us, sea serpents and all.
Orson Welles, reflected in multiple mirrors in Citizen Kane.
(Photos of artists/authors in this post are not from Mirror Gazing.)
I found myself wishing that I could see even one photo of the author with his collection of 12,000 index cards. I imagined the cards organized in multiple shoe boxes – a little disheveled – with labels on the outside for easy identification: “Implicitly Implicit Non-Mirror Scenes” and “Explicitly Implicit Non-Mirror Scenes.” How does one organize such a collection? Much of what is delightful about this book is not its surface subject matter but its subterranean one; we read between the lines to see how Motte himself reads these mirror scenes and conducts the art of classification. At heart, this is not just a book about mirror scenes, interesting as they are— and they are interesting— it’s a look at passion, at collection, at personal taxonomies and the game of creating order from disorder (do we ever win that game?) It’s about how we read and why we read. And it’s about the Delphic maxim, “Know thyself.” Motte explores how characters look for (or suddenly catch) themselves in mirrors, as well as how (or whether) the act of writing is a reflection, distorted or true, of writers themselves.
Motte is a born taxonomist; he enjoys categories. That the examples he presents are a little fuzzy around the edges (fuzziness usually impedes categorization) was not a problem for me. I get the feeling many of his examples could slip easily into and out their categories, according to Motte’s changing perspectives. Readers like me who can relax and go with a little disorder during the classification process will be happiest with this book. In the almost seventy pages of examples that are not true mirror scenes the author offers up his thinking about the following distinctions (and remember, these are only the NON-mirror-scene categories):
  • Definitely Not
  • Probably Not
  • Me, Me, Me
  • Self-Knowledge
  • Reassurance
  • Avoidance
  • Unavoidability
  • Close Shave [Yes – a collection of scenes of shaving in a mirror]
  • Fathers and Sons, Mothers and Daughters
  • On the Other Hand
  • Banalaties
  • Virtualities
  • Implicit Mirror Scenes
  • Metaphorical Mirrors
  • Conscience
  • The Eyes of Others
  • Skepticism
  • Fools and Churls
  • Writing as Mirror
  • Fictions
  • Whys and Wherefores (in which, about a third of the way into the book, we discover some things that might have imposed more order on the material at the opening of the book.)
It’s clear from this list, I think, how elaborately Motte studies the nuances of any scene in literature that includes a mirror (actual, implied or metaphorical) and makes his decision about which shoebox (my own metaphor) to put his index card into. What’s not quite as clear is why the book itself is organized the way it is. Motte shoots for a system of classification for his mirror scenes, but he does not appear to be particularly wedded to the idea of orderliness in his own writing. In the middle of the section about non-mirror scenes, he offers one example and then says, “The temptation to call this a mirror scene is very real. And indeed we must give in to it, because this is in fact a mirror scene, and a fairly mainstream one at that.” Let’s just say some drifting occurs, organizationally. It’s unsettling, but not uninteresting. Motte speaks often of trying to get his explanations under control and to get back, amid the decision-making about yes-true-mirror-scene vs. no-not-true-mirror scene examples, to a more regulated presentation of his material. He calls his thoughts “scattered,” which they occasionally are (charmingly, I think, though some might be annoyed), and he says, in the section titled Fictions, “Let us re-visit together, briefly and on tiptoe, but nonetheless a bit more systematically, the terrain which that notion occupies, bearing in mind how uneven and slippery that terrain is.” A given reader’s tolerance for slippage (mine is high) will determine whether Motte’s book is appreciated.
Robert Capa and John Steinbeck
Photographer Robert Capa catches his own mirrored reflection
along with that of author John Steinbeck.
I did find myself wondering one thing consistently: Could Motte have been persuaded to offer up the definition of a true mirror scene before the nearly seventy pages of definitions of what it is not? The opening chapter is a speech presented at Johns Hopkins University which makes a stab at summary but feels a little tacked on (even the font is different.) Would it have been possible to integrate the speech into the text more smoothly and present a more concise version of the non-mirror-scene rules, holding off on elaborations of those until after we understood true mirror scenes a bit more? The author’s trust that we can fill in the gaps and understand, via negative space, what really constitutes a mirror scene by understanding what one is not is a little out of whack. The book could just as comfortably – and less confusingly – have started with the brilliant lines that open the section titled “Imagine My Emotion,” which go like this: “Imagine my emotion when I learned, a few years ago, that elephants are self-aware! A team of scientists had just discovered (so it was reported in my morning newspaper) that elephants are capable of recognizing themselves in a mirror.” What immediately precedes these lines (the Whys and Wherefores section) and follows them (a fairly precise presentation of what true mirror scenes do) helps steady the boat. Mirror scene shows characters looking for themselves, Motte says, and recognizing themselves or not. That might just be the goal of all stories (again, the adage Motte referes to several times: “Know yourself”…gnothi seauton.) We – and a few other species, including elephants – engage with our self-images either seriously or playfully. If the book opened there, readers might get a firmer grasp on the idea of a true mirror scene (and its nuanced shadings) before the boat got rocked. On steadier ground then, readers could look at the non-mirror scene examples and discern the differences more easily.
Self-portrait of  the recently discovered photographer Vivian Maier
That reservation aside, I come back to the strengths of this book, not the least of which is Motte’s ability to make a work of scholarship un-fusty and conversational. He talks directly to his readers as if his thoughts were being delivered to friends around the dinner table. He recounts being baffled by the word “heresay” via a personal story about pedaling uphill (literally, not metaphorically) on his bicycle and being “misperceived” by bicyclists riding downhill (perception of ourselves by others being part of what Motte terms “specular encounters.”) We feel like we know Motte personally, because of his chatty delivery – in fact, by the end of the book, I concluded Motte was bright, compulsive, amiable, confused, and just silly enough (dolphins, he jokes, look at themselves “on porpoise”) to wish he were a friend. “Oof! There. That’s better,” he says at the end of the section about non-mirror scenes. “So much for that,” he says at the end of another section, “for the time being at least.” And after his quick dismissal of anything television has to offer (maybe he hasn’t seen some of the good writing television offers up lately?) he says, “But there. My prejudices are showing. Not for the first time, certainly, but still.” Every once in awhile we see self-mockery; that’s rare in an academic. And what’s not to love about a writer who can say at the end of his book, in a completely relaxed way, “…things have not turned out exactly as planned. The categories that I postulated have broken down under close inspection….I can live with that, quite happily, in fact.”
As for Motte’s intelligence, that’s made clear in the 32-page, single-spaced list of works cited. A more well-read author is hard to imagine, especially given those rules I mentioned previously (all examples came from his personal library of books and were found during “undirected” reading.) The list of books cited is deep and wide. It includes work by pop-culture authors (Elmore Leonard, Jeffrey Archer, James Lee Burke, Agatha Christie), science fiction and fantasy writers (Isaac Asimov, Edgar Rice Burroughs), poets (Charles Baudelaire, Paul Valery) and even writers for children (Kenneth Grahame, Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown.) Translated authors are well represented – Russian, Italian, French, Spanish, Czech, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, the list goes on; they include many writers of the Oulipo school (Motte’s book Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature is a fine guide to that movement.) He includes songwriters (Bob Dylan), critics (Harold Bloom), philosophers (Johan Huizinga) psychologists (Sigmund Freud) and even politicians (Barack Obama.) I am leaving out many dozens of writers, especially contemporary American and British, who made it onto those index cards and into the book. It’s not everyone who can refer to both Yahweh and Popeye in the same sentence (“That’s the best and most reassuring lesson of the mirror: like Yahweh and Popeye, we are what we are.”)  One of the loveliest passages Motte offers us of a true mirror scene (subcategory: what Motte calls “doubling”; that is, “a recognition of one’s own alterity”) is this quotation from Andre Gide’s Si le grain ne meurt:
The desire to seem exactly what I felt I was, what I wanted to be, that is, an artist, actually prevented me from simply being, and made of me what people call a poseur. In the mirror of a small writing desk that I had inherited from Anna, and that my mother had put in my room, and which I used for writing, I contemplated my facial features tirelessly, studying them, training them like an actor does, seeking out on my lips, in my gaze, the expression of the passions that I longed to feel. Above all I would have liked to make myself loved; I would have given my soul for that. During that period, I could not write (I almost said think), it seems to me, elsewhere than in front of that mirror. In order to understand my own thoughts, I felt that I had first to read them in my eyes. Like Narcissus, I was bent over my own image; because of that, each sentence that I wrote in those days remains a bit curved.
Motte ends Mirror Gazing in a self-effacing way and leaves me convinced he is the kind of scholar I would love to work alongside (and have as a dinner guest) and whose books I will continue to seek out. He describes what he sees in his own mirror: “A sixtyish professor, beavering away at a piece of scholarly writing. A person who lives a great deal of the time in his imagination, giving full rein to that imagination. A committed reader, surveying the particulars of his commitment. A collector, perusing and arranging his collection in order to put it on view. A man at work. A boy at play. I confess that I’m more attached to the latter sort of image, for reasons that will be, by this time, massively apparent.”
M.C. Escher’s Self-Portrait with a Globe
Of course, the down side to this fascinating book is that Motte ruins things for us – we can never encounter a literary mirror scene again and just speed past it without slowing down and pausing to reflect (pun intended.) I’m satisfied with that sacrifice. Slowing down is not a bad idea when what we’re doing is complicated, and Motte manages to make us feel the complications of self-knowledge. One moment we’re over on the dark side of the mirror: “The things that we fear the most may be those that lurk right inside us, for goodness sake. An encounter with the mirror and the introspection that it entails present the very real danger of recognizing that tough truth.” The next moment, we’re having a fine time at a little road-trip game called “Mirrors.” We’re not sure what the rules are, exactly, but we’ll learn them as we go. If the ride gets bumpy, well, the bumps keep us alert, and a smooth road, as often as not, puts us to sleep. The thoughts I had as I came to to the end of Mirror Gazing were these: Reflection – as in a mirror – is pervasive, and reading itself is an act of reflection. Motte’s journey into reflection is an on-going process, he’s in the driver’s seat, he’s having fun on this road trip, and for several days I rolled down the window, got a little windblown, and had fun alongside him. - Julie Larios

Many readers make notes about their reading; many mark or even copy out and collect quotes or sentences. Some, like Warren Motte, focus on something specific: as he explains, he has made note of very specific mentions on index cards for decades now:
Since the late 1970s, I have been collecting mirror scenes in literature, moments when a subject glimpses himself or herself in a mirror. 
       An avid reader, he's collected a great deal of material over his many reading years. In a talk he delivered in 2004 he admits:
I find that I now possess something approaching 10,000 mirror scenes -- far too many to be of any practical use -- in roughly 1,500 books, from say, Homer to Jacques Jouet.
       Mirror Gazing is, finally, his attempt to shape something out of this reading-sideline, both an attempt at some analysis of the collected material itself and an examination of his fascination with it.
       Mirror-mentions in literature tend to be incidental -- a glimpse in passing. Even where a character stares at and actively considers his or her reflection, it's rare for the scene to be particularly protracted. But it's not an unusual occurrence either: any given novel might well offer a fleeting glimpse here or there.
       Mirror-images are also striking, even just in passing: reflections of and on the observer -- and, despite being 'perfect' mirror-images (except, of course, when the mirror itself is not -- a not too infrequent occurrence as well) still so often not quite the picture the observer expects or imagines.
       Motte offers a sort of taxonomy of mirror-scenes, describing the many variations he's encountered, grouping together examples and suggesting what can be read into the authors' uses of mirrors in these particular ways. Mirror Gazing isn't truly encyclopedic -- neither in its presentation (which has a personal-digressive touch) nor in the collection of material itself (the sampling is selective -- again also personally so -- rather than fully representative) -- but it seems safe to say that readers are unlikely to easily come across such a thorough consideration of mirror-scenes in literature -- or one that is this entertaining; it helps a great deal that Motte doesn't take his enterprise entirely too seriously.
       The book benefits greatly from Motte's catholic approach to reading: though an academic, he doesn't limit his discussion to what is generally called 'literary fiction'. Explaining what books he draws his material from he writes:
I read a lot of "serious" fiction and a lot of "popular" fiction, but very little "bestselling" fiction. (I am not happy with these categories, but I lack better ones.) 
       So, for example, a typical sequence of quotes is from: Stanisław Lem, Elizabeth George, Vladimir Voinovich, Walter Mosley, Louis-René des Forêts, Muriel Cerf, Lydie Salvayre, José Donoso, and William Gaddis.
       A thirty-two page list of books is included, citing all the books that get a mention -- a solid reading list, though with some rather large gaps (particularly weak on Japan, India, and Africa, scraping only the Chinese surface, very hit and miss on contemporary European fiction beyond France and the UK). A specialist in French literature, it's not surprising that much of Motte's reading (and hence examples) come from modern French literature (or are published by the publisher of this book, Dalkey Archive Press, whose general sensibilities Motte seems to share). It is difficult for anyone's readings to be all-inclusive enough to satisfy others, but -- though perhaps biased because of the great overlap with my own reading -- Mirror Gazing certainly seems built up on a good foundation.
       Reading is a personal and individual matter, and Motte is aware that his reading-list is unusual; he pokes some fun, too, at his reading -- as when he cites: "Sharon Kendrick's contemporary classic, The Playboy Sheikh's Virgin Stable Girl", and jokingly takes for granted: "You have read the novel, I trust, so I have no need to point out [...]". (It's a Harlequin romance, and is in fact the least likely of the several hundred titles cited in the book that readers will have come across.)
       The personal asides and comments can be a bit hit or miss, but lend a nice backdrop to what could otherwise easily become too academically dry and dreary. Motte's willingness to step back and wonder (aloud): "Am I reading too much into these things ?" helps ground the book.
       As Motte demonstrates, a lot can be made out of looking into mirrors. The examples he cites show just what authors can do with them, and with the reflections they offer, ranging from the apparently perfect and true to the surprising. Significantly, too, mirrors don't merely serve for introspective reflection; indeed, among the more interesting aspects revealed by Motte is in the more incidental uses of mirrors.
       The idea of books as mirrors themselves is of course impossible to ignore throughout, and Motte's mirror-examples reinforce that notion. Though mirrors would seem far more objective -- offering an accurate reflection -- time and again authors show and use them in ways that demonstrate that the observer often finds the unexpected there, that the reflections on offer are, just as when reading a book, shaped by both the observer and the mirror, as well as an often unexpected interplay between the two.
       Looking into texts -- reading -- is a kind of mirror-gazing; Motte's highlighting of the mirror-incidents in his reading allows us to consider the variations all the more closely. It makes for a worthwhile -- and entertaining -- exercise. - M.A.Orthofer

Warren Motte has been collecting literary mirror scenes for the past twenty-five years—a remarkable, if somewhat curious, undertaking. Motte, a devoted reader who absorbs “a healthy mix of so-called ‘serious literature’ and so-called ‘popular literature,’ ” has kept 3×5 notecards within each book to record the author, title, and page of each encountered mirror scene. His fascinating new book, Mirror Gazing, is a lovely reflection on these many mirror scenes and the peculiar pursuit of collecting. 
What is a mirror scene? In the most literal sense, a character actually looks into a mirror, but characters also catch their reflections in train windows or coffee cups. And then there are bodies of water or dark, rainslicked streets. In the modern world, we cannot escape screens. We are, in a sense, surrounded by mirrors, and as often as we encounter them in real life, so too do characters in fiction.
There are many ways that we look metaphorically into mirrors, perhaps gazing into our souls while listening to a record. But mirror gazing, for Motte, cannot take place on this purely figurative level. He writes, “I do not consider Roquentin rereading his diary in Nausea a mirror scene, however, because the level of abstraction therein is unacceptable, stretching the working definition such that it might eventually include everything in literature—and everything outside of literature, as well. The scene in Marguerite Duras’s The Lover where the narrator describes her ruined face is not an example of the breed, for me at least; the scene where a man who used to know her when she had been young tells her he prefers the face she has now, ‘ravaged’ (3), just barely clears the bar; and the scene where the narrator looks in a shopkeeper’s mirror, and says, ‘Suddenly I see myself as another’ (13) is an almost perfect example of the genre.”
Motte has collected around ten thousand mirror scenes from roughly 1,500 books. This, in and of itself, is noteworthy, but the book is not simply a reprinting of quotes from various books. It is a deeply considered analysis of what it actually means to look into a mirror. For the serious reader, this book will serve as a trip through your reading past. I was reminded—somewhat nostalgically—of much of the literature that has defined the early part of my adult life. From Nabokov to Salinger to Rilke to Calvino, the book makes its way into just about every corner of American and European literature. Some books have no mirror scenes, and thus are left out, whereas others have just a few. Motte says, “The record, insofar as my own readings are concerned, is held by William Gaddis: I’m pleased to report that The Recognitions contains no less than eighty-three mirror scenes.”
When digging through these ten thousand passages, one has to wonder where to begin when writing such a book. Motte suggests that this project is emblematic of “the kinds of impossible situations that certain, stubborn, fixated academics get themselves into.” But, as someone who spends her days in the academy, I found the book to be a refreshing departure from much of the dense, arcane text that lives within the university. Mirror Gazing reads like a lively conversation with your favorite English professor. When thinking about the project, it is easy to wonder how might we productively look at or analyze these index cards. In other words, what is the point? This is not, I believe, the right question to ask of such a book. I’m not sure that we need an explanation for such a project, because the fundamental concept of collecting requires a certain kind of intellectual inquisitiveness that justifies itself. At any rate, Motte is such a thoughtful and engaging writer. The explanations he offers for these mirror scenes are, simply put, an absolute joy to read.
The project is not as haphazard as it may sound. There are, in fact, some rules to the collecting. Motte writes, “First, I have to come upon each scene myself, in the course of otherwise undirected readings. That is, I have never gone in search of mirror scenes, nor have I accepted them when upon rare occasion benevolent friends aware of my project have contributed them. Second, they have to occur in books that I own, and have shelved in my personal library. For how else would I find them again, one day, with only page references to go by, in an age when editions change so quickly?—and I confess, too, with some chagrin, that I am as loathe to leave the comforts of my own library as Oblomov was to leave the comforts of his couch.”
And so, with the ever-evolving collection in hand, Motte begins the process of categorizing the mirror scenes. As I began this book I could only think of a handful of reasons that one might even look into a mirror in the first place, but I soon learned that the reasons (and contexts) are infinite. The sheer variety of mirror scenes is perhaps the most absorbing thing about this book. To name just a few of the themes that run through the book: narcissism, avoidance (or the unavoidability of looking into a mirror), banalities, voyeurism, conscience, skepticism, alienation (on being a stranger to oneself in a mirror could be a book in of itself), ageing, shock, self-loathing, truth, difficult recognition, and happy events (let us not forget that these do exist in literature from time to time). In fact, a happy mirror scene (of which there are few) is a nice example of how the book arranges itself: 
“The limit-case of these happy recognition scenes is one where happiness swells into something approaching ecstasy. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror, Raymond Queneau’s Zazie reacts in a way that leaves little room for doubt, alienation, or otiose introspection: ‘Zazie gazed at herself in the mirror, salivating with admiration’ (Zazie dans le métro 63). One easily understands her, and my own feeling is that we ought to allow ourselves to share her admiration—otherwise, where is the plaisir du texte? In a more macho vein, a character in Elmore Leonard’s Stick expresses his pleasure with an eloquence all his own: ‘Cornell buttoned his blazer, turned sideways to the dresser mirror to look at himself. “You a lean, handsome motherfucker, ain’t you?” ’ (105). Sometimes the mirror serves to correct and improve an impression of the self, and that correction can be a very dramatic one indeed: ‘Though she and Youqing’s wife had similar figures, the blouse seemed a bit tight in the waist. But when she looked in the mirror, Yumi nearly jumped out of her skin. She’d never looked so good—as pretty as a city girl’ (Bi Feiyu, Three Sisters 48).” The juxtaposition of such vastly different characters and writers is typical of Mirror Gazing, and Motte effortlessly moves through book after book making connections and observations along the way.
Beyond the literature itself, there is something about the very nature of a collection that is captivating. We often encounter collections in the public space, in museums or shops. Consider a collection of paintings or butterflies or buttons. There is something quite curious and beautiful about the arrangement and cataloging of things for our viewing. But what of the personal collector? The basement full of National Geographic, the drawers full of maps, or the shelf lined with antique dolls. For my part, I collect cigar boxes. It’s something I took up over a decade ago, when I discovered a small, worn box filled with letters in the basement of my childhood home. Over the years, I have picked up unique cigar boxes at flea markets and antique stores, often as mementos from trips. These boxes are lined up on my windowsill, and when people come to visit, they often become a topic of conversation. When people ask why I collect boxes, I am never able to provide a satisfactory explanation because I really don’t know. Motte says, “Any collection, undoubtedly, is a way for the collector to impose order upon the world, his or her world, or at least a very small corner thereof.” This is the best explanation I have come across. It is something that is all mine, a collection unlike any other, and one that I can carry with me as I make my way through this world.
For Motte, the project of collecting seems to have become something that is almost unconscious, an inexplicable task that is an ingrained part of his reading life. It is the kind of project that can happily fill a lifetime. He says, “One thing I know, for example, is that my fascination with these mirror scenes is both endless and end-less. That is, it is ongoing and uninterrupted, with no end in sight. Moreover, it is not directed toward any particular goal; it is largely disinterested; it is playful. If I felt an absolute need to bring my activity to a close, I guess that I could restrict myself to reading only those books that I’ve already read—or indeed to stop reading entirely. But I’m not likely to do that. More than anything else, it’s a question of quality of life.”
Perhaps what makes Mirror Gazing such an extraordinary book is that there is something deeply human and deeply personal about looking into a mirror. One of Motte’s collected scenes neatly sums up the experience of looking in the mirror: “For there are at least two ways of looking into a mirror: ‘The first is to see your face. The second is to probe your conscience. When we size ourselves up in the mirror, we are always struck by the different forms of the self that we see there’ (Patrick Roegiers, L’Artiste, la servante et le savant 12–13).”
Can we really see ourselves in a mirror? This is the question—if not literally—that every great piece of literature asks. How are we to perceive ourselves? How are we to understand the face that looks back at us when we gaze into a mirror? And how do other people perceive that face? Motte’s book doesn’t answer these questions outright, though they are at the heart of the project. He writes, “The fact of the matter seems to be that the face, considered as a crude image, is never entirely congruous with the image of ourselves that we construct in function of our desires, our hopes, our fears, and our obsessions. There is always—almost always—a distance between the two. And a close consideration of that phenomenon suggests that it is the face, rather than the self, which mostly bears the weight of difference.”
At the end of the book, Motte reflects on twenty-five years of collecting mirror scenes: “When I gaze into the mirror of this project, I see different things. A sixtyish professor, beavering away at a piece of scholarly writing. A person who lives a great deal of the time in his imagination, giving full rein to that imagination. A committed reader, surveying the particulars of his commitment. A collector, perusing and arranging his collection in order to put it on view. A man at work. A boy at play.” 
Reflection is at the core of Mirror Gazing. Of course there is the literal reflection of characters looking into mirrors, but there is also the theoretical task of reflecting upon one’s life. We often open up a piece of literature in order to find ourselves, to understand how we measure up. Even beyond the books, this is an endless pursuit. Like the collector who socks away trinkets, we are all, always, cataloging and arranging our lives, if only to make sense of the face that looks back at us in the mirror. - Nancy Smith


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