Through the Looking Glass: An Essay on Transformation by dreams, mirrors and screens

I would like to introduce this essay with an equation that may seem obscure at first, but one which I will go on to explain in further detail throughout this research paper.

Mirror : Identity = Dream : Destiny

and

Screen : Company = Dream : Individual

Mirrors are to the observance of one’s own physical appearance (reflected and therefore seen as a whole rather than a fragment), as a dream is to the calling out of purpose, destiny, healing, direction and transformation of the dreamer’s soul and spirit. The screen is to people groups, cultures and societies, as dreams are to individual dreamers. I will be expounding on how I came to this conclusion, the state of mind that allowed me to envision these comparisons, as well as providing support for these theories from Ted Hiebert’s Delirious Screens: Flesh Shadows and Cool Technology, and Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Myself, much as the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, have “devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men!” (NIV, 1:13). Essentially it could be said that this essay rests on the motto or crux of Proverbs 25:2, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; but it is the glory of kings to search out a matter”. As an avid student of biblical dream interpretation, my mind is constantly seeking out the symbolism behind even the most common objects and technologies around me. My own personal visual culture is one that is strongly influenced by the symbolic language of the Bible and my vivid dream life. This essay is my own personal attempt to analyze the symbolic meaning of the mirror/screen in relation to an integral part of my visual culture… dreams.

I must make the disclaimer that I am aware of the vast and deep range of opinions and beliefs in regards to the interpretation of dreams; for the sake of clarity this essay will be written from the perspective of Judeo-Christianity. I am not attempting to transfer my beliefs onto the reader, but rather to “pair” and reveal the similarities found in the works of Ted Hiebert and Walter Benjamin with the ancient foundational principals of Hebraic dream interpretation found in the Old Testament. I will be “mining” for the symbolism evident in mirrors and screens, the metaphors therein, based on the presumption that God has hidden them within our cultures.

Hebraic dream interpretation is “the oldest method of dream interpretation and differs greatly from any other method, as it is primarily spiritual in it’s approach rather than psychological; it is the Biblical representation and standard of dream interpretation” (DreamLab7).

Barbie Breathitt, a biblical interpreter gives us this standpoint: dreams are “the road maps God has given us to direct us to the higher roads. His vision for us is higher than anything we have for ourselves”. Ted Hiebert suggests that “no singular point can understand itself as also a line without ceasing, in the process, to be a point“ (4), therefore I suggest that it is the function of dreams to help us see ourselves as more than just a point, but rather a point on a journey – the constant process of transformation. According to Breathitt “Dreams are divine conversations enlightening our soul through symbols, shadows, types and images. Dreams reveal the painful changes that must be embraced if we are to live a fulfilled life reaching our destiny. Dreams reveal the keys that are necessary to unlock and derail us from harmful, destructive, repetitive life patterns. Instead of going around the mountain one more time, a new track is laid that takes us into a higher reality. Dreams reveal the truth of where you are, where you are going and what obstacles you need to remove to get there”.

It is important to note that while the main purpose of dreams is to call a person into a purpose, plan and destiny for their life, there are some dreams that act as a sort of status-report. These dreams are known as “self-condition dreams”. A self-condition dream is one that reveals to the dreamer where they are in life and progression, how they are growing and what issues might be preventing them from fulfilling all that they are made to be fulfilling. Contrary to the sound of it, a self-condition dream is not one that the dreamers make up themselves. If dreams are the “roadmap” that direct us onward and upward, then self-condition dreams may very well be the “pit stop” along the road to progression.

The point I am trying to make is that in the context of this essay, the terms “dream” and “mirror” can be used interchangeably. They are two different words used to describe the same effect: Reflection of self. Self condition. Self-condition dreams act as a mirror. And a mirror according to Lacan, shows the person ones true self. Both dreams and mirrors, exist to allow us to see ourselves from new perspectives, outside of our own understanding, and created a “frame” as it were, for us to begin to step out into new horizons.

A mirror doesn’t lie – it reflects you as you really are. In biblical terms the mirror symbolizes a launching ground for transformation. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul seems to pre-date both Hiebert and Lacan. In his second letter to the Corinthians he makes the observation “but we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.” (NIV, 3:18). Hiebert explores this idea of transformation on a corporate level (screens, which I will discuss later), while Paul speaks in reference to the individual. “This is a question of appearances, and also a question of effect, and the main point that must be repeated is that perception does not simply change the way in which an object or concept or phenomena appears, it actually changes what that phenomena is. Perception transforms its object, and in so doing, transforms itself” (6). “The mirror grows hot, yet at the same time the possibilities for living expand accordingly… It is, in the most direct of ways, a process of sublimation: matter transformed into gas under the influence of heat… A psychic extension of possibilities.” (7)

Hiebert also states, “The mirror stage is that which forever separates the questions of image and flesh and – more importantly – that which leaves flesh itself accountable to the image, and most certainly not the other way around. It is not the task of the image to understand he body, but explicitly the body who now remains bound to its own self-image. There, under the sign of Lacan, we might well insist that life becomes the cast shadow of living self-conception; flesh the cast shadow of the mirror encounter itself. Now Lacan might have been wrong, but his insistence find correlatives well beyond the simple question of identity and self-image” (2). With this, Paul again seems to pre-date Lacan in his own apt observation of the “mirror stage”. Paul explains that “Now we see a poor reflection as in a mirror… Now I know in part… even as I am fully known” (NIV, 13:12). Paul is saying that in order to fully comprehend himself as a whole being, he needs to see himself from another perspective (as God sees him). Paul recognizes that he can only ever know himself in fragments, while at the same time he is aware that he is seen by outside observers (in this case God) as a whole.

By using this mirror, man can learn his own character and the needs of his soul. It enables man to see himself as God sees him. The function of this mirror reveals the “disfigurement” of the Soul. We can only correct our physical appearance as often as we look in the mirror. There is no profit in looking at our self in the mirror and not making the needed corrections (Thetford). Likewise, if you look at yourself in a mirror and then immediately forget what you look like, the whole action was pointless (NIV, James 1:23-24). So it is with somebody who does not hold any value to their dreams, or take any time to “consider” or ponder upon a two hour long film they just watched. A dream does for an individual’s soul, what a mirror does for the individual’s outer appearance. A mirror stands in symbolically representing potential and possibility. Hiebert comments that here, extended outside ourselves with our point of return denied, we also find that reality denied means possibility unleashed (4).  I have explained in the last few paragraphs how I concluded that mirrors = dreams; the mirror allows for “conscious extension at the same time as it contains consciousness within its protective casing” (3), the same being true of dreams.

Now I would like to examine the second portion of my originally proposed equation: Screen: company = Dream: individual. I argue that the term “the silver screen” has a symbolic spiritual meaning of many levels – that even “silver” itself has levels of meaning. I will go on to explain my views of mirrors and silver screens being one in the same in the symbolic sense. Dreams are to dreamers as the screen (in this case motion picture screens) is to a group, culture or society as a whole.

Silver means “second”, gold meaning “first”  (we see this symbolism carried out even in our Olympic medals). Second best, second-rate, close likenesses to the first, but falling slightly short… perhaps an imitation of an original. We see this in the bible when Daniel is interpreting the dream of King Nebuchadnezzar, who dreams of himself as a statue of decreasing value from the head down… the head of gold, chest and arms of silver, belly of bronze… ending with toes of mixed clay (NIV, Daniel 2:32).

The term “silver screen” originated in reference to the actual silver content embedded in the material that made up the screen’s highly reflective surface. While actual silver screens are no longer commonly used, the term silver screen has passed into popular usage as a metonym for Hollywood and the movies. Silver vertically ridged screens are made from tightly woven cords of natural (silk) or synthetic fibers (Wikipedia).

On screens, Ted Hiebert comments that “one might even go so far as to call this an out of body experience of one sort or another; bodies out of body – the silvery technological umbilicus linking us always to and against ourselves, anchored or chained or suspended or enabled by the very illusion of reflection itself” (3). It is interesting to examine the biblical imagery of “the silver cord” spoken of in Ecclesiastes 12:6-7 (NIV), “Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, or the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, or the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” The author here is referring to what happens at death and the connection between the physical body and the spirit.

If the silver cord acts as a sort of “umbilical cord” holding one’s spirit to their body, and we know that the silver screen consists of many silver cords, the screen can be seen as a kind of corporate spiritual exploration ground. In a way this allows us to use our physical bodies as a launching pad for spiritual exploits and adventures. So perhaps it could be argued in this sense that society as a whole “projects” itself out into new territory, new realms, gaining higher perspective through the technology of these screens, which reveal reflections of themselves. Within the screen, Hiebert says, we encounter an intensified imaginary, new worlds of interactive possibility, in short, new opportunities (1). Microscopic mirrors are a core element of many of the largest high-definition televisions and video projectors. Large mirrors are used in rear projection televisions (Hadsund). Hiebert posits, “the mirror… is the first screen, the first ‘cool technology’” (1); just as change or transformation must happen first on an individual level before it can happen on corporate or societal level. I posit that the screen is an amplification of the mirror/dream, hence the equation Screen: company = Dream: individual. Screens allow us to dream on a corporate level.

Russell La Valle, in his article The Silver Screen as Philosophic Mirror offers up an observation of Oscar Nominated films for the year following the atrocities that befell the United States in 2001. “It is illuminating to look at the films nominated in the “Best Picture” category of the Academy Awards since 9/11, in order to see how they reflect the values of our culture. In 2002, all but one of the “Best Picture” nominees represented the Naturalist school of drama… in this view, individuals inhabit a bleak universe, living lives of unrealized fulfillment, moral cowardice, and misplaced values. Rather than make choices to determine their fate, these characters react to the exigencies of life and helplessly (often hopelessly) accept change from outside forces. The single non-Naturalist film was a fantasy. “ Unpacking the best picture nominees of 2002 does give us insight into the state of society at the time.

The first of the five nominees is Chicago, offering a cynical view of America in the 1920 and focusing on two fame-hungry nightclub murderesses and sleazy lawyers; making a skeptical comment on the gullibility of the general public and inciting a doubt and distrust in the minds of American citizens regarding whether or not they are ever being told the whole or real story in any given situation. There will always be someone somewhere along the line, spinning the truth in one direction or another… for the advantage of whom exactly? This certainly coincides with the entrance of many conspiracy theories regarding the “real deal” surrounding George W. Bush’s “War on Terror”.

Gangs of New York again takes us back to reflect on society past; at the finale we are brought back to the present, with a “new knowledge” which is rather morally repellent: the Manhattan of the 1860s morphs into its modern counterpart, and a surviving thug’s voice-over suggests that “these murderous cutthroats were part of the spirit, creativity, and capitalist drive that created such a wondrous city” (La Valle). It is hardly necessary to note here that “New York” is the focus of this film, as well as the focus of the world’s media attention at the time it was released and nominated.

The Hours is a film following the stories of three depressed women with “spent emotions and who contemplate suicide” (La Valle) and in some cases succeed. Certainly many bleak emotions are explored here which go hand in hand with a shell-shocked country feeling the societal effects of post-traumatic stress. As well we see the exploration of suicide accompanying the new reality of “suicide bombers” breaching the often-assumed impenetrable security of the United States. The one character who is followed in present-day “finds solace in a friend’s suicide”. In searching for the symbolism and importance of this “emotional highpoint” (La Valle), I immediately connected it to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ The Five Stages of Grief, acceptance being the fifth and final stage.

If the Screen: company = Dream: individual… then we must conclude that while the symbolism used in films is different than the symbolism used in dreams, it is equally powerful to reveal one’s “self-condition”. This all-important fifth step in the grieving process urges, “instead of denying our feelings, we listen to our needs; we move, we change, we grow, we evolve” (Ross & Kessler). Finding the good that can come out of the pain of loss, finding comfort and healing; our goals turn to personal growth. Here we see that stage five, dreams, and the film all work toward the same goal… growth, progression and healing.

The Pianist is another piece of history being revisited. One begins to wonder if the “past” (where the outcome is already known) seems to be a much safer place to project oneself to than the unstable world of 2002. This war film concentrates on following one man, Wladyslaw Szpilman, who is an “observer, hiding and peeping out at the Holocaust”. The portrayal of this individual’s journey “gives the impression that the world is a place governed by powerful evil”. Author Carole D. Bos, J.D. observes two pivotal lines in The Pianist, which echo loudly in respect to what many survivors of 9/11 as well as American soldiers in Afghanistan likely would relate to. The first occurs when Szpilman is pulled from the line of Jews while exiting a train and marching toward their fate at a Nazi concentration camp. As Bos puts it, “An unknown person, with the power to choose, literally flung him outside the cordon of police. Trying to break through, so he could rejoin his family, Wladyslaw heard the chiding words of a policeman: Go on, save yourself!” (Bos).

The second daunting and telling line occurs when, “Not long after, the pianist had a dream that confirmed his worst fears. Henryk, his brother, “appeared” to deliver a message: We are dead now.” (Bos). I feel these two lines culminate the collective feelings of the United States of suddenly for the first time finding themselves to feel powerless. The “Save yourself” fight-or-flight instinctual reaction of unexpected terrorism is being explored here. At the same time, a guarded and almost subconscious exploration of that fifth stage of grief… acceptance… is found in the words of Henryk. Of course, Henryk is not really saying these words… it is a message intended for the dreamer himself and another example of a self-condition dream.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers is the last nomination and the “sole exception to the unrelentingly bleak assessment of the universe presented by 2002’s top films” (La Salle). The film, La Valle states, “has many uplifting moments… Sam bolsters Frodo’s spirits by recalling other great epics, whose protagonists faced equally daunting circumstances yet were able to overcome their plights by dint of sheer will and determination. In essence, it is a clarion call that individual choices shape our lives and can inspire others to great achievement” (La Salle). However even here we see hidden reference to the “two towers” of the World Trade Center.

What do all of these films reflect about our culture and society? To use the term “screen” in another way, all of these movies got to be nominated by the “screening process”… not just any film will make it to the Academy Awards – only those who are approved, voted for and deemed worthy by the Academy. The Academy can be seen as a team of gifted representatives for our society. It is through this “screening” that the films chosen reflect the approval of society. Therefore these movies reflect the issues – spiritual and political – and act in the exact same way as a dream does to an individual dreamer. By calling the body of viewers to an expanded perception or by helping the body of viewers to see their own condition in order to bring forth correction.

Walter Benjamin states, “in permitting the reproduction [the film] to meet the beholder or listener in his own particular situation, it reactivates the object reproduced”, in other words, the possibility of transformation is opened to the body of viewers simply by the act of them being seated and observing. “These two processes lead to a tremendous shattering of tradition” (3). Society evolves by the breaking of tradition, or as Benjamin puts it, the “renewal of mankind”. He claims “both processes are intimately connected with the contemporary mass movements. Their most powerful agent is the film” and is “most palpable in the great historical films. It extends to ever-new positions” (3). The silver screen also acts as a projection ground for the issues that are of growing importance in our day and time. Taking a closer look at the list of 2009 Nominees gives us great insight into our current cultural status.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a movie about a man born old, which takes us through his life and past, as he grows physically younger but gains the wisdom and knowledge of age. One recurring symbol in Benjamin Button is the butterfly. Just as Benjamin Button himself goes through great transformation, so the butterfly is a symbol of transformation, changing from a caterpillar into a butterfly through a trial period of reflection (cocoon stage).

The Reader carries many similarities to Benjamin Button. A young boy enters at an early age into an adult situation in a relationship with a woman where the timing is once again off. The movie reveals the woman’s past where political issues of the WW II are explored and wrongs are revealed. The young boy gains much knowledge on this journey, just as in Benjamin Button.

La Salle comments on politics in what he terms “cultural mirrors” saying the films nominated for a “best picture” Oscar since 9/11 suggest that Hollywood has not yet been able to reflect the new scale of the American people’s concerns. To be fair, neither have most U.S. politicians. (La Salle). Frost/Nixon and MILK are both political films based on true political events from the not-so-distant past. These films came out during Barack Obama’s electoral campaign period in the United States, where race issues played a large part, and with it, issues involving tolerance. A binary language of “underdog minority” (Milk, Obama) verses “power hungry dinosaur” (Nixon, McCain) develops, with examinations of past political blunders (Bush administration likened to Nixon). It reveals a clear desire in the people of the United States for a reckoning, for deceitfulness and corruption to be removed from politics, and a fresh era of transparency (Milk as an openly gay man). Even the movie poster for MILK suggests a desire for political purity and simplicity, as seen by the prevalence of the colour white and “milk”. The first film reveals what was ready to take place (elect the new guy, the underdog, the gay man, the black man); while at the same time the second film, Frost/Nixon, allows society to reflect back on where they have come from in order to remind us not to let it happen again.

 

The winning nominated film, Slumdog Millionaire is similar to the first two films, reflecting a pattern among the group of films, in which the protagonist – a young man – uses the wisdom and knowledge he has gained through his life of trials and hardships to win a game show and come into great fortune. The movie takes us back through his life, just as Benjamin Button, using flashbacks. Though his life has been a struggle, he ultimately overcomes. The general message of all 5 films as a whole seems to be one urging us to look back and reflect on our lives on a personal level, as well as a political and cultural level, to learn from our mistakes and glean wisdom to make wiser choices for the future. In this way, the silver screen lives up to its symbolic spiritual calling to refine and “transform” those who gaze upon it… just as a dream transforms a dreamer, and a mirror transforms the one gazing into it.

(c) Marysia S.

Works Cited
Hiebert, Ted. Delirious Screens: Flesh Shadows and Cool Technology. AHIS 103 Coursepack, 2009.
Faith in Action Study Bible. Michigan: Zondervan, 2005.
Breathitt, Barbie. Biblical Foundation for Dreams. Dream Encounters Workshop. North Richland Hills, TX. 23 May 2006.
Ancient Hebraic Method of Dream & Vision Interpretation. DreamLab7. 20 Aug. 2009 <http://www.dreamlab7.com/MainPage.html&gt;.
God’s Mirror for Man’s Soul. 2008-2009. Thetfordcountry.com, Richard Thetford. 20 Aug. 2009 <http://www.thetfordcountry.com/Sermons/God’s%20Mirror%20For%20Man’s%20Soul.pdf&gt;.
“Silver Screen.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 20 July 2009. 19 Aug 2009 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silver_screen&gt;.
La Valle, Russell. “The Silver Screen as Philosophic Mirror” TAS: The Center for Objectivism. 16 Aug. 2009 <http://www.objectivistcenter.org/cth–904-The_Silver_Screen_Philosophic_Mirror.aspx&gt;.
The Five Stages of Grief. 2008-2009. Grief.com ~ David Kessler. 20 Aug. 2009 <http://grief.com/the-five-stages-of-grief/&gt;.
Bos, Carole D. “Pianist, The” AwesomeStories.com. 20 Aug. 2009 <http://www.awesomestories.com/flicks/the-pianist&gt;.
OSCAR – 81st Annual Academy Awards – Nominees. 2009. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences & ABC, Inc. 19 Aug 2009 <http://www.oscar.com/nominees/?pn=nominees&gt;.
The Tin-Mercury Mirror: Its Manufacturing Technique and Deterioration Processes. Per Hadsund, Studies in Conservation, Vol. 38, No. 1 (Feb., 1993)
Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. AHIS 103 Coursepack, 2009.
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