Cameras or Mirrors? by Paul Scott

Published June 9, 2011 by Gail Norris in Articles, General, Parish Magazine

Would you like a good conversation-stopper? Why not try this?

When there is a slight lull in the chatter, say thoughtfully, “I wonder – do we consider ourselves as cameras or as mirrors?” When everyone looks baffled, you can explain that, while cameras simply record, mirrors reflect. Cameras can keep their findings locked up in themselves; mirrors share what they have seen.

A good idea of how we can act as cameras is given in Christopher Isherwood‘s novel Goodbye to Berlin. On the first page, the main character comments, “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.” You may remember that when the novel was dramatised, the resulting play was called I Am a Camera. (This led one critic to write one of the shortest reviews ever – “I Am a Camera – Me no Leica.”)

So much for cameras. But what about mirrors? Let me tell you a little story that may help.

Imagine, if you will, a room, a large, dusty, gloomy room. It is in almost total darkness, for the windows are covered with heavy black curtains. Nevertheless, a sunbeam manages to force its way through a crack, and casts a thin beam of light into the darkness. A little of the room is lit up, but most of it remains in the gloom. “This is no use,” thinks the sunbeam to itself. “What I need is something that will spread the light. Now what… Aha! Here’s a mirror.”

The mirror is lying face down on the floor. “Turn over!” says the sunbeam. “Turn over, so that you can reflect my rays and make the room lighter.”

“Turn over?” says the mirror. “Certainly not! I believe in keeping myself to myself. What has the rest of the room to do with me? In any case, if I turn over, I shall get all dusty and dirty.” And, in spite of the sunbeam’s urging, the mirror remains, face down and useless.

The sunbeam finds another mirror, this time face upwards. “Will you reflect my rays, and bring light to the room?” asks the sunbeam.

“Oh, rather, oh, yes, yes, yes!” cries the mirror. “Oh, look at me. Aren’t I clever? Just see what I can do!” And it skitters from side to side, reflecting the sunbeam, but never leaving the reflection in one place long enough to make any difference. Sadly, the sunbeam goes on its way.

It finds several other mirrors, but either they won’t help, or else they are more concerned with showing their cleverness than in spreading the light. The sunbeam begins to think that its task is hopeless. Then at last, in the darkest of dark corners, it finds another mirror. “Will you reflect my light, and bring light to the room?” asks the sunbeam.

“I’d love to,” replies the mirror, “but I’m not sure I’d be much use. I’m covered with dust and grime, and some time ago I was mistreated, so I have this great crack running right across my surface. But if you want me to, I’m prepared to try.”

So the sunbeam shines full onto the old, cracked mirror, and a wonderful thing happens. For not only does it reflect the light, but just at the point where the light hits the crack, it is diffracted into a whole rainbow of colours, and that gloomy, dusty room is filled with colour and light.

Which do we want to be – a camera, that records what it sees but keeps itself aloof, or a mirror, that may have suffered and been damaged, but still manages to spread the light? Your choice!