Monday, November 1, 2010

O spring like crystal!
If only, on your silver surface,
you would suddenly form
the eyes I have desired,
which I bear sketched deep within my heart.
~John of the Cross
Spiritual Canticle

The myth of Narcissus tells the story of a beautiful young man courted by many women but incapable of returning the affection of even one. The goddess Nemesis takes pity on one of his rejected suitors and determines that Narcissus should fall in love with himself and remain unable to reciprocate, thus cursing him with the unrequited love that had afflicted his cortege of spurned lovers.

The next time Narcissus catches a glimpse of his reflection in a pond, lo and behold, he is transfixed by the sight of himself. Enamored by his own appearance, he cannot leave the pond and perishes trying to embrace his elusive reflection on the water.

This myth is about conceit. It was conceit that prevented Narcissus from loving anyone and conceit that, in the end, led him to embrace a mirage.

Conceit comes from the word conceive, meaning to fashion in one’s mind and, etymologically at least, does not suggest a moral flaw as much as it does a form of delusion. In fact, Narcissus was helplessly trapped inside a solipsistic bubble. Tragically, he lived exiled from the world until love drove him “out of his mind”.

Tereisias had prophesied that Narcissus’ life would end prematurely if he should come to know himself. It was indeed in death that Narcissus transcended the mirror that separated him from his beloved and that he finally knew himself for who he was.

Ancient myths are full of tragic heroes who only come to see the light in darkness or go blind before they see, of lovers that are out of their senses and beggars that are really kings. Tereisias himself was blind, as was Oedipus. And Socrates, who was considered the wisest man in Greece, identified with Eros, the vagabond and drifter. They wandered among the lost and wounded, denuded and unprotected but driven, like Narcissus, by unrequited love. Only among the bereft, so it seems, does the light of wisdom strike.