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Monday, June 27, 2005


Posted by Amardeep Singh on 06/27/05 at 08:49 AM

My erudite friend Tim (aka “The Blunderer” at Dog’s Dinner) writes:

Speaking of Hitchcock, the whole idea of a couple watching their precarious union reflected in a broken mirror comes from Rear Window.

I propose that in place of the cryptic French term “mise-en-abyme,” academic literary discourse should adopt the carnivalistic term “hall of mirrors."

It’s part of a rich post on connections between French and American art films (you might want to read the whole post). Here I’ll Take Tim up on his suggestion, and consider: “Mise-en-abyme,” or “hall of mirrors”? Or something else?

Because of the word “abyme” (which looks like “abyss"), I normally—and imprecisely—think of “mise-en-abyme” as referring to a narrative situation that leads into a vortex, whereas a hall of mirrors is more like endless reflexivity. But actually, the OED defines “mise-en-abyme” as “a term denoting self-reflection within a literary work.” And they give the etymology as follows:

[< French mise en abyme (1967 or earlier: see below) < mise (see MISE n.2) + en into + abyme, variant of abîme ABYSM n., after mettre en abyme (1893 Gide: see below), in which abyme is used in the spec. heraldic sense of the centre of an escutcheon:
1893 A. GIDE Jrnl. (1943) I. 45 C'est la comparaison avec ce procédé du blason qui consiste, dans le premier, à en mettre un second ‘en abyme’. 1967 J. RICARDOU Problèmes du Nouveau Roman iv. 173 Notant ensuite l'analogie de cette enclave avec l'inclusion, en héraldique, d'un blason dans un autre, on se souvient que Gide propose de la nommer une ‘mise en abyme’. C'est ce terme que nous utiliserons désormais.
Cf. earlier borrowing of en abyme in a translation of Gide:
1947 J. O'BRIEN tr. A. Gide Diary I. 30 A comparison with the device of heraldry that consists in setting in the escutcheon a smaller one ‘en abyme’ at the heart-point. That retroaction of the subject on itself has always tempted me. It is the very model of the psychological novel.
Not fully naturalized in English.]

Three things follow:

1. It has nothing at all to do with the abyss, and everything to do with mirroring. But not just any mirroring—Gide was specifically referring to a narrative mirroring, in which a character in a story proceeds to write the very story in which he is himself a character. It’s mirroring, but it’s internal mirroring—a cloning, or, if you will, reproductive involution.

2. Medievalists (and possibly others) will be horrified, but I had to look up “escutcheon”: “The shield or shield-shaped surface on which a coat of arms is depicted; also in wider sense, the shield with the armorial bearings; a sculptured or painted representation of this.” Just thought I would share that, in case there are any others who’d seen the word “escutcheon” somewhere, but were confused about whether it was “heraldic shield or shield-shaped surface,” or a special kind of smudge.

3. Judging from what remains a confusing explanation of the origin of Gide’s term (note that the OED has to go to an earlier usage of “en abyme” from Gide’s diaries to establish what Gide probably meant when he used it with “mise-”!), I would suggest that Tim is in fact exactly right; the etymology of Gide’s term is cryptic. We would do much better using something like “hall of mirrors.” Perhaps a slightly more precise term could be derived along the lines of cloning, my own “reproductive involution,” or fractal mathematics (see the French Wikipedia entry on “mise en abyme"). But used imprecisely, all of these terms run the risk of being sloppily deployed in any number of MLA papers some years down the road. (I dream of a term that so perfectly captures what is meant that it will be impossible to misuse it.)

Real narratologists will find their own technical Greek solution to the problem, of course. For instance, in in this one French article about “mise en abyme” in narratology I came across (here), the author gives the Greek synonym for “mise en abyme” as “epanalepse,” which in English might be epanalepsis.


I propose a folksier, Americanist alternative to the snooty French “mise-en-abyme”: “Quaker Oats effect”.  Remember that old Quaker Oats box, with the picture of the honest Quaker holding a box of Quaker Oats, which in turn pictures a Quaker holding a box of Quaker Oats ad infinitum?  No abyss here, just an infinity of quakers within quakers.

By on 06/27/05 at 03:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment


I like it, though I’m afraid that most of today’s youth will not have ever eaten Quaker Oats.

Now it’s more like Microwave Oatmeal, which is some sort of strange, pre-sweetened simulacrum of Actual Oatmeal that tastes totally different.

There is a Zizek book in this somewhere, I’m sure. Only, Zizek would probably end up denouncing the Quaker Oats box as emblematizing the risible fallacy of pacifist, who refuses to accept the Marxist Kantian-Christian heritage of Europe (Quakers don’t speak of “God"), and who therefore remains at the Imaginary stage. It is the Oatmeal itself which is the Real, always deferred by the sign. Thus, only the empty Quaker Oats box can represent the Symbolic, which is predicated on the evacuation of the Real.

(I kid, I kid.)

By Amardeep on 06/27/05 at 03:27 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think we should take mise en abîme and run with it.

By David Moles on 06/27/05 at 05:59 PM | Permanent link to this comment


And why is that?

Anyway, I believe both spellings are acceptable. (The OED has the entry under “Mise en abyme")

Yesterday my searches involved the “y” spelling, and your comment encouraged me to look up the circomflex spelling to see what popped up. One thing that comes up is an article Heather Dubnick at a journal called Enculturation. She deals with Mise-en-abyme in Borges, specifically the story “The Aleph.” It’s here)

By Amardeep on 06/28/05 at 10:32 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s “abyme” in the seventh edition of the Holman and Harmon’s Handbook to Literature, too. I’m even going to type out the entry in case those of you who don’t own this book might find it helpful:

Mise en Abyme In heraldry, the representation of a small shield on a big shield (escutcheon) is called en abyme. More generally, placement en abyme has to do with any occasion when a small text is imprinted on or contained in a bigger text that it replicates. Fairly often, a film will contain another film, which serves as a commentary of sorts on the outer story. Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948), for example, contains a performance of the ballet The Red Shoes. Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust includes The Burning of Los Angeles, a surrealist painting by the character Tod Hackett. At the end, the novel and painting seem to merge. As one critic has observed, not only does Hamlet contain a play-within-the-play, it contains a Hamlet-within-Hamlet. An inner text placed en abyme has a way of making the surrounding outer text seem relatively lifelike, especially if the artificiality of the inner text is emphasized (as is the case with the inner television news program en abyme on the outer Mary Tyler Moore television program, or the inner soap opera included in the outer text of Twin Peaks).
[Reference: Lucien Dällenbach, Le Récit Speculaire: Essai sur la Mise en Abyme, (1977, translated as The Mirror in the Text, 1989).)

I instantly thought of the opera in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: when the woman is saying goodbye to the man, and she turns her back to him, and he picks up the end of a sash on her dress and kisses it before he walks a way, and Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska are watching. That seems like a pretty good example.

By Clancy on 06/28/05 at 12:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, when mirrors are involved, naturally we always come back to Borges. Interesting piece (and I think it gives me a better handle on mise en abyme than mere definitions.)

So, my French is quite rudimentary, but I read abyss in abyme, too; and, Gide aside, I liked the idea of a distinct critical term for a narrative situation leading into infinite lightless depths, even if I didnt really know exactly what it would mean. (I can call spirits from the vasty deep! Why, so can I, or so can any man, but will they come when you do call them?)

The <a
href="http://www.academie-francaise.fr/dictionnaire/">Académie francaise</i> (search for abyme) gives abyme or abysme as a variant of abîme (from late Latin *abismus, from Church Latin abyssus, the depths of Hell), used only with the preposition, en, and gives mise en abîme as a rare variant of mise en abyme. So I guess the term is already taken, but we were right, etymologically speaking, to see the abyss in there, and I think something could be done with the idea.

By David Moles on 06/28/05 at 12:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You’ll usually find the abyme for the vache-qui-rit effect (it’s french for Quaker Oats effect), and abîme for the, well, abyss.

Occasional abîme for the former use, never seen abyme for the latter.

By on 06/28/05 at 01:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The more I think about “mise-en-abyme,” the less I see it as necessary to depose it or dismiss it. Now I’m getting interested in just defining it satisfactorily.

I think, and Dubnick also goes in this direction via Borges, that the text-within-a-text has to be figured as ‘exactly’ same as the main text, only in miniature. Dubnick suggests this ‘isomorphism’ is required, and gives a very specific, paradoxical phrasing: “the containment of the container within the contained.” The other key aspect of the Mise-en-abyme she mentions is the “potential for a loop of infinite recursion, opening up a vacuum or a sort of black hole that destroys the integrity of textual boundaries.”

Both the Holman and Harmon book and Borges himself (in “Partial Enchantments of the Quixote) seem to deviate somewhat from these principles in their examples. Hamlet, for instance, contains a play ("The Mousetrap"/"The Murder of Gonzago") that is similar to the ‘container’ play, but only approximately. (If it were exact, the murderer in the contained play would be called Claudius and the wife would be Gertrude.) Moreover, its value in the plot is heuristic—it enables Hamlet to see the definite truth about Claudius and Gertrude. In contrast, Borges’s mise-en-abyme in “The Aleph” is much more an actual hall of mirrors—a logical labyrinth leading the “destruction of textual boundaries.”

So I wonder: what is the minimal threshold for the mise-en-abyme category? Is resemblance to the container story sufficient, or is the illusion of exactness (and it must always be an illusion, if the text is finite) required?

Without the requirement for the illusion of exactness, it seems to me that some trace or hint of Mise-en-abyme will be evident in almost any story about a writer or artist’s struggle to make art (i.e., any “Kunstlerroman"). I propose that Hamlet has to go, and probably also The Day of the Locust...

By Amardeep on 06/28/05 at 02:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe what’s important is that somebody looking at the frame or container experiences a powerful sense of recognition when they look at an element within the container.  Possibly the contained material also needs to be compressed or condensed or mounted on a reduced scale? Or perhaps it’s enough that the scale be different. 

I would be unhappy with a definition of literary m-e-a which excluded “the Mousetrap”, and I also can’t think of a single good, non-trivial instance of exact but differently-scaled reproduction in the literary field.

By on 06/28/05 at 09:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The Murder of Gonzago may not count, but the play-within-a-play in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (which may or may not be either Gonzago or Hamlet) comes close.

By David Moles on 06/29/05 at 10:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

hi, does anyone know what the adjective form of mise en abîme in french might be. i expect beause it’s a past participle it’s technically already an adjective, like “telle ou telle chose est mise en abîme”. but if you want to say “in a mise-en-abîme-like fashion” what do you say? i read in a paper translated into english (hence not a definitive authority) the usage “in an abyssal sense” but i wonder if that can be used in french (or even english for that matter). i’m doing a paper in which this concept plays an important rôle so i’d appreciate any help.
thanks in advance

By on 01/05/06 at 08:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Sorry, you’ll probably have to contact a French teacher at your school… My French is a bit more minimal.

You might also try Connaissances.

By Amardeep on 01/05/06 at 10:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

well, no worries. i just won’t use it in that sense. it was really just for a stylistic effect anyway. thanks all the same.

By on 01/06/06 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Perhaps the phenomenon which Mise en Abyme is intended to refer could be called nested frames?

I came to this from the Slate link so this could be way off base.

By on 04/12/06 at 08:18 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ok, so I’m a bit late to this discussion, but I’d like to throw my two cents’ worth in and suggest that the term “mise en abyme” be substituted with what I’ve called in my literature classes the “Escher Effect” (adjective - Escherian), after Escher’s “Never-ending Staircase” drawing. I prefer this over the variable interpretations and misinterpretations of mise en abyme because such discussions always seem to lead to notions of the abyss, which really has nothing to do Gide’s point, where he was coining a term related to paradoxical symbiosis. “Hall of mirrors” doesn’t quite work for me because there is no necessary pattern to a hall of mirrors--the placing of such mirrors can be entirely arbitrary. But the phenomenon that I think we’re all trying to define involves a particular pattern of symbolic or ‘perspectival’ (another word that isn’t a word) recurrence where an apparent telios comes upon its genesis and is thereby repeated in some way, or echoed, and which then serves as a regeneration of a motif—or, to use an earlier comment’s verbage, the “contained within the container” mirrors the container and, thereby, symbolically contains it. This definition allows for some specificity (it isn’t about an abyss, after all), while being general enough to indicate an author’s desire to, for example, write his act of writing into the written piece, or to indicate a narrative frame within a frame that is intended to echo the main story.

For what it’s worth.

By on 04/23/06 at 12:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The “Escher Effect” is a term I have used as well, but not in place of m-e-a. Escher’s endless staircase conveys a sense of the perpetual and futile (it leads nowhere but back unto itself), while I’ve always seen Gide’s use of the term as the occurance of multiple instances--perhaps even implying a univerality (but there I’m reading more into it than I probably should.) I’ve often tried to summarise it--perhaps too reductively--for my students by referring to the scene in “Lady from Shanghi” where Orson Wells pauses between two mirrors and is reflected into infinity. From now on I’ll probably use Carroll’s reference to “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern”, as it contains the encapsulating quality implied in Gide’s original usage--R & G’s surface story relected in the backgrounded “Hamlet”, which itself is reflected in the addition reflection of “Mousetrap”. (In this last I disagree with Carroll’s reading of the refection being an “either/or"--to me it is clearly an embedded “and”.)

By on 06/14/06 at 01:50 PM | Permanent link to this comment

You folks have way to much time on your hands - but it is an amusing conversation.  Given the dearth of escutcheons, shields, heraldic devices, and endlessly replicating Quakers in the modern world, how shall we represent the notion of the scene within a scene that is “the scene”?  The issue at stake,as I understand Gide is that of an emblamatic scene that functions as a sign of the entirety of the plot.  In this sense, it is an icon - but that word has too many other deeply constructed referents and is probably of little practical use.  The M-E-A is also a parabolic device, an element of the story that when laid alongside the story reveals profpund facets of its “meaning”.  Amardeep seems to be on th eright track - but I don’t have an alternative term to suggest. 
Carry on

By on 11/23/07 at 11:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

It does have to do with the abyss. The regressive structure of the mise en abyme is a reflection on the inside without end--thus the abyssal structure.

By on 04/28/08 at 05:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m reading Bolaño’s 2666 with mise-en-abyme (or abîme) in mind.  The effect there is of destabilization of perspective, creating an infinite regress or vertigo.  I believe the modern image is a video of David Hasselhoff’s crotch...but you probably don’t want to go there.  Interesting discussion, but I’ve probably caught it too late.

By on 03/22/09 at 03:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In Vietnam:

If you are in a “world of hurt”, you had:::::

-just stepped on a land mine

-been recently FRAKED i.e. killed by your own troops

-were in a sector just targeted by one of your own B-52’s

In other words, you were deceased or soon would be.

If you saw in the movie the white boxes where the remains of US soldiers were being gathered by Graves Registration people in Iraq, you now get the LOCKER part.  Hurt Locker is where all the patriotic valor that soldiers go to war for gets shipped back to their suffering survivors in a white locker.

Ain’t war as we americans define it great?

By on 03/03/10 at 11:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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