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Publicly Available Published by De Gruyter August 18, 2017

Narrating Narcissus, reflecting cognition: Illusion, disillusion, “self-cognition” and “love as passion” in Ovid and beyond

  • Almut-Barbara Renger EMAIL logo


Since Ovid’s version of the Narcissus narrative, numerous readings and re-narrations have emerged across the globe that are related to the ancient myth of the beautiful youth who unwittingly sees himself in a pool of water and eventually dies staring at the insubstantial image. Generating a wide spectrum of reinterpretations of values, ideas, and aesthetic aspects inherent in the ancient narrative, its reception history has continued to elicit some of the most diverse intellectual responses to Greek and Roman mythology, each of them reflecting the cultural context in which they were produced. The present article is devoted to this issue, providing introductory perspectives on the Ovidian narrative and its ramifications by giving particular examples, especially of works taking up central themes of Ovid’s version, such as reflection and deception, illusion and (self-)cognition, passionate love for another and the incurable desire for oneself. Sensitive to the cultural contexts out of which the examples emerge, the paper conceptually frames the topics of narrative and narcissism, and contextualizes them by drawing on insights from several theoretical strands and academic disciplines.

1 Introduction

Long regarded as repertoires of universal motifs, plots, and structures, Greek and Roman mythology have consistently proven their versatility and applicability within specific historical and cultural contexts. For Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), a philosopher whose work was doubtlessly motivated by mythic aspirations, the rich and varied collection of narrative material that stems from Greco-Roman mythology provides nothing less than “a schema in which almost any train of thought [Gedankengang] may find illustration.”[1] That is to say, mythology marks the “path” or “passageway” [Gang] of thought’s expression.

The countless appropriations and interpretations of mythic narratives from antiquity to the present day corroborate Schopenhauer’s assessment, insofar as they lend themselves to an extraordinary range of cognitive, moral, and aesthetic ends, marking out the “way” for formulating ideational and emotional content. Myth has therefore long provided a profound source for reflection on the meaning of human experience. As Hans Blumenberg (1988 [1979]: 215–216) observes, “Myth, as it was transmitted by the ancient world’s texts, excited, propelled, impregnated, and stimulated the imagination and the formal discipline of the European literatures in a unique way [...].” The power of mythic narrative may lie precisely in the tension between its general influence and the “unique way” this influence is exerted. One might go so far as to say that the reception history of ancient myth is reducible to this single function: namely, to allow particular differences to be mirrored in the universal and thus reveal a “way” or “path” toward identity.

Perhaps for this reason, the story of Narcissus, which may once have had a cultic background,[2] has frequently served as the exemplary myth – as the myth of myth itself. To this day, among artists, writers, and scholars, the plight of Narcissus has continued to elicit some of the most diverse intellectual responses of any of the ancient plots. Ever since the canonical version by Ovid (43 BC–17/18 AD) in his poem of transformation (Metamorphoses 3: 339–512), this story – of the beautiful youth who disdains those who desire him, only to fall passionately in love himself when he catches sight of his own reflection in the mirrored surface of a pool – has been the subject of adaptations and revisions.[3] Many later appropriations and interpretations of the narrative have offered variations on its themes of reflection and (first-person) identity, deception and illusion, (self-)recognition and death, desire and rejection, the excessive love for another and the incurable love for oneself – as well as the motif of the flower, discovered in place of Narcissus’ body (pro corpore, 509) after his death.[4] Throughout most of these variations, Narcissus is faced with or joined by (one or) a number of unrequited lovers of either gender. The best known of these is the nymph Echo[5]– most probably Ovid’s own contribution to the mythic plot.[6] Depending on the intentions of the author, the implied audience or readership, and the particular circumstances of its production and reception, the basic Narcissus story is embellished with supplemental figures and deities, each of whom serves a particular function. The diversity of these variations is reflected in the rich secondary literature on the Narcissus myth, which employs the story to explore and test aspects of philology and literary theory, philosophy, and psychology.[7]

This paper provides an introduction to works that have adapted the central themes of the Narcissus myth: reflection and deception, illusion and cognition, passionate love for another and the incurable desire for oneself. After first delving into Ovid’s version in the Metamorphoses, I give examples of its ramifications, particularly in works from the turn of the twentieth century, for it is then that Narcissus, poetically coming into his own, found his way into modern, and thence postmodern, theories of the self. Out of these then grew theoretical speculations on the concept of narcissism, which remains the most influential of all productive (mis)readings of the myth. Subsequently returning to Ovid, I conclude with remarks on the issues of self-cognition and the reflexivity of love, following the “trains of thoughts” put forward by Schopenhauer, and by Niklas Luhmann (1927–1988) in Love as passion (1986).

2 Illusion and disillusion – from an ancient mirror image to contemporary digital reflection

The most widely received version of the myth is the one formulated by Ovid. While other Greek and Roman renderings of the myth – such as those in prose by Conon (first century BC/first century AD), author of the Dihēgḗseis (Narrations), or Pausanias (second century AD), famous for his Periḗgēsis Helládos (Description of Greece) – tell the story very briefly,[8] Ovid elaborates at length on events and figures by using stylistic means particularly associated with the themes. The link Ovid’s text creates between reflection, desire, cognition, and death exerted a strong influence on writers and artists of later generations, rising to special prominence in post-ancient times: Having become one of the most revered Latin authors by the late twelfth century, Ovid was credited with supplying the narrative that served as the model for all subsequent work on the Narcissus material throughout the Middle Ages and the early modern period.[9] Countless new renderings of ancient myths were inspired by the Metamorphoses during these periods, and even today, writers and artists whose reference point is antiquity still focus on his version of the Narcissus myth.[10]

2.1 Narrating Narcissus – Ovid’s myth of illusion and disillusion

The story, ornamented with much detail, is found in Book Three of the Metamorphoses, which is devoted to stories from the Theban cycle of legends.[11] According to this narrative, Tiresias, the blind seer of Thebes, was once asked whether Narcissus, son of the nymph Liriope and the river-god Cephisus, would live to a ripe old age. Tiresias replied that it was possible, provided the boy never came to know himself. Barely sixteen years old, Narcissus aroused the passions of many young men and women, all of whom, however, he rejected. While Conon refers to the “very persistent and importunate” male lover Ameinias, who killed himself (with a sword Narcissus sent him) at the very door of the beloved’s house, “after earnestly beseeching the god to avenge him,”[12] Ovid focuses on the young maiden Echo, a mountain nymph who had been punished by Juno for her excessive chatter. One day, it dawned on the goddess that Echo’s long conversations were a ruse to distract her while her husband Jupiter went off on his sexual exploits. Furious, Juno condemned the nymph to silence, except to repeat the last words she had heard. When she encounters Narcissus, then, she is able only to repeat his utterances.

By making Echo part of the Narcissus myth, Ovid sets into play a beautiful but tragic complementarity: the boy whose relation to the other will in fact be a relation to the same is matched by a maiden whose speech is only capable of returning the same. Echo “catches sight” of Narcissus and “burns” with desire – vidit et incaluit (371) – yet, limited in the power of her voice, she is doomed to woo him from a distance by echoing his voice. Narcissus, mistaking her curtailed speech for those of his hunting partners, calls for them to “come together” (‘coeamus’, 386, 387), which Echo in turn misunderstands as an expression of reciprocated desire. Inspired by this signal for coitus, she boldly approaches and tries to embrace Narcissus. She is harshly rejected:

He runs, and says on the run,

“Take your hands off! I’ll die before I let you have me!”

And Echo comes back with nothing but “Have me!”[13]

Immediately understanding the deception of reflected words, she withdraws, her hopes dashed, to consume herself in her passion, gradually turning into stone. Faded to nothing but a voice, she lives on in the woods, unseen, but heard by all: “It is the sound which lives in her” (sonus est, qui vivit in illa, 401). Even today, the Echo resounds.

By appending the Echo narrative to the Narcissus story, Ovid sets into motion a complex but symmetrical structure. The essence of this scheme can be roughly sketched out as follows:

Figure 1 The narrative’s pattern “delusion – revelation – understanding” © Renger (1999: 266)
Figure 1

The narrative’s pattern “delusion – revelation – understanding” © Renger (1999: 266)

The two tripartite phases of delusion and understanding are symmetrically reflected across the line of disillusion – the revelation that the hope of requited love was based on deception. The individual stages in the phases of delusion and understanding – three on each side, leading up to and away from disillusion – act as mirror images of each other, with the moment of revelation as the mirror itself. The beginning of the experience of love (catching sight) reflects its end (death), the emergence of the passion of desire reflects the wasting away with it, and the self-abandonment to illusion that the passion might become reality reflects the disillusionment. In other words, illusion and reality are refracted in disillusion. The illusion – the deceptive hope that love will be fulfilled – is established when the object of desire, Narcissus, is sighted, and in this moment, this “blink of an eye,” the course of the story is set. From this moment emerges the inflaming passion of the onlooker and her abandonment to the illusion of fulfilled love. And in this moment, too, her death, the extinguishing of her sight after the blazing fire of love, is anticipated.

This pattern fits both episodes in the same way. First, Echo becomes inflamed with passion for Narcissus, then the boy undergoes the same experience. Many admirers, we are told after the Echo episode, suffered the same indignity as the nymph, until one day another spurned lover raised his hands in prayer to Nemesis (Rhamnusia, 406), asking that the prudish boy suffer the pain of unrequited love himself, The goddess of vengeance acquiesces, and one day makes Narcissus fall for his own image reflected in a pool. Not realizing that he is looking at and longing for himself, Narcissus, like Echo before him, is inflamed with passion. He talks to the phantom, woos it, tries to kiss and embrace it. As he does so, just as Echo misinterprets the reflections of words in her dialogue with Narcissus, he misreads the reflection, which shows him the image of his own wooing, as proof of requited love, until he finally recognizes the delusion. Confronted with the reality, the impossibility of fulfillment in love, he is aghast, but still consumed by passion. He wastes away, yearning for his own image until finally, exhausted, he dies (and even in the Underworld continues to gaze at himself reflected in the Styx). According to Ovid, then, even his death is followed by wasting away with desire.

Both Echo and Narcissus, through their metamorphoses, are absorbed into nature. As for Echo, “all the moisture of her body fades into air” (in aëra sucus/ corporis omnis abit, 397–398) as she becomes nothing more than an echo. As for ardent Narcissus, he fades away, burning with love for himself “as yellow wax melts over a gentle flame” (ut intabescere flavae/ igne levi cerae, 487–488). Here already we see the allusion to the colors of the narcissus flower, to which there is explicit reference at the conclusion of the episode. We are told that when mourning nymphs came to bury Narcissus, they found in place of his body a flower with a yellow throat and white petals.

The two episodes are framed by the story of the Theban seer Tiresias: his temporary sex-change, his blinding, and his gift of second sight. The seer’s prophecy at the birth of Narcissus not only sets up the boy’s narrative, but ultimately furthers his own. It is said that Tiresias’ fame spreads widely as a result of his prophecy, a fact which prompts his foretelling of the death of Pentheus. This parenthetical frame enhances the already highly symmetrical structure of the Narcissus story, in which the progression from illusion to reality, broken by a moment of revelation or disillusionment, is enacted first by Echo and later, after the invocation of Nemesis, by Narcissus. The diagram below shows this in more detail, depicting the major elements of the narrative. Secondary or transitional passages, such as those illustrating Narcissus’ behavior towards others, are omitted for reasons of clarity:

Figure 2 The narrative’s parenthetical frame and symmetrical structure © Renger (1999: 269)
Figure 2

The narrative’s parenthetical frame and symmetrical structure © Renger (1999: 269)

As mentioned above, Ovid’s treatment in hexameters is the only extant ancient version to present the story of Narcissus in its entirety, not only in great detail but also with masterly artistry design. Other ancient testimonies are either written in prose or, where they are poetic, confined to a particular motif from the myth. In Ovid, by contrast, the episodes of Echo and Narcissus are ingeniously linked in form and content by the themes of reflection and fiery, unrequited passion.

Furthermore, illusion – the passing off of someone or something as reality – serves in Ovid as both a theme and a technique. The motif of reflection appears not only narratively and structurally in Echo and Narcissus’ illusory auditory and visual desires, but also in the poetics of the text itself. Ovid’s text creates illusions that refract at the very moment of their emergence; in this way, Ovid breaks the illusion of fiction itself. He portrays the fictional experiences of the fictional Narcissus with remarkable verisimilitude, yet simultaneously betrays his own mechanisms of illusion, revealing the construct of his fiction. This becomes most striking at one crucial point, when we believe that the narrator has been so taken in by the illusion of his own character, Narcissus, that he starts talking to the youth as a real person – in order to impress upon him that he, Narcissus, has been taken in by the illusion of a phantom image (432–435):

Gullible boy, grasping at passing images!

What you seek is nowhere. If you look away

You lose what you love. What you see is a shadow,

A reflected image, and has nothing of its own.[14]

In this way, Ovid plays with the poetological and rhetorical possibilities of illusion. He makes visible how closely both deception and delusion and revelatory imagination are bound up in illusion. No sooner is the illusion of the narrator’s emotional involvement created in the reader than it is destroyed. The sudden presence of the narrator in the text reinforces the fictional nature of the perfectly composed myth. The narrator’s apparent emotion is not transferred to the reader, but rather introduces a distance to the unhappy protagonist. That this distance is imposed at this stage of reflection in the plot – or in narratological terms, at this point in the narrative arc – constitutes a break of its own, for it is at this point that Narcissus’ illusion overcomes him with special violence.

Ovid holds fast to this method in his retelling of the story of the beautiful youth. The motif of illusion is deployed with poetic finesse for aesthetic purpose – and not for, say, an ethical one. Ovid narrates; he does not moralize. Unlike many later re-narrations of the myth, Ovid’s version does not express any scorn or particular moral stance towards Narcissus.

2.2 Re-narrating Narcissus through the centuries – mirrors and reflections

In the course of the richly varied reception history of the myth, authors in search of support for their own arguments have repeatedly drawn on the core of the Ovidian narrative, the motif of the visual and (as demonstrated in Ovid’s integration of the Echo story) acoustic doubling and mirroring.[15] Ovid’s version has furthermore been the primary source for philosophical and moralistic readings of Narcissus. Various versions of the myth, both ancient and post-ancient, present the mirror image as a picture of the soul, an ideal image, or an antic in the sense of an embodiment of the transient world of the senses. Beginning in late antiquity, as the Narcissus myth became overlaid with the philosophical ideas of Neo-Platonism, and Christian ethics in particular, it was often subjected to allegorical and moralizing readings. During the Middle Ages, for instance, Narcissus’ reflection became the symbolic mirror of destructive pride and vanity.[16] These developments notwithstanding, Narcissus never became “simply a negative exemplum warning against pride and self-love, but,” as Kenneth Knoespel (1985: 104) puts it, has always continued to serve as “a narrative inviting the resolution of deception through a new vision.”

Throughout the eighteenth century, a period decisive for the transposition of the myth into the modern worldview, morally charged interpretations of the myth largely disappeared. This development may be traced to the strange turn that affected the Narcissus narrative during the seventeenth century. Amusing parodies of mythological material began to appear, and the myth of Narcissus shuffled off its moral “corset.”[17] One famous example is the non-tragic treatment of the material in the comedy Narcisse ou l’amant de lui-même (premiered 1752, published 1753) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), himself often viewed as a kind of Narcissus in the late eighteenth-century aesthetic debate on autobiographical self-examination and self-representation. His Narcisse, a modern comedy of manners, deals with self-love arising from a deception. A young woman means to mock her vain brother and treat his vanity with a portrait of himself dressed as a girl. But her plan backfires when the conceited youth falls in love with the portrait and renounces his fiancée, until she rouses his jealousy and wins back his love.[18]

One reason the Narcissus narrative acquired new resonance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the emergence of the modern concept of the subject, as developed, for example, in the philosophies of René Descartes (1596–1650), John Locke (1632–1704), and Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). These new views of the subject informed various accounts of the self, and under their influence, a great abundance of poetic and theoretical texts in which Narcissus occupied a key position arose. Particularly important is the work of Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829), which interpreted the mythical youth as an exemplary figure of self-reflection by erasing the traditional accusation of vanity.[19] Many of the Narcissus texts that appeared during and after this period link the youth lost in contemplation of himself to the Romantic poet’s abjurement of the world, to the rejection of a society in thrall to industrialization. Faced with the banalization of social relations, the Narcissus story offered an opportunity to turn towards the personality of the self, towards dream, cult, and myth. Ultimately, in the work of German philosopher and social critic Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), particularly in Eros and Civilization (1955), Narcissus became a figure of longing, a representative of an alternative reality.[20]

Another important watershed in this development arrived at the turn of the twentieth century. In the late nineteenth century, Narcissus came to embody a form of deviance and a counter narrative asserted against the cultural order of ancestors and fathers.[21] At the fin-de-siècle, the essential elements of Ovid’s narrative came to be associated with the general themes of art/poetry and artist/poet, describing images of a world within and beyond paternal structures as characterized by what Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874–1924) called a morbide Narcissus-Schönheit (‘morbid Narcissus beauty’) (1979: 197). More and more texts appeared that treated the soul of the artist as a mirror of the world and that dealt with the problem of artistic self-reflection.[22] In this way, Narcissus became a symbol of the poet par excellence, only able to experience something of the world by sinking into himself. In works by Paul Valéry (1871–1945), André Gide (1869–1951), and Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), for instance, the mirror becomes a medium that helps to reveal authentic reality. Here, reflection has a revelatory function. Gide already expresses this programmatically in his 1891 Traité du Narcisse, in which the poet appears as a grandiose Narcissus, creating the world out of himself in his art. Reflection and self-knowledge are the dreamlike approaches to this creativity as traditional boundaries are transgressed.

Thus poetically coming into his own, around 1900, Narcissus found his way into modern, and thence postmodern, theories of the self as a case example of the problematics of modern subjectivity.[23] Overall, these theories are characterized by the insight that the subject constitutes no conclusive, essential coherence in relation to the object. Discussions therefore range across themes such as the double nature of the individual, gender transgression, the Sein-Ich‘being-I’ and the Schein-Ich‘seeming-I,’ the blurring of the subject-object boundary, and the riven nature of characters who are apparently sovereign in intellect, but held in check or even ruled by the unconscious.

These theoretical considerations also gave birth to the term “narcissism.” Neurologists and scholars of sexuality – Havelock Ellis (1859–1939) in the United States and Paul Näcke (1851–1913) in Germany – coined the neologism in the late nineteenth century to describe their diagnoses of nervous weakness, effeminacy, and homosexuality.[24] This culminated in Sigmund Freud’s (1856–1939) use of the term, whose implications varied greatly depending on context. Popularized in connection with the theory of libido, Freud’s concept of narcissism, as elaborated in his 1914 paper “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” suggests that the individual in infancy – at a stage without reference to the outside world – lives narcissistically to the extent that he or she invests all available libido into the ego. If the child does not overcome this “primary narcissism” by later developing libidinous relationships to the outside world, the subject suffers a state diagnosable as “secondary narcissism,” wherein the libido turns again toward the ego.[25] Freud regards secondary narcissism as a pathological development. When a subject, in choosing an object, prefers not himself but others like him, Freud reads this as a characteristic of homosexuality. With this interpretation, Freud restores the homoeroticism of the Greek version of the myth of Narcissus – which comes down to us from the above mentioned Greek mythographer Conon – that Ovid himself had obscured.

The tensions and contradictions in Freud’s arguments (not least in relation to the ancient myth) have lent extraordinary productivity to what is, conceptually speaking, an imprecise term. Through the twentieth century, “narcissism” became an explanatory template of contemporary culture. Many scholars have taken it up, some affirmatively, expanding upon it, others critically, in an effort to free it from its psychoanalytical constraints. In addition to the aforementioned Herbert Marcuse, two examples worthy of note here are Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) and Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980), who both grappled with central issues of the Narcissus myth such as reflection, illusion, and cognition. For Lacan (2006a: 75–76), these issues are pivotal to his “conception of the mirror stage,” according to which infants catch sight of their own image in a mirror(-like contraption) and thus come to “assume” it “from the age of six months.”[26] After initially considering the mirror stage a moment in the infant’s life only, he later regarded it as representing a structure in which the subject is permanently caught and captured by his or her own image (Lacan 2006b). For Marshall McLuhan (1964: 41), the point of the Narcissus myth lies in “the fact that men at once become fascinated by any extension of themselves in any material other than themselves.” While according to Lacan’s theory, all sorts of contraptions inducing apperception can function as a mirror, McLuhan analyses technology as one such mirror. He refers to Narcissus in his elaborations on the concept of “the gadget lover” (McLuhan 1964: 41–47), comparing the effects of media with what happened to the Greek youth by the pool, and claiming that the reflection Narcissus became fascinated with was in fact his own extension:

The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system. (McLuhan 1964: 41)

Like Narcissus, we consider media as something separate from ourselves and therefore do not recognize our own image in our technological mirrors. According to McLuhan, the dilemma of the gadget lover is that of Narcissus: He is not in love with himself, but so completely engaged with the other self he perceives to be separate that he loses his own being. Absorbed by the intensity of his extension and unable to avert his gaze from what he sees, his other senses become “numbed” to the point of stupor.

Lacan’s and McLuhan’s theories have stimulated a flood of studies. Their work is widely discussed today. To be sure, many speculations that refer to them have not broadened our understanding of the ancient narrative or the theories it inspired. In the absence of an authoritative definition, the term “narcissism” has come to be used in private and public contexts alike, in scholarship, feature writing, and entertainment, to indicate almost any form of reference to ego or self. Generally speaking, the term has a pejorative implication, inherited from psychoanalysis and cultural criticism. Such an implication is particularly prevalent where human conduct and social conditions are not being merely explained, but assessed in mythicizing terms.

Just as the term proliferated in non-literary texts, so too did Narcissus find himself frequently appearing in the literature of the twentieth century. Narcissus and his story’s motifs were as well fitted to preoccupations with concepts of the subject, subjectivity, and intersubjectivity as they had been to psychoanalytic theory. Writers in German, especially poets, frequently adopted the familiar motifs of reflection, desire, and fatal recognition, largely detaching them from the Ovidian context and allowing them narrative autonomy.[27] Particularly since the 1970 s, in addition to poems in which learned familiarity with the myth and its reception can be discerned, we find others that reflect the proliferating discourse of narcissism.[28]

The twenty-first century has witnessed the Narcissus theme emerge in yet another world, the world online, and with it McLuhan’s idea that in mass mediated society we are in a state of “Narcissus trance.” The twentieth-century cinemagoer was already recognizable as a Narcissus, captivated, sometimes fatefully, via a screen – just as the youth was via the surface of the water – by images supposedly of three-dimensional others. But whoever ventures, Narcissus-like, into the world of digital reflections faces the even more daunting task of distinguishing being from seeming, the real from the imaginary, nature from technology.[29] Here, in cyberspace, the pool is a metaphor for the digital universe that reveals itself to the eyes. Amid the continual flow of opportunities for acquiring a new (immaterial) identity, a visitor to this universe can easily fall prey to the spell of reflection. Such a visitor faces the same challenge as one who stands, enchanted, before his or her own reflection: to comprehend the benefits and hazards, advantages and disadvantages of new media – in short: to re-cognize them.

3 Reflection and self-cognition – Ovid’s Narcissus and the problematics of self-consciousness

The great proliferation of extrapolations, revisions, and rewritings of the Narcissus myth stems not least from the fact that, besides the problem of self-love, it also illustrates two “trains of thoughts” – Schopenhauer’s Gedankengänge– that concern fundamental anthropological themes: “self-cognition” and, in the words of Niklas Luhmann, who analyzed the emergence of love as the basis of personal relationships in modern societies, “love as passion.”[30] Both can be linked with the protagonist’s illuminating yet shattering insight: “That’s me!” (iste ego sum, 463). To be sure, we must be careful not to found modern theories on ancient ideas, nor to retroactively endow the myth with a modernity it does not have. Our task is to ask and attempt to answer whether, and to what extent, Ovid expresses two fundamental issues of the condition humaine that would become special, theoretically grounded themes of attention in the modern period. Self-cognition focuses attention on something that, philosophically speaking, belongs to a theory of self-consciousness.

This theory as such begins with Descartes.[31] As is well known, Descartes attained an unshakable certainty with the cogito, the subject conscious of itself. Kant’s Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht [2006 (1798)] still betrays something of the triumphalism of modern Enlightenment self-discovery when the first book, “On the cognitive faculty,” expounding “On consciousness of oneself,” begins as follows (§ 1): “The fact that the human being can have the ‘I’ in his representations raises him infinitely above all other living beings on earth” (15). Yet this has proved to be just the start of the problem. Self-consciousness is self-perception as self-reference on the part of the thinking I, a process for which the term “reflection” (originally from optics) has gained currency.

Against this background, let us now turn again to Ovid’s Narcissus, in whom we may decipher the first dawning of a problematics of self-consciousness. Narcissus finds himself in a situation of reflection, both visually and acoustically, when Echo returns the last syllables of his utterances (Ov. Met. 3: 379–392, 494–501). The scenes that depict Echo in love with Narcissus make clear that perception requires a perceiving subject and a perceived object. In perception, then, a certain relation is found to exist.

In referring the I to itself, the subject and object now seem to coincide and thereby presumably abolish this relation. The elements of cognition seem to be identical. The emphasis is on “seem” here because two questions arise. First, can something have a relation to itself? Plato investigated this issue. Is knowledge possible when the knower takes himself as his own object? This issue is of primary importance, reaching back to the famous Delphic oracle who commanded Socrates to “know himself”[32]– a fundamental philosophical injunction that is clearly parodied by Tiresias’ prediction that the child Narcissus would live a long life, provided he never comes to “know himself.” Second, can identity be a relation? Within such a relation, knowledge of the self would come about through reflection. Yet it would seem that this circular situation presupposes that which supposedly is only recognized through perception: the I. I am able to know or recognize myself only if I already recognize or know who in fact I am.

I return to Narcissus by the pool, with his image – or himself – reflected in the surface of the water. How does the perceptual situation appear to him? It seems that, oscillating between the finding of identity and the attempt at objectification, he finds himself drawn into the circular dilemma briefly described above, and unequal to it. Ovid’s reference to the Narcissus myth in the Fasti (5: 225–226) is not alone in suggesting this conclusion – the problem of identity is particularly apparent here, as Narcissus’ personal tragedy is seen in his having been non alter et alter[33]: “You unfortunate, who were not both the one and the other” (infelix, quod non alter et alter eras, 226).[34] Certain indications in the Metamorphoses suggest this same dilemma.

The revelation of Narcissus in Ovid’s poem of transformation, then, occurs thus: “That’s me. I have understood, and my image does not deceive me” (iste ego sum! sensi nec me mea fallit imago, 463). The demonstrative of the object iste and the emphatic form of the first person pronoun ego are very deliberately juxtaposed. Lombardo (2010: 79) translates: “I just felt it, no longer fooled by my own image.” The boy now sees his former perception as a deception (fallit) revealed by his counter-image (mea imago). The situation leads us to expect that Narcissus will be liberated from his mirror image. But this does not happen. Instead, the looked-at and loved object – “what I desire” (quod cupio, 466) – which Narcissus identifies as belonging to himself (“is mine,” mecum est, 466), insinuates itself again into the cognition situation as an external object: “What should I do? Beg or be begged? Why beg at all?” (quid faciam? roger, anne rogem, quid deinde rogabo, 465). Narcissus does not, for instance, simply turn away. This seems not even to occur to him as a possible action – “What should I do?” Rather, he is asking whether he should behave as the subject or object of love: “Beg or be begged?” – without being able to answer his own question. From this emerges the wish, clearly denoted as unreal (by the imperfect subjunctive), “Oh, if only I could withdraw from my/our body!” (o utinam a nostro secedere corpore possem!, 467, emphasis mine) – “and,” the implicit corollary, “so set my beloved free and make him a separate person!”

With this desire, Narcissus makes himself the speaker of subject and object. Admittedly, the use of the first person plural instead of the singular is frequent in Latin, but the change of number (nostropossem) is significant in view of the given context, particularly as the same thing happens again in the next line: “Strange prayer for a lover, I wish that apart what I/we love” (votum in amante novum: vellem, quod amamus, abesset!, 468, emphasis mine). Reacting to his problem of perception, Narcissus not only expresses his “strange prayer” to be apart. His love even goes so far that he, himself now ready for death (469–471), demands that the beloved lying immediately before his eyes and again belonging to him[35] should be granted a long life: “I wish that my beloved could live longer” (hic, qui diligitur, vellem, diuturnior esset!, 472). Narcissus thus supposes that the separation of the alter ego as an (illusory) object would solve the dilemma, but in the nature of things this is not possible. Otherwise, he could not have consistently formulated his thrice-repeated wish for separation as beyond fulfillment.

It must be agreed that the scene of recognition can also be read less in epistemological terms than in terms of art theory and aesthetics. It may be supposed that Narcissus’ recognition is not a reflection of “himself” that confirms his subjectivity, but rather a recognition merely of a thing, an image or simulacrum that simply represents him. Such a view, however, has a somewhat modern ring. Narcissus would then be in the position of an observer viewing René Magritte’s famous picture of a pipe with the inscription “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”[36] Could anyone have ever smoked this pipe? Has anyone ever managed to conduct a real love affair with a picture?

Such arguments are readily developed and have been pursued elsewhere. The story of Narcissus, however, does lend itself to the illustration of ideas concerning aesthetic themes such as imitatio and ekphrasis, as well as to general issues of intertextuality.[37] But we must insist here that the incurable subject-object constellation remains indissoluble for Narcissus. To separate oneself from one’s own body is the attempt to conceive of the now incorporeal I as an independent fact of consciousness. But Narcissus senses that this attempt must fail; otherwise he would formulate his wishes as if they could be fulfilled. As Schopenhauer (2012 [1819]: 139) would later assert, essentially summing up the scholarly status quo of his time, “the ‘I’ is an unknown quantity, in other words, it is itself a mystery and a secret.”

Besides his life as Narcissus in physical form (corpore/corpus 417, 467, 493, 509), then, Narcissus remains trapped in the circular dilemma of the apparent identity of perceiving subject and perceived object. Even after his death, “even after he had gone to the world below” (postquam est inferna sede receptus, 504), the situation continues unchanged. “Even then” (tum quoque, 504) he continues in vain to seek awareness of himself, looking at “himself” (se, 504) in the waters of the Styx without bringing the act of looking to a conclusion: “he beheld himself in the Stygian water” (in Stygia spectabat aqua, 505). For even as he bends over the Styx, he is only another being himself, he is, to recall the perspective of Book 5 of the Fasti, “not both the one and the other” (non alter et alter, 226), and no union is possible.

4 Concluding remarks

The stimuli of the reflection experience, which permits no unambiguous view of reality, have led to diverse readings and re-narrations of the myth of Narcissus. They attest to the human fascination with reflection and (self-re)cognition and show how mirror images constantly manifest themselves as open, experimental image spaces in which places and times, wishes and fears, dreams and realities, in particular pertaining to love and desire, can become interwoven.

Let me conclude by referring once more to Schopenhauer (2012 [1819]: 139). The metaphysician postulates the will as the temporal and substantial “prius,” and regards love as the most striking manifestation of the will, anticipating Freud’s drive theory – man is not “master in his own house,” but subject to subconscious irrational forces. Even though one risks plunging forward deep into modern thought in doing so, I mention this because, in Ovid, the problematics of love and cognition coincide and interweave. The reflection scene is designed in such a way that we could ask:

Is it one, a living being

That divides itself in two?

Or are they two, so well agreeing

That we them as one construe?[39]

Thus deliberated Johann Wolfgang Goethe in Gingo Biloba, his famous poem published in West-östlicher Diwan (West-Eastern Divan), albeit referring to fulfilled love as prototypical duality. Let us not forget, however, that the love of Narcissus also began with fulfillment. It was a simple love for – a passionate inclination towards – another person. To this extent, it was no error. Love for John remains love for John, even if it later turns out that John is really Jim. False assumptions about qualities and contingent circumstances, even about the fact of existence, do not efface the quality of love from the passionate turn toward the beloved object. Love is, in the language of the contemporary sociology of system theory, a “process” that has become “self-referential” and can be called “reflexivity”: To quote Luhmann (1986: 30), “love refers to love, seeks love, and grows to the extent that it finds love and can fulfill itself as love.”

Revealing the reflexivity of love implies that love is directed “at an I and a you, to the extent that both” are “part of the love relationship,” that is, they enable each other, make “it possible for the other to have such a relationship” (Luhmann 1986: 138). Subsequent events may therefore, as we say, “open the lovers’ eyes” and trigger the experience of disillusion, as Ovid’s Narcissus undergoes it, with its suffering and contradictions in behavior. Yet the insights that open the lover’s eyes, even if they are valid and of consequence to the future, cannot retrospectively invalidate the former actual condition of love as having been erroneous, false, or inauthentic. Luhmann writes: “One can only surrender to love itself, only live in the present and for the present: thus submitting inadvertently to the difference between sincerity and insincerity. All the same, this reference to the present remains relevant by virtue of the concept of passion” (105). If love, then, has found its “object,” it is then in its reflexivity “more than just the consciousness of the ego co-functioning in love” (138). The latter remains behind, tortured by unfulfillment, by its object’s disappearance.

For this complex of ideas, too, the narrative of Narcissus may be read as a “schema” (Schopenhauer): the “drama” of Narcissus, whose last words – “Ah, my boy beloved in vain!” (‘heu frustra dilecte puer!’, 500) – so painfully express the sensation of vanity, was also one of disappointed, lost love.[40]


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