Friday, January 14, 2011

The myth of Narcissus and Echo

The story of Narcissus and Echo has a pervasive presence in Western cultures. The essence of the myth perhaps gives us a clue as to why this story has intrigued many artists and philosophers over the millennia.

At the heart of this story is two lovers. Narcissus who can not return love as he is enamoured by his own self-image, and Echo who can not express love as she can only repeat the last words that are spoken to her by another, i.e., she cannot generate her own expressive language.

Narcissus can be seen as withdrawn from reality. He is locked in his own head so to speak, and is driven by an extreme ego. Echo, on the other hand suffers from a complimentary condition, in that she can only reflect what others have already spoken to her.

Narcissus enters the scene after her jealous mother, Hera, has already struck Echo speechless. He cannot relate to Echo’s amorous advances towards him, and eventually scorns her. She wanders and fades away only ever being able to repeat what others have said to her. This ability survives on after she has finally faded to nothing. He, on the other hand, continues to roam unawares that he too has been cursed, so that on seeing his own self-image he too will perish.

I am intrigued by this failure of reciprocity of the sense. Echo is too obsessed with the other; she has become totally reliant on the other to reach any expressive potential at all. Narcissus, because he is so self-obsessed that he fails to respond to the human expressivity of her advances, rejecting her out of hand because of her lack of articulateness.

Finally, upon seeing the ‘real’ Narcissus reflected in the pond, he is overcome by shock at his own image, having only ever seen himself before in his vain mind’s eye. His egoism detaches him from all of his sense of the world around him making him incapable of reading the advances of the beautiful Echo correctly. He dies and turns into a flower, a symbol of female sexuality reminiscent of the vulva (after Gidé).

Echo can also overcome the one-way street of her senses. She can only receive but not give, or rather can only return after she has first received. Narcissus can only give but cannot receive, so that a co-dependency is established in their meeting and with disastrous consequences for bot male and female protagonists.

The senses in a healthy human are both reciprocal and reversible (after Maurice Merleau-Ponty). Reciprocity occurs when I touch in that the very act requires that I am also touched; when I speak I also listen; when I see I am seen, etc.. These are the reciprocal nature of the functioning and aware human senses.

The senses are also reversible. I can touch with my words and with my sight. That piece of cloth looks woollen or silken. That food looks and smells as if it will taste good. This chiasm of sensation is absent at least on one level with these mythological characters.

For this reason, over the coming months, Samantha Thompson and I will be exploring this absence, looking for its implications in the telling of this story in pictures and words, and hopefully, contributing to our understanding not only of the myth, but of ourselves as fractured human beings.