The Mirror Stages
by Sam Kriss
Mirrors and copulation are abominable, because they increase the number of man.
Jorge Luis Borges
Seven years old, alone and bored in the flat, Yusuf K. (1) walked through the mirror to the other side.
He hadn’t been told not to, after all, he reasoned. His mother had told him not to watch TV and to do his colouring or read a book instead. He’d disobeyed, of course, but there’d been nothing good on; no cartoons, only boring grown-up programmes where people just sat and talked. It was his own fault, he knew; if he didn’t keep getting suspended from school he wouldn’t be so bored the whole time. But it was his mother’s fault too: how could she leave him alone there, with nothing to do? She had a job, but she also had a son; he should have been her first priority.
He watched the mirror for a while before he went in.
“Come on,” said his mirror-self. “Or are you scared?”
Yusuf K. (1) wasn’t scared. So he walked through.
For a while he and his mirror-self lay on the sofa and talked. His mirror-self wanted to show Yusuf K. (1) some of his books, but the writing was all backwards and he couldn’t understand it. Then they played noughts and crosses.
“You’ve got your pen in the wrong hand,” said Yusuf K. (1).
“No,” said his mirror-self. “You do.”
And so on.
Eventually they heard the sound of the key in the lock. Yusuf K. (1)’s mirror-self dragged him behind an armchair.
“Well,” said his mother as she walked into the room, “Have you been good?”
“Don’t make a sound,” whispered the mirror-self.
“Oh,” said his mother. She left the room and called out into the hallway: “Yusuf!” There was the sound of a door opening. And then again: “Yusuf!” Wardrobe doors slamming. “Yusuf, this isn’t funny! Come here at once!”
By the time the police arrived Yusuf K. (1) was starting to feel a little guilty, but his mirror-self pulled on his sleeve whenever he made a move to come out from behind the armchair. His mother was almost in tears.
“He doesn’t have a key,” she said. “I can’t bear to think what could’ve happened.”
A policeman put one hand on her shoulder. “Can you think why he might have left?” he said.
“Oh, he was angry at me. Because I’d left him here. He was suspended from school, you see. Oh, Yusuf. I’m so sorry.” A tiny, hiccoughing sob.
Yusuf K. (1) poked his head out. In the mirror, one of the policemen suddenly looked up. “Oi oi,” he said. “You might want to look at this.”
Yusuf K. (1) met his mother’s gaze across the glass. She ran up to the mirror. “Yusuf!” she shouted. “You come out of there right now, do you hear me? Do you have any idea how worried you’ve made me?”
Reluctantly, looking downwards, Yusuf K. (1) crawled out from the mirror.
“I’m so sorry to have wasted your time,” his mother said to the police. “It won’t happen again.”
After that, Yusuf K. (1) wasn’t allowed to watch TV for a month. His mother also threw out all the mirrors in the flat except a little one in her bedroom. He didn’t really mind. It had been diverting, but he didn’t really like his mirror-self all that much. He was such a crude boy.
Walking to the bar, Yusuf K. (2) couldn’t help but glance at the mirror on the far wall. Reflected, the Brute glanced back.
“You know,” said Amina, smiling wryly, “you are one vain motherfucker. You can’t walk past a mirror without checking yourself out.”
“I’m not checking myself out,” said Yusuf K. (2).
“Oh yeah? What are you doing then?”
How could he explain? It was only their second date; he didn’t want to lay any heavy shit on her. She certainly didn’t have to know about the Brute.
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s just a mirror, innit?”
Behind the bar and the rows of blue and green bottles was another mirror. Yusuf K. (2) tried to concentrate on the barman. Misinterpreting the intensity of his gaze, the poor guy hurried over with an obsequious grin. “And what shall I get you, sir?”
“Pint of Foster’s, mate,” said Yusuf K. (2). “And…”
“Gin and bitter lemon, please,” said Amina.
“Gin and bitter lemon,” he repeated.
He stared at his pint as it was poured, ever aware that the Brute was waiting for him just a few metres away, watching with him. He gripped the rail along the bar until his fingers felt numb.
“Are you OK?” said Amina. She laughed. “Dude, don’t get all nervous now.”
Why did she have to mention the mirror? Everything could have been fine, but she had to be so perceptive… the fucking bitch! And there his will broke; his head jerked up, and he looked into the mirror. Amina was there, all delicate points and feminine curves, a look of faint worry exquisitely torturing her round eyes and little pink-painted lips… and standing next to her was the Brute. The Brute’s jaw jutted out, his stubble was thick and barbed, his eyes looked straight at Yusuf K. (2) not with any murderous evil but with a simple base animal incomprehension. The Brute’s face wasn’t really a face, just a mess of skin and orifices jumbled together without any unifying principle beyond its own dissonance, its own ugliness, the propulsive power of its own empty threatening stare. And there it was, the now-familiar shock of non-recognition. This was what he – he, Yusuf K. (2), a thing of light and thought – looked like to other people, this was the face Amina saw when she talked to him. She was such a nice girl! How could she bear to go for an intimate drink with the Brute?
“Seven pound twenty, please,” said the barman.
He should have taken her somewhere else, somewhere without mirrors, somewhere the Brute couldn’t find him. Too late now. The Brute was reflected in Yusuf K (2)’s eyes. Without saying a word, he turned around and left.
“And the bottom line?” said Dr Quigley.
“A, G, K, X, Q,” said Yusuf K. (3).
“That’s right,” said Dr Quigley. “For a man of your age, your eyesight is close to perfect.”
“I could have told you that myself,” said Yusuf K. (3). “Don’t need a Harley Street doctor to let me know I can see just fine. Can I go now?”
After Yusuf K. (3) left, Dr Quigley wrote in his notes: Based on his medical history, the Mirror Man’s eyesight appears entirely unaffected by the change. His pen dithered for a moment over the paper. Nonetheless, he wrote, looking into the Mirror Man’s eyes is a profoundly unsettling and anxiety-inducing experience.
The Daily Eye might have paid for the expensive ophthalmologist, but they weren’t about to chauffer Yusuf K. (3) around the city. He still had to take the bus home, and that meant having to deal with people. When his eyes had first changed, people had started giving him strange, startled looks; it wasn’t until he saw himself in the mirror at home and saw the perfectly reflective globes where his eyes had been that he realised why. Then, when the Daily Eye had run the story on him, he’d become a celebrity overnight. He’d never had so many free pints poured for him; people would walk up to him on the street and ask him – him, of all people! – for an autograph. They’d always seem a little disappointed on receiving it, though. They didn’t want his own name; they’d wanted him to sign as the Mirror Man. That had been two weeks ago. Things had changed.
A few days before, a kid in a hoodie had punched him in the face as he stood on the bus. “Don’t look at me!” he’d bellowed. “Don’t you fucking look at me with them eyes!” It wasn’t just the young and aggressive, though. He’d crossed paths with a group of businessmen; they’d jabbed him with their umbrellas and slapped his legs with their briefcases. As he fell down one of them had given a swift hard kick to his ribs. They hadn’t said anything, they’d just walked on, as if nothing had happened, not even breaking the flow of their conversation.
He could have worn dark glasses, he could have walked the streets unmolested, but something inside him rebelled instinctively at the thought. On the bus he looked out of the window for a while; he flitted between the faces of his fellow-travellers. He got off fairly lightly, really. One passenger standing next to him beat him around the head with a newspaper when their gazes met for a fraction of a second; another kicked him in the shin. Nothing too bad.
As he walked down the street to his house, he was aware of a loud commotion. A large mob of all ages, ethnicities and social classes surrounded the low suburban home, shouting obscenities about the Mirror Man. A few bricks and stones arced up from the mass of people; the thin line of black-clad police protecting his front door tried to bat them away with their shields but without much success. All his windows were broken. The smell of burning was in the air; the chants were witty in their invective; those on the outside of the mob were laughing and chatting happily; there was, in general, a thoroughly pleasant festival atmosphere.
As Yusuf K. (3) approached the crowd he saw the riot police make a desperate dash for him, but it was too late. The crowd was already on him: screaming, flecking him with spittle, lunging at his chest. Their stampeding force knocked him to the ground. Hands, seemingly independently, scrabbled at his face. Yusuf K. (3) knew what they wanted. “Take them!” he shouted. “Take them away from me! I don’t want the things!”
Yusuf K. (4) had painted four parallel lines in bright blue on a primed canvas. They were called Untitled Meditation 8. He sat looking at them. He wished he could scrub them off, sell the canvas back, use the money to do something he actually enjoyed.
Taped to one wall of the studio was a cutting from a review of his exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. A new and terrifying force in contemporary painting, the headline said. That had been the opinion of just about everyone. Yusuf K. (4) had been a new and terrifying force. The article went on: Yusuf K. (4)’s works challenge both the lazy conventions of fashionable abstraction and throw down the gauntlet to reactionary realists. His stark, restricted-palette paintings beguile you with their dense swirls of shades and textures; it is only after you have been contemplating their intricately composed harmonies for some time that they coalesce – as if by pareidolia – into recognisable forms, at turns bucolic, erotic, and threatening. Armies of horsemen with demoniac grimaces charge through his paintings, reclining nudes give sultry glances from below the paint, sublime landscapes hover just this side of intelligibility. Yusuf K. (4) gives us the entire history of Western art, recontextualised into something entirely new. From this magnificent exhibition, it’s not hard to see why the established art world is both terrified and entranced by him.
That had been in 1968.
He’d never quite known how he’d done it, exactly. He’d wanted to make abstract art, but before he’d even finished his pencil sketches a shape had always risen out from the mist of curving lines to stare him in the face. At first he’d tried to ignore them; he’d been successful at this for a while, and lived on bread and cheese for months. Eventually he gave in, and became famous.
He’d had a strange gift once, one he’d acquired without ever asking for it. It had stayed for a while, and then gone, and now Yusuf K. (4) was reduced to painting blue lines on white canvases, like the peddlers of lazy abstraction who had once found him so fearsome. Except, as all the critics agreed, Yusuf K. (4)’s blue lines on white canvases were without much merit. They had to review his exhibitions, in smaller and smaller galleries, on account of his name, but when they did the verdict was always the same. His works didn’t suggest anything, they didn’t conjure anything, they didn’t reflect anything. Yusuf K. (4) just wasn’t a very good artist any more.