In my last post I raised the possibility that the myth of Narcissus and Echo is about more than narcissism. The story can also be read as a reflection (pardon the pun) on the importance, power, and danger posed by the task of self-awareness. Narcissus didn't know himself until the fateful meeting at the still pool. He died as a result of the encounter, just as the prophet Tiresias predicted. The fated nature of the young man's death suggests that the story is about an aspect of the human condition, not merely a singular, idiosyncratic obsession. The task of self-awareness is one that we take very seriously these days. Being able to answer the question, "Who am I?" is considered a sign of psychological maturity and a prerequisite for a fulfilling life.
The role of fate and divine intervention in the death of Narcissus led me to ask in the early post, about other mythologies in which human beings are discouraged from self-knowledge. Kudos to everyone who thought of Christianity, the apple, the tree in the garden, and the subsequent expulsion of Adam and Eve. (This is not the only example but is perhaps the most obvious). What happens when Eve and Adam eat the apple? They become aware of themselves as gendered, separate, naked human beings, as individuals with the ability to discriminate. Was this THE moment that they (and we) really became human? Can we truly regret the apple if we consider the alternative? And yet, each of us must now face death with both eyes open.
There is an interesting tension in this myth that isn't as apparent in the Christian example of the perils of self-awareness. The death of Narcissus is orchestrated by the goddess Nemesis, who is charged with maintaining the balance necessary to the cosmic order. Her job is important and we are sometimes grateful to her because our lives depend on the order and stability that follows from natural laws, and from our sense that there is some justice, whether it be courts or karma. Nemesis took revenge for the many ardent lovers whom Narcissus scorned. But "nemesis" means retribution, or an unconquerable rival. You can't win against Nemesis. She enforces the unbendable rule. But isn't it part of our heroic code to try? To challenge the status quo, push against limits, and test Fate? Is this part of our Promethean inheritance? (more on him in the next post).
According to the story, Narcissus had no such feat in mind. He wasn't thinking about Nemesis. She was called into the action by Amenius before he committed suicide. So I'm not suggesting that this gorgeous young man was a career "hero" like Hercules. But how do you feel about Narcissus now? Is it possible, do you think, that Narcissus was burdened by the reactions of others and the love that he inspired? Have you ever resorted to cruelty to get rid of someone who simply would not honor the words "Get lost!"?
We tend to admire the lovers and feel that Narcissus should have responded to one of them. Nemesis thought so. But don't we all feel the tension between the public self and imposed roles, and the private self and our own mysteries? Emerson writes, "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." This tension has animated the Western heart for centuries. In our time of highly developed (maybe overly developed) individualism, it is easy to overlook the subversiveness, even heroism, inherent in the choosing of one's own self over an Other.
Narcissus and narcissism. They aren't the same thing, and there are many interesting questions in the nuances of this short myth about a beautiful young man. Here's one. What's the connection between Narcissus's unusual beauty and his ability to inspire love?
Painting by Nicolas Bernard Lépicie.