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Face in the Mirror

Alberto Manguel

What does it mean that I would not be able to identify myself in a group picture, or pick myself out from a police lineup?

I’m looking for the face I hadBefore the world was made.—W.B. Yeats, “A Woman Young and Old”

I have in front of me a photo taken sometime in the early 196s. It shows an adolescent boy lying on his belly on the grass, looking up from a pad of paper on which he has been drawing or writing. In his right hand is a pencil or a pen. He’s wearing a sort of cap and boots and, tied around his waist, a sweater. He’s lying in the shade of a brick wall and of what seem like stumpy apple trees. A short-legged dog is standing behind him, reminiscent of the dogs that lie on stone tombs at the feet of dead crusaders. The picture was taken somewhere in Patagonia, during a camping holiday. I am that boy, but I don’t recognize myself. I know it is me, but that is not my face.

The photo was taken half a century ago. When I look in the mirror today, I see a tired, puffed-up face circled by greyish hair and a Father Christmas beard. The small eyes, lined with wrinkles and framed by narrow glasses, are of a greenish brown colour with a few orange flecks. Once, as I tried to cross into England with a passport that stated that the colour of my eyes was green, the immigration officer, staring me in the face, told me I should change that to blue, or next time I would not be allowed in. I know that sometimes my eyes look grey. Maybe their colour changes from moment to moment, like those of Madame Bovary, but I’m not sure if that change of colour, as in her case, has a meaning. Nevertheless, the face in the mirror is me, it has to be me. But it is not my face.

Dante, in his arduous ascent of Mt. Purgatory, reaches the Cornice of the Gluttonous shortly before the flaming wall at the top, where those who in life indulged in all the things I like, must now starve themselves to anorexic emaciation. There he is greeted by a throng of pale and silent spirits, the skin stretched over their bones, their eyes dark and hollow like gemless rings. “Who reads OMO in the face of man,” says Dante, “would clearly have recognized there the M.” Pietro Alighieri, Dante’s son, noted that the image was well known in his time: the human eyes form the O’s, the eyebrows and nose an M. This accords with the tradition of Genesis by which all creatures carry their name inscribed in their appearance, which allowed Adam to identify them correctly when God told him to give them names immediately after their creation. Alberto comes from bear in Old German. Is my name inscribed somewhere in my features? And if so, why don’t I see it?

Others recognize me; I don’t. When, inadvertently, I catch sight of myself in a glass, I wonder who that fat elderly man is, walking by my side. I have a vague fear that, if I truly saw myself one day on the street, I wouldn’t know myself. I’m convinced I would not be able to pick myself out from a police lineup, nor would I easily identify myself in a group picture. I’m not sure if this is because my features age too rapidly and too drastically, or because my own self is less grounded in my memory than are the printed words I’ve read. The poet James Reeves wrote:

The shadow of a fat man in the moonlightPrecedes me on the road down which I go;And should I turn and run, he would pursue me:This is the man whom I must get to know.

This thought is not alarming but somehow comforting. To be oneself, to be so utterly and absolutely oneself that no particular circumstance or faulty vision can impeach the recognition, grants me a happy sense of freedom from the obligation of following the conditions of being who I am. Alice, my sister soul, lost in the underworld of Wonderland, asks herself who she really is and refuses to be who she doesn’t want to be. “It’ll be no use their putting their heads down and saying, ‘Come up again, dear!’ I shall only look up and say, ‘Who am I, then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else’.”

Somebody else, certainly, but who?

The human body, we are told, renews itself entirely every seven years. Each of our organs, each of our bones, each of our cells is not the same today as it was then, and yet we say, with blind confidence, that we are who we were. The question is, what do we mean by “being” ourselves? What are the identifying signs?

Something that is not the shape of my body, neither my voice nor my touch, not my features, not my mouth, my nose, my eyes—something is there that is me. It lies, like a timorous little animal, invisible behind a jungle of physical trappings. I should not be surprised to find that none of the disguises and masks that I wear fail to represent myself to myself, except in uncertain hints and tiny forebodings: a rustle in the leaves, a scent, a sigh or a muffled growl. I know it exists, my reticent self. In the meantime, I wait. Maybe its presence will be confirmed only on my last day, when it will suddenly emerge from the undergrowth and show itself full-faced, only to be no more.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at manguel.com.


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