Recently, in a fascinating workshop, one of our cohort showed us a series of paintings. The exercise was to find out whether our connection with the image changed once we knew the story it was telling. It was a very interesting activity, not least because we silently sat with the images (which none of us were familiar with) for ten minutes before doing any kind of analysis, something I guess few of us take time to do.
Salvador Dali’s ‘Metamorphosis of Narcissus’ (painted in 1937) was one of the those paintings. We all instantly recognised it as Dali, but without the title it took some pondering as to what it represented. Initial reactions were that it was a complicated, cold and somehow very intellectual painting but our emotional connection increased once we knew it was Narcissus and read the myth as recounted in Ovid. This wasn’t the case with some other paintings, where the initial emotional appeal seemed reduced by intellectual ‘knowing’. So it set me thinking.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus is a youth of great beauty who was so proud that he disdained anyone who fell in love with him. This included poor Echo, a mountain nymph who seeing him became besotted and tried to embrace him. He angrily pushed her away and she died of a broken heart with only an echo of her voice remaining. Nemesis on hearing this story decided to punish Narcissus and lead him by a pool of water, where he fell in love with his own reflection not realising it was his own image. He was unable to tear himself away and eventually died and was turned into a flower by Nemesis – a narcissus.
The term ‘narcissism’ has passed into popular culture and is used to describe self-obsessed individuals. It has become a term of abuse and has been applied to all sorts of people from the wife-beater Rob Titchner in the Archers to Donald Trump.
However, it also struck me that it perhaps could equally well be applied to our Western culture since the Enlightenment. Our post-Cartesian world seems unwilling to see anything other than it’s own reflection in the pool of scientific thought and fails to acknowledge other ways of knowing beyond and behind the purely rational – at least in public discourse. Ignoring the calls and pleas of lovers and daemons in the background, it gazes in total absorption at its own image failing to recognise that without the nourishment of other ways of knowing, it could slowly pine away. This indeed could be our nemesis, as we grow further and further from soul and the enchantment it provides, anxiety increases and crazy things seem to get even crazier. And this is hardly surprising with social media constantly reflecting ourselves back at us with fake news, running commentary tweets in 140 characters and selfies. Yet this is not to decry science and technology, after all it’s brought us some wondrous things, not least modern medicine. But perhaps it’s time to acknowledge in the academy what Hamlet says after seeing the ghost of his father: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy” (Hamlet, Act I,Scene V)
So perhaps the ancient myth of Narcissus still has things to teach us, if we but manage to look up from the reflection of what we think we know.