The Mirror Metaphor in Modern Spanish Literary Aesthetics

Author: Schlig, Michael
Mirrors that appear as motifs in the visual arts and literature abound throughout the history of all cultures of the world. Given its universality, the mirror often has served has a metaphor for introspection, self-contemplation and even autobiography, and has symbolized the structuring of works of fiction and drama. This study specifically examines the figurative mirrors that not only call attention to some aspect of the content of the work in which they appear, but also to the aesthetics with which that content is expressed. As such, it follows in the tradition of works such as M.H. Abrams's landmark study of the transition from Neoclassicism to Romanticism in England The Mirror and the Lamp and Marguerite Iknayan's The Concave Mirror: From Imitation to Expression in French Esthetic Theory: 1800–1830, but differs in that it seeks to incorporate theoretical and historical considerations of visual representation to the study of the mirror analogy in writing. Most importantly, and to the best of my knowledge, no such study exists that examines the mirror metaphor of representation in the literary tradition of Spain.

While the mirror metaphor is such a commonplace throughout the centuries of artistic and literary aesthetics, surprisingly little more than the two above-mentioned studies exist that explore the motivations underlying use of the mirror analogy. This study incorporates contemporary theories of semiotics and reader response along with more eclectic and traditional approaches to aesthetics in order to address the theoretical implications raised by the appearance of the metaphor in evolving contexts (i.e., across artistic movements and periods). In light of this, the theoretical and comparative considerations throughout the study could also be of interest to scholars and students of French, English and comparative literatures in spite of the focus on the Spanish tradition.


“The intelligent complexity of Michael Schlig's book on the subject is an indication of the twists and turns that a discussion of Mirror as metaphor must take out of necessity. What is new here is not only that Professor Schlig traces the vicissitudes of the mirror metaphor for literary Spain in particular, but that he underscores the relation between a work of art and the reality in which it was created, in order to demonstrate that the mirror metaphor can hardly be thought of as a constant across time. On the contrary, the fact that it has not been a constant is an indication that it is an inroad to understanding the different psycho-social contexts that have housed what things are mirrored. For this reason, the reader will find that Schlig's study of the mirror metaphor reaches broadly across centuries, and, although he directs his attention especially to Spain, his considerations and conclusions are certainly applicable to other nations of similar cultural and socio-economic conditions … It is immensely helpful that such a panoramic view of these phenomena is now available, and I am particularly gratified to see that the view has Spanish visual arts and literature as its focus. It is not easy to get a handle on these matters, and here is a book that puts forth these concepts with utmost clarity, while it encompasses them within a general European scope.” – (from the Commendatory Preface) Lee Fontanella, Professor Emeritus of Humanities and Arts, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Author / Co-author of numerous studies on Spanish photography, art and literature

"Michael Schlig has written a useful book that provides the reader with a literary history of the mirror as a metaphor of the world that a writer wishes to portray. The question that often arises in the teaching and analysis of literature of whether or not the writer reveals a "true" image of reality, or this image is by definition always subjective, is dealt with by Schlig, who outlines the various manners by which the mirror has come to signal the connection between art and reality in the last two hundred years. The study will be helpful for a variety of audiences, from the inquisitive university student, to the professor who seeks a coherent analysis of the mirror and its place in literature. Professor Schlig has centered his study on Spanish literature from the Enlightenment to the 1930's, but provides a wealth of other information from a variety of sources, mostly French and English literature, as well as literary criticism from contemporaries of the writers studied to more current critical approaches to the periods in question. There is also an extensive bibliography that will certainly aid anyone further wishing to explore the topic. The overall effect is one of a broad-based study that will find a place as a valuable reference, not overly specialized, and therefore appropriate as a supplementary text for undergraduate university classes … Throughout the study Schlig provides the reader with an abundance of critical perspectives that enhance his explanations of the literary works in which the mirror appear. I am convinced that Michael Schlig has written a book that will prove useful to many.” – Dr. Daniel Gier, Associate Professor of Spanish, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

“In this study, Professor Michael Schlig examines the cognitive paradigm that posits art as a mirror image of reality and he reads it in the context of the historical shifts in literary production in Spain. Referencing ideas from a range of traditional sources (Plato, Aristotle, Horace, Boileau, Locke, Decartes) to writings in the theory of the visual arts (Barthes, Wolfflin, Sontag) and reader reception (Iser, Eco), Professor Schlig begins by historicizing the technology of literal mirrors and their proliferation in society, with particular attention to changing conceptual paradigms surrounding the mirror as a reflector of objective reality, the mirror as a tool that shaped the look of the visual arts, and the philosophical consequences of the rise of new ways of perceiving the world. Taking the mirror as a metaphor for artistic mimesis, Professor Schlig examines a broad cultural range with markedly different artistic agendas-from the Neoclassicists' adherence to literature's moral utility to Romanticism's introspective yet effusive outpouring; from the Costumbristas early forays into realism to the encyclopedic 'documentation' of middle-class existence evinced by nineteenth- century giants, Gald6s and Clarin; and finally, the early Avant Guard's stance against bourgeois tastes and values … The rationale behind a study such as this resides in the fact that this genuinely universal trope can permit us a more nuanced understanding of the theoretical frameworks underlying the choices that peninsular writers made, and at the same time, allow us to perceive the complexity of the timeless artistic equation understood as mimesis, at whose core are fundamental issues of imitation and artifice. Indeed, this is what the astute reader can gleen from this study. In Professor Schlig's close analysis of peninsular writers' specific views on mimesis as objectified in the mirror, we are given insights into often ignored interstices of the evolution of literary production which help us fill in critical gaps in our understanding of the interrelations between cultural tendencies and the milieu from which they arise.”– Dr. Bruce Boggs, Associate Professor of Spanish, University of Oklahoma

Table of Contents

1. Material and Figurative Mirrors of Reality
2. Mirrors and the Visual Arts
3. Neoclassicism
4. Romanticism
5. Realism and Naturalism
6. The Avant-Garde
Works Cited