Mirror Work by Ander Monson

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​Don Cowen

Don Cowen, Archimedes at the Battle of Syracuse, 212 BCE. Painting on loan from Drs. Aden and Marjorie Meinel, University of Arizona Science & Engineering Library.

What is it about a mirror that works to hold our gaze? We’re certain of ourselves until reversed or made grotesque in hotel light, every blackhead on our blockhead body highlighted, each crease accentuated. Science says we’re built to see ourselves in everything, everything in ourselves (or is that just Narcissus speaking through story, through science?). So you will search for yourself in this. You can’t not. We’re excited by the human form. Our own, of course—a woman masturbating in a mirror, searching out her own expression as she comes—but that of others, too. Some of us are aroused by hiccups, so that any paroxysm starts us up. Studies show the eyes of men are drawn (maybe unfortunately for men, to be so simply driven) to the crotches of other men, chimpanzees, horses, dogs, even the crux where two trees cross. It’s crass and gross—so animal—to know that when we see a human lying on the grass we’ll gravitate to the crotch. Thanks, biology. Civilization is a game of keep away with what we’re drawn to do. Alive means embracing inevitability, our baser natures, self-abasing, -abusing, -genuflecting, -blogging, -help, -analysis.

This painting depicts “the first large-scale use of solar energy,” two dozen centuries ago, to disorient the Romans: what a shock it must have been for them, not just reflected, concentrated sun, the blind of sudden heat, but the bind of self, approaching, swords up, propagated out, made multiple, by mirrors. That much me would scare the hair off a bear. Hold up a mirror at the meeting to the bloviating dude, and see what happens. I just want you to see what you’re saying, my wife says, and I rarely do. I kind of can’t track that cant in that moment. Instead: deny. Think about it for a year. Let it percolate into a canto, canter, then speed up to gallop, word that feels like a palindrome but isn’t, until it achieves full-on self-lacerating, ramming speed, and squeezes itself out in an essay.

I didn’t mean to make this about myself, there’s so much interesting history happening in the painting, and that it’s on loan to the library from a private collection of the Meinels, for whom the Optics building across the street is named, so they’re interested in light and how it can be made to work, most certainly. And is it strange to say I only noticed it when I put my head up against it, on the chair in front of it, and wondered: Should I be touching art? When did I last wash my hair? Is it (art, not hair) insured? Is it (art, not hair) any good? Do I like art? Do I like this piece of art? How many might have noticed it at all? At least I make my peace with it and run my hand along its frame.

Here in Tucson, the land of concentrated summer sun, it makes sense to think about the way we might harness infrared to do our bidding like a djinn (jinn and jin are also acceptable, for those in search of words beginning with a j). Its solar heart mirrors our solar hearts, the ways the undergraduates tan and squawk and strut, exchanging AmIHotOrNot.com passing glances and unsubtle flirts, the mutual checking out that suffuses days spent in libraries when we should properly be otherwise engaged in games of Words with Friends as we avoid our work, surrounded by evidence of intelligence. It’s impossible to believe the dark will come on days like this, that all of this will end.

Ander Monson is the author of six books. In response to the anesthetic historylessness of the ebook formats on offer, for the last seven years he has been haunting libraries, finding strange things there (erotic inscriptions, homophobic marginalia, weird esoterica, human hair, the painting reproduced above, etc.), writing short essays in response, and publishing them back into the spaces where they originated as letters to a future reader. Graywolf Press will publish a book of these called Letter to a Future Lover in 2015. More here: otherelectricities.com

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