Narcissus and Echo is a particularly rich example, among several in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, of a beautiful youth who died as a result of spurning sex. In Ovid's retelling of the myth, Narcissus is the son of Cephissus, the river god and the nymph Liriope. The seer Tiresias foretold that the child "would live to an old age if it did not look at itself." While many nymphs and girls fell in love with him, he rejected them all.
One such nymphs, Echo, became so distraught that she withdrew to a lonely spot and faded until all that was left was a plaintive whisper. Meanwhile the rejected girls’ prayers for vengeance reached the goddess Nemesis, who caused Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection. He remained transfixed by his reflection until he died. It is possible that the connection between Echo and Narcissus was an invention of Ovid, since there do not seem to be any earlier instances of the Narcissus myth which incorporate Echo.
This myth lends itself to extensive and adventurous literary interpretation. When Narcissus eliminated the distance between his image and its reflection by touching the water with his face, the distance disappeared and took the image with it, as the water rippled and broke the reflected into pieces. The desire, however, remained, not disappearing with any distance covered by his attempts to escape it, and his difficulty with his passion for himself was not solved. The story is compelling to artists because it is about the power of sight, its dangers and its rewards. For Narcissus, salvation is possible as extension of distance, not as elimination of it. If he can cease to see his own image he will be saved but is precisely the need to see his face that is compelling and destroying him. As Angel Angelov writes,
“Narcissus’ face is a metonymy of integrity, enraptured by its reflected self. The general paradox upon which the story is built comprises various details – in this case, the simultaneity of shapelessness and fixed contour – Narcissus’ image on the water surface was cut like chiseled Paros marble. Certainly, we can think about Alexandrinian influence (getting petrified because of amazement) but also about the Roman practice of sculpting, creating firm outlines. However, the presence in a definite social environment considered eternal, is a characteristic that is contrary to the out-social transience of Narcissus’ reflection.”
In "Narcissus: the mirror of the text." Philip Hardie explores various ideas around Narcissus as a post-modern signifier. The surface of water, that fragile barrier, becomes a Lacanian mirror and operates as an interface between Self and Other, dividing reality and illusion, as Narcissus, just like the reader, confronts an image that can never be real, but representative only of the viewer’s unfulfilled desire. Hardie argues that the story of Narcissus and Echo is Ovid’s cautionary treatise on the dangerously deluding, deceptively subjective property of sight and sound.
Narcissus as "Lucretian fool" and "Lucretian lover" will be the victim of "simulacral delusions," a frustrated lover situated ironically in a bountiful, pastoral landscape filled with false promise; inappropriately wistful even after his acknowledgement that the Other can only ever be a hollow reflection of the Self. According to this reading, all hope of something extraneous to the self, something objective, to love and life, is prohibited by this tale’s morality. The story is essentially tragic and ontologically didactic: indeed Ovid’s Theban histories are infused with the theme of empty signifiers and the dangers of useless introspection. Indeed the story’s equation of the bewitching power of sight with the sight of oneself has inspired recent writers to construct a kind of literary psychosis to describe the subjective subject,
“The eye would be about the 'I,' the subject, part of a monocular system perpetuating an illusion of wholeness, an Imaginary dyad, a tradition of the eye/'I' that would move through Kant, Husserl, and Merleau-Ponty, while the ear would be aligned with the other, with a fragmentary existence cut across by the Symbolic, by having subjectivity determined by and through an other,”
It has been said that the product of every metamorphosis is an absent presence, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Narcissus/Echo episode, a story irresistible to artists transfixed with the metaphysical paradoxes and word games.
One artist well known for his precocious interest in semiotics was Nicholas Poussin. Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus depicts, unusually, a trio of figures in a triangular formation. Narcissus lies prone across the base, limp but muscular, his face a mask of sadness, his eyes empty. Echo behind him resembles a Greek statue, History, perhaps, again posing strangely in a balleric semaphor of sorrow. In fact, for all the story’s appeal Echo and Narcissus poses an obvious challenge to artists: Echo is said to have wasted away until only her voice was left. But a voice is rather difficult to represent in painting.
From the outset, then, the story demands that mimetic pictorial realism must be suspended. The story gives artists like Poussin free license to create symbolic, literary pieces, with figures whose bodies are sculpted and whose faces are masks. We have seen how the image lends itself to ontological paradoxes, and it could be argued that the putti, the third figure in this image, is a kind of representation of the artist’s presence inside his own artificial world. The putti carries a flaming torch, and stands next to a spear, clear indicators, Michael Fried would argue, of the artist’s palette and paintbrush.
The art historian Michael Fried’s writing synchronises very well with the Echo and Narcissus myth, as it could well be characterized as the doomed ambition to structure impossible desire. Poussin’s works present a displaced metaphor for the mental and physical effort of painting. Thus Fried’s theory takes the anti-mimetic definition of realism one step further- although painting does not have to relate to what it depicts, it will resist immediacy, but relate in specific indirect ways to the person who depicts it. For Poussin, the impossible, yet desired, merger is one of inscriber and inscribed; for Ovid it is one of reader and listener. An erotics of the word and image is then as inevitable as one of ear and eye.
The theory and this image are equally concerned with symmetry. In order to set up an erotics of the graphical and the visual, a symmetrical theoretical framework is necessary and Cropper and Dempsey find Fried’s writings on Courbet a useful guide to Poussin,
“ - that active creating and passive beholding was the dualism and tension at the heart of dramatic discourse- present within it and composing its whole being. Man as bearer, woman as object, having the image and being it; activity/passivity, possessing (male) and lacking (female) in each case the first privileged, historically and the second subordinate.”
This female lack is quite apparent in the story of Echo and Narcissus: Echo’s physical presence is completely obliterated by Narcissus’s refusal to look. It is as though Narcissus’s gaze is all that sustains the female form. Echo’s erotics can be determined through repeated study of the symbolic play around the “hollow” of women. In Poussin, Waterhouse, and Claude, Echo is an erotic nude, and nudes are irresistibly associated with the technology of painting (Caravaggio and Dali, equally significantly, leave her out of the composition altogether). Fried’s whimsical perception of women as paintbrushes, suggests that, at every level of consciousness, the writer is troubled by the vacuum at the centre of desire. His ideas about reflection are after all uncannily apt when applied to the representation of Echo and Narcissus,
“the sexual embrace is ‘blind’…there is also in the erotic works a phantom image of reflection, if we imagine a male body exactly covering the female one.” The term “reflection“ is being used in a double sense:
“the foreshortening of the trunk and upper body that makes the bacchante so tangible…less a provocation to possession than the form of a memory.”
Psychoanalysis corroborates ideas that this story is concerned with the fantasy of origination, origination as represented by the source- water. We may synchronise completely different painted scenes by presenting both pictures as representations of the Origin on the brink of being assaulted. All representations of Ovid’s Narcissus story play on the horizontal and vertical, where the horizontal is about to be disrupted by the weapons and interference of the vertical agent, but uses its only trick- reflecting- to paralyze the vertical agent, Narcissus. Fabre’s “Death of Narcissus” (1814) makes the axis contrast particularly explicit, as Echo stands bare and upright, signifying the desire to interact, while Narcissus lies prone on the ground, in love with the illusion he cannot even touch without destroying.
In a visual sense, then, the Echo and Narcissus story might be seen as a battle of vertical and horizontal, with the horizontal triumphing through restoring the vertical to itself. It is a warning from the represented to the viewer, it says- if you only look to yourself for love you will end up destroying everything, including yourself. Echo, of course, is another agent symbolically destroyed through the infinite semiosis (“echo”, after all) entailed through a lack of audience.
The still body of water in all the Echo/Narcissus representations is the same- or at least, linguistically symmetrical- to the fading body of Echo: both bodies are references to the origin, and the unconscious ambition to merge with the origin. The Freudian desire to merge with the source must disturb the way we perceive ourselves - in so far as we are reflections of our origins- but the irony for Narcissus is that he cannot see that the source is right in front of him, and it is only through disturbance that we can become aware of the source.
Any perfect reflection, with no material interference would prevent us from having no way of knowing that it was a reflection. Dali’s representation of this story (1937) features an egg cracking, with a flower breaking through: surely another clear signifier of the origin being broken through. It is only by the shell breaking that the flower can appear; but the transformation, interference, agency, comes at the price of Narcissus’ life.
At the exact centre of the painting is a lascivious group of figures slightly removed from the rest of the painting’s subject-matter. Described by Dali as a “heterosexual group” in attitudes of “preliminary expectation” they strike poses, admiring themselves in reflective water. The gathering recalls groups portrayed in Renaissance paintings, and probably signal the influence of Dali’s trips to Florence and Rome immediately before he began work on The Metamorphoses of Dali.
To the left of this group we find Narcissus kneeling in and looking down into, the pool of water that seems too dark to reflect his own image. In Dali’s surreal world this water does not need to reflect, does not need to be untouchable, because the rules of the fictional world must not be symmetrical with the rules of the real world, as we have seen they must in other kinds of art. So, the purpose normally served by unbreakable water, in representations of this myth, is here served by the broken egg. In the surreal world, Narcissus has always already penetrated the water, the egg is always already broken.
Through its surrealism, Dali’s image has sidestepped the responsibility of mimetic imagery to represent its own representation, and shortcuts directly to the subconscious and oedipal issues around origination. Having shed the responsibilities of mimesis, more so than any mimetic image, this surrealist painting can be read almost like a book for its semiotic value. Narcissus’s face, the cause of his vanity, self-absorption and self-reflection, is unseen in the image because it has literally gone forever.
To Narcissus’s right, a hand-like form holds the egg that Narcissus has metamorphosed into, and the hand repeats Narcissus’ form and posture so precisely that the sense this stands for Echo’s subtle presence in the painting is inescapable. The image of the egg is repeated in a number of other Dali paintings (Enigma of Desire, Geolyptical Child Watching the Birth of the New Man, Stage Set for Labyrinth). Again the literary precedes the visual, as literary games govern the picture: according to Dali, the flower-bearing egg was inspired by a Catalan saying, “he has a bulb in his head,” referring to a person afflicted with mental illness.
Hegel describes a child’s impulse to throw stones into a river: there is no reflection involved, none of the self-annihilating narcissism of “passive desiring seeing”, but a declared primacy of action over seeing. Hegel’s wording, “the continuity between ordinary action and the action of producing works of art is already implied by the image of the drawing of circles in the surface of the water.”
These circles are inscriptions of objects on flat planes that require a certain maturity of consciousness to interpret as the effects of a (manual) cause. In a later paragraph the message that the self is best quietly discovered through displaced descriptive action is completely inescapable,
“ the effacement of the very conditions of resemblance (the breaking of the mirror-surface of the river) also means that the boy’s relation to the spreading circles in the water might be described in Flaubertian language as ’present everywhere but visible nowhere’.”
The desire to identify with the origin, whether through disturbing the water or impersonating the father may always end in action, but it is only ever the action of wrenching open the facture of desire. Since Narcissus’s desire has always been perverse, the wrench is never achieved, the sexual act is never enabled- on any level of metaphor- and Narcissus must be granted enormous homoerotic power as an arrogant virgin turned tragic victim. This homoeroticism is inescapable in virtually every representation of Narcissus; part of the appeal must surely be his significance as an emblem of impossibility.
Narcissus is locked in an imaginary, unrequitable, and ultimately terminal love affair with himself as he appears on the surface of the water; we are locked in an imaginary, unrequitable love affair with his image, and the image of his image, as it appears on the canvas. So the lustful beholder is ejected from the image, and like Echo finds him or herself fading into insignificance in a cacophony of infinitely regressive semiosis engendered by our one-directional desire.
David Rokeby’s “Echoing Narcissus” (1987) is themed on precisely this sense of infinite desperation. The work is a well-like structure containing a microphone which records sounds made in its vicinity and replays them at a lower frequency. The sculpture is an “interactive sound-sculpture” covered in copper sheet and printed circuit boards. A reflective sheet of plastic is stretched over the speaker to create a distorting mirror at the bottom of the well, representing water. When a sound is picked up by the microphone it provides a delayed feedback which “causes all sounds to cascade toward the sub-audible range”. The result is a “sort of acoustic gravity which draws the spectator toward the well to be confronted with his or her own image, distorted at the bottom of the well.” Rokeby goes on,
“This work is a sort of black hole of communication into which the observer loses himself or herself in the infinite restructurings of voice and image.”
There does seem to be a proliferation of morally neutral Narcissus and Echo imagery in contemporary art. Perhaps modern man has more time on his hands, perhaps we are simply confronted with more homogenous imagery, more spectacles of consumerism striving to sell us identical images of people we should want to emulate or become. In 1999, Nadezhda Lyahova put on three exhibitions and one performance where the objects on display were masks made of various materials . The masks were unusual in that they were all cast from the artist’s face.
“Soapy Reflections”, the first exhibition, was displayed in the three halls of ATA Center for Contemporary Art. In the first hall, twelve cylindrical tin containers with porcelain lids were displayed on a table covered in purple velvet. Each tin contained “100% diluted author’s soap” and pieces of looped wire were attached to the vessels so gallery visitors could use the author’s soap for blowing bubbles. The authenticity of the product was certified, as initial letters (resembling a seal) and the artist’s signature and although the image of the “author” disintegrated into bubbles, the signature and the seal remained. Nadezhda Lyahova, perhaps significantly, did not label herself artist, but author – and the journey of image appears to have had Narcissus as a strong, if unconscious influence. After being reflected, it was resembled, after its reassemble, it began to dissolve in water, until it was ultimately washed away and gone forever.
Narcissus’ story, too, is about the paradox of the insoluble. While he rejected the love of many young women and men – indeed of any otherness (in terms of body, voice and image) and anything different to his own self. Upon seeing Echo (someone outside himself), he drove her back . Since it is impossible for Narcissus to tolerate otherness or difference to himself, the gender of the people who are in love with him is irrelevant. Narcissus was 16 years old and as such resembled, and in some senses was, a man and a boy at the same time. (III, 350-1 “Namque ter ad quinos unum Cephesius annum/Addiderat poteratque puer iuvenisque videri:”). “Intercourse” with himself is the impossibly desired.
The transformation of this particular story is one of possibilities. Perhaps each unfortunate star of the Metamorphoses myths becomes a symbol of what they already were, and in doing so, perishes. The transformation of the incidental characteristic into a synecdoche for the whole person grants immortal life as a sign at the price of physical existence. However, Narcissus is slightly different to many of the others in that his most significant transformation is incidental to his true torture. He wastes away and dies as a result of having his heart broken, the pain of unrequited love thus far outweighing the slow agonising death afforded by exposure to the elements and starvation. According to Baudrillard, the reason Narcissus suffers so much is because he is bewitched by the worst kind of spectre, and it is one which haunts our present, technological, society: duplication,
“All reproduction implies therefore a kind of black magic, from the fact of being seduced by one's own image in the water, like Narcissus, to being haunted by the double and, who knows, to the mortal turning back of this vast technical apparatus secreted today by man as his own image (the narcissistic mirage of technique, McLuhan) and that returns to him, cancelled and distorted -endless reproduction of himself and his power to the limits of the world. Reproduction is diabolical in its very essence; it makes something fundamental vacillate. This has hardly changed for us: simulation (that we describe here as the operation of the code) is still and always the place of a gigantic enterprise of manipulation, of control and of death.” Choose your essay topic at PhDify.com
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