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Or: the soul’s descent in the body

Since Mary is able to sit, also in the bath, she sees her legs disappear in the water. The shimmering in the water hides them from view, especially when some bath-oil is floating on the surface. Of course she is aware of her legs and feet – if only because the warm water is pleasantly embracing them. But she has some difficulties in understanding why she does not see them. When mama asks her: ‘Where is Mary'ss foot?’ she promptly lifts one feet out of the water, visibly relieved. This play did not suffice to alleviate her anxiety about disappearing parts of her body. Once, she stood intensely staring downward when mama had her stay upright in the water. On mama’s question: ‘Where is Mary’s foot’? she grabbed at her knees, seized by panic: where had her feet gone now? Until mama lifted her out of the water so that she was reassured in being able to touch her feet.

From this example we can learn that the child has some trouble in getting acquainted with its visual appearance. Only after birth does it come in contact with the visual world. This world is in the first instance explored through the eye. But the eye soon is joined up by the hand, which is out to feel what the eye sees. Sooner or later the child discovers its own appearance amidst the other visual things. It will take considerable time until this visual appearance is integrated in the self-image that the child has already built up in the womb on the basis of internal sensations and especially the sense of touch (feeling skin, hand and legs).

In a first phase the child perceives the parts of its own body as if they were part of the surrounding visual world – a world that is in the first instance an external world, organised around the eyes of the mother. First the child gets notice of its hands, then of its feet. But nothing evidences that it recognises them as belonging to its own self. The image of the hand is just one of the numerous appearances which, just like the hands of its mother, happen to appear around the familiar face of the mother during breast-feeding.

In a second phase, the child links up the visual appearance of the hand with the inner perception of it: the hand seems to move in a way that is correlated to the inner sensation of commanding the hand’s movements. Before your very eyes you can witness then how Schopenhauer’s ‘will’ is joining its ‘representation’. And that intrigues the infant immoderately. Up to now it was only natural for the infant to feel its own thumb, finger or hand when these touched its lips. But every parent will remember the astonishment with which the infant discovers that it can command from within the movement of its hand as seen from without. When Mary had discovered the correlation, she could not stop contemplating that miracle. When falling asleep, she uninterruptedly stared at that little hand gently moving back and forward before her drowsy eyes. The astonishment comes to its apogee when the two visible hands moving there before the eyes seem to feel each other when touching! A new phase in the construction of the self-image has set in. The inner image of the self and the outer visible appearance begin to link up: it is as if our spiritual self – our invisible soul – is wrapped in a visible envelope. Or, to be more precise: as if our soul is putting on a glove. Because our descent in the physical body is sealed in the recognition of the hand: the first organ that obeys our will is also the first appearance in which we appear as a visible being before our eyes. It is on such privileged position of the hand as the primeval appearance of the soul that the gesture with which God bestows life to the earthen Adam owes its naturalness: the hand elevates itself before the body awakens.

Thus, the body with which we are familiar from within - the invisible soul - is not wrapped in its visible envelope at once: only step by step does the child put on its visible skin. As if our body were divided in a series of separate articles of clothing. First we put on our gloves. Next come the socks. As soon as the head can move independently, it is the turn of the sleeves and the trousers, until at last we put on our apron as soon as we are able to see our belly. Not the entire body is covered. Many parts stay naked: the face – comprising mouth, nose, eyes and ears – not to mention the other invisible parts of the body: from the hairs on the head, through shoulders and back, to the bottom and the anus – and with the girl also the vagina. The visual body is an incomplete body: it has only a front, no back and no bottom. And it is fragmented in loose parts: legs and feet that seem to crop up from nowhere. Thus, the visual body not only is ‘morcelé’ (fragmented), but also ‘partiel’ (partial). The image of the inner self on the other hand – the soul wrapped in its invisible skin – seems to be cut out of one block. It is one and undivided – although it may take some time before it is able to commands all the instruments at its disposal.

Real clothes may postpone the advent of the visible body. Apart form the hands, that are left bare, all the other parts of the body are wrapped in clothes. That has its bearings not only on the recognition through the eye, but foremost on the recognition through the hand. The clothed body is already continuously ‘touched’. The skin can only feel the touch of the hand through cloth. That is why the hands are predestined to be the privileged place where the outer skin comes to envelope the inner body: when the one naked hand comes to touch the other naked hand, no clothes are spoiling the fun. To be sure, the hands also can touch the naked face, but no eyes can possibly witness these proceedings.

Therefore, the obvious place to make the child acquainted with its own appearance is the bath. Although you should remind that also here the surface of the water may hide one thing or another from view – as is apparent from the example with which we began this story. Not only is visual appearance fragmented and incomplete, it is also capricious: it appears and disappears. Playing peek-a-boo with hands and feet may help the child with becoming familiar with this furtive appearance: plays like hiding a foot in the sock or a hand in a sleeve, and then revealing it. Apart from problems with the surface of the water, all the visible parts of the body are within reach in the bath. With enthusiasm, the child discovers all the parts that it commands from within. Soon the hand joins in the explorative expedition. With each contact with what is visible from the outside but commanded from within, the new self-image is consolidated. The impressions deriving from seeing, feeling and inner experience (sensations (breathing, digestion and blood circulation) begin to crystallise around the ‘will’.

Although the construction cannot be brought to an end. With little girls the vagina goes hidden behind the belly. Thus, Mary is often playing with her fingers in the opening – thereby naughtily looking at her mother – but her attempts to also see what she feels hurt on the obstacle of her belly. Also when children become somewhat more mobile, it remains difficult for them to visually explore this zone. And the problems become altogether insurmountable when it comes to the back: it will take quite some time until the child is able to so move its arms that it can touch its back. Seeing the back is impossible altogether. The face takes a mid-position. As no other place of the body, it is animated from within and at the same time continuously touched: by the own hands, the hands of the mother, not to mention the comfortable warmth of the breast.

Without the help of a – preferably man-sized mirror – the ‘optical skin’ of the infant is doomed to remain a kind of apron. It is as if you had to appear before a public only covered with sleeves, trouser-legs and an apron: without a face – as with some figures of Magritte – and with your back uncovered. That is why the mirror – at least as the surface of the water wherein Narcissus was mirroring himself – is perhaps an even older companion of man than fire.

Calling for a little help from a mirror, hence. But it takes some time before the infant can tell the mirror image from ordinary reality. Only the appearance of the face of the mother compels him to make the distinction. The baby immediately recognises the mother in the mirror: father or mother are in the first place a talking face, that soon form a single entity with the breast, the arms and the lap: in the visual appearance of the parent, visual, auditory and tactile impressions are brought together in one whole. That is why the infant immediately recognises the mirror image as a mirror image: when it sees your image in the mirror, that does not fit with its hearing you talking next to it and its seeing you holding it in your arms. Certainly, it is laughing at your face in the mirror. But now and then it looks at the real face and holds you somewhat tighter, as if to secure itself that the real face is really where it is heard and the real body where it is felt. It always has struck me, how naturally the child manages to correctly interpret a mirror image: it really experiences the face in the mirror as a ‘virtual’ image, and not as a double of the parent.*

Once the child is acquainted with the phenomenon of a mirror image, it pays to repeatedly take place in front of a mirror with your child on your arms, and to move backwards and forwards. For it takes some time before the child understands that also the hands and the feet, the arms and the legs belong to the face of the parent and are parts of one whole. When the child is sitting on your lap it has no overview, and when it sees the parent form a distance, it is only out at being lifted up, so that it is only focussing your eyes and your face. In front of a mirror on the other hand, the baby feels safe and secure in its parent’s arms. It now can quietly explore the appearance of the parent from all distances and in different positions.

Thus, the parent’s appearance is the reverse of one’s own appearance: that of the parents is constructed around the face, whereas that of the children only shows a void there for still a long time. That has it bearings on the reaction of the child when seeing its own face appear in the mirror. Certainly, the child immediately becomes aware of it. For faces are there first things that catch the attention – the maternal eyes are the primeval image of the visible world. But since it is not yet aware of the visual appearance of its own face, the face in the mirror seems to be simply one of the many faces laughing at it in the visible world. When it has seen it repeatedly, it gets acquainted with it. In then responds to it as to the familiar face of the mother. Thus I saw two months old baby blissfully look at its own face, as if it were the face of its mother. It then began to coo as otherwise only to its mother. From similar observations, some draw the conclusion that the child is not able to correctly interpret a mirror image. Contrary to the mirror image of the parent, the virtual character of which is revealed in that it is felt and heard before the mirror, one’s own mirror image contains no clues inducing one to interpret as a mirror image. For the child's face – whose image is not yet part of the visible world – it is just one of the many things that happen to appear in the visible world.

But there is no escape: sooner or later the ‘will’ recognises its ‘appearance’! First, the child recognises the movements of its hand. Obviously so, since it already is familiar with the visual appearance of the hand in the real world. It is fascinated by its reflection in the mirror, and is surprised when suddenly the hand in the mirror is hurting the real hand. The child immediately understands that the image in the mirror is only virtual, just like that of the parent. It does not see any problem in the fact that the arm is connected to that unknown face in the mirror: also the real arm crops up out of nowhere.

But sooner or later the child comes to recognise also its own face. To its astonishment it begins to assess that the face seems to perform the movements it commands from within. It is really surprised, recoils and presses its head against its mother’s breast. But soon anxiety is overcome through curiosity. Time and again, the child unbelievingly witnesses the face in the image doing precisely what it commands in front of it. It takes some time before the child draws the right conclusion from these facts. You can accelerate the process by letting the child touch its face and head: the nose, the eyes, the ears, the skull, the mouth. But the ultimate proof is when you literally face the child with the facts: when you move it slowly towards the surface of the mirror and let it touch the surface with its tongue, while it at the same time is seeing its own face. You then witness how all the pieces of the puzzle seem to fall together in the baby’s head.

Such discovery is a mere sensation! There was no stopping Mary's interest in her appearance in the mirror. To complete the development, we posted ourselves before the mirror with Mary on our arms. Sitting on my arms she first looked at me in the mirror and in the real world. Then, she wanted to sit on her mama’s arms, in order to overlook the whole proceedings from another point of view – meanwhile with visible satisfaction assessing that it was really she herself that was being hold there on papa’s and on mama’s arms. Mary had conquered her place as a visible being between the other visual appearances – a veritable second birth!

To be continued in ‘The toddler before the mirror’

© Stefan Beyst, March 2002

It is rather surprising how easily the child comes to grips with such difficult task as recognising a mirror image. Narcissus discovers his mirror image when he was about to drink. When animals are about to drink, they are extremely vulnerable for predators. Precisely when being on the utmost alert, they see their image mirrored on the surface of the water. If they were not able to recognise it as their mirror image, they would never be get their thirst quenched…

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