Thinking about Love: The Myth of Narcissus

Narcissistic personality disorder derives its name from the Greek myth of Narcissus, of which there are several versions.

In Ovid’s version, which is the most commonly related, the nymph Echo falls in love with Narcissus, a youth of extraordinary beauty.

As a child, Narcissus had been prophesized by Teiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, to ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’.

One day, when Narcissus was out hunting for stags, the mountain nymph Echo followed him through the woods. She longed to speak to him but did not dare to utter the first word. Overhearing her footsteps, Narcissus cried out, ‘Who’s there?’ to which she replied, ‘Who’s there?’ When she finally showed herself, she rushed to embrace Narcissus, but he scorned her and pushed her away.

Echo spent the rest of her life grieving for Narcissus, until there was nothing left of her save for her voice.

Then, one day, Narcissus became thirsty and went to a lake. Seeing his reflection in the water, he fell in love with it, not realizing that he had fallen in love with his own reflection. However, each time he bent down to kiss it, it seemed to disappear.

Narcissus grew increasingly thirsty, but would not leave or touch the water for fear of losing sight of his reflection. Eventually he died of love and thirst, and on that very spot there appeared a narcissus flower.

Narcissus pseudonarcissus, or Daffodil

The myth of Narcissus has long evaded interpretation, and what could Ovid possibly have meant by it?

Like many blind figures in classical mythology, Teiresias could ‘see’ into himself and thus find self-knowledge. This self-knowledge enabled him not only to understand himself, but also to understand other people, and so to ‘see’ into their futures.

If asked to predict someone’s future, he sometimes, reluctantly, uttered a vague prophecy. But what did he mean when he prophesized that Narcissus would ‘live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself’?

Perhaps he just meant that Narcissus would live for a long time so long as he did not fall in love with himself.

Or, more subtly, that once Narcissus ‘saw’ himself, that is, understood himself and others (including Echo’s love for him), he would be such a different person as to no longer count as his former self, and so resurrect as a flower (a plant that has flourished).

Echo too must have been looking for herself, which is why she was never anything more than an echo.

For both Echo and Narcissus, love of the world (of beauty, of the other, and, in particular, of the beautiful other) represented the means to self-knowledge, self-completion, and self-fulfilment – which is why Echo withered away after having had her love spurned by Narcissus.

By falling in love with his reflection, Narcissus not only received the punishment that he deserved for his lack of piety in the treatment of Echo, but also unwittingly exposed the love of the world as being nothing but, or the same as, self-love.

In his novel The Alchemist, Paolo Coehlo invents a continuation to the myth of Narcissus: after Narcissus died, the Goddesses of the Forest appeared and found the lake of fresh water transformed into a lake of salty tears.

‘Why do you weep?’ the Goddesses asked.
‘I weep for Narcissus,’ the lake replied.
‘Ah, it is no surprise that you weep for Narcissus,’ they said, ‘for though we always pursued him in the forest, you alone could contemplate his beauty close at hand.’
‘But… was Narcissus beautiful?’ the lake asked.
‘Who better than you to know that?’ the Goddesses said in wonder, ‘After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate himself!’
The lake was silent for some time. Finally it said: ‘I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.’

Notes:
1. Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 3, Narcissus and Echo.
2. Paolo Coelho, The Alchemist, Prologue.

This blog post is adapted from my new book,
Hide and Seek, The Psychology of Self-Deception.

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Gnothi seauton: Mature ego defences

The Oracle of Delphi

Whilst no one can escape using ego defence mechanisms altogether, some ego defence mechanisms are thought to be more helpful or ‘mature’ than others. For example, if a person feels angry with his boss, he may go home and kick the dog (‘displacement’), or he may go out and play a good game of tennis (‘sublimation’). Sublimation is the channeling of negative feelings into useful activities such as study, sport, or art, and is thought to be a far more mature defence mechanism than displacement, which is the redirection of negative feelings towards someone or something less important.

There are a number of other ‘mature’ ego defence mechanisms like sublimation. Altruism, for example, is (contentiously) thought of as a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By focusing on the needs of others, people in altruistic careers such as nursing or teaching may be able to push their needs into the background. Similarly, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress once this role is removed from them.

Another mature ego defence mechanism is humour. By seeing the absurd or ridiculous aspect of an emotion, event, or situation, a person is able to put it into its proper context and thereby to diffuse the anxiety that it provokes in him. If human beings laugh so much, this is no doubt because they have the most developed unconscious in the animal kingdom, and Freud himself famously noted that ‘there is no such thing as a joke’. The things that people laugh about most are their errors and inadequacies, and the difficult challenges that they face such as personal identity, social and sexual relationships, and death.

Further up the scale of mature ego defence mechanisms is ascetism, which involves denying the importance of what people normally fear and strive for, and so denying the very grounds for anxiety. The Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel (1868–1940) felt that ‘anxiety is fear of one’s self’; if the importance of the self can be denied, so too can the grounds for anxiety. If people in modern societies are more anxious than people from another time or people from traditional societies, this is perhaps because of the undue emphasis that modern societies place on the self. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu ‘Song of God’, the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield of Kurukshetra and tells him not to give up but to do his duty and fight on. In either case, all the men on the battlefield are one day condemned to die – as are all men. Their deaths are trivial, because the spirit in them, their human essence, does not depend on their particular forms or incarnations for its continued existence. Krishna says, ‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge.’

There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist (…) the wise are not deluded by these changes.

– Bhagavad Gita

Arguably the most mature of all ego defence mechanisms is anticipation. Anticipation involves finding self-knowledge and, like the blind prophet Teiresias, using this self-knowledge to predict or ‘anticipate’ our feelings and reactions. In the Ancient World the greatest of all the oracles was the oracle at Delphi, and inscribed on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi was a simple two-word command.

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν

‘Know thyself.’

Adapted from

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