Are you listening closely?
This is the story you know:
"Narcissus was a man who was so in love with himself that he fell in love with his own reflection. No one else was good enough for him. He stared into the pool, and eventually wasted away."
But that's not the whole story.
When Narcissus was born his mother, Liriope, took him to the blind seer Tiresias and asked him for a prophecy: "will he have a long life?"
Before Tiresias became a prophet he had spent seven confusing years as a woman, and made two important discoveries about women. First, that women get more pleasure from love making than men. When he told this discovery to Hera and Zeus, Hera, in a rage, struck him blind, which lead to his second discovery: not all women want to hear this.
Zeus tried to make up for his blindness by giving him the power to know the future.
So Tiresias gave Liriope his cryptic prophecy:
"He'll have a long life as long as he never knows himself."
Now what could that mean?
The story you know is that Narcissus was so beautiful that everyone wanted to be with him, but he rejected them all: no, no, no, no, no, not good enough.
One rejected lover was furious and begged Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance, for retribution. "If Narcissus ever falls in love, don't let the love be returned!"
Nemesis heard the prayer and caused Narcissus to fall in love with himself: he was lead to a pool of water, and when he looked into it, he fell in love with what he saw. And what he saw wasn't real, so of course it couldn't love him back. But Narcissus sat patiently, forever, hoping that one day that beautiful person in the bottom of the pool was going to come out and love him.
You should take note of this first, easy lesson: if no one ever seems right for you, and then the one person who does seem right doesn't want you, then the problem isn't the person, the problem is you.
What have you learned so far? Do you think you've understood?
You heard the story, you heard the words, but your mind unheard it and replaced it with something else. Even after I tell you this, you'll have trouble remembering it.
You think Narcissus was so in love with himself that he couldn't love anyone else. But that's not what happened, the story clearly tells it in the reverse: he never loved anyone and then he fell in love with himself. Do you see? Because he never loved anyone, he fell in love with himself. That was Narcissus's punishment.
You thought Narcissus rejected all those people because he was in love with himself, but he rejected them all before he loved himself. Loved himself? Do you think Narcissus rejected them because he thought he was better than them? Or better looking? How would he have known he was so beautiful? He didn't even recognize his own reflection! He rejected all those people because they loved him.
You thought nemesis meant enemy, you thought it meant the person who always opposes you, the one you struggle most against. A person who is something like you, but the opposite.
But all of those explanations are your lies working to hide the truth: a nemesis is the one who makes you fall in love with yourself. Without Nemesis, there'd be no story of Narcissus. Without your nemesis, you don't have a story.
Some people have tried to say that the pool Narcissus stared into was magical, that it tricked him, put a spell on him, made it impossible for him to look away. But that's wishful thinking. It would be wonderful to be able to blame the pool the way a man blames a woman for tempting him. The truth is that no magic was necessary, Nemesis had only to lead Narcissus to an ordinary pool and Narcissus would punish himself.
What did Narcissus do when he saw something beautiful in that pool? He fantasized and dreamed all the different possibilities of that person, all the things that person could be to him. He didn't stay there for years because the reflection had pretty hair. He stayed because daydreaming takes a lot of time.
And, as Ovid described about someone else:
"But his great love increases with neglect; his miserable body wastes away, wakeful with sorrows; leanness shrivels up his skin, and all his lovely features melt, as if dissolved upon the wafting winds--nothing remains except--"
except what? What do you think remains? Maybe the answer is different for everyone, but I know what you hope is the answer: anything else besides nothing.
This is a strange story. You know the main character is Narcissus, yet the title is "Echo and Narcissus." Why do we think Echo is only a minor character? Who made Echo a minor character?
Echo was nymph with a beautiful voice, but she talked too much, so Hera cursed her to be able to only repeat the words someone else said first. "Oh!" I can hear you say. "That's where the word Echo comes from." Grow up! Do you think these are children's stories, like how the leopard got his spots? These aren't fairy tales, these are warnings.
Echo fell madly in love with Narcissus. She followed him, chased him, pined for him, but he wanted no part of her, rejecting her cruelly. Even after Narcissus died she longed for him, losing herself to that love, eventually wasting away into nothing but a voice.
He probably was right to reject her: what kind of a woman loves a man based entirely on how he looks? What kind of a woman still loves a man no matter how badly he treats her? Why would Narcissus want that kind of a person? She wasn't a woman with a beautiful voice; there was nothing else inside her except a voice.
But let's go back to the beginning of her story, no, the true beginning of the story, or do you think this is a dream that starts in the middle? If it was, we'd have to interpret it as a wish fulfillment and not as a warning.
At the beginning, Echo was watching him, hidden, but Narcissus sensed someone was there, and he was excited by it. "Come!" he called. "Come," she could only echo, and stayed hidden, which only made him want her more. What mystery is this? He couldn't see her but he could hear her voice, and in that unfathomable voice was incarnated all the possible loves he could imagine. It helped that this mysterious woman knew just what to say to him. She was perfect for him in every way, she was the cause of his desire.
And then she came out from hiding, and he saw her.
Was she beautiful? Undoubtedly. But the moment he saw her he wretched, "Blech-- better death than should you have all of me!"
What was so wrong with her? It wasn't just that she may have been shorter or heavier than he had imagined. What was wrong was in that instant he experienced her, she stopped being anything else.
But if Echo was no longer a projection, she was still a reflection. Echo, like all women, offered her man a peek inside his soul, all he had to do look: What kind of a man am I, that attracts this kind of woman? What kind of a man am I that attracts the kind of woman who only likes me for how I look? Despite how I treat her? What kind of a man am I that only attracts the kind of women who like me for X? Is it because there is nothing else of value inside me except X? But he was never taught to ask questions like this. In fact, he was taught never to ask questions like that. What kind of a man attracts a woman who can only echo him? There must be a name for that kind of person, and he already had it.
If he had considered this, he might have tried to change himself, or at least recognized how similar they were.
And just as Echo wasted away to her X, a voice, he wasted away to a pretty flower-- his X.
Nothing besides remained.
How is it that centuries later, Tiresias's prophecy is still not understood?
Tiresias's prophecy was: He will have a long life, if he never knows himself.
Now, what could that mean?
Oh, he was right: Narcissus did live a long life-- though not a happy one. He spent his life alone, dreaming, and gazing into a pool, waiting to die.
But Tiresisias's prophecy seems... wrong, counter to the Greek spirit, an affront to logic; shouldn't "knowing thyself" be the highest virtue?
He will have a long life, if he never knows himself.
But it's so simple, the explanation. It's so simple that no one has ever thought of it, and the reason no one has thought of it is that it is too terrible to think about.
Forget about whether the prophecy is true. Ask instead, "what would the parents have done once they heard it?"
When Laius and Jocasta were told that Oedipus would eventually destroy them, they pinned his ankles and abandoned him in the woods, ensuring that he'd someday have cause to do it. And so when Narcissus's parents heard the requirements for their child's long life... they would have done everything possible to ensure that he didn't know himself.
No one knows what Liriope and Cephisus did, but whatever they did, it worked: he didn't even recognize his own reflection. That's a man who doesn't know himself. That's a man who never had to look at himself from the outside.
How do you make a child know himself? You surround him with mirrors. "This is what everyone else sees when you do what you do. This is who everyone thinks you are."
You cause him to be tested: this is the kind of person you are, you are good at this but not that. This other person is better than you at this, but not better than you at that. These are the limits by which you are defined. Narcissus was never allowed to meet real danger, glory, struggle, honor, success, failure; only artificial versions manipulated by his parents. He was never allowed to ask, "am I a coward? Am I a fool?" To ensure his boring longevity his parents wouldn't have wanted a definite answer in either direction.
He was allowed to live in a world of speculation, of fantasy, of "someday" and "what if". He never had to hear "too bad", "too little" and "too late."
When you want a child to become something-- you first teach him how to master his impulses, how to live with frustration. But when a temptation arose Narcissus's parents either let him have it or hid it from him so he wouldn't be tempted, so they wouldn't have to tell him no. They didn't teach him how to resist temptation, how to deal with lack. And they most certainly didn't teach him how NOT to want what he couldn't have. They didn't teach him how to want.
The result was that he stopped having desires and instead desired the feeling of desire.
Nemesis had an easy job, she only had to work backwards: show him something that didn't return his love, and he'd be hooked.
Narcissus's parents were demi-gods-- didn't they know how to raise a good son, what a proper parent needs to do? Yet they listened to a charlatan anyway. They were given meaningless information by a supposed expert and abandoned all common sense, and so created a monster who brought death to at least one person and misery to all.
I know what you're thinking. You're worldly, you're cynical, your skeptical. You don't go for all this fate crap. You're thinking whether it is true that not loving others comes before loving only yourself--it seems backwards to you. You're thinking, what does this little girl know, really? She didn't write this, after all. (Did I?)
You're thinking whether it is true that parents create the narcissism that plagues their children for the rest of their lives. Does that match your own experiences? You're trying to remember back to your own childhood.
Am I right?
Which means you haven't learned the lesson. There you go again, thinking about yourself. Your impulse wasn't to say, "am I doing this to my kids?" or "how will I act differently?" It was to wonder about your own nature.
The moral of the story of Narcissus, told as a warning for the very people who refuse to hear it as such, is that how Narcissus came to be is irrelevant. What was important was what he did, and what he did---- was nothing.
I'm being told that I should stop here, that you've had enough. But let me tell you one more thing: there's a secret to the story. Can you guess what it is?
Close your eyes.
Imagine the scene as a large painting on the wall. There's Narcissus, sitting by the pool, head tilted downwards, arm idly twirling the water, his mind lost in daydreams. Around him are the trees, the grass, the sky. Nemesis is behind him, arms crossed, watching the punishment.
Now look closely at the expression on Nemesis's face. There's something odd there. Look closely at her eyes.
She's not actually looking at Narcissus, it only looks like she's looking at Narcissus. She's actually looking-- right back at you.
That's right, the story isn't about Narcissus, it was always about you. There never was an objective distance for you to watch from.
It was all a kind of charade.
The ancients didn't tell these stories to pass the time or teach children a lesson or tell you where the word Echo came from. Do you think we took their pop culture and made it into our literature? These stories were meditations, case studies: what do you see in them?
The secret to the story of Narcissus is that the story is the pool, it is your pool. What do you see in it? It's a reflection and a projection.
But you know the old saying, when you stare into the pool, the pool stares also into you. What does the pool see when it stares into you? How does it judge you?
Look behind you. Nemesis is there. Can you guess what your punishment will be?
Open your eyes.
You've been given a second chance.
None of this is real.
Audio file here.
1. The Carvaggio is inverted: the reflection is gazing back at Narcissus.
2. Though the girl, age 8, is reading from a script, inflections and pacing are hers. Interesting to see how she emphasized certain passages and not others.
3. The background music of the audio file is Hymn To Nemesis, by Mesomedes (1 AD). It is one of the only surviving pieces of music from the old days. The relevance of the music is its lyrics:
Winged goddess, Nemesis, who tilts the balance of our lives, dark-eyed goddess, daughter of Justice, who curbs with iron bit the foolish brayings of mortals, and who through hatred of man's destructive arrogance drives out black envy. Beneath your relentless and trackless wheel men's fortunes turn and twist; unseen you walk beside them, and bend low the proud man's neck. Beneath your arm you measure out his life-span, and stoop to gaze into the depths of his heart, your scales held firmly in your hand. Be benevolent to us, you who dispense justice, singed goddess Nemesis, who tilts the balance of our lives.Nemesis preceded even Zeus. Is she really the goddess of vengeance?
We sing in honor of Nemesis, immortal goddess, formidable Victory with wings outspread, joint counselor with Justice, who makes no mistakes, who punishes the arrogance of men, and bears it to the depths of Hades.
4. At the end of the audio you can here a (male) voice say, "...At least you will still look like you." This sentence does double duty. It sounds like a coda to the main theme, asking the reader to consider the implications to his own identity. But it's also the last sentence of an entirely different story, buried under the final music: The Second Story Of Medusa, which is connected to the story of Echo and Narcissus in a specific way. I'm working on a video.