Perhaps no myth is more misunderstood than the story of Narcissus, who is erroneously thought to be self-absorbed, egotistical, and vain. Adding to the confusion, a growth industry on narcissism has emerged in academic circles. case in point: Professor Daniel Ames of columbia business School devised a brief personality test with sixteen binary choices such as “I am going to be a great person” or “I hope I am going to be successful.”1 One student did so “well” that he boasted of his perfect score—a clear manifestation of disturbing egotism!2 In his way, Freud set the stage for this modern obsession with the self. He theorized that narcissists love either what they are, what they were, what they’d like to be, or someone who was once part of them3—leading them to treat their own bodies like sex objects (Freud, p. 3). Interpretations like these stretch beyond recognition the actual story, handed down by Ovid in Metamorphoses.4 As we will see, Narcissus is deluded rather than vain, and his tale functions as a curious allegory of an artist’s compulsive excursion into the self.
Portending the madness to come, Ovid tells us that Narcissus’s very conception was violent. The river god Cephisus rapes a water nymph named Liriope5 “in the folds of his sinuous stream.”6 From the outset, Narcissus’s heritage is insubstantial and fluid, literally and figuratively, despite his rare physical beauty. Liriope consults the blind prophet Teiresias to determine if the infant will enjoy a long life. “Yes,” he tells her, “so long as he never knows himself” (Ovid, p. 109)—an ironic reference to the “know thyself” edict at Delphi. Thus the boy’s longevity will depend on ignorance and delusion. [End Page 273]
As Narcissus grows to manhood, “legions of lusty men and bevies of girls” want to enjoy his body, but his “hard and proud” heart is unmoved (Ovid, p. 109). He sublimates his energy into hunting and blithely chases a deer into the nets, auguring the trap he will soon set for himself. Meanwhile, a mountain nymph named Echo has been watching. Like Narcissus’s mother, she has experienced the violence of the gods. We learn that Juno, the great Jupiter’s long-suffering queen, is suspicious of her straying husband and tries to catch him in the act with one of the mountain nymphs he favors. Echo takes it upon herself to distract the queen with an endless stream of chitchat so that Jupiter’s lover can escape unseen. Once Juno realizes that she has been deceived, she puts a curse of near silence on the chatterbox. From that point on, Echo can only repeat words that others have spoken, and just the last few at that.
Her voice may be compromised, but her lust for Narcissus is robust as it flares like sulfur near flame. She longs to express her passion, but cannot. Instead she has to “wait for the sounds which her voice could return to the speaker” (Ovid, p. 111). When Narcissus calls, “Is anyone there?” she can reply only, “One there.” She becomes his all-but-mute muse, reflecting only the last words of his remarks and deceiving him with the reproduction of his own voice. For Narcissus, this is solipsism at its worst: imprisonment in an aural womb of reverberation without inspiration. This “acoustic mirror,”7 returning his “fragmented thoughts… as enigmatic expressions,” in effect representing his unconscious.8
Despite this pathological introversion, Narcissus is nonetheless attracted to Echo. He calls out, “We must come together,” and Echo copies his words with evident joy in her voice. She bursts out of the forest with arms outstretched, but Narcissus reverts to form and recoils in horror. “May I die before you enjoy my body,” he tells her (Ovid, p. 111). Her ironic rejoinder is “enjoy my body.” Scorned and rejected, “with burning cheeks,” she withdraws to the forest to brood in secluded caves, where her skin shrivels and dessicates. At first she is reduced to a voice and bones, and finally to nothing but a voice...