A book within a book, a play inside a play, a picture in a picture, these are examples of mise en abyme, a literary term the French writer André Gide borrowed from heraldry. Pronounced “meez en a-beem,” it literally means “placed in the abyss,” or, more simply, “placed in the middle,” and it was used to describe a shield in the middle of a shield, as in this coat of arms of the United Kingdom from 1816-1837. (Image from Wikipedia.)
You’ll notice that the shield inside the shield has another shield inside of it. You can imagine yet another inside that one and so on and so on, forever and ever, so I like to think of “mise en abyme” as “into the abyss.” The eye travels down the rabbit hole to infinity, as in this photo of a “Lost Wormhole” from Illuminaughty Boutique’s post “38 Mise en Abyme GIFs that Will Make Your Brain Bleed… OR WORSE.”
Gide explains that an artist uses a work within a work to comment on the larger piece:
In a work of art, I rather like to find thus transposed, at the level of the characters, the subject of the work itself. Nothing sheds more light on the work or displays the proportions of the whole work more accurately. Thus, in paintings by Memling or Quentin Metzys, a small dark convex mirror reflects, in its turn, the interior of the room in which the action of the painting takes place. Thus, in a slightly different way, in Velasquez’s Las Meninas. Finally, in literature, there is the scene in which a play is acted in Hamlet; this also happens in many other plays. In Wilhelm Meister, there are the puppet shows and the festivities in the castle. In Fall of the House of Usher, there is the piece that is read to Roderick, etc. None of these examples is absolutely accurate. What would be more accurate, and what would explain better what I’d wanted to do in my Cabiers, in Narcisse and La Tentative, would be a comparison with the device from heraldry that involves putting a second representation of the original shield ‘en abyme’ within it (quoted in Dällenbach 7).
However, Gide was not writing about infinite regression, but the representation of a work within a work. In The Counterfeiters, Édouard, a stand-in for Gide, is working on a novel called The Counterfeiters. As I pointed out in The Mirror in the Text, Part I: The Counterfeiters, Gide does not include the novel within the novel. If he did, and it was exactly the novel we were reading, all of us would get caught in an infinite loop, a novel that reaches the same point then starts again, infinitely repeating itself (or if not infinitely, at least as long as we can imagine it), as in the Spanish song, On the Road to Santander, a song that never finishes because it can never reach the other side of the song and only repeats and repeats and repeats itself until the singer stops. (And children can sing such songs for a very long time, but even the most obsessive child will ultimately stop, thank God!)
Gide’s novel does not get caught up in “eternal” repetition, because Gide includes only the notes for the novel in the novel, notes which are very similar to the kinds of notes Gide himself wrote in his journal. The journal entries both within and without the novel, give us the thoughts behind the novel, the methodology and approach, the theory of the “pure novel,” and so we have a better understanding of the novel and its purpose, even though it all falls short of its idealistic goals. Gide uses this technique, Dällenbach tells us in The Mirror in the Text, “to resolve for himself the conflict between the ‘pure novel’ and the flux of life by adopting ‘the only possible aesthetic solution: putting into the impure novel one writes the theory of the pure novel it is impossible to write'” (Dällenbach 33).
Gide offers many examples in the definition of mise en abyme quoted at the top of this post, but as Lucien Dällenbach points out in The Mirror in the Text (the inspiration for this series) Gide ultimately rejects all of these examples as inadequate: “None of these examples is absolutely accurate.” The convex mirror in “The Money Changer and his Wife” by Quentin Metsys (1514) does not reflect or represent the painting itself; the mirrors extend the space represented in the picture to what is in front of the canvas as well as behind. Therefore, paintings like “The Money Changer” are not metapaintings. Las Meninas (which you can read about in my post Las Meninas: A Metapainting) is a metapainting because the painting itself is represented in the painting, as well as the entire scene of the production of the piece. Velasquez avoids “infinite” regression by turning the back of the painting toward to viewer. We do not see the surface of the canvas the figure of Velasquez is painting.
Gide also mentions The Mousetrap, the play within a play in Hamlet. Gide rejects The Mousetrap as an ideal representation of mise en abyme because it does not reflect Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, but the actions of the characters within the play, specifically the murder of the king.metatheater. However, The Mousetrap is a metatheatrical device as the audience becomes aware of the effect of a play on an audience. We are in fact watching people watching a play, looking over their shoulders, and so we can, as it were, see our own backs and understand what we are doing when we watch a play.
Yet Gide’s The Counterfeiters is a better example of mise en abyme. Although he does not include the novel itself within the novel, he does include a representation of it and the process of its creation in the form of notes in a journal. An example of mise en abyme illuminates the piece as a whole, “sheds more light on the work or displays the proportions of the whole work” better than any other literary device can do. A mise en abyme can be considered a key to the text, a guide to how to read the larger work.
Lucien Dällenbach in turn rejects Gide’s metaphor of the heraldic symbol of a shield in a shield because the smaller shield does not reflect the larger shield, but presents a distinct image. Dällenbach prefers instead the metaphor of a mirror in the work, but that is another story and shall be told another day. (“The Mirror in the Text: The Mirror in the Text.”)
We love images of the photo inside the photo inside the photo, like the “Lost Wormhole” above, which seem to go on forever. But make no mistake: the infinite regression in the photo above does not go on infinitely, but stops four or five levels down. If you could zoom in you would see that the photographer only took the project far enough to suggest infinity to the naked eye.
However, couldn’t we say that the photo represents infinite regression? If so, it only exists in our minds, and how far can we chase the regression? Well, our minds seem to chase the image down and down the rabbit hole toward infinity, but unless you have all day, all year, all century, in short, all eternity, you must stop traveling deeper, and when you stop thinking of the photo within the photo within the photo, the regression stops. Therefore, your mind holds an idea that is neither infinite nor eternal.
Such pictures could imply as well that there is another picture above the one you are looking at and one above that, infinitely expanding upwards, but that is not true either. You break the series. The photo on your computer screen is not the same image as you looking at your computer screen. Try to imagine the frames continuing above the one on your computer screen, but your mind will only pursue the image four or five levels before winking out, so no, your mind does not hold an image of infinity, only a suggestion.
What about mirrors facing each other? Maddeningly — and I know you’ve tried it — you can never see to the vanishing point; either the mirrors are not exactly parallel, so the corridor of mirrors curves out of the frame, or your own damn head gets in the way. Seeing “infinity” in a mirror is impossible because your eye must be in the middle. Do the mirrors reflect each other infinitely when there is no eye to see them? Even if a perceiver were unnecessary, at some point the light bouncing back and forth between mirrors would become a single photon and even if the intervening air did not refract that photon in any way nor a dust particle absorb it, the light cannot smaller get than a photon, so the progression stops. Sorry folks, infinity does not exist. (Check out my post “Debunking Infinity.“)
Dällenbach, Lucien. The Mirror in the Text. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1977.
Gide, André. The Counterfeiters. Trans. Dorothy Bussy. New York: Vintage, 1973.