Mise en abyme is a term used in art when a copy of an image is placed inside an image, and sometimes in literature to mean a story within a story. It implies self-reflection: me looking at something and recognizing myself in it. The literal meaning is “into the abyss” which, in a positive way, is sometimes how I feel when reading a good book.
I recently finished Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi. She tells of people living through some quite intense experiences while studying literature, and the impact recognizing themselves in great fiction had on their lives.
This book made me think that reading is an infinite line of mise en abyme. I gained an understanding about people in this book, who learned about themselves as they read Nabokov, who was influenced by reading Flaubert, who learned from Byron, who was inspired by Dante, who wrote about Homer, but couldn’t read Greek so may have learned about Homer from Virgil …
I see through the eyes of another, who is seeing through the eyes of someone else, who saw through the eyes of another, and on and on.
Reading promotes empathy, and like a flower with infinite petals, that empathy unfolds layer by layer as we immerse ourselves in others’ worlds and the understanding spreads.