“…My eyes distractedly consult it – are drawn to it against my will, as they sometimes are by the senseless flickerings of an unregulated television set. It has that kind of frivolous power. Therefore, I shall overly describe it – in the manner of those “avant garde” French novelists who, having chosen to discard narrative, character, and structure, restrict themselves to page-length paragraphs detailing the contours of a single object, the mechanics of an isolated movement: a wall, a white wall with a fly meandering across it. So: the object in Madame’s drawing room is a black mirror. It is seven inches tall and six inches wide. It is framed within a worn black leather case that is shaped like a book. Indeed, the case is lying open on a table, just as though it were a deluxe edition meant to be picked up and browsed through; but there is nothing there to be read or seen – except the mystery of one’s own image projected by the black mirror’s surface before it recedes into its endless depths, its corridors of darkness.
“It belonged,” she is explaining, “to Gauguin. You know, of course, that he lived and painted here before he settled among the Polynesians. That was his black mirror. They were a quite common artefact among artists of the last century. Van Gogh used one. As did Renoir.”
“I don’t quite understand. What did they use them for?” “To refresh their vision. Renew their reaction to colour, the tonal variations. After a spell of work, their eyes fatigued, they rested themselves by gazing into these dark mirrors. Just as gourmets at a banquet, between elaborate courses, reawaken their palates with a sorbet de citron.” She lifts the small volume containing the mirror off the table and passes it to me. “I often use it when my eyes have been stricken by too much sun. It’s soothing.”
Soothing, and also disquieting. The blackness, the longer one gazes into it, ceases to be black, but becomes a queer silver-blue, the threshold to secret visions; like Alice, I feel on the edge of a voyage through a looking-glass, one I’m hesitant to take…”
Excerpt from Music for Chameleons