Inaugural lesson


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Inaugural lecture: "The broken mirror. Philosophy and identity".

María Jesús Soto Bruna
Professor of the School Ecclesiastic of Philosophy





It is an honor for me to be at the rostrum of this classroom Magna of the University of Navarra on the occasion of the academic act constituting the beginning of the academic year. And, in addition, in representation of the Ecclesiastical School of Philosophy.

The topic I am going to talk about has to do with the metaphor of the mirror, which has been and is a constant in Western thought; as well as in the rich Eastern tradition, for whose culture mirrors are endowed with great mystical power. Undoubtedly, the first mirror dealt with in both stories was the reflejo of the sky and the stars, also of one's own face, in clear water. Although watery eyes have also been relevant to specular vision.

I have graduate to this lesson: The Broken Mirror. Philosophy and identity1 and I will recall to begin with a literary passage about the breaking of the mirror:

He picked up a mirror and looked at his face. He was disgusted, and threw the mirror to the floor, where it shattered into thousands of silver pieces.


There was then a horrible, agonizing scream and acollapse2.

The repeated framework of the death of Dorian Grey serves to remind us that, also today, the human being questions his own identity; the very question of his being indicates the questioning of the meaning of his existence3.

Today, according to Hans Blumenberg, there is a suspicion that the world may have no meaning or that it may have lost the meaning it once had4.

That fascinating instrument that is the mirror is first and foremost an "instrument of the gaze". A broken mirror breaks the identity of the one who looks into it and of the part of the world that was there. Although sometimes it is necessary to break the mirror to access a world that reveals the reality or the identity of our own.

This exhibition will have a first phenomenological-literary part, and a second philosophical part; in both I will deal with the different meanings I have found about the breaking of the mirror.


In The Mirror Crak'd, Agatha Christie's famous novel, the broken mirror is used as an indication of the fragmentation of the world itself. It was translated into Spanish as The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side; surely because of the parallelism of the terrified eyes of the protagonist with an expression of the lady of Shalott5.

If we recall, Part Three of Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem Lady of Shalott (1833) describes the arrival of the flamboyant knight Sir Lancelot at Camelot. His armor and ornaments reflect a bright light in a mirror, and he goes about singing merrily. The lady - who lives locked up in a castle on the island of Shalott - is forbidden to look at Camelot, because she is under a curse; for this reason, she has to see the world through the intervention of a mirror in which she sees reflected the "shadows" of life outside, which she weaves in threads of beautiful colors.

Well, when the knight appears, the lady stops knitting and gets up - "I'm sick of shadows," she says-, and as she walks around the room she sees the village of Camelot and the knight through the window. At that moment, the cloak she was weaving flies out of the window and her reflection shatters, before her ocular vision, the mirror of the room. "The mirror shattered from side to side The curse has fallen upon me!" she cries.

We can also bring to report the Narcissus of Caravaggio (1594-1596), which portrays in the sixteenth century the ancient myth of Ovid. Before such a pictorial representation we would like to grab the boy who remains enraptured with his figure reflected in the crystalline waters, thus avoiding his certain death. For when he breaks the mirrored water with his arms, his tragic end will take place. Before that happens, we would long, like Rainer Maria Rilque in Sonnets to Orpheus, to "free Narcissus": "Mirrors -he cries-: never knowingly, it has never yet been said / what in your essence you are. [...] / Sometimes, you are full of paintings. [...] / But the most beautiful one will last until / there, in its still virgin cheeks, / the clarity of the liberated Narcissus has penetrated".6 Narcissus breaks the mirrored waters and dies.

Dante places Narcissus in purgatory as a mirror of vanity.

The mirror sometimes appears as a figure of the cracking of the world and the disintegration of the self, and imposes the choice between its reflection and reality. This, for example, can be seen in Ingmar Bergmann's film As in aMirror7. The protagonist, Harriet Andersson, a tormented creature, confesses to her husband, Ingmar Bergmann himself, that she cannot live in two worlds: "I cannot go from one world to another. I must do what the voices tell me. It's horrible to see your confusion and understand it." When Karin goes to "her world" (a psychiatric hospital), her brother Minus, has the following conversation with her father: "Reality has cracked. Reality cracked and I fell -he repeats-. Prove to me that God exists"; to which he replies, "I can only give you a hint of my own hope", he continues, "Love exists, the most ridiculous and the most beautiful [...] longing and denial, doubt and faith"; "Is love the test?" -asks Minus. "I don't know if love is the test or is God himself [...]; you live it and emptiness becomes abundance [...]. It's like a reprieve from the death penalty." There are no other characters in the film; and it all takes place between glances at windows that discover a sea that reflects that small world, which, in turn, appears reflected on the walls of the house, through the glass of the windows.

"The mirror is the only truly metaphysical object we know," wrote Andrés Ibáñez -publisher of an extraordinary anthology on the literature of the mirror8.

Despite its irregularities and imperfections, the mirror has always been a marvelous instrument. Thanks to it, the human being can not only discover his image, but also denote his aptitude to have access, beyond the visible, to an intelligible point of view.

This results in a core topic of interpretation for some landmark passages in modern-contemporary literature about the mirror. An important landmark is Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Snow White(1812); there we read that Grimhilde, the queen in Disney's 1937 film, when she asks her mirror for the most exalted beauty in the kingdom, does not only keep to her reflected image, but knows that the mirror reveals her own form to her9.

Moreover, she is ready to hear, through the mirror, a terrifying reality about herself. As we know, the queen is shocked to hear the tragic sentence of the mirror: "You were the most beautiful, / queen and mistress, / but now Snow White / is more beautiful10". 10 Here the mirror appears as an image of consciousness: the queen now knows her place in the world.

In all cultures the mirror has the same symbolic function: it allows one to see oneself as one is. It does not deceive, even if what it shows is simply an image; an image yes, but an image with a connotation of existence. Hence Jane's expression in Mary Poppins Opens the Door, the third book in the series of eight that Pamela Lyndon Travers dedicated to the magical nanny; in "The Other Door," in the last chapter of the book, we find the following scene:11"'A-haa!' Said Jane, [...] contemplating her own reflection. [...] 'Which is the real me, Mary Poppins? The one in here or the one out there?' [...] Mary Poppins came and stood between the two. [...] Silently she looked at her own reflection and smiled in satisfaction. 'Mary Poppins,' Jane said eagerly. 'It's something I want to know. For a moment [the children] thought, as they looked at her, that she was going to tell them. [...]. 'I don't know about you,' she said with a smug air, 'but I'm glad to know that I'm real wherever I am!'" The smug Mary Poppins would endlessly duplicate reflections or images to be many times the same.

According to Melchior-Bonnet, in Histoire duMiroir12, it is from this double gaze, introspective (Jane's) and mimetic (Mary Poppins'), that the individual can define himself as a subject. The attention to oneself in the mirror of the knowledge of oneself, allows him to capture himself in the, so to speak, sovereignty of his conscience. While, constituting oneself as an image in the mirror of another, one becomes a spectacle for oneself: to see oneself and to be seen, to be and to be known are solidary acts. From this double register, the importance of the specular gaze has been affirmed throughout history.


In The Possibility of Understanding Oneself, Blumenberg has argued that the philosopher has ceased to be the contemplator of the universe, the kosmostheóros, and has become the spectator of the spectator who wants to know "what is going on"13.

The fact is that the subject can always be perplexed by the invitation to specular self-knowledge. For, in all this, where is the mirror image? The subject is both there and beyond, perceived in a disturbing ubiquity and depth, at an uncertain distance: he sees himself in a mirror, or, better, the image seems to appear behind the material screen. This is so much so that the beholder may wonder whether in looking he sees the surface itself or sees through it.

Knowing oneself and recognizing oneself in the gaze also invites us to look beyond. As when Nicholas of Cusa, in the 15th century, looking at the Icon of the Abbey of Tegernsee, knows that he is looked at by the One who sees everything14: "To see you is nothing else - he wrote - than that you see the one who sees you" [...]. "When someone looks in this mirror (the divinity) - he also wrote - he sees his own form in the form of forms, which is the mirror"15. The creature then sees both God and itself in its truth.

We can make some more history. Plato relates the mirror to the ocular gaze, initiating a whole source of inspiration for the Philosophy. In the dialogue Alcibiades, he immediately passes from the ocular gaze to the vision of the soul; and then he makes Socrates say: "If the soul wishes to know itself, it must also look at a soul and, above all, at the part of it in which its own School , the intelligence, is to be found. [...] This part is truly divine, and he who looks at it may well be said to know himself all the better. [...] By looking at the divinity, then, we use the best mirror of human things with respect to the virtue of the soul"16. Man thus fulfills the admonition of the Delphic oracle.

There is also, for Socrates himself, a moral dimension of the mirror. In his Life of the Philosophers, Diogenes Laertius (ca. 180-240) proposes the mirror as a moral mediation for the human being who can act on himself17. Socrates, he tells us, exhorted young people to look at themselves in a mirror, so that, if they were beautiful, they would behave decently; and if they were ugly, they would know how to hide their misfortune by means of Education and wisdom.

It is not then in this context a passive mirror of imitation, but a living mirror of transformation. Laertius even says that Socrates used to put a mirror in front of those who were intoxicated so that they could see their faces deformed by wine, and thus abstain from such an ugly vice. The mirror does not only reflect physical traits, but also an inner attitude. Factor of moral life, it must help man to overcome his vices; and sample him simultaneously what he is and what he should be.

Form without subject, subtle, impalpable, the reflection of the mirror manifests the diaphanous, epiphanic purity of the divine model , from which emanates and comes all likeness.

On the other hand, it is necessary to point out that it is not only the breaking of the mirror that makes it possible to find the meaning of one's own identity; but also that the idea of breaking is associated with the act of cleaning or erasing that which makes the mirror an opaque glass, and then being able to see through the glass. Here, the idea of meaning invites us to question an identity that is thought to be determined in its limits. Perhaps this is what Lewis Carroll also aspired to when he drew Alice through the glass mist that the mirror became18.

On the other hand, the idea of the crystal into which the mirror is transformed in the second Alice also appears in Teresa of Avila. This can be seen from the beginning of her Moradas, where she says that "it is necessary to consider our soul as a castle made of a diamond or very clear crystal"19. The crystal serves Alice to pass to another world; in St. Teresa the crystal denotes the clarity of sight: we are not alien to ourselves.

This specular gaze reminds us that the relationship between human beings goes beyond the categorical framework, situating itself at the level of the spirit20, since it comes from a principle that is a relationship between persons, as is the God of Christian theology, who has so often been considered a mirror that creates man as its own mirror21. It is therefore necessary to widen one's own mirror: to see more, so that the other is present in it.

The last two ideas summary the position of human identity in the face of the partial breaks of the mirrors. In conclusion, I will say that the Philosophy of the mirror works in the context of a global intelligibility accessible to us, as beings who have a world. It invites us to reflect on who we are and what it is up to us to do.

Thank you very much


1 I am grateful to César Izquierdo -Full Professor of Theology - for the initial conversations held on the topic of this lecture. And also, especially, to Professor Josep-Ignasi Saranyana -Emeritus of History of Theology at the same university-, whose final conversations have helped to shape this oral speech .
2 O. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey, chapter 12: "The Metamorphose", Black Cat Publishing, Oxford 2007, pp. 135-136.
3 Cf. M. Oliva, "Realist Meaning," Critical Hermeneutics, 6 (2), 2002, pp. 201-234.
4 H. Blumenberg, La inquietud que atraviesa el río. essay sobre la metáfora, Península / HCS, Barcelona 2001, pp.46-47.
5 A. Christie, El espejo se rajó de lado a lado, tr. A. Coscarelli, Planeta, Barcelona 2022, p. 72. Cf. The Spanish translation of La dama de Shalott (The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Tennyson,1833), by J. Paolantonio, Ed. digital: Titivillus, epub. Reprinted in: L. Goodman, Literature and Gender, Routledge, London 1966.
6 R. M. Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, II, 3, edited by A. Ibáñez, A través del espejo, Atlanta, Girona 2016, p. 100.
7 Såsom i en spegel, Sweden 1961.
8 A. Ibáñez,, 2-11-2016.
9 J. and W. Grimm, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1812), trans. by A. and L. A. A. de la Cuenca, in: A. Ibáñez, A través del espejo, o. c., pp. 115-116.
10 Idem, p. 116.
11 P. L. Travers, Mary Poppins Opens the Door, Peter Davies, 1943 (electronic book), pp. 665-666.
12 Cf. S. Melchior-Bonnet, Histoire du Miroir, Preface by Jean Delumeau, Eds. Imago, Paris 1994, p. 161.
13 H. Blumenberg, La posibilidad de comprenderse, Síntesis, Madrid 1997, p. 93.
14 CF. N. de Cusa, The Vision of God (6th edition). Translation and introduction by A L. González, Eunsa, Colección Filosófica N.º 89, Pamplona 2009 (VD).
15 VD X; VD, XV, 63.
16 Plato, Alcibiades, 134a.
17 Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Most Illustrious Greek Philosophers. Introduction, translation and notes by J. Ortiz y Sainz, RBA, Barcelona 2017, II, 33.
18 M. Gardner, Through the Looking Glass, p. 172-173. The most important edition, to date, of Lewis Carroll's Alice, is undoubtedly the one carried out by Martin Gardner in 1960, edited in Spanish in 1984 by Francisco Torres Oliver.
19 Saint Teresa of Jesus, Obras Completas, B.A.C., Madrid 2012.
20 Cf. M. J. Soto Bruna, "What is it to be human today?", Urteko Galdera, 2017 (electronic publication).
21 Cf. P. Dumolin, Hildegarde de Bingen. Prophète et docteur pour le troisième millénaire, EdB, Nouan-le- Fuzelier 2016, pp. 66-67, citing Scivias, vision 1.