Times Literary Supplement: Book Review of Simon Blackburn’s “Mirror Mirror”

Simon Blackburn credits L’Oréal’s slogan, “because you’re worth it”, as a source of outrage and inspiration for Mirror, Mirror: The uses and abuses of self-love. Drawing on the myth on Narcissus, Blackburn writes on vanity, pride and amour propre with deep insight.

He introduces “lofty pride”, for instance, with reference to the House of Pride, allegory of fickleness and superficiality, in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. A more laudable version of pride, Blackburn says, is the willingness to apply standards of good conduct to oneself and to expect admiration as a result.

Blackburn discusses a wide range of hyphenated terms beginning with “self”: self-love, self- esteem, self-confidence, self-respect, and their multiple facets. For our self infuses our view of the world and of others. This argument becomes all too clear in the way the author writes his book. Blackburn’s inquiry is based entirely on the thoughts of white, male Western philosophers, predominantly Kant, Hume and Adam Smith. His main points of criticism are reserved for the work of Iris Murdoch, who is, incidentally, the only female philosopher to whom he grants a say. He refutes Murdoch’s argument that selfishness is down to a lack of objective vision and cites John Carey who previously described her notion of a “selfish daydream” as “individual imaginative vision”.

But, there is no mention of relevant work by, among others, Martha Nussbaum and Elizabeth Anscombe. The only other female characters we encounter in the book are a vain advertising model with “an icy inward smile”, women who suffer from faulty breast implants, and the self-conscious “victims” who buy L’Oréal shampoo. If we swap each “you” for an “I” in Mirror, Mirror we see a lot of Blackburn himself, as well as his image of the reader: “You can’t reject the description of yourself as, for instance, medium height, English-speaking, overweight, balding, twenty-first century, middle class”, he writes. There are two pictures in the book: a painting of Narcissus on the inside-front page and a photograph of Blackburn on the inside-back cover. If we close the book, they face each other.

Originally published in the Times Literary Supplement, 11 June 2014

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