Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash
To celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Symington Art Museum’s 1913 archeological dig, near the ancient oracle at Delphi in Greece, the museum asked Audrey August, a Classics scholar at Whitson College, to prepare a special exhibit.
Knowing her fellow professor, Rokko Isti’s deep interest in ancient history, Audrey asked him to help. Audrey would re-examine the notes, photographs and stored finds from the dig.
Several weeks after she began, she found a small box, unlabeled except for a sticker that said, “Fragile, Use Caution.” There were no notes about what was in this box, so she called Rokko to witness its opening and help if it needed conservation. Inside was a highly corroded, circular bronze mirror, about five inches in diameter on a twelve-inch holder. The mirror was intact, only part of a small piece, about a quarter inch across, was broken off and sat next to the other, large pieces. On the mirror holder was an inscription in ancient Greek. Audrey read it out in English, “This hypókrisis mirror is for the enlightenment of philosophers.”
“What a strange inscription,” Rokko said. “What do you think it means?”
“I’ve never read an inscription like it,” agreed Audrey, who was beaming, happy at an exciting discovery. “The Greek word hypókris meant playing a part on the stage, pretending to be something one is not."
“Playing a part on the stage? Pretending?” asked Rokko. “That’s curious.”
“Athens had an annual dramatic contest, ” said Audrey. “Some of the plays were quite philosophical. Maybe this was a prop.”
“That might explain it.”
“The mirror’s an unusual color.” Audrey picked it up. Rokko noticed that her hand quivered as she held it. A minute later she looked directly into it.
Rokko could see fear in Audrey’s face. “What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“No, no,” Audrey shook her head vigorously, looked at Rokko, blinked twice and put the mirror down. “It’s too corroded to see yourself.”
Rokko picked up the mirror and tried looking at himself. “There’s no image. I feel like I’m looking down from a high balcony and the handrail has disappeared. Very strange.”
“We don’t need this one. We have a mirror in the original exhibit. Let’s pack it back up.” They did. Audrey let Rokko take the broken off quarter-inch sliver that lay in the box for conservation and study.
Rokko measured reflected light off the fragment. The light was bent in an erratic manner. He scrapped a tiny bit for a mass spectrometer reading. Besides tin and copper, there were traces of other elements, which Rokko thought might be from one or more rare minerals.
Rokko found an excuse to fly to Greece and spend a few days at the dig site. He found several minerals that he wasn’t familiar with. Perhaps a combination of them would make the coating of the mirror. Rocco knew it was illegal to bring stones out of the country, so he crushed them up, mixed them with dirt and rubbed it on all his clothes. No one ever questioned dirty clothes in your luggage.
Rokko spent almost eighteen months before he succeeded at recreating the coating on the mirror. He told no one of his efforts. Why am I being so secretive, he wondered. He created three objects that bent the light in the same erratic manner as the original mirror: a mirror, a pair of glasses with no correction and clip-ons to wear over an existing set of glasses.
The next day, Rokko was sitting in his home office. He wondered if he should ask for volunteers to try on the glasses. No. They wouldn’t understand. Maybe if I put them on for a few seconds and ask myself how to test them, I’ll get an answer. He went to the bathroom, put the clip-ons on over his own glasses and looked at himself in the mirror. “I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” Rokko said out loud. “I don’t understand.” Ten seconds passed and his breathing became shallow and rapid, dabs of sweat dribbled down his face. He ripped his glasses from his eyes, so violently that they almost broke. The familiar out-of-focus image of his face returned.
Several minutes passed before Rokko’s breath returned to normal. I wonder if I just had a panic attack. I’ve never had one before. When he calmed down, he began to think that he must have been hallucinating when he had these glasses on. I’m a scientist, he thought. This is just an experiment. I have to do it again.
He went into his study. He stood and looked around the room. On the wall was his most prized possession, the Nobel Prize in Physics. He put on his glasses with the clip-ons, Thoughts stung his mind, feeling like wasp stings. That prize is worth nothing to me. I worked nonstop for decades on that problem with light. They’ll use it as a weapon. No one loves me because I won it.
He noticed that he was muttering out loud, “Stop it.” His thoughts continued, People envy my Nobel Prize. Say I’m the great scientist. Bull. Will anyone remember me in a thousand years? I can’t even remember who won the 1918 prize in Literature. Whoever did is dead, decayed, gone.
Quite suddenly, Rokko noticed the experimental notes he had been writing up. I’m a respected scientist. I’m proud of it. This is important work, he thought. Suddenly, he realized he was playing a role completely opposite to the one he’d been playing a few seconds before. I’ve got to take these glasses off.
Rokko was dizzy. He swayed and after about forty seconds, he fell to the floor. On the ground he cried out, “What the hell have I made?” He closed his eyes and the unbearable oppression stopped, but now a new thought was less overwhelming but even more depressing, What am I doing with my life and why? What should I be doing?
His wife of twenty-five years, Nina, heard Rokko’s call from her upstairs office. She rushed down, took his left hand in hers and asked, “What’s wrong, dear?” Rokko briefly thought of having her try on the glasses. I love her. Why torture her? he thought. He grabbed his right calf and said, “All of a sudden, I got a tremendous pain. Please get me some ice.”
Rokko opened his eyes and watched as his wife jogged towards the kitchen. She doesn’t really believe me, thinks I’m hiding something, he thought. I wonder if she still loves me. The panic attack started again. I don’t want to know. I’m afraid to know. I’m a coward. He slipped the clip-ons off his glasses and carefully put them in their crushproof case and hid them under his desk. He struggled up to the chair in front of his desk, pulled himself up. His wife returned, with a bag of ice, looking concerned. She was surprised when Rokko first held the ice to his forehead and then to his calf. Rokko saw the questioning look and said, “A pain in the calf is also pain in the brain.”
“Yes, dear. Maybe you’ve been working too hard lately. ”
“You’re right. Let’s go to St. George’s Bistro tonight.”
“With pleasure. I’ll make a reservation. Are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” said Rokko. Nina left. Rokko sat at his desk, holding the ice first to his leg and alternating it to his forehead. It was very refreshing.
At the restaurant, Nina asked him why he’d been so tense lately.
“Overwork. I promise to relax.” He ordered a bottle of Sancerre.
“A bit extravagant tonight.”
“Anything for you.”
“Then tell me why you called out, ‘What the hell have I made?’”
“You must have misheard me,” said Rokko. “I said, ‘What the hell have I done,’ thinking about the pain in my calf.”
Rokko could see a look of doubt cross Nina’s face. “If you say so,” she said. Rokko changed the topic, something he was very good at.
The next morning, he was in his office at the college and he thought about the glasses he’d just made. I must be the first person to experience that in two millennia. He wanted to test the mirror. He got it out and looked at himself for ten seconds and then closed his eyes. His experience was the same, but it wasn’t quite as much of a shock this time.
Rokko came up with a plan. He’d ask Audrey if she’d try the glasses. Next, he’d approach one of the philosophy professors in his college and, finally, a religious person; he was thinking of someone who believed in the examination of conscience. He realized he had mixed motives for doing these experiments. Yes, he was a scientist, but he was doing this for his own glory. I should tell them what they’re getting into but that might ruin the experiment. I don’t want to hurt them but I’ve got to know the truth.
Rokko hadn’t spoken to Audrey in over six months. The exhibition had been successful, and she’d written a book on the expedition. When they met in the faculty lounge, he asked if she’d done any more research on the mirror. Her head shook, almost as if she was surprised he’d asked. “No. I’ve never had the time.” He explained that he had fabricated both a mirror and glasses just like the mirror they’d put away and asked if she’d be willing to try them.
“I don’t think so.”
“But you’d learn something about ancient Greece and how they might have used the mirror.”
She shouted, “I said, I don’t think so.” She paused and looked around. One of their colleagues was looking at them. “Sorry, just blurted that out.”
Rokko changed the subject, and they chatted for a few more minutes. After Audrey and the colleague left, Rokko looked at himself in the mirror. He saw himself playing a part, pretending to be Audrey’s friend, when he really just wanted to find out how she’d react. He quickly closed his eyes and put the mirror away.
Rokko thought of the definition of a philosopher in ancient Greek; one who loves the truth. That wasn’t most of philosophy professors at the college. They were too concerned about their reputation for brilliance.
Rokko began to think of individual professors. There was Midi Henderson, the Marxist philosopher who wrote praising the dictatorship of the proletariat. Rokko didn’t like Midi or her ideas. They would mean everyone would become the slave of a dozen or fewer individuals who thought they knew everything.
Rokko was pretty sure Midi wouldn’t want to see that she was playing a role. He’d have to fool her into putting on the glasses. That would be fun, but the next time Rokko looked in the mirror, he’d see himself playing a role of complete surprise when Midi inevitably got angry. Rokko would suffer if he persisted with this plan.
Rokko thought of the professor he nicknamed Harmless Horace. At thirty-five, Horace Jute was the youngest, tenured full professor on campus. He was very popular with the students. He had recently written a bestselling book, Bliss Exterminates Illusion. For the first time, Rokko noticed his true feelings about Horace. He had the fierce desire to hit Horace with a stick until he agreed that in this world pain was real and had a purpose. Yes, Horace was the ideal philosopher to try the glasses on. He called Horace, who agreed to meet him in Rokko’s office the next day.
Horace came in wearing sandals, a T-shirt and blue jeans. He hadn’t shaved in a few days and the stubble was rather becoming. They chatted for a few minutes. Rokko showed Horace a photo of the inscription and asked if he read ancient Greek. He didn’t. Rokko described what they’d found and asked if he’d take part in an experiment. Horace agreed to allow Rokko to do a video recording. Rokko set up a digital camera and started to record.
“Tell me about your philosophy of life and living.” Horace gave a two-minute speech about bliss obliterating this illusion of a world. Rokko could feel his own hands begin to involuntarily make fists. Horace continued to talk about happiness, honesty, honoring others, kindness and how the differences between people were trivial. Rokko thought, I’m so glad it’s him and not me who has to look in that damned mirror.
Horace stopped talking. Rokko handed him the mirror. Rokko saw Horace’s hand began to tremble as he held it. Rokko tried to hide his inner smile. Am I becoming pure evil? he wondered.
Horace gazed into the mirror. He began to weep and dropped it to the ground. He sat there, breathing deeply. His right hand tore through his hair.
“What did you see?” asked Rokko.
“It’s very personal.”
“We’re friends,” said Rokko, who felt pain at telling this lie. “I’ve looked at it myself, so I’ll understand.”
Horace insisted that the camera be turned off. “You won’t tell anyone will you?”
“Of course not,” said Rokko, with a pang in his heart. He knew he wanted to publicize this.
“I tell people to delight in this safe, embracing world. I don’t believe that. I’m obsessed with my career, in making people love me. There are so many people I hate.” Horace shook his head and put his left palm on top of his right hand, which was on top of his head.
Horace got up and started to leave. He turned around and said, “You promised not to tell anyone. You have to destroy the record of this experiment.”
“Maybe we could do this again sometime?”
Horace didn’t answer and left.
Rokko deleted the computer file, knowing he could restore it later, if he dared. He was pretty sure he wouldn’t dare.
Rokko was in despair. These glasses aren’t helping anyone. Even I don’t want to put them on. He began to think of his younger brother, Xavier, whom he hadn’t seen in several years. Xavier was a Brother in the Order of The Hermits of St. John. The order resided in a rural area, which was a two-hour drive from where Rokko lived.
Xavier had joined the order when he was nineteen. Their parents were opposed because Xavier was a brilliant student, well liked by everyone in his classes.
“You won’t learn anything real there,” Rokko had said to Xavier, over twenty-five years ago, before he joined the order. “You’ll be following an illusion. Why bury yourself?”
“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
“Quoting Francis Bacon. It’s absurd and pathetic.” Rokko saw he’d hurt Xavier’s feelings, but he didn’t care. Twenty-five years later, Rokko still thought that Xavier was wasting his life and talents.
The hermits grew flowers that they used to make perfume, which they sold, along with collecting donations, to support the hermitage. Rokko drove to the hermitage. He saw Xavier pruning rose bushes. He was wearing a black habit, rosary beads swept down to his waist, which had a simple black cord around it. He wore inexpensive shoes. When he walked, Rokko noticed that there was a hole in the sole of the left shoe.
Rokko stood in front of Xavier. He always did this, expecting or perhaps only wishing that Xavier would greet him by name, or at least make a gesture of recognition. That never happened. The order had strict rules that a hermit could only speak if spoken to first. Rokko wondered, for the hundredth time, why couldn’t he accept that simple fact? He then had a disturbing thought that maybe he did accept it, and he was just playing a role that he couldn’t step out of.
“Brother Xavier,” Rokko said. “I’d like to talk to you.”
“Yes, my friend, how can I help you?”
“Don’t you recognize your own brother?”
“All humans are my brother or sister.”
“Cut the crap, Xavier.” Rokko felt uneasy. I say that every time. I’ve never noticed. “Can we go someplace to talk in private?”
“Not quite private, but there are rooms where hardly anyone ever comes.” Xavier walked into a stone building and down a short corridor. There was a door on the right. Xavier opened the door. There were three chairs on each of the walls and a small, stained-glass window high up on the back wall.
“All these chairs,” said Rokko. “I thought you never spoke to each other.”
Xavier didn’t answer.
Rokko explained why he was there. He wanted to see if Xavier would either put the glasses on or look at himself in the mirror.
“What’s their purpose?”
“The mirror allows one to see oneself clearly, if one has the courage to do so. The glasses allow us to see oneself and other’s thoughts. Well not exactly thoughts, maybe roles ... It’s really hard to explain. Try it, I think you have the courage.”
Xavier took the mirror in his hand and looked at it. Rokko remembered that both Audrey and Horace’s hands trembled when they held it. Xavier’s hand was calm. Xavier looked directly into the mirror and didn’t say anything. Rokko noticed he was smiling.
“What are you seeing?” Rokko asked.
“What I always see when I examine my conscience. It took me over a decade to be able to do so and not tremble.”
“You mean you’ve seen this before?”
“Not so directly or so continuously. It’s wonderful.”
“Would you have any use for such a mirror?”
“It would be an invaluable gift. We could have novices look into the mirror and see if they are suitable.” Xavier fell silent and then continued, “But that might not work.”
“One needs to be prepared, persistent and willing. Willing to see what one doesn’t want to see or it would be a plague, a torment.” He paused and then continued, “A great deal of training would be needed to make it useful. But for the serious, you have made a wonderful tool. Let me try the glasses.”
Xavier put them on and looked directly at Rokko. “You’re thinking that just maybe I’ve learned something. You’re even a bit proud of me?”
Rokko reluctantly said, “Yes.”
Xavier took the glasses off. “Have you been using them?”
“Yes. When I can. It’s much harder than I thought. Would you like me to make you a mirror?”
“Yes, but our order is dying out. We haven’t had a novice in five years. I’m afraid you’ll have to learn how to use this difficult gift by yourself unless you want to come here to live for a while.”
“You know I can’t do that. I’ll see what I can learn on my own. Are you going to recognize and greet me next time I come?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“Yes, I do.” There was a long pause. “And quite right too.”
Rokko left, not knowing how or if he would use the glasses or the mirror he’d made. Perhaps it was best to just pack them up like the first expedition had done. On the drive home he began thinking. No. I’ve got to go on. Before, I didn’t see all the roles I’m playing and how I couldn’t step out of them. That ignorance seemed like bliss.
When he got home, he made coffee for himself and Nina. Rokko was pretty sure Nina wouldn’t enjoy looking in the mirror, but she’d asked, multiple times, what he’d been working on so hard. As they dunked their biscotti, Rokko started to talk. “Some people say or feel that ignorance is bliss.” Rokko could see Nina squinting her eyes. Rokko continued, “I’ve decided that ignorance is just ignorance.”
“I have no idea what the heck you’re talking about.”
Rokko smiled. “I’m not sure I do either but let me try to explain.”
“I’ll listen with the greatest pleasure.”
He explained as best he could and gave her the mirror. “Best to wait until you’re alone to take a look. I’ll be in my office in case you want to talk.” He walked to his home office down the hall. He sat down. He felt afraid. A minute went by. He heard nothing.
Two more minutes. Nothing. Rokko was relieved.
The sounds of “Rokko, what the hell have you made?” blasted down the hall. Well, this is going to be interesting, was Rokko’s first thought. His second was, I should have packed them up and put them in storage.
He got up and raced to the kitchen. Nina was on the floor, holding her calf. “All of a sudden, I got a tremendous pain,” she said. “Please get me some ice.”
Rokko got her a bag of ice, which she put first to her head and then to her calf. “A pain in the calf is also a pain in the head,” she said.
Rokko didn’t know if he should, laugh, cry, talk or remain silent. Neither did Nina. Neither said anything. They looked at each other for a long time.
Rokko waited, worried and curious.
“Ignorance is just ignorance,” said Nina. “Let’s leave it for now.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“I’m tougher than you think,” said Nina. There was a pause, she shook her head and added, “Maybe.”
Rokko went back to his office. He felt himself trembling. He hadn’t realized how precious his marriage was to him or how fragile it might be. “Ignorance is just ignorance,” he remembered Nina saying. Then he thought of what he’d said to Xavier, “Try it, I think you have the courage.” He should apply that saying to himself, but Rokko realized that he wasn’t like his brother. He wasn’t exactly a coward, but he didn’t want to go on with the experiment.
On the other hand, he’d already let at least four people know about or use the glasses. He couldn’t back out now. I’ll have to pretend to be brave, he thought. That’s not very positive, he heard himself thinking. This is from a man who won a Nobel Prize? He heard himself cry out “I am brave.”
He was startled to look up and see Nina, who was standing in the doorway looking at him. She still had the ice bag to her forehead. “Yes, you are, dear. I wanted to remind you of the three projects I promised to finish this year. I’ll leave this one to you.” Nina walked away.
Rokko felt relieved. One fear gone, he thought. Thousands more to go. He searched for the mirror and looked in. Twenty seconds later, he closed his eyes and put the mirror away. I am brave. I am brave. Well, at least a little.