John William Waterhouse’s Narcissus and Echo

It’s painful to listen to the increasingly frequent use of the term “narcissist” in my society. The adjective now fills the role of legalizing a kind of blanket negative judgment about another; I have never heard anyone call themselves a narcissist. “Narcissist” now expresses the often vague idea “someone who does not care as much about other people as I think they ought to.” Back home at the ranch, in our angry, betrayed, indignant or self-righteous psyches, what people seemingly often mean by ‘narcissist’ is “a*****e”. This is from my perspective, but then I’m old, so I have an excuse. “A*****e” is what we used to call people like that. Nothing fancy.

I admit that the concept itself is useful; it’s good to realize that some people really don’t have it in them to care about other people’s viewpoints and feelings and goals to the extent that would make them good for relating with us in particular ways. It’s good to know that some people are not very skilled at moving off the subject of “me”. It’s good to unhook from dependent relationship dynamics and cut the draggy old ball and chain of trying to please the un-pleaseable. Well done, very well done. I get it. Like the term PTSD, narcissism is a fairly harsh DSM category that has become popularized enough to be a descriptor for everyday usage. It’s a way of simultaneously saying “a*****e” and sounding like you know something about psychology, with all its big words and its 5 pound diagnostic manual. So be it; this is the linguistic growth imperative. And we all want to feel smart. I know I do. Obviously.

What bothers me is that I happen to know something that Freud seemingly did not: the myth of Narcissus is not a story of overweening ego development, but quite the opposite. It’s a story of enlightenment or dropping of top heavy ego material. You may have no inspiration whatsoever to be disabused of the popular perception of Narcissus’s myth, but if you are, read on! And remember, you heard it here first. Or maybe not. I certainly have never run across this particular interpretation anywhere else.

OK, let’s pull the trigger on this thing. I shall use Ovid’s version, as being the most complete. Ovid was actually Roman, but the Romans were pretty excited about classical Greek culture and also big on the written word, so they recorded lots of myth for posterity. Ovid’s version is bloated in places, seeing as how he was a poet and all, but it’s what we have- in English, anyway. The version/translation I’m using is here.

First point; the opening of a symbolic story sets up the angle from which we can view the rest of the tale. The beginning can be super important for interpretation purposes. The story begins with Narcissus’s Mom consulting a famous blind seer, Tiresias. She implores him “to tell her if her son, unequalled for his beauty, whom she called Narcissus, might attain a ripe old age.” To which the blind seer answered in these words, “If he but fail to recognize himself, a long life he may have, beneath the sun….”

This little prophecy says, most importantly, “This story is about recognizing oneself”. It’s an objective famous in the classical world that is usually translated to English as “Know thyself”, or the Socratic maxim “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Why would a wise man/megafamous seer be focusing on the physical version of self recognition, i.e. whether or not Narcissus knows that a mirroring surface displays his face? From my perspective, anyway, that’s just plain silly. The cultural lack of symbolic savvy surely explains why we believe these stories are fantasies, fit only for children, rather than wisdom tales. We can have a story about someone acting like an a*****e and then getting punished for it without any prophecies, anyway.

“Unequalled beauty” in symbolic story can mean several things, but in this case it’s pointing to the more-than-worldly. Exceptional physical beauty is figured philosophically, certainly in the classical Greco-Roman culture, as the heavenly realms shining through the body. A feeling of devotion and worship is certainly what those who are attracted to physical beauty often feel. We tend to relate to really beautiful people as though they are different, somehow higher on some divinity scale, than ourselves. We iconicize them, put them on the proverbial pedestal, which means we perceive them as more-than-human. Making a statue of something is already a way of saying “This is beyond mortal.”

And why does Tiresias bother adding the phrase, “under the sun”? Well, he’s drawing a distinction between the archetypally masculine, physically-focused human experience (under the sun), and a more inward-focused, soul-connected, archetypally feminine one. In short, Narcissus is going to die- to his old physically focused way of life. And that will happen when he “recognizes himself”; recognizes deeper, “underground” aspects of himself, that is. The sun as archetypally masculine power spurs activity, all the seeking or hunting in the beginning of the story. Hunting is Narcissus’s occupation before he comes to the fountain. And Narcissus is about to stop his constant archetypally masculine seeking under the sun.

Another point cogent to this article is that a lot of what we call narcissism is really excessive masculinity, a theory that plays very well symbolically. The primary quality of the sun is that it shines, it radiates. It just keeps saying “Me, me, me, me! Look how awesome I am! If you try to interact with me, I’ll just be all about me! Because that’s all I know how to do!” If you don’t like what people are radiating, then they are an a*****es, and yeah, sure, lots of people are not nice. They don’t play well with others, whether a person identifies as male or female.

I think this illustration is from Brother Eagle, Sister Sky by Chief Seattle, illustration Susan Jeffers

Lots of us who are lacking courage in the world, are effectively lacking sun energy. We are, like the feminine moon, always saying “You, you, you, you! If you tell me I am doing the wrong thing I will stop! Because it’s all about you! I care about you, that’s what I do!” For the moon has no inner light source discernable to the human eye. It is, like the fountain Narcissus gazes into, reflective. And let’s face it, haha; if you do the moon thing, nobody will think you are an a*****e, because their negative judgment meter, their protective shields, will not activate if you make it all about them. You are always like a dog showing its belly.

So I hope to convince you the myth is NOT about Narcissus A. never having looked into a reflective surface in his life before, and when he finally does, B. he doesn’t know it’s him, and then C. he dies, because he is not just a very well known a*****e who refuses to share his beautiful body with all and sundry, but a fatally delusional one.

Sun/Sol, from a fifteenth century manuscript

Next important symbolism bone Ovid throws us is that Narcissus is at the time of the consultation, “fifteen, (who) might seem a man or a boy.” This “man or a boy” thing is repeated twice, and so mentioned 3 times. Why? It’s a clue to the symbolist to perk up and pay attention when something appears three times. The storyteller is giving us a nod and a wink that this story is about a boy becoming a man. It’s a story about human self development, human maturity! Simple, from the symbolic interpretation angle. In fact I believe this story could have been used somewhere, sometime, as a framework for male initiation rites, similar to the megafamous Eleusinian rites based on the myth of Demeter and Persephone.

Having set up some basics for interpreting the story, Ovid moves on to Echo. Echo is an interesting deity, who was actually a goddess in older times, pre-Hellenic if I recall correctly. As a goddess, it seems that her worship might have involved the use of sound, of isolation echo chambers. This is not surprising, since hearing is the most obvious archetypally feminine sense; sight is the masculine one. Quanyin (Chinese/Asian deity) on the personality level was a woman who attained enlightenment through a certain kind of listening, and that style of meditative listening to the cosmos was her teaching.

The Nymph Echo by Fritz Ilg

Now by the time of this myth, goddess Echo had obviously been demoted, to a “noisy nymph” who can only echo the words of another; “…a noisy Nymph who never held her tongue when others spoke, who never spoke till others had begun.” A nymph is an immanent energy in nature, a nature spirit. Note that Echo, like the moon, can no longer radiate, or self express. She can only bounce back, or reflect, the expression of others. How she got into this pickle is next explained in a little mini-myth featuring Juno, the Roman version of Greek Hera.

Juno/Hera is a mother goddess in the sense of the householding woman. She’s famous for getting upset with Jove/Zeus/Jupiter for philandering, because it is her job to defend family unity, to keep the family together. Women go through the shift in roles from maiden, basically, to householding mother when they birth a child. They may struggle in some way with this transition, as it seems Juno did. There may be a resounding KLUNK in new mothers’ psyches that manifests as depression or anxiety. They must drop some of their self identity so they are not in psychic conflict between maidenly days and their new role.

When Juno was young, Echo used to entertain, enthrall “that glorious goddess with her endless tales, till many a hapless Nymph, from Jove’s embrace, had made escape adown a mountain.” Juno, as householder, is no longer free to lovingly partner with Nature (Echo), with Gaia, though we are all theoretically born doing so. Householders can’t afford to pay attention to nature, is the symbolism here. They must ignore its metaphorical voice in their ear. This nature voice is archetypally feminine, as Gaia is the feminine principle, therefore it’s depicted as a nymph pairing with the masculine, the husband.

When we skip to the level of myth that assumes Juno’s experience is a mockup of human experience, her husband is symbolically her inner masculine. The Greek myths are just the absolute bomb for the purpose of self inquiry, which is why they have crept into psychology; their exploits describe very well our human psyches. And Juno’s inner masculine is naturally attracted to this partnering with Nature, an attraction that actually manifests in human society as men’s physical attraction to women, OR, in some cases, an attraction to men who present with very feminine traits.

Juno proclaims to the nature spirit Echo in her inner theater, “Your tongue, so freely wagged at my expense, shall be of little use; your endless voice, much shorter than your tongue.” Whatever voices Juno had in her head in support of the youthful freedom that the wild world promotes, have now been silenced. She is a mother, a wife, and has much to attend to. If nothing else, she is responsible for maintaining a monogamous relationship, in a society that configures family inheritance along male genetic lines.

What we have in Echo’s seeming sidetrip is kinda cool, and a not uncommon theme in Greek myth; it’s about the conflict between the householder and the pastoral, about complicated, controlled and controlling human civilization vs. Nature. This bit about Juno and Echo informs us that this conflict is indeed a primary theme in Narcissus’s tale. The “narcissism” (I prefer vanity) naturally follows from silencing the inner, and therefore outer, voices of nature. And the myth has just given us one very practical reason that this often happens; our attention has been diverted.

The chart below is a bit askew, symbolically speaking, but works in general. There are many different kinds of power; power is everywhere, though in my society we don’t call anything feminine a power. What they are getting at under their Yang heading is “power over”, masculine hierarchically ordered power. Feminine power is “power with”, represented in the word ‘oneness’ under the Yin heading. Wise human development is inclined towards the integration of these two, so that they may happily coexist, and then there is another sort of power. Wisdom is being capable of holding both in consciousness simultaneously, the “Integration of yin and yang” on the chart.

Our society, our building and maintaining of complex civilizations, causes us to focus on human experience to such an extent that Gaia’s voice is but an echo- who needs her? She gets in the way. We are so disconnected from Nature that we experience it only in human terms- a sort of echo of our own thoughts. That’s what I call vanity. For those who lead the highly civilized life, Nature appears only in mind-created forms, in the “language” or relational behaviors of the disconnected human. Gaia’s language, her voice, the voice of the unified soul, is lost.

In my society, this relationship echo manifests in the way we commonly interact with Nature through media, for example. We get used to the idea of connection, believing it’s happening when we use words (usually so-called facts) and images (film and photos), all sight-oriented. When we use our archetypally masculine intellectual minds (represented in the story by Narcissus’s words) to relate to nature, the relationship always follows our will. In that we are no longer partnered with it, no longer capable of loving it, Jove/Zeus’s rolling in the hay with the nymphs.

There’s not a lot of connection to nature, really, in a film about nature. Not really. It’s a lot about us, and what we want, Gaia as dancing monkey, edited so we don’t get bored, the best shots and the cute behaviors and the kind of information that interests us, like sexual intercourse and eating. We coopt animal lives, Nature’s voice, in a sense, and translate it into our language. In the case of children’s shows and zoos etc., the take home is that Nature is there for our entertainment. That is an unspoken belief that conditions the unwary to an overweeningly anthropocentric relationship, Narcissus’s “narcissism”.

Next post will continue the interp.