Through the Looking-Glass

Through the Looking-Glass

Face to face with destiny.

Guiseppe Arcimboldo, Self-Portrait [detail]

In the glass she wore an expression of tense melancholy, for she had come to the depressing conclusion, since the arrival of the Dalloways, that her face was not the face she wanted, and in all probability never would be.

However, punctuality has been impressed upon her, and whatever face she had, she must go into dinner with it.

Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out

“At 50,” George Orwell wrote with some finality (indeed, these were the last words written in the manuscript notebook he kept in the last year of his life), “everyone has the face he deserves.” Looking in the mirror myself now, well over a decade past my own half-century, I’m a little worried about the verdict my features have handed down. Vanished with barely a trace is the lean and hungry look which I wore through my first three decades, the aspect, alas, that I still incorrectly imagine I present to the world. Weight and worry pull down my vanity, rounding the flesh of my cheeks and wearying the skin around my eyes. My hairline recedes in an inexorable march up a bald mountain, and a sagging solemnity suggests a sorrow I have no right—given all the blessings I’ve known—to wear. Perhaps I’ve grown my beard to disguise from myself my just deserts.

On reflection, I’m not sure I like my looks as an emblem of my fate. Is character nothing more than the maturation of genetic traits (that nose, those lips) and the accretion of circumstance (the childhood scar, for instance, that dwells in the cleft of my chin)? Well, no, I suppose, it’s not: between inheritance and experience, our faces, be they profoundly metaphorical or merely superficial, make themselves up to meet the day.

But destiny is too large a word to fall within such a limited range of reference, and, like the high-schooler hiding his awkwardness behind a mask of attitude, we persist in believing, if only in the quiet confessional of our solitude, that we are meant for bigger, more beautiful things. This faith confounds both sense and senses, and we gaze through the looking-glass of life in hope of spying our true substance; it’s an immemorial rite that we engage in, the very ritual of consciousness, and ancients of every persuasion who engaged in the same speculation discovered, by lore and by logic, the core of being we still seek: a soul.

From its earliest alertness, the mind maps the world, sending out scouts to survey its surroundings, probing every problem with instruments of love and language, fashioning landscapes from elements of instinct, learning, and surmise, building its own cities of idleness or energy, purpose or pleasure, all in the service of apprehending an abiding destination, a privacy rich enough to animate the character with which we face the world. The pursuit is tricky, the prey elusive, immaterial, prone to take mysterious vacations. Will we ever catch up with it, reside within its ken? At what age do we recognize the soul that we deserve?

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