Islam tells us that on the unappealable day of judgement, all who have perpetrated images of living things will reawaken with their works, and will be ordered to blow life into them, and they will fail, and they and their works will be cast into the fires of punishment. I think of this whenever I configure a social media profile, or engage with a character creation screen, or even when I regard the online representation of another. In the small hours of the morning when their pilots are sleeping, and I look at the works of my friends and enemies, I am alone with their avatars; statues of philosophers, abstract geometries, renaissance paintings, anime girls, hideous 90s clip-art, emotive frames of movie villains, or lean muscular torsos tempered by the sun. Surrounded by this assemblage of icons, in which façades obscure façades, it feels as if the characters we play have their own vitality apart from us, a spirit that inhabits the man behind the keyboard, a mask that wears the wearer. The divinity that breathes life into nature cannot be represented, but what becomes of the divinity when it reveals itself in icons? It does not remain the supreme authority, simply incarnated in images as a visible theology, rather the machinery of icons becomes a substitute for the pure and intelligible Idea of God.
Even as a young child I always felt this discomfort, a certain sense of terror when I regarded the virtual faces that people would choose for themselves, or worst of all, those occasions when I had to choose an image to be my own face. It’s exactly this sense of alienage that has urged me, at all times, to choose only ever geometric patterns in the online masquerade. And yet clearly even geometry itself can offer no refuge, and not only because it harbors the vertiginous treacheries of the lemniscate; geometry can possess a place—one thinks of the work of the Japanese historian Junji Ito—or even persuade men to kill, as in the famous incident of the Pythagorean sailor who carved a proof of the existence of irrational numbers into the walls of his cabin, and whose shipmates cast him overboard lest his discovery should reach solid ground and contaminate all of mathematics.
I have a recurring nightmare in which I see myself reflected in a mirror, but the reflection is wearing a mask; in the dream, I am unable to remove the mask, which is hideous, and which speaks to me from beyond the glass in a voice that is not my own. Groussac wrote of the astonishment he felt that each morning we wake up sane―that is, relatively sane―after having passed through the labyrinths of dreams. It was on the morning of such a dream when I received an unsettling correspondence from a woman named Caitlin, who had been a chat partner of mine many years ago. She was a girl on the other side of the country, and lacking the proximity of the body, we had experienced the sort of hyperreal dalliance that nebbish children often form in adolescence; hyperreal because the impossibility of touch frees love from all its constraints. This, I am told, is also a kind of love of the mirror, when a young man or woman imagines that a disembodied voice, emanating from an avatar, is a proper object of erotic love, or to put it more bluntly, an object of amour-propre. I will never know how many parallel, analogous online boyfriends she had, how many boys told her they loved her, or how many told her their unimportant secrets, hoping their affection would be reflected back.
In those days we would talk long into the night, in the disconnected way that emerges from the multiplicity of digital spaces. I feel—perhaps irrationally—responsible for what has befallen her, because in that time I must have shared with her my terror of icons and avatars, my fear that any identity, once affected, would overtake me, my true self, however illusory or circular that may be. It’s a lie that you have no true self, no inexorable inner light or permanent core; otherwise each passage into sleep would be a little death, each self in each moment would be a different soul. This lie may itself be a fabrication of masks and avatars, those egregoric predators who rely on humans, like vampires, to give them life and presence.
All those years ago, did I plant the seed of the self-destruction that was to bloom in Caitlin’s mind? Her avatar at that time was a cartoon of a little girl, and the message she sent me seemed not to be written in her usual voice. Was it the voice of that little girl, or am I only imagining things, projecting my own neuroses, as they say, onto her? I clicked through to her social media profile and found a woman who did not resemble at all the photographs she used to send me for attention, hoping for me to praise her and titillate her with my unfulfilled desires. Indeed, what I saw was a woman distorted by plastic surgery even unto grotesquerie, a flat, almost featureless face molded into the shape of the avatar she wore so long ago.
Written for Autistic Mercury