Looking-Glass House

When people ask (or, more often, speculate) about my “special interests” or “perseverations,” I usually list the ones that sound most conventionally autistic: dinosaurs (age 6), Mackinac Island passenger ferry lines (age 8), HO-scale model trains (ages 5-23).

I don’t mean to disparage these.  They’ve come in handy at many points in my life; I know, for instance, which Mackinac Island passenger ferry from which port will get you to and from the island most quickly (the Capt. Shepler from the Mackinac City side – 16 minutes, beating out the Felicity by one minute, any ferry from the St. Ignace side by three minutes, and both the Star and Arnold lines by 5-12 minutes), and I amused our roommate recently by pointing out that the painting on the coffee mug that constituted his entire Christmas bonus from his employer mistakenly portrayed a Burlington Santa Fe locomotive on a Norfolk Southern line, a fact that the entire family says “only you would know.”

(Not true!  One past boyfriend won his way into my good graces by knowing the exact same thing.)

But, while I’ve “perseverated” on all of these things at some point in my life, my first real special interest was Looking-Glass House.

Simply put, Looking-Glass House is whatever house or part of a house one happens to be in at the time, explored backwards, as in a mirror.  That is, one stands in front of the mirror (actually, slightly off to one side) and looks past one’s own reflection (if you stand to the side, your reflection doesn’t get in the way) and falls into the reflections of all the other, now-unfamiliar things for which one formerly had referents.  Looking-Glass House is this house, only completely different, and thus completely uncanny.

In fact, Looking-Glass House is practically uncanny by definition.   We translate as “uncanny” what Freud rendered as “unheimlich,” or “unhomely,” or “not-belonging-to-the-home.”  The slipperiness of “heimlich” and “unheimlich” as contranyms is summed up well in the concept of Looking-Glass House.  Because of course Looking-Glass House is “heimlich,” “belonging to the home”; it is a reflection of the home in which hangs the looking-glass in question, and is thus in a sense not only belonging to the home but actually contained within the home, much the way the Pevensies’ fur coats never actually left the wardrobe.

Yet it isn’t.  And what isn’t captured by the mirror may, in fact, be nothing like the Looking-Glass House one can see.  It may be entirely different; as Lewis Carroll puts it:

“…now we come to the passage. You can just see a little peep of the passage in Looking-glass House, if you leave the door of our passage as far as you can see, only you know it may be quite different on beyond.”

I was a denizen of Looking-Glass House long before anyone ever gave me a copy of Through the Looking-Glass; yet I’ve always greatly preferred it to Alice in Wonderland.  I’ve been through a looking-glass; I’ve never fallen down a rabbit-hole.

Ironically, the Lacanian approach to autism argues that autists are autistic because we fail to pass through a developmental phase that Lacan calls “the mirror stage.”  This is the point at which the infant (in Lacan’s view) recognizes itself as a being separate from its mother by virtue of recognizing itself in a mirror.  In Lacanian parlance, autists are “self-absorbed” because we fail to get through the mirror stage properly; we somehow fail to develop into a stage capable of self-reflection.

(I wonder if Lacan becomes easier to parse if one holds him up to a mirror.)

I was very young when I first discovered the uncanniness of Looking-Glass House – perhaps no more than two or three.  It has stuck with me; today I’ll pause a moment to examine Looking-Glass House not only in houses, but in public bathrooms and changing rooms as well (although there is rarely any point to Looking-Glass Changing Room) if I think I can be that uncannily absorbed in public.  Because Looking-Glass House isn’t just uncanny; it’s uncannious.

Copresent with Looking-Glass House is Upside-Down House, which my cats seem to prefer.  The idea is basically the same, only instead of standing in front of a mirror, one hangs one’s head upside-down (usually over the edge of a couch, although one can also lie on one’s back on the floor and crane one’s head backwards – Upside-Down House doesn’t exist forwards) and explores a house where the usual ceiling is now the floor, and vice versa.  In addition to being uncanny, Upside-Down House is vertiginous, which is perhaps why I like it less now that I am past the age at which it is fun to spin around till I fall down.  (I am afraid of large chandeliers because they are also vertiginous.)

I do not know what Upside-Down Looking-Glass House looks like.  I have yet to find a mirror that maps that far.


2 thoughts on “Looking-Glass House

  1. If you have a small mirror, like ones that people have in their handbags, and hold it just below your eyes (above the nose), you’ll see Upside-Down Looking-Glass House 🙂
    If you walk holding a mirror like that it feels like walking on the ceiling; it’s a weird feeling and really cool.


    1. I have to try this. When I was a kid, both my grandmother’s bathroom and the dance studio had mirrors facing one another, close enough together to get that “infinite mirror tunnel” effect. That was pretty cool too.


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