On looking into mirrors

Some reflections on the passage of time

YOU LOOK INTO the mirror. There are a number around the house and every now and then one of them becomes an attraction. Your skin is clear. Your hair is thick. The face looking back at you is as it should be when you are about to step outside. A bit serious, perhaps. You think, while somehow entranced by the enigma of yourself in reverse image, that you’d better get a move on – but you don’t think, in this, the twentieth year of your life, goodness, don’t I look young. That’s one thing, in front of a mirror, you have never thought and, personal history suggests, vanity notwithstanding, won’t ever.

Time passes. A lot of time – though in fact an inconsequential amount of time for the Earth, upon which you dwell, as it journeys eternally around the sun – but it’s a great deal of time for you, now getting ready to go out. You look into the mirror. It is a mistake to do this. There are several mirrors in the house, several too many; a couple more than there are members of the household. Your skin has wrinkled. Your hair has thinned. This has happened without due consultation with the enigmatic person who stares back at you. It is an outrage. You look like one of those marginal people it was not within your comprehension ever to be: a grandparent. So why don’t you feel like one? This development seems to have been rather sudden. Each time you are surprised to find yourself in the unkind mirror, you most certainly do think, accurately, in this, the sixty-­something year of your life, goodness, don’t I look old. That’s one thing, you ruthlessly admit, you will continue to do.


I EMPLOY THE generic ‘you’ incautiously. I have not methodically gathered evidence for the foregoing ‘universal’ state of affairs. There may be members of the generation to which I belong who, by a freak of nature or having discovered the elixir of youth (a compound found, so I’ve read, in avocadoes, cucumbers and broccoli, favourite foods of mine), may not subscribe to it. They may live in fine houses free of mirrors. But I have yet to meet, in any country, such a person. A remarkably prescient twenty-­something-­year-­old might glimpse the situation. After all, she’s going to be in it, but, fair enough, it’s beyond the majority of people at such an age to engage in this kind of projection.

The question then arises: why in contemporary Western society are individuals surprised or, indeed, first thing in the morning, toothbrush in hand, alarmed by a face, their own, which once was smooth as a plum but that now resembles a prune? It wasn’t always like this. For one thing, there were not as many mirrors, and for another people didn’t live as long. There weren’t avocadoes. There have been societies that equated age with wisdom: the more lined the face, the greater the respect. In a society in which the economy rules and material wealth is the hallmark of status, its older citizens, most of them no longer productively oiling the economy’s cogs, are, unwisely one might quietly suggest, surplus to requirements, a cost. Time on their hands to compose concise epitaphs. That is the serious background.

However, it’s the foreground, the face in the mirror, that gives the background a place in the overall picture. It is a very personal encounter, close up as a late self-portrait by Rembrandt. The face in the mirror – not perhaps as remarkably lined, as we know from photographs, as that of the late WH Auden, young Wystan having been etched out completely, but lined to a notable degree nevertheless – is the face of someone, typical sooner or later of all those who don’t cheat by having a surgical procedure, who is yet, if ever, to get used to achieving a significant age. For this particular, though not unique, reason: the face is new. Old, yes, but newly so the older it gets. The only prior experience anyone has of seeing himself in the mirror – or of seeing his reflection in a shop window – is when he was younger, which is, up until that point, a whole lifetime. As the wisest members of society know, this goes by unaccountably fast. Psychologically, the bright and indifferent mirror shows, it is a task to keep up.


A HIGH-­SPEED, long-­distance train leaves a station, mid-afternoon, to head north, where at the present time of year nightfall is earlier than at the point of departure. On one level every journey is a getting away from oneself, away from those domestic mirrors (memo to self: reduce), he, the passenger sitting next to a window, now thinks. He can recall train journeys when as a child he watched the suburbs give way to green open space; these journeys still refresh him. The train gathers speed. Opposite him sits a young woman, twenty-­something, thirty, hard to tell – younger than his own daughters. He looks out attentively at the world through which the train hastens. He himself is all trajectory, once again. Until night, the stealer, surprises him by showing his face reflected in the darkened window. He looks away from it, gravely.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review