Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Echoes of Reality

'Narcissistic' is one of those myth-derived adjectives which has passed into our language. But who was Narcissus? We meet Narcissus in the myths of Ancient Greece, a handsome and vain youth whose self-absorption prevented him from truly loving anyone but himself. Alas for the beautiful nymph Echo, as the myth relates:

Echo had her own character fault: she was always chattering. Hera, the consort of haughty Zeus, tired of Echo's busy tongue, cursed the incessantly-chattering young girl: from that time on, her first and only words were to be the last words somebody else had spoken. People began to shun Echo, for no one likes to be parroted. They treated her unkindly and her friends did not want to be with her any longer. Lonely and bewildered, Echo fled into the forests. 

But then Narcissus appeared on the scene while out on a hunting party with his friends. As soon as Echo saw him, she lost her lonely heart and began to follow him. 

With the unfortunate Echo in mind Sappho, the 7th-century BCE Greek poet from Lesbos, writes:

Foolish child
why do you try
to touch a heart of stone?

Narcissus did indeed have a heart of stone, breaking many hearts of young women and men. Worshipped like a god for his looks, he only took, but never gave. Echo was just one of his many victims. When at last she plucked up enough courage to approach the handsome youth, Narcissus shunned her, angrily telling her to get out of his sight with as much revulsion as if she had been a venomous snake. Deeply hurt, Echo sought shelter far away from people, and found a remote cave in the high mountains where she gradually pined away until her voice was all that remained.  

Nemesis, the goddess of vengeful fate, took mercy upon the girl and decided in turn to punish Narcissus for his grotesque insensitivity and scornful manner. She knew that when he stared into the water of a brook pond, he would see only his own reflection. 

And so it was that he fell madly in love with himself. Countless times he tried to kiss himself, countless times he plunged his arms despairingly into the water seeking to embrace his own mirrored reflection. Then one day he found a deep pool, nearby the cave where Echo's voice still lived,  and stared into its silent depths in heartbreaking yearning for his beloved in the water.

"Why do you keep so utterly beyond reach, my love? Come, my beloved!"
And the voice of Echo repeated: "my beloved... my beloved."

Little by little, like water over a stone, love wore him away until Echo's voice repeated his last sigh: "Love..." and at last, he died. 

Falling in love with an image of oneself, or one's god(dess) often turns out to be a disastrous projection, for the reality is often quite different from the image of it. The reality is the initiation; the image, at best, is only the yearning for it. Narcissus literally drowned in his own image, driven by the desperate yearning to be united with it. For vain Narcissus, it was too late for him to understand that we mirror ourselves best, not in our own image, but in that of another.

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