Reflections After Midnight



“Those who ask why mirrors ‘invert right and left’ but not ‘top’ and ‘bottom’, must not look for help in physics textbooks, but in dictionaries that define the use of words and in an understanding of reality”

                                                                                Nature (1991) Vol. 353, p791.

Jack crouched down, held the match close and waited for the reassuring roar of the gas fire. If he was going to get anything written tonight he would have to have at least some feeling in his fingers. He held his hands close to the artificial coals and imagined being warm. As he got to his feet he caught sight of his reflection behind the smudges in the enormous, carved mirror hanging above the fireplace. Framed within the gilded vine leaves, flaking grapes and severed wings of unknown creatures, his likeness stared back at him and narrowed its eyes with contempt:

“Jack Ellis, you are one lazy bastard!”

He didn’t attempt to argue. He’d known that he had to give this talk for weeks and here he was, as usual, ten thirty the night before and still no thoughts on paper.  He shook his head in self-disgust and walked over to the old oak dining table and sat down. He excavated his laptop from the academic squalor, switched on and watched the screen go through its opening routine. He rationalised: these monthly postgraduate seminars were not that important. But it was his turn to speak, and he couldn’t just stand and say nothing.  He had until tomorrow afternoon to conjure up something noteworthy.  He leaned back as his desktop filled with numerous icons superimposed upon a background of Escher’s Drawing Hands. What the hell could he write about?  Wittgenstein’s dichotomy?  Reality?  Naive falsification?  At times like this he wished he’d elected to study something straightforward like Medicine or Law.  Not Analytical bloody Philosophy.  It was Uncle John’s fault; he should have warned him that philosophy was just a continuum of infinitely vacuous word games. Your fault, Uncle John!

Jack glanced over at the box files stacked behind the door.  Perhaps his uncle’s old notes might provide inspiration.  He wandered over, opened the topmost, battered file marked ‘IN PROGRESS (REFLECTIONS)’ and flicked despondently through the journal reprints and photocopied notes. Mirrors, mirror, mirrors. Uncle John had always had a thing about mirrors.  Jack sighed. All that work. All that success. What a waste!  Suddenly, his attention fell upon a single-sheet Editorial entitled:  “The semantics of plane-mirror inversion”.  A scribbled inscription along the left-hand margin read:


Where what begins?  Jack scanned the article, re-read the inscription and then nodded with satisfaction.  “Right, Uncle John, tonight I’m going to solve the mirror paradox.”  He wafted back to the table, opened a new document, boldly typed in ‘REFLECTIONS AFTER MIDNIGHT’, sat back and regarded the screen with confidence.  However, as his fingers hovered tremulously over the keys, waiting for further inspiration his brief triumph turned to despair.  For some reason his head was suddenly and inconveniently empty.  Clearly, this was going to be a very long night.

For a while Jack sat and stared at the blinking cursor. He looked down at the keyboard.  Easing a piece of peanut out from between the ‘U’ and the ‘I’, he noticed for the first time how many of the keys bore letters that were bilaterally symmetrical.  Then he started to type in random words and phrases . . . bilateral symmetry . . . virtual image . . . eidetic . . . spherical aberration . . . anamorphosis . . . illusion . . . Venus effect . . . infinity . . . truth . . . liquid crystal matrix . . .visual perception . . .

He cut and pasted, rearranged terms into groups, added new phrases, wrote brief notes until finally he recognised the beginnings of a plan.  The clock in the upstairs apartment struck twelve.  Jack stood up, took a deep breath and wandered out to the frozen wastes of the kitchen to find alcohol.  He discovered half a bottle of Chilean Merlot, grabbed an acceptably clean glass and returned to the warmth of the living room, where he re-read the two pages of notes, drank wine, wrote more notes, and thought of Uncle John at the age of forty, shutting himself in his car and inhaling exhaust fumes until he was dead.  Nobody had really understood why he did it.  His colleagues, his students, his girlfriend. None of them had been able to offer any explanation. Jack rubbed his eyes, leaned back in his chair and glanced over at his uncle’s books and files: the thoughts and words of a man who still had things to say.  Why had he denied himself the right to say them?

Jack looked at his watch: twenty to two.  Good Lord, tonight was slipping into a black hole. He re-read the Editorial, chewed over the possibility of calling in sick, concluded that nobody would believe him and poured himself another glass of Merlot. He frowned at the cursor. The upstairs clock struck twice.  Jack glanced up at the ceiling. And then he really started to consider why, when you look into a mirror you are left-to-right inverted but not top-to-bottom. What it came down to, this mirror problem, was either a material phenomenon, as yet unexplained by the absolutes of physics . . . OR it was not a physical problem at all but rather some anomaly at the heart of language, rooted in the origins of words as they interface with reality . . . OR it was a conundrum of perception, quite simply a trick of our own minds.

OK, first of all exhaust the absolutes. Jack fetched one of his old physics text books and rummaged around in the depths of his memory for a few words about pathways of light, horizontal planes and images.  He was slightly iffy about certain details but it was unlikely that any of the other postgrads would have any idea what he was talking about: he was the only physics and philosophy graduate; the others were all bloody Marxists and moral philosophers.  He looked down at the section on images:     ‘. . . all images are unreal’.  Unreal?  What is real?  He would discuss the meaning of  ‘real’. Nothing quite like an infinite regress when you’re hoping to confuse people.  Ah, semantics . . . the last refuge of the scoundrel!   Bob Morris, supreme amongst the Philosophy Department’s metaphysical contortionists, would probably pick holes in it all but that’s OK. If Bob didn’t argue mindlessly with everything everybody said, folks would think he was dead.

Just like Uncle John.

It was three forty.  He had managed to put together something quite convincing regarding language. However, the red wine was a distant memory and there was still the section on perception to write, so Jack pulled on his scarf and hurried back to the kitchen for food.  He plucked green mould from two slices of bread and stuck them in the toaster, made coffee, smelled the milk, decided to use it anyway and waited for the toast to pop.  He stared through the window into the black void.  His image was confused by trickles of condensation and a large crack secured with parcel tape.  His eyes strayed to the peeling paint around the window.  He ought to decorate the kitchen.  It was a mess.  And the central heating needed to be repaired. Uncle John had bequeathed him this house. The rent from the upstairs apartment paid his college fees.  The least he could do was to stop his ill-deserved inheritance from becoming a slum.  He’d sort it out when the weather warmed up.  At the moment the complexities of the mind were more pressing.

He returned to the living room and thought as he ate. What could he say about perception?  Uncle John had advised him to take a psychology module during his first year; he still had the notes somewhere.  Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he ducked under the table and rummaged around in a tattered cardboard box.  Yes, here they were!  He flicked through the pages and found some notes headed ‘The Psychology of Perception’:

The image on the back of the retina is upside down . . . Our brains interpret the image because we need to see things the right way up . . . Volunteers . . .

You always wonder what that means.

were given spectacles which inverted the image so that it appeared upright on the retina.  At first subjects saw things upside down, until their minds reinterpreted and things became the right way up.  After some weeks, when the spectacles were removed the subjects saw everything upside down and had to learn again how to reinterpret the inverted images . . .

Jack’s mind went into overdrive.  He typed frenetically. Physics, language and philosophy merged.  He concluded rhetorically: Is mirror inversion a perception anomaly?  Do we see a mirror image left to right inverted because it doesn’t matter and the top-bottom inverted image the right way up because it does?

It was almost six thirty.  As Jack watched the pages emerged from the printer he rubbed his cold fingers across his eyes and down his cheek. He seriously needed a shave. So had Uncle John when they found him. He checked the pages were in the right order, stapled them together and then read through his paper one last time; it was a triumph of eclecticism.  He yawned with satisfaction: this night, whilst others slept, he had tamed a paradox that had long perplexed much greater minds than his.  He paused.   But why had these greater-minds-than-his not arrived at this same conclusion?  Who knows? Perhaps they were even lazier than him.  Somebody on the floor above was stirring.  He looked up and gesticulated at the ceiling: “Sleep on low souls, for tonight my excellence is beyond doubt!”

Brimming with self-excellence. he staggered over to turn off the gas fire. As he bent over, placing his hand upon the mantelpiece to steady himself, his gaze once again strayed to his reflection in the mirror.  He stood up straight and shook his head. God, he was tired! He looked again. He rubbed his eyes and moved closer.  Then closer still.  He glanced at the carved frame. Stroked a gilded wing . . . touched the dull glass. And then he simply stood back and stared at the grotesquely framed reflection of the back of his own head.

Jean Levy, 2013.

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