Metamorphoses: II. Narcissus and Echo

Metamorphosis of Narcissus
“Metamorphosis of Narcissus” by Salvador Dali

I find the myth of Narcissus fascinating, and Dali’s interpretation, more than any other artist’s, seems to have captured its meaning, from the philosophical and psychological perspective.

Plato writes that, if there is no substance and permanence, if everything is constantly in flux and changing, knowledge and love would be impossible, not only because there would be nothing there to be known and loved, but also because it’s impossible to know that which ceases to exist soon after it comes into existence.

This is the dilemma of existence that Narcissus found himself in.

Before Narcissus was born, the seer Tiresias predicted that he would live to adulthood only “if he never know himself”, contrary to the Delphic maxim “know thyself”. Narcissus saw himself for the very first time in the reflection of a pool, and being captured by his own beauty, he sought in vain to lay hold of his own image. But his reflection was like the Echo, which shared his elusive form but not his substance, and could neither affirm nor reciprocate love.

Narcissus: The Impossibility of Self-Love

How often did he offer vain kisses on the elusive pool?
How often did he plunge his arms into the water
seeking to clasp the neck he sees there,
but did not clasp himself in them!
What he sees he knows not ; but that which he sees he burns for,
and the same delusion mocks and allures his eyes.

Whoever you are, come forth hither!
Why, O peerless youth, do you elude me ? or whither
do you go when I strive to reach you? …Some ground
for hope you offer with your friendly looks, and when
I have stretched out my arms to you, you stretch
yours too. When I have smiled, you smile back ; and
I have often seen tears, when I weep, on your cheeks.
My becks you answer with your nod ; and, as I sus-
pect from the movement of your sweet lips, you
answer my words as well, but words which do not
reach my ears. — Oh, I am he ! I have felt it, I know
now my own image. I burn with love of my own
self; I both kindle the flames and suffer them. What
shall I do ? Shall I be wooed or woo ? Why woo at
all ? What I desire, I have ; the very abundance of
my riches beggars me. Oh, that I might be parted
from my own body ! and, strange prayer for a lover,
I would that what I love were absent from me ! And
now grief is sapping my strength ; but a brief space
of life remains to me and I am cut off in my life’s
prime. Death is nothing to me, for in death I shall
leave my troubles ; I would he that is loved might live
longer ; but as it is, we two shall die together in one
breath.

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2 thoughts on “Metamorphoses: II. Narcissus and Echo

    1. Echo, who is central to Ovid’s version of the myth, was left out of Caravaggio’s painting. So I chose not to use it, but it does have merits of its own. 🙂

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