The mirror as a provocation, orWhy most of us don’t want to see our own ref lections

The mirror as a provocation, orWhy most of us don’t want to see our own ref lections

Continent Stanislav Kucher
Stanislav Kucher Continent

The twentieth century — the century of the grand dream of global equality and fraternity, the era of great leaps for utopia — ended not on 31 December 1999, nor a year later. It ended on 25 November 2016, with the death of Fidel Castro, the last towering figure of the promised, yet unrealised future. The Great Commandant, the perfect dictator of the age of social experiments — this is how Stanislav Kucher thinks of Fidel. Though it’s not without hesitation, we must admit we agree, that in this world of glass walls and mirrored surfaces, we can’t avoid colliding with our own reflection.

The mirror is quite possibly the most powerful form of provocation in human history. We may have harnessed fire, domesticated animals, invented wheels, sails, and stirrups, discovered electricity, developed the internet — yet none of these milestones, though paradigmatic shifts in the development of our species, come close to the revelation of viewing oneself from outside.

On the list of basic needs in the modern world, the mirror ranks third, after water and food. People survive months, even years, without sex, without the luxury of human contact, without leaving their bed or home. But life without a mirror?

People manage to cope effectively enough with being separated from loved ones, from drugs or alcohol, but in all of history, humankind has never been without mirrors. Many of our tales and films have explored the relationship between man and mirror. What we lack, however, are artful representations of the development of human life in the absence of these devices, and this is a gap I don’t foresee being filled for years to come. It’s really too bad.

Only after we comprehend the role that the mirror, as a physical object, plays in our lives, will we ade- quately be able to perceive and make use of the idea that the whole world is a tremendous mirror, one consisting of billions of smaller mirrors.

Fidel Castro passed away recently, giving those on social media yet another reason to split into two camps. Those who regarded Fidel as the grand com- mandant and the greatest world statesman of the 20th century rushed first to argue, and then to begin paring down their friends lists, deleting those for whom Castro has always been a dictator, a criminal, an executioner, or at best, a political loser. In Russia, with its impressive cocktail of mentalities, simultaneously messianic and Bolshevik, this divide manifested itself clearest of all.

If all these people had read Fidel’s biography and applied the mirror theory to it, there would have been no nerve cells damaged, no relationships broken (either real-world or virtual) over these quarrels. Castro’s life and struggle would be viewed as some exciting movie, in which there are no completely positive or completely negative characters. A movie of this sort would provide many lessons.

The reason for this is that Fidel’s fate is nothing short of living proof of this very mirror theory. Consider this episode:

It was the year 1952. As a result of a military coup, Fulgencio Batista becomes dictator of Cuba. Then a 25-year-old lawyer, Fidel Castro files a lawsuit against Batista for his unconstitutional seizure of power. The young revolutionary, perched atop a soapbox, delivered to the courthouse an impassioned speech whose final declaration rang out: “If Batista is not punished and continues on as Master of the State, President, Prime Minister, senator, Major General, civil and military chief, executive power and legislative power, the owner of lives and farms, then justice does not exist.”

Over the course of the next ten years, the former lawyer and revolutionary began to appear like the mirror image of Batista, himself becoming “the master of the state, the prime minister, the military and civil chief, the owner of lives and farms.” He had become a dictator, in whose place one can scarcely envision the young lawyer who had stepped forward with his revelatory speech, or who had been imprisoned for participating in an armed uprising.

Observing these intellectuals engaged in fierce online battles drew me into historical reflection, which led me here. If the majority of his statist admirers in 1950s Cuba were, as they claimed, thinking along the lines of “stability of any kind over revolution of any kind,” they would have aligned with Batista supporters, and considered Castro the lawyer an outlier and provocateur. Similarly, if the vast majority of the Russian opposition, who publicly celebrated the death of this dictator, had been living during the period of the Cuban Revolution, they would in fact have sided with Fidel. They would have marvelled at his charisma and declared him their leader, just as they have recently with the figure of Navalny.

In a single mirror, everyone found their reflections: Russians and Ukrainians, conservatives and liberals, patriots and Russophobes alike.

The most recent event to catalyse such a bitter war of reflections was the death of 92 of our compatriots in the sky over the Black Sea. In a single mirror, everyone found their reflections: Russians and Ukrainians, conservatives and liberals, patriots and Russophobes alike. Casting blame for supposedly “insufficient grief,” or perhaps complete lack thereof, some overtly expressed their willingness, at the very least, to boycott those who supposedly grieve “incorrectly,” and, at most, to declare them enemies of the people. Others hastened to label all those shaken by the tragedy as “propaganda-brainwashed.”

Everyone — I insist — each and every one who took an active part in this thankfully virtual fight, proved only that they are the mirror images of one another. The “whoever isn’t with us is against us” attitude towards the outside world demonstrates this truth with ineffable certainty. The willingness to tear the adversary apart for his errone- ous beliefs… Bolshevism bound its warring groups together so tightly that both Reds and Whites pounced with equal ferocity on anyone who tried to halt this pointless, virtual civil war. Liberal columnists quickly mastered the rhetorical style of the Kremlin, becoming the very agitators whom they had all their lives despised.

Without even noticing, people eventually come to embody all that they struggle to fight against. Revolutionaries turn into dictators, liberals into conservatives, moralists into libertines, runaway children into copies of their parents. I am sure you could add to this list from your own experience.

All of these initially unbelievable regenerations occur as the result of just one thing — people do not accept, or do not want to accept, a single elementary concept: EACH person in your life serves as your own mirror. And the more you dislike another person, the more this person aggravates you, the more power- ful your emotions towards him or her, the more you are actually united, the more likely it is that one day you will become one and the same. Because this individual was your reflection, and you didn’t notice in time.

People manage to cope effectively enough with being separated from loved ones, from drugs or alcohol, but in all of history, humankind has never been without mirrors

If you had noticed, you would have behaved dif- ferently. You would not have rushed to beat your head against a wall, if, suddenly, in the bathroom mirror, you were met with a wrinkled face, contorted in anger or grief. We apply creams, engage in sports and medita- tion, indulge in entertainment and alcohol, in an effort to meet a reflection that greater pleases us. Now imag- ine how much more interesting and compassionate the world would be, if only these same people would regard one another in a similar fashion, especially those who trigger the strongest feelings of aversion.

To see ourselves within others, and others within ourselves, is no simple task, and such a practice is painful, at times. It feels psychically threatening, and frightening, like the prospect of swimming in the Epiphany Frosts. But this is the only means of tearing ourselves away from the mirror and viewing our real selves. That is, if you have the courage to meet the real you.