They Do It with Mirrors

A Reaction to La Transparence et le Reflet by Serge Bramly, by the Author’s Mother

/ by Jacqueline Raoul Duval

At 15, I proclaimed myself an atheist. I found it easier to liberate myself from the all-powerful God that is ours than from my parents. But to divest oneself of religious association is not such a simple matter. Even today, I flip through a book from right to left, as do readers of Hebrew--a language of which I know only the first letter, “aleph,” no doubt thanks to Borges. Sometimes it even happens that I write and read a last chapter before the first. 

And it's therefore at the last chapter, the one that contains the notes, that I began reading Transparency and Reflection. The first shock: rather than the dry concision of an eminent university scholar, these 511 notes show the humor, charm, and attention to anecdote of a novelist accustomed to polishing his sentences, shining his metaphors, slipping in personal memories, keeping us in suspense. I have read all these notes, and the time it took didn't seem either short or long; to put it mildly, all sense of time just seemed to vanish.

The author, Serge Bramly, I said to myself, is a scholar as attentive to precision as he is to style and literature. Could he be the real son of Flaubert?

In the course of my reading, I couldn't stop thinking it’s prodigious! A continual flow of knowledge showered down on me like summer rain, as on each page I came face-to-face with the extent of my own ignorance. What struck me the most was what the eye of Bramly allowed me to discover behind his glass, or reflected in his mirror: the world history of Art from Antiquity to the present day, a history that unfolds like a film because it is interspersed with 212 illustrations. And what's even more astonishing: the history of art as retraced by Bramly is told along with that of the inventions and scientific discoveries that would bring about the use of glass and of its acolytes, the mirror and the lens, in the urban landscape, in the domains of science (optics, astronomy, chemistry), and in the everyday life we take for granted.

And could it be that this astounding creation, if one can believe the legend, was born from a grain of sand and a spark? More than twenty centuries ago? In the desert of Phoenicia, near what is today the city of Jaffa?

Poet of the Week
Valentina Neri

Vanishing one evening

without a trace.

Without  forgotten clues

on the threshold of my room

and no arrow

to show me the way.

Wherever I could have gone

Would be of no relevance:

Laid at the bottom of the sea

Buried in the darkness of the woods

In China devoid of memory

Looking for a pitiful story

Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.

Everything is fine

As long as nobody ever knows.

Sublime fantasy

Vanishing without a certificate of death

So that one day they will understand

What is baffling me now.

One night, it's Pliny the Elder who speaks, some salt merchants have their dinner cooked in a kettle that rests on some blocks of their precious cargo. The salt and the sand, liquefying through their contact with the fire, transformed themselves into "an unknown liqueur" from which the people of Antiquity made surge flasks, vases, iridescent bowls of marvelous finesse. We admire precious examples in our museums. In their use of glass, the Middle East, Persia, China, and Japan did not go any further. They have limited themselves to making luxurious ornaments. The Far East, which excelled at glorifying shadows, did not know about perspective, light, transparency, and reflection. This style of painting: nearly as frozen in time as its language, its rivers and mountains, celebrates immobility, silence, contemplation of nature. No sign of gesture or emotion. Or of the changes undergone in the course of time and the passing seasons. It invites man to follow its path, the way of the "tao," the alternation of emptiness and plenitude, of light and darkness from which spring "the thousand beings." Chinese painting spurs the viewer to carve out space within himself in a paring down that is both deepening and productive. Europe, thanks to the manufacture of sheets of transparent glass invents perspective; celebrates light, movement, emotion, the effervescence of ideas; European painting tells a religious story—one tragic, that of Christ and the Virgin, and then secular stories of daily life in the bosom of a royal or peasant family. It exalts the beauty of woman and, what boldness! That of her nude body that is offered to our gaze. 

The European painters of the Renaissance invent the art of the portrait, and in their paintings they introduce stained glass windows through which a more celestial, then a profane light enters in waves; and mirrors that reflect the decor or the countryside. And sometimes even the painter himself painting, to all appearances, with effortlessness. These large stained glass windows open onto the world, introducing the play of light and shadow, transparency, and reflection. And the transparency of the reflection itself!

This book was one I could not put down. I finished reading it on New Years. A festive day. And since books are incomparable meeting places, I found in the 41 pages of notes, the names of two of my friends who are art historians: Noah Charney’s book about the famous Ghent Altarpiece, and that of Sefy Hendler about the Paragone. From that moment, Transparency and Reflection became even more familiar, and I circled around it as if in the bosom of my luminous family. 

Translated from the French by Diane Joy Charney

Jacqueline Raoul Duval
born Lily Khayat in Tunisia, was first professor of history and geography. Literary director for years in Paris, she wrote as a ghost-writer for others until the day she decided to write for herself. "Kafka, l’éternel fiancé"(Flammarion) has been translated in eleven countries. Her last one « La nuit de Noces »( L’Age d’Homme) is quite autobiographical.