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Dällenbach presents a definition of the literary device and a system of classification: “a ‘mise en abyme’ is any internal mirror that reflects the whole of the narrative by simple, repeated or ‘specious’ (or paradoxical duplication)” (Dällenbach 36). He defines simple duplication as “a sequence which is connected by similarity to the work that encloses it” (Dällenbach 35). Hamlet would fall under this category as The Mousetrap is similar to the work that encloses it, namely Hamlet. The meta-pizza (a pizza whose toppings are little pizzas) and the meta-clock (in place of numbers the smaller hands of a clock show the hour) would also fit within this category, as would a shield within a shield, and so Gide’s original metaphor is rehabilitated by Dällenbach’s wider definition.
A repeated duplication, or infinite duplication is “a sequence which is connected by similarity to the work that encloses it and which itself includes a sequence that . . . etc” (Dällenbach 35). A so-called infinite regression would include the song “On the Road to Santander,” which apparently repeats itself endlessly (but really repeats itself only until the singer gets tired). The category also includes pictures like the one below. Notice how the cat’s position changes: each level represents a unique picture (and the infinite regression is suggested not produced — if you look at the images from the inside out, the cat is going from a sleeping position to one in which he may jump off the computer at any moment, attracted by whatever holds his gaze in the largest picture).
I came across another example of this repeated duplication on a blog on metafiction that had a short series on the mise en abyme. Within the article was a mention of another metablog, which helped one understand this technique, for within that blog was a mention of another and another and so on.
A specious, or aporetic duplication is “a sequence that is supposed to enclose the work that encloses it” (Dällenbach 35). This is the category that Gide himself gave most weight to and best represents what he was trying to do in many of his fictions, including The Counterfeiters, which is not so much a novel within a novel, but a novel of the novel, a novel of the production of a novel. The thought processes that normally go on behind the scenes are foregrounded instead in this most metafictional of all three mise en abyme. The Counterfeiters presents “the spectacle of an author who hands over to a substitute, who is himself then replaced by a character of a novelist writing a novel that is very likely also to be called The Counterfeiters” (Dällenbach 34).
Other metafictional works that fall into this category are: Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in the second volume of which the characters learn about the publication of the first volume and discuss it with a reader, Las Meninas, in which Diego Velasquez shows the back of the painting he is working on and the scene of its production, and Josiah McElheny’s A Model for Total Reflective Abstraction (which is a multi-shaped mirror reflecting itself, as well as the other works around it and the viewer looking at the piece).
Gide sometimes wrote in front of a mirror, as we learn from his journal, in order to be able to capture the moment of creation: “I am writing on the small piece of furniture of Anna Shackleton’s that was in my bedroom in the rue de Commailles. That’s where I worked; I like it because I could see myself writing in the double mirror of the desk above the block I was writing on. I looked at myself after each sentence; my reflexion spoke and listened to me, kept me company and sustained my enthusiasm” (quoted in Dällenbach 16). Gide could not see himself writing, however. He looked up after each sentence, but he saw himself as he wanted to see himself: as a writer writing. In other words, the reflection did not show him as he was, but as he wanted to be.
Not all examples of the mirror in the text are metafictional (as in the painting “The Money Changer and his Wife”), nor are all metafictional elements mise en abyme (breaking the fourth wall, for example, when the characters address the audience directly or a book speaks to the reader is metafictional, but not a representation of the work within itself), but the intersection of the terms — mise en abyme (or the mirror in the text) and metafiction — can help us understand both, and understanding these terms can help us understand art, and understanding art can help us understand ourselves, and who we are. And who are we? Artifice, fictions, fashions, paintings, plays.
Dallenbach, Lucien. The Mirror in the Text. Trans. Jeremy Whiteley and Emma Hughes. Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1989.
Gide, André. The Counterfeiters. Trans. Dorothy Bussy. New York: Vintage, 1973.