The Problem of the Mirror
he problem of the salon is the problem of the mirror. This isn't to say that reflecting surfaces are, in general, a difficulty in the world, or that the self lives in terror of what confirms the pathos of its physical shell: the panoramic windows of large cities, the backs of spoons, and so on. Narcissism, being essentially self-protective, learns early to negotiate reflection, or at least to do so under most conditions.
By the age of six or seven I had mastered my angles. I knew how to stand to best advantage, how far from the glass, in what position relative to light. I could manipulate, in the mirror, the antecedents of soft focus: dusk, early evening. These were tropisms, daily actions: they occurred without thought. They were also solitary: their aim was a truce with the body; that such a truce relied on manipulation or guile seemed entirely acceptable. And only when another form of looking at the self, a form that diminished control, presented itself did these rituals begin to seem a subject for meditation.
The narcissist who, daily, makes his or her peace with the mirror engages in a kind of dialogue; the absence of witnesses stands for the absence of a real world. If, in these private encounters, all evasions and canny poses and aesthetic adjustments fail to produce an acceptable reflection, one can look away, ending the encounter, erasing the unsatisfying body. Whereas the gaze of a witness affirms these moments as what they really are: defeat of imagination by the physical self.
No form of this interaction seems to me more brutal than what occurs in the salon, its luxury, its intention to minister notwithstanding. The chair at its fixed height, the terrible light of Madison Avenue streaming in at the worst possible angle, augmented by the savage lights above the mirror. And all around the sort of beauty designed to survive this environment. Movement, adjustment, isn't permitted: if the head isn't stable and fixed, if illumination isn't permitted: if the head isn't stable and fixed, if illumination isn't sharp, the hair can't be accurately cut. And as the head is fixed, the eyes are forced into protracted confrontation, the gaze met by not one but two gazes. At every moment, the replica of the self, so mercilessly undefended, is being regarded by someone outside the self (the self so ready with its arsenal of denials), regarded by the cool professional. His training, of course, means he will say nothing, make no comment on what we both watch. No comment, only a few soothing murmurs. Not too many: too many would seem insistent. Because this particular professional is clever (of mind as well as with scissors) he chooses exchange of another kind. He diverts, distracts. Or he is quiet, recognizing how hopeless any attempt to transform ordeal to pleasure must be.
Very little of this is the humiliation of growing older. In my adolescence, in my twenties, I kept my hair long, as long as thin brittle hair would grow. Partly I hated change; principally I felt unequal to the salon. To watch the self in the presence of another, who also watched, to feel fantasy and delusion exposed by that second gaze: even at my least blemished, this seemed to me to dramatize the pitiful discrepancy between what I wished to be and what I was.
Decades later, I go through these sessions because I recognize, afterward, the benefits accrued. In any case, vanity seems a mechanism to be closely examined, in preparation for the assaults of time.
But how amazingly unvaried the whole process. First, the building anxiety. Then the guile, the strategies (wearing no makeup so the pathos of appearance can be ascribed to a cause). The early arrival (hope of dismissal, attempt to translate mutual confusion about the time of the appointment into actual deferral). And then the misery of the actual event.
And afterward, such an eager courting of reflection, such a rich renewed infatuation with the little silver self, a love not in the least dependent on corroboration or endorsement. Because none of this is about the world. It concerns the self, in all its disdainful pride. The self, with its ancient craving to be manifest in a body it can esteem and embrace.
Louise Gluck is the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Wild Iris and other fine works including Firstborn, The House on Marshland, Descending Figure, The Triumph of Achilles, Ararat, Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry and Meadowlands. She is the current Poet Laureate of the United States.