Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Looking Glass

Sometimes I wonder what people are trying to see as they look into a mirror. A mirror is defined as "a surface capable of reflecting sufficient undiffused light to form an image of an object placed in front of it." It has no reflective quality without either artificial or natural light. In the dark, a mirror is quite useless. To some, the gaze is anything but pleasing.

A mirror can become an object of important self expression  -- a tool used to help enhance one's image or a device used to explore one's self adoration. Poll after poll, even in this age of beauty worship and stunning perfection, will report that the personality is the most vital part of the human. Still, in truth, beauty seems to drive the portrayal of most successful relationships. Conceit certainly seems common in the beautiful world. "The beautiful people" reportedly receive most advantages and attention, even at a cost to those less physically gifted. What is reflection and how much attention should people give to its relative properties?

The classic myth of reflection is credited to the Greek writer Ovid, found in book 3 of his Metamorphoses (completed 8 AD). Here is the basic story of the myth of Narcissus.

Liriope, a blue Nymph, had become encircled by the river god Cephisus with the windings of his streams, and thus trapping her, had seduced the Nymph, who gave birth to an exceptionally beautiful boy named Narcissus. Liriope, concerned about the welfare of such a beautiful child, consulted the prophet Tiresias regarding her son's future. Tiresias told Liriope that Narcissus would live to a ripe old age, "if he didn't come to know himself."

In the tale, Narcissus became a noted hunter from the territory of Thespiae in Boeotia, who was renowned for his beauty and his self conceit. As a young man, in his sixteenth year, this exceptional pride caused him to hate all of those who attempted to love him as a suitor although everyone wanted his affection. He stubbornly spurned them all.

Echo, a nymph, still fell in love with the vain youth Narcissus. One day while Narcissus was hunting deer in the woods, the smitten Echo built up her courage, called out, showed herself, and rushed to embrace the lovely youth. He pulled away from the nymph and vainly told her to leave him alone.

Thus, Narcissus left Echo heartbroken and she spent the rest of her life in lonely glens, pining away for the love she never knew, until only her voice remained. It was told that not even her bones remained, having been turned into stone, and that her voice remained but was made utterly brief (an echo) by the anger of Hera (the Queen of Heaven who walked in golden sandals, and always remained a virgin, for she recovered her maidenhood every year by bathing in a spring called Canathus in Argolis - quite a revengeful queen who blamed talkative Echo for creating ruses to let other nymphs dally with her husband, Zeus). 
But before her death, Echo prayed to the goddess of love, Venus, to take revenge on Narcissus for rejecting her so. Venus heard this prayer and sent Narcissus his punishment.

As divine punishment he was made to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool, not realizing it was merely an image.

Narcissus brought his lips near to take a kiss from the water; he plunged his arms in to embrace the beloved object. It fled at the touch, but returned again after a moment and renewed the fascination. He could not tear himself away; he lost all thought of food or rest, while he hovered over the brink of the fountain gazing upon his own image. He talked with the supposed spirit: "Why, beautiful being, do you shun me? Surely my face is not one to repel you. The nymphs love me, and you yourself look not indifferent upon me."

And, he wasted away to death from starvation or excessive self-love, not being able to leave the beauty of his own image.

As he died, the bodiless Echo came upon him and felt sorrow and pity. But when they prepared his funeral pyre, they could not find his body. Instead they found the narcissus flower that today bears his name. His soul was sent to "the darkest hell." It is said that Narcissus still keeps gazing on his image in the waters of the river Styx in the underworld.

It seems the words of the profit came true - Narcissus didn't come to know himself. His insistent love for his own reflection, a false image of a person, sealed his fate. The myth speaks of the terrible importance humans place on self-love and ego. And, it sadly describes the search for perfection, a state of unattainable degree. Perhaps the only remnant of a true love for flawlessness is a brief echo in a wise life.  

"What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away, and the object of your love will be no more. That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own. With you it comes, with you it stays, and it will go with you ..." (Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.433).

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