The hall of mirrors

One of the many beautiful ideas contained within Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose is the idea that a library shouldn’t just confirm the worldview of its custodians. Rather, it should contain material which opposes and contradicts it, both directly and indirectly. For example, the Benedictine monastery around which Eco’s story unfolds is home, not only to works verified and supported by the Church at large, but also to works by individuals that are branded as “heretics” and “infidels”. Of course, it’s easier to say that we should collect material that challenges our worldview than it is to actually do it. Especially when one of our favourite activities as human beings is to construct and live in echo chambers. 

Consider this as a metaphor. Our mind, the various social structures and hierarchies we participate in, and our preferred sources of information act like a hall of mirrors. Although the reflections are confusing, diverse, sometimes grotesque and sometimes amusing, the image they’re based upon is the same. Even the things we own are nothing more than an extension of our preferred interpretation of the world. Allow me to use myself as evidence: when I pass my eyes over the hundreds of books that surround me, I see authors and titles which I feel I have something in common with, or which agree with me in some manner. There is little that does not align with my philosophy. 

With that in mind, I’ve made a small change to how I perform one of my core activities. When I used to take notes from books and add them to the commons, I’d have two text files open on my laptop. On the left would be a file titled, “Look Up”. Into this file would go authors and concepts that I wanted to investigate further. On the right would be a blank text file into which I transfer quotes, observations, questions and ideas from the book being reviewed. I still have those files open, but to them I’ve added a third, and it contains the following words:

The Purpose of the Commons (and of my Library):
To be a repository that contains, not just glimpses of the truth, but fragments of the false, the possible, the impossible, the mystic, the concrete, the ludicrous, the believable, the unbelievable, the unspeakable, the beautiful, the ugly, and the uncategorisable. It should not be a source of confirmation and certainty, but a generator of disquiet, doubt, confusion and uncertainty.

The objective of such a note-to-self is to act as a warning, a reminder that our perceptions of reality are fragile, that what we see depends on how we look, that our aim, instead of certifying and confirming what we think, should be to look past reflections and see the things and the mirrors themselves. Or preferably, to convert our own hall of mirrors into a many-windowed house that allows us to see what is going on beyond the walls we spend our life within.