Mise en Abyme


Mise [meezen [awnabyme [ah-beem] is a term originally from the French and means ‘placed into abyss.’ The commonplace usage of this phrase is describing the visual experience of standing between two mirrors, seeing an infinite reproduction of one’s image, but it has several other meanings in the realm of the creative arts and literary theory. In Western art history, ‘mise en abyme’ is a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, the sequence appearing to recur infinitely.

In the terminology of heraldry, the ‘abyme’ is the center of a coat of arms. The term ‘mise en abyme’ then meant literally ‘put in the center.’ It described a coat of arms that appears as a smaller shield in the center of a larger one (the Droste effect). For example, the two-headed eagle on modern coat of arms of Russia has a scepter with coat of arms of Russia on top of it, with the same scepter.

The modern meaning of the term originates with the author André Gide who used it to describe self-reflexive embeddings in various art-forms and to describe what he himself sought in his work. As examples, Gide cites both paintings such as ‘Las Meninas’ by Diego Velázquez and literary forms such as Shakespeare’s use of the ‘play within a play’ device in ‘Hamlet,’ where a theatrical company presents a performance for the characters that illuminates a thematic aspect of the play itself. This use of the term mise en abyme was picked up by scholars and popularized in the 1977 book ‘Le récit spéculaire. Essai sur la mise en abyme’ by Lucien Dällenbach.

While art historians working on the early-modern period adopted this term and interpreted it as showing artistic ‘self awareness,’ medievalists tended not to use it. Many examples, however, can be found in the pre-modern era, as in a mosaic from the Hagia Sophia (a Byzantine cathedral) dated to the year 944. To the left, Justinian I offers the Virgin Mary the Hagia Sophia, which contains the mosaic itself. To the right, Constantine I offers the city of Constantinople, which itself contains the Hagia Sophia. Other medieval examples can be found in the collection of articles ‘Medieval mise-en-abyme: the object depicted within itself,’ in which Stuart Whatling conjectures that the self-references are sometimes used to strengthen the symbolism of gift-giving by documenting the act of giving on the object itself. An example of this self-referential gift-giving appears in the Stefaneschi triptych in the Vatican Museum, which features Cardinal Giacomo Gaetani Stefaneschi as the giver of the altarpiece.

In literature, mise-en-abîme occurs within a text when there is a reduplication of images or concepts referring to the textual whole. Mise-en-abîme is a play of signifiers within a text, of sub-texts mirroring each other. This mirroring can get to the point where meaning is unstable and in this respect can be seen as part of the process of deconstruction (breaking the text into smaller parts). The film-within-a-film is an example of mise-en-abîme. The film being made within the film refers through its mise-en-scène to the real film being made. The spectator sees film equipment, stars getting ready for the take, crew sorting out the various directorial needs. The narrative of the film within the film may directly reflect the one in the real film.

In film, the meaning of ‘mise en abyme’ is similar to the artistic definition, but also includes the idea of a ‘dream within a dream.’ For example, a character awakens from a dream and later discovers that he or she is still dreaming. Activities similar to dreaming, such as unconsciousness and virtual reality, are also described as ‘mise en abyme.’ This is seen in the film ‘eXistenZ’ where the two protagonists never truly know whether or not they are out of the game. It also becomes the prominent plot in ‘Synecdoche, New York.’ A more recent instance of this can be found in the film ‘Inception.’

In literary criticism, ‘mise en abyme’ is a type of frame story, in which the core narrative can be used to illuminate some aspect of the framing story. The term is used in deconstruction and deconstructive literary criticism as a paradigm of the intertextual nature of language—that is, of the way language never quite reaches the foundation of reality because it refers in a frame-within-a-frame way to other language, which refers to other language, et cetera.

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