The Mise-en-Abîme as an Expression of Trauma

I urge you to take a moment and observe this image, explore its shadows and corners, and try to make sense of the pattern. How does it make you feel? If you got chills, you’re not alone. There’s always been something about mirroring and repetition that sparked my interest, and I’ve decided to explore the reason why.

Taisuke Mohri’s pencil drawing, part of a collection called Cracked Mirror, shows two facing mirrors and, in their reflection, a hyper-realistic image of a young person with a hollow, yet arresting look. This exhibition’s description, written either by the artist himself or some unknown designated writer, talks about this person: “a creature with overwhelming strength of presence. With both the time–laden wrinkles and goluptious eyes on its surface, as well as an explicit but indefinite conflict within, there is something from the category of that which is “alive“ there.“

“This Being in front of the mirror is gazing at itself, while the image it sees is projected in the mirror on the opposite wall, and then back to the mirror in front of the figure and then back there again and here again and there again…” This cycle is achieved through a device called mise-en-abîme,  which literally means to throw into the abyss. A mise-en-abîme can be defined as “the recurring internal duplication of images of an artistic whole, such that an infinite series of images disappearing into invisibility is produced—similar to what one witnesses if one looks at one’s reflection between two facing mirrors.” (Hawthorne, 1998: 138) 

The shattered glass serves as a separator of two worlds: external and internal. We, the viewers, are so close to the Being we can discern its under-eye creases, the smoothness of its skin and hair. However, we are not even sure if the Being is staring into our eyes or their own. Do you think they even sense us? If we look closer we realize we are shamelessly excluded from this internal process.

“Taisuke Mohri’s “The Mirror” is like a door with a central axis that rotates what is being seen: it is you, on another side of the picture, looking at yourself.”

That is true, I saw myself. As I was trying to trace the trajectory of the eyes and understand the battle within, I started projecting myself on the image. In this work, Taisuke Mohri offers us a tool for observing the observer.

I associate the structure of a mise-en-abîme with trauma on a personal level, but also with transgenerational trauma. This is not a new thing, as repetitive or circular patterns have often been employed in literature to express inner conflict: the way characters’ names are continued in the next generation in Wuthering Heights to create parallelism, the same-name literary device in Tolstoi, mirroring through employing the uncanny… Though most of all, the literary device of the story within the story (the literary theory aspect of the mise-en-abîme) perfectly captures the fragmented frames of the past echoing in the present, but also the different perceptions of the people involved in the traumatic event. It sounds just as complicated as it feels, so let’s unpack this.

What is trauma?

Let’s take things slowly. First of all, what is trauma? Trauma is defined as a severe emotional shock and pain caused by an extremely upsetting experience“ There are many people who have trauma and fit this description, though it is important to note that trauma is not only caused by sudden events, and that it extends past the connotation of war veterans and first-hand physical and sexual abuse survivors. A person can live in a traumatic environment for years, or for most of their lives, which is usually the case with complex-trauma. That is not at all meant to invalidate one or the other’s pain, but I believe in expanding the definition to include people who have trauma but may not think of their experiences as such. The main reason why I think this should happen is because having your pain be seen is the gateway to healing. Once you are able to view your traumatic experience as it really is and start accepting its severity, it opens up the possibility to feel it through and start the healing process. 

Trauma can be hereditary?! Oof.

Intergenerational trauma is trauma that is passed on from generation to generation. On one hand, this theory relies on one hand on epigenetic memory (the biological aspect) which basically means that having trauma in your ancestry might lead to activation of certain genes (for example, genes related to addiction and obesity). There is also a psychological/ behavioral side of it, which can be explained through the relationship patterns in the family and how certain behaviors are repeated. Of course, this has a pretty logical explanation rooted in basic psychology: a child’s brain is like a sponge, it internalizes the parents’ behaviors without distinguishing whether it’s a healthy one or not. 

The discussion on the genetic and behavioral roots of trauma gets me thinking about how a person’s identity is formed, and how anchored (or perhaps chained?) we are to our past . It is unknown how much of what we get from our parents is based on the genes we inherit or on what we learn from the environment they build for us. Of course, one cannot expect a clear delineation of the human psyche. Thankfully, our brains are not that boring. Another thing to be thankful for is the fact that our minds have the amazing ability to change. We can train our brains to do just about anything, and human imagination knows no boundaries. If we look at the field of neuroplasticity, we see that a human can train their brain’s flexibility and change their behavior and thought process. This is done by reorganizing the way in which neurons fire up. 

You too can put a stop to your intergenerational trauma! You can do this by being self-aware, facing your ptsd, choosing to confront your demons instead of numbing them out, or just end the family line right then and there by never having children!

Mise-en-abîme as the expression of a trigger

Getting back to the picture and my observations, I will share the impact it had on me. As I hastily wrote down in my notebook,

“A trigger sends you back in time and it’s like you’re living through endless frames of the past. Coming out of it and into the present moment is like trying to reach the last frame of a mise-en-abîme.”

The act of repetition in a mise-en-abîme is the first and most obvious clue to a connection with trauma (on a personal, generational and even global level). On a personal level, a trauma survivor hangs on to coping mechanisms that become ingrained habits, which inevitably affect their daily lives. Being trapped in these cycles, even if you change your environment, your inner battle will continue to stain your reflection, just as the break in the mirror follows the Being even after a change in perspective (they are now turned around, gazing at their reflection in the back mirror):

©Taisuke Mohri

Trauma can also leave a trace over different generations, as many people realize when they spot eerie parallelisms between their life stories and the older generations in the family. A sense of the same “destiny” repeating endlessly is formed. One could take it a step further and apply this idea on a more global level, as each era of human existence is marked by a philosophical or psychological battle.  However, I advise against global thinking and suggest you work on healing your own personal demons first, before you come up with some grand generalizing theory (or before sliding into my dms).

Apart from the repetition, this complex portrait shows another aspect of dealing with trauma: self-evaluation. As the viewer is excluded from the challenge within, we witness the Being completely at work with itself, digging into the past through the endless sequence of frames, maybe trying to identify the time when the mirror was first broken. The process of self-scrutiny is the first step to another necessary phase, which is the resurfacing of the trauma.

Just like the broken mirror pieces, the human psyche becomes fragmented by trauma: Michelle Balaev states that ”trauma creates a speechless fright that divides or destroys identity.” This centrally affects one’s perception in relation to the other and the self. Part of the self is forever stuck in the past, forever looking through the endless cycle of mirrors, stuck in self-scrutiny, swayed by every stimulus and not being able to ground oneself. Always being reminded of an invisible wound, but not being able to feel it through and never fully living in the present. Moments of clarity when one is grounded in themselves in the present are rare, and as Taisuke Mohri’s picture shows, the other is excluded and unreachable.

©Tiago Viergever aka Eye-bleach Supplier/Cownt Dracula

This brings us to the question of, how could such a severed self become present? One of the most interesting aspects of Taisuke Mohri’s work is the paradox of such a young Being with such an old, tortured look to it. As much as the cold look repels the viewer, one cannot forget about the overflowing vulnerability that comes with it. This Being looks like the uncanny morphing of an adult (with his/her deep insomniac eye bags and tortured gaze) and a thin, vulnerable child. What I see is a person’s process of getting back to their inner child, a helpless Being. However, there is power in accepting one’s helplessness. Once you submerge into the mise-en-abîme to reach your inner child, the healing process can begin as you soothe the past self. This achievement could lead to an anchoring feeling we lack both in specific cases of (complex-)trauma survivors, but also more generally  in our society. I guess it’s all about what story you can build around your mirror’s broken pieces. By all means I’m not trying to make trauma positive, but maybe instead of keeping it out of discussion we can start telling our stories, through narratives, metaphors, planetary explanations, or even memes! The latter is a reference to Erin Taylor, (@atmfiend), American writer, artist who makes hyper-self-aware memes about c-ptsd and the complex stages of healing that come with it, which have helped me immensely in my own inner battles (along therapy, of course).

1 Comment

  1. Leo says:

    i really enjoyed this article !

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