And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
~ Herman Melville
We all know the story; the beautiful, yet wicked, queen gazes into her mirror. She admires her perfectly formed features and raven black hair flowing in stunning ringlets about her face and cascading down her shoulders. She is beautiful and she knows it beyond a shadow of a doubt. Confident in this fact she asks, “Who in this land is the fairest of them all” (Grimm)? The answer she receives shocks her into a stunned silence. The name is not her own and the image reflected back does not belong to her. Inflamed with rage and jealously, the queen determines to destroy this innocent creature with one bite of a poisoned apple.
The image the queen beheld revealed a painful truth. The reflection was her perfect doppelgänger; the person she should have been had the perfect law of God penetrated into the darkened recesses of her heart. Pained by the truth, the queen sought to destroy her perfect reflection through any means necessary; a task which required her to put to death the innocent part of herself (a fact graphically illustrated by the Grimm brothers when she, too, partakes of the poisoned apple). The death of her evil self did not bring her happiness, instead, as the mirror spoke truth, she was “so wretched, so utterly wretched” and seeing Snow White as the bride of the king’s son filled her with fear and rage (Grimm). In order to defeat this evil, the king’s son has to ride into the forest, gaze upon Snow White, and ask the dwarves if he could have her coffin “as a gift,’ one he promised to “honor and prize as [his] dearest possession” to finally put this wretchedness to rest (Grimm). Thus ends a fairy tale of biblical proportions.
I share this oft taken for granted fairy tale because it so vividly illustrates the words of the Apostle Paul written in his first letter to the Corinthians. After sharing in detail a “more excellent” way to live, Paul tells the Corinthian church that when it comes to these principles of love, they will only see it reflected through a glass darkly, and it would not be until they could see face to face would they fully know its truth (KJV 1 Co 13.12). While in this life, we, like the evil queen in Snow White, will struggle against the desires of the flesh while trying desperately to live in step with the Spirit who gives life (ESV Gal 5.17). It should be the goal to remain planted in the Word, to gaze into its perfect law and see reflected back the image of Christ; however, there constantly remains the fear that upon walking away from this looking glass the believer will forget what that perfect image looks like (ESV Ja 1.24).
I have to admit that I have struggled with this passage from 1 Corinthians for quite some time. It never made sense to me why Paul would follow up this beautiful exhortation on love with a warning that it is only gazed upon through a dim mirror. I have studied this passage using my concordance, an interlinear bible, several commentaries, and endless searches on the internet, all of which came back fruitless. It was not until I stumbled upon this quote from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick that my eyes were opened to the truth:
And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all (3).
Melville’s protagonist, Ahab, is driven by the singular desire to find and kill the great whale, Moby-Dick. This becomes his life obsession, and one that eventually leads to his death. What Ahab saw in those waters is what each of us sees when we gaze into its seemingly calm waters, for, gazing back at us, we see Leviathan. This was the monster revealed to Narcissus as he gazed upon his reflection in the waters.
After the birth of her son, Liriope consulted a seer to determine if her beloved baby boy would live to a ripe old age (Ovid 3.347). The seer’s answer is that it is possible for him to live to a comfortable old age as long as “he never knows himself” (Ovid 3.348). Narcissus continues happily oblivious with life, hunting with friends and running from nymphs wild with lust, until that fateful day when he meets his reflection in a “clear, unmuddied pool of silvery, shimmering water” and fell hopelessly in love (Ovid 3.407). The image that Narcissus fell in love with was one that he could never possess, no matter how hard he tried; but, on a much darker note, the waters revealed Narcissus’ true self, a self that was at its heart a monster. This is what happens to the believer who gazes intently into the mirror of God’s Word. This is the pain that the evil queen beheld and the torment that drove Ahab, and it breeds the desire to put to death that aspect of the self revealed to be in conflict with the beloved, but flawed, image of the flesh. Ovid speaks of the dangers that accompany this dark reflection:
“the pool would always betray him…he knows not what he is seeing; the sight still fires him with passion. His eyes are deceived, but the strange illusion excites his senses. Trusting fool, how futile to woo a fleeting phantom! You’ll never grasp it. Turn away and your love will have vanished. The shape now haunting your sight is only a wraith, a reflection consisting of nothing…” (3.428-434).
Herein lies the problem that Paul was addressing with the Corinthian church and one that is especially plaguing for a postmodern reader. Umberto Eco writes that, “in the beginning was the Word…this was the beginning for God and the duty of every faithful monk would be to repeat every day…the one never changing event whose incontrovertible truth can be asserted” (3). The problem is that God is known as the Word, a statement that should be an easily asserted truth; however, this is not always the case because words can be distorted. Lewis Carroll laments this problem with words in his story Through the Looking Glass. While Alice notices that she can punish her kitty by holding it up to a looking-glass and forcing it to look upon its sulky expression, she could not hold a book up to the looking glass without the words going the wrong way (Carroll 157). Eco admits that, while the fact of God should be an incontrovertible truth, man sees “through a glass darkly, and the truth, before it is revealed to all…we see in fragments…in the error of the world” (3). The perfect law of God acts a mirror, reflecting back our sin, yet it must still be interpreted through the lens of a sinful world that is terrified of Truth.
This is where Sheridan Le Fanu’s five ghost stories from In a Glass Darkly begin to shed light through the darkened glass and reveal the truth. For so many believers there lurks in the deepest recesses of the mind the ghosts of the past. These ghosts intrude upon the present and stubbornly persist, demanding an “historical understanding if it is to be laid to rest” (Luckhurst xiii). In three of his stories, Le Fanu presents protagonists who are haunted by “ghosts” that threaten the security of their present. Two of these men consciously choose to forget the truth that has been made manifest to them and as a result meet with fatal consequences. One man refuses to remove his blinders, even when condemned by a doppelgänger more evil than himself, and, therefore, receives the judgment of death. In the final two stories, one protagonist must face death in order to finally admit his sinful folly and another is faced with the horrors of having her evil doppelgänger slowly drain her life away.
While each protagonist has unique experiences and each story yields its own biblical lessons, there is one lesson from Scripture that runs through all five and cannot be neglected. When we gaze into the mirror, and even though we may see a dim reflection, we cannot remain hearers of the word; it is of the utmost importance that after hearing the word, it is put into practice. James warns his readers that to only be a hearer of the word is to practice self-deception and become the man who has forgotten his own image (ESV Ja 1.22-24). When one has gazed into the perfect law that gives liberty, it is crucial to persevere in the truth (ESV Ja 1.25). Le Fanu gives his readers lessons in the importance of persevering in the truth. Three of his protagonists would have escaped a hideous death, one would have never faced a life-altering ordeal with the grave, and one would have held on to her innocence. Through the use of gothic images, Le Fanu graphically illustrates the dangers inherent in peering into a glass darkly and coming away only to forget the image it revealed.
Please, won’t you join me on a journey of a lifetime, one that will hopefully help you gain an historical understanding of the ghosts that haunt and finally lay them to rest.
Biblegateway. Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles. 2001. Web. 23 June 2016.
Biblegateway. Holy Bible, King James Version. Public Domain. Web. 23 June 2016.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. New York: Barnes & Noble. 2004. Print.
Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. San Diego: Harcourt. 1980. Print.
Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Snow White. Trans Margaret Hunt. Virginia Commonwealth University. 2014. Web. 23 June 2016.
Luckhurst, Robert Ed. Late Victorian Gothic Tales. New York: Oxford. 2005. Print.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick. Mineral: Dover. 2003. Print.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans David Raeburn. London: Penguin. 2004. Print.