The Alchemist picked up a book that someone in the caravan had brought. Leafing through the pages, he found a story about Narcissus.
The alchemist knew the legend of Narcissus, a youth who daily knelt beside a lake to contemplate his own beauty. He was so fascinated by himself that, one morning, he fell into the lake and drowned. At the spot where he fell, a flower was born, which was called the narcissus.
But this was not how the author of the book ended the story.
He said that when Narcissus died, the Goddesses of the Forest appeared and found the lake, which had been fresh water, transformed into a lake of salty tears.
“Why do you weep?” the Goddesses asked.
“I weep for Narcissus,” the lake replied.
“Ah, it is no surprise that you weep for Narcissus,” they said, “for though we always pursued him in the forest, you alone could contemplate his beauty close at hand.”
“But….. was Narcissus beautiful?” the lake asked.
“Who better than you to know that?” the Goddesses said in wonder, “After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate himself!!”
The lake was silent for some time.
Finally it said:
“I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected.”
“What a lovely story,” the alchemist thought.
I really don’t think I took away from this what was intended, by any means, so please, if you have to write about this story for a response for english class or something, this is not where you’re going to get the answers.
Most people would read the end of that re-make and think “Wow, lake personified, how horrid of you”, seeing the weeping for oneself in this story to be a negative and insulting gesture in light of his death. And some might say “well, that Narcissus, he wasn’t a good guy. sitting around all day staring at himself, being so self absorbed” as a way to justify the lake’s reaction.
But I don’t see either of those two points as the point of the story. No one really is “right” here. You’ve got someone who’s so self absorbed that they drown staring at themselves. And you’ve got someone else who is so self-absorbed that they only like someone else because they give them a way to look at themselves. Basically, you’re made more than aware that they both are sociopaths, unable to see beyond themselves or empathize with anything else.
And, if you notice, they both are using each other for the exact same thing: to see themselves; The lake can see herself in the reflection in his eyes, Narcissus can see himself in the reflection of her water.
How horrid. (I don’t know still if I’m saying this with more outrage or sarcasm, solely because of how common the act really is, even if it is shady)
Is it weird for me to say I find myself feeling that way about art sometimes as a viewer? I use looking at art as a way of showing me something about myself. It’s weird, because most people would say “just look in a mirror, or even a photo”, but i’m not looking for that sort of reflection. So maybe that makes it acceptable, who knows.
But relational art tends to have this same theme, participatory art stands to show us something about ourselves that we otherwise might not see.
The lake would have never known it was beautiful if Narcissus hadn’t come along to gaze at himself; it had no ability to see itself (and i know what some of you are thinking; physicality isn’t the only way to be beautiful—-i agree—but not the point here) just as he had no way to see himself. He had a selfish goal, and acted in that capacity, having no intentions of showing the lake anything about itself.
And maybe there are things about me I never would have been able to “see” had I not viewed art. Had i never stood in front of the Torres light strings at the Art Institute, or in the middle of Dayton Castleman’s Negative Matter exhibition at Trinity. Maybe there are things I would have missed. Not saying I’m perfect just the way I am (I’m not Bruno Mars here), but I’ve been working to become the person I want to be, and who knows, maybe if those pieces were missing I wouldn’t be where I am and wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I wouldn’t be myself.
So I wonder, is seeking out viewing art to show yourself something about yourself (even inadvertently by showing you something about culture, because I operate under the assertion that culture has a huge impact and shaping role in our existence) selfish, even sociopathic?
When we love, we always strive to become better than we are.