Narcissus (mythology)

In Greek mythology, Narcissus (/nɑːrˈsɪsəs/; Greek: Νάρκισσος, Nárkissos) was a hunter from Thespiae in Boeotia who was known for his beauty. He was the son of the river god Cephissus and nymph Liriope.[1] He was proud, in that he disdained those who loved him. Nemesis noticed this behavior and attracted Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus lost his will to live. He stared at his reflection until he died. Narcissus is the origin of the term narcissism, a fixation with oneself and one’s physical appearance and/or public perception.

The classic version is by Ovid, found in book 3 of his Metamorphoses (completed 8 AD); this is the story of Echo and Narcissus. One day Narcissus was walking in the woods when Echo, an Oread (mountain nymph) saw him, fell deeply in love, and followed him. Narcissus sensed he was being followed and shouted “Who’s there?”. Echo repeated “Who’s there?” She eventually revealed her identity and attempted to embrace him. He stepped away and told her to leave him alone. She was heartbroken and spent the rest of her life in lonely glens until nothing but an echo sound remained of her. Nemesis (as an aspect of Aphrodite[3]), the goddess of revenge, learned of this story and decided to punish Narcissus. She lured him to a pool where he saw his own reflection. He did not realize it was only an image and fell in love with it. He eventually recognized that his love could not be reciprocated and committed suicide.[4]

An earlier version ascribed to the poet Parthenius of Nicaea, composed around 50 BC, was recently rediscovered among the Oxyrhynchus papyri at Oxford.[5] Like Ovid’s version, it ends with Narcissus committing suicide. A version by Conon, a contemporary of Ovid, also ends in suicide (Narrations, 24). In it, a young man named Ameinias fell in love with Narcissus, who had already spurned his male suitors. Narcissus also spurned him and gave him a sword. Ameinias committed suicide at Narcissus’s doorstep. He had prayed to the gods to give Narcissus a lesson for all the pain he provoked. Narcissus walked by a pool of water and decided to drink some. He saw his reflection, became entranced by it, and killed himself because he could not have his object of desire.[4] A century later the travel writer Pausanias recorded a novel variant of the story, in which Narcissus falls in love with his twin sister rather than himself (Guide to Greece, 9.31.7).[6]

This is all just personal opinion and random.  tldr: Connection to complexity, each other, and Nature matters.


One thing that I think is important about Narcissus is that he is entangled in creation mythology.  He did not know it was a “reflection”, and it took time to come to comprehension of the lie of the vision he was so in love with, but the lie was one Narcissus brought there in the first place.  So he did not know it wasn’t real until it was too late, and that aspect of the myth, to me, does make him a partly tragic figure because he never knew love or even the touch of the one he loved.  Of course, it was also partly the responsibility of society for loving him for exactly the things he needed to be free of.  Echo herself could merely repeat his question, but she did present herself to him.  Her question, as a reflection, was the right one for Narcissus: “Who’s there?”.

So I guess the real tragedy is that he needed to let go of his love for the surface of things, and face the lie before he looked into the pool, irrespective of the Goddess of Love (in the form of Revenge) carrying out his fate, or society’s complicity.  The loss was his failure to embrace another: society and Echo (or, if you prefer, Ameinias) , i.e. to truly answer her question.  He failed to comprehend that mere surfaces are insubstantial and meaningless when compared to inner being, and there is *no* inner being without connection to others.  Love of ephemeral “things”,  of surfaces without respect for their underlying, ever-changing, and unknowable Nature, of images without substance, is actually an internal loop of self-obsession because things and images are only meaningful by virtue of ourselves making it so, and working very hard to maintain the illusion.  It is a recursive cycle that leads inevitably to self-destruction as the illusion fades and the emptiness is revealed.

A while ago I posted some stuff about Judith Leyster and I wanted to gibber a little more about her and Caravaggio because of recent events, to complete some old thoughts, as well as add some more recent thoughts about Carvaggio’s Narcissus.  I am a software engineer, but these old thoughts about the history of painting, and Narcissus, in particular, are very connected more recent thoughts related to code and information.  It’s all just my random, and uninformed, opinion.

Caravaggio - La Deposizione di Cristo.jpg

Caravaggio, The Entombment of Christ, 1603-04, Oil on Canvas

Just to repeat a little of what many have discussed, in Caravaggio’s Entombment there are these kind of forced poses. Of particular note in this context is the man, Nicodemus, who is holding Christ’s legs.  His arm is bent in a very specific way. Of course Caravaggio was very interested in the dimensional construction of the image, and he was negotiating between a formal construction that affords opportunities to push the illusion of real space (and his own powerful message), as well as constructing a symbolic image of grief and loss (that also served the institutional narrative).  There is a rigorous 2d *and* 3d geometric plan. It’s the same kind of construction in the kind of obviously perfect and low-angle view of the stone platform.

 There is a rigid formalism that both lends an eternal quality to the realistic looking people, but also a forceful reminder that the image is a construction and a fiction. The overall dimensional construction both flattens *and* gives dimension to the image.  In my view, that construction is the meta-narrative of the painting: it abstracts it, while also being the trick that lends it immediacy and form.  The painting is a kind of dialog, or wrestling match, between the real and the eternal.  To my eye, he flipped the meaning of the stylized (eternal) forms that preceded him from being communicative into being the bonds that the painting itself breaks.  This was not for its own sake, this was because of the state of the world in which he existed.  The message was urgent, relevant, and meaningful to viewers of the day.  On one hand it is an image of eternal suffering, on the other it is a staged setup in Caravaggio’s studio.  There’s an intended, or allowed, artifice in the dramatic poses.  This is most obviously expressed by Nicodemus’s gaze: glancing up towards us. The painting depicts a kind of self-consciousness.

Judith Leyster, Young Flute Player,  1635, Oil on Canvas

Leyster is doing the same thing in the Jolly Toper but also very much so in the Flute Player.  Every element is so carefully and beautifully considered both in the context that Carravaggio was thinking, but also colored by the Northern European more quiet, but no less urgent, need for the everyday. The player looks up towards the heavens, but somehow we know he is aware of us.

The subject of the painting is not the overt subject, but something more fundamental.  They both were motivated by a deep commitment to a new vision of humanism.  The formal construction arises from a positive ethical vision.  For them it was coming from real belief, I think, but coming from my POV the important part of the religious change was the change in emphasis from the eternal to the real.  It was a liberation.  The naturalism and technical tricks gave force, and drama, to real people…but also winked to them in many subtle ways.  This allowed viewers of these images to picture themselves in that drama, but more importantly to be returned to the world with a new view of themselves as part of the eternal.  Not to be divorced from the eternal, but rather to share in a vision of it that included them.  Viewers were not mere receivers of the image.  They were participants in quite radical social change, of which the very form of the painting was a token of reminder.

As I’ve written before, but I mention again because I think it’s important: these paintings were means of complex social communication, and they were once as contemporary as any means we use now. They were in an active dialog with viewers of the day in a way that’s difficult to understand because of what has occurred since: I think human beings are in a state of deep and continuous amnesia.  They tend to be serialized as historical objects, rather than records of moments which were always current.  What was previously unimaginable is now everyday, but our earlier selves are necessary components of our current selves.  I think when ideas are new they are better understood than after the amnesia of familiarity sets in.


So this push in European painting towards a kind of realism, like all things, changed as it became more widespread and usable.  The urgent ethical imperative became everyday.  It became about technical proficiency and utility of reproduction, formal innovations came ever faster, and were ever more quickly ingested into mass forms of reproduction.

This led to the changes in European Art History that followed (in an admittedly biased and selective view of it, of course).  Democratizing images on one hand, but flattening them on the other…making their manipulation ever easier, making each individual image ever less meaningful, and ever more distant from real experience.  The progressively more “real” image actually, through repetition, framing, and the power of the illusion itself, hid the fundamental fiction behind it.  “Art” trailed down a path of distilling these formal innovations, but also became more detached from the real, and therefore mostly disconnected from all but the most intellectual (and/or wealthy) of consumers.  It slowly changed from being communication to being “Art”.  The domain and range of impact for it became limited to the market segment “Art World”.  The practice of fundamental reflection on the forms themselves became effectively impossible in a domain almost entirely driven by the economics of the mass, dedicated, by definition, to hiding such reflection.  Innovations in forms of communication quickly and inevitably traded for their use in the activity of opening and defining new opportunities for distribution.  The power and relevance of the forms was replaced with production of images that simply fulfill unconscious evolutionary drives, for the most part.  Competition for competition’s sake, without any firm stake in the real.  The liberation (rightly) celebrated but without a full accounting of the cost…and what got lost.  The ever more mediated form of the media made the communicated message mostly something quite different than the overt message.

Content is automatically constrained by the pre-existing frame of ideas (thereby excluding any others) and by the illusion generated by entirely mediated interaction.  So it inevitably becomes consuming, emotional, and disconnected from outside ideas, except through trolling.  Silos of communication, competing mostly for the sake of competition, in the end, no matter how well-intentioned the individuals may be.

My education in Art History emphasized a narrative of technical achievements and so-called innovations in form.  I now see paintings as fragments left from people communicating in their time, the form is an arbitrary constraint.  They were turned into definable categories and hierarchies by the most obvious characteristics. For me, the question is can and what did the image communicate?  And then what does it communicate now? I believe “Art for Art’s sake” was a sad formulation that was reinforced by its natural market acceptability; a statement that declares the inability of Art to speak at all.


If one of the Gods had just pulled Narcissus away from the pool and explained the issue, maybe he could have gotten over it?  ;D  Obviously not the point.  The point, to me, is Echo.  The tragedy is that he couldn’t let go of the lie enough to hear her.  If he had, perhaps he would have found that his ephemeral beauty could be transcended into enduring love.  If they had joined, something new could have formed.  Communication could have occurred.  Instead they collapsed into the binary of infinity and nothing.  Echo lingering, and reflecting.  Narcissus recursing into a singularity.


Recursion without change is both infinity and nothing: stack overflow.  The Universe is asymmetric (until it isn’t anymore).  Change isn’t only necessary, it is time itself.

Narcissus-Caravaggio (1594-96) edited.jpg
Caravaggio, Narcissus, 1597–1599, Oil on Canvas

Narcissus is just revealing the truth as his hand penetrates the surface of the pool, and we are witness to the moments before his self-destruction.
The upper half depicts a beautiful young boy, something Caravaggio painted more than once – for clearly intentional, and meaningful reasons.  Reasons that also echoed the very different ethical model that gave birth to the myth of Narcissus, and inherent in the myth itself…not to mention variations on it.
Maybe it needs a cleaning, but it is definitely a brooding painting.  Narcissus is isolated and bound within the frame, one hand firm on the ground, the other revealing the insubstantial nature of his love.

Like all paintings, it was communicating something specific in the ethical context that surrounded it.  I suppose a token of reminder to beware of the love of self and the ephemeral, i.e. to focus on the eternal, but Caravaggio was urgently interested in formal concerns of painting, and revolutionizing them, motivated by a need to tell a new kind of truth.

It is split in exactly half (or very nearly so), a bold formal choice.  The lower half is taken up with what is almost a void: a dim reflection.  The spare, glowing outlines of the reflection draw the eye to the obscured image, and then repel it with a roughly painted, almost abstract, phantom.  The pool bends and encompasses the viewer: we are also looking in it.  Indeed, to me, Narcissus is almost tipping the pool surface itself into our space with the one hand that dips into the water.  The moment of revelation holds the symmetry of the painting in balance.  The two-dimensional overall construction is overpowering.

 So, in my view, Caravaggio is telling a basic truth.  It’s the same truth that Judith Leyster, and the many others that followed understood needed to be told: the image is a lie.  The painting is a dim reflection of us, in our finery, loving the ephemeral thing, and falling into the void in the process.  It is mistaking the reflection for the real.  It is entering the painting, being exposed to the limited truth that it can tell, and then being forced back to the world.



Why is it a lie?  Because it is a pale reflection, a reproduction of nature – no matter the form, subject, level of abstraction, medium or non-objective quality of the medium, no matter how faithful.   An invention, a contextualization, from pigments, dyes, inks, words, and photons…Magic and illusion are meant to return us to this world, and fall in love with it in new ways, to remind us that metaphor can be a container of the real, but never the thing itself.

In this world, an evolution-driven need , a titanic need, pushed technology, and the power of generation of images to an almost terminal point.  In goggles, dark halls, on the walls, and in the palms (and wallets) of people almost everywhere now.   Faces, images, and messages measured, reproduced, and reflected to infinity.


Today, I fear Echo’s voice is receding, with little voice to start the cycle of creative renewal, and Narcissus has already gazed at the pool too long.  The cycle starts when her voice is heard truly, and a fleeting connection is realized to the infinite, opening a door to a new reality that renders the previous one inhumane.   It is my opinion that the only reality we human beings have is the momentary one we make through real connection to Nature and its expression in each other.  I feel the myth of Narcissus and Caravaggio’s picturing of it warn us to beware of trading that reality for infinite reflections of nothing.  A dimension opens when infinity encounters zero.  So long as they never connect, the echo will recede, words losing their power, substance and meaning traded for insubstantial images.