Thursday, September 15, 2011

John Rechy's Mirror

John Rechy’s novel City of Night is an exploration of self, of the daily interaction with other human characters that help define the face in the mirror. Rechy quotes, “There was still, too, the narcissistic obsession with myself—those racked interludes in the mirror—the desperate strange craving to be a world within myself. And I felt somehow, then, that only the mirror could really judge me for whatever I must be judged” (120). Self judgement comes and goes in the novel, at times the narration turns inward and tries to explain why things happen a certain way, why it is a certain choice is made, and, still, at other times, a simple nod is enough to convey agreement with the world views of another character. But, City of Night is a double search of self, one in the “present”, and one that goes backward in time, to childhood, to the beginning of the realization that there is a man on the other side of the mirror’s observing eyes, “From my father’s inexplicable hatred of me and my mother’s blind carnivorous love, I fled to the Mirror. I would stand before it, thinking: I have only Me! […] The image of myself in the mirror must never fade into someone I can’t look at” (18). Between the balancing seesaw, eyes and image, there is the desire to find identity, an original self floating, “surfeiting”, in the black sea of the great American City of Night.

In Écrits, Jacques Lacan says,

the mirror stage is a drama whose internal pressure pushes precipitously from insufficiency to anticipation—and, for the subject caught up in the lure of spatial identification, turns out fantasies that proceed from a fragmented image of the body to what I will call and “orthopedic” form of its totality—and to the finally donned armor of an alienating identity that will mark his entire mental development with its rigid structure. (6)

In the case of City of Night, the mirror is to be understood as a faithful image, constantly being revised, re-read, re-interpreted. The “identity” under scrutiny is an outcast, yet the world that it inhabits is often a fractured concept of what-it-could-be-where-it-belongs: the underground gay world, the pick-up parks and streets, the hustle bars, the family; the “identity” is a puzzle piece of a whole. And, precisely because the family plays a big role in understanding “identity” for the narrator, his description of that genesis, his shaping by it, is key to understanding the “orthopedic form of its totality” and its “rigid structure”.

Because the narrator’s family is Mexican, because his childhood is situated in El Paso, because his mother didn’t speak English, but Spanish, the narrator’s first confrontation with the mirror is one that is also cultural. Yet, his identification with his parents is one of rejection, sexual violence, hate, and, in the case of the mother, “carnivorous love”. Even though the cultural aspects of his shaping are coming through in translation—the memory of his mother’s glass cabinet with Mexican trinquets, or that children’s song about the “Virgin of the Cave”, for example—the “Mexicanness” of the narrator is often only a soft background in his self-understanding. Yet, it is because he relates to these memories that connects him to the image in the mirror.

Works cited:

  • Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: A Selection. Trans. Bruce Fink. New York and London. W.W. Norton & Company, 2004.
  • Rechy, John. City of Night. New York. Grove Press, 1984 (originally published in 1963).

1 comment:

  1. i would recommend exploring Rechy's novel Numbers for many more mirrors. interesting analysis!