Narcissus And Scholarship Revisited

Yesterday, I received a postcard from a friend studying in Rome that had the Italian Renaissance painter Caravaggio’s famous depiction of Narcissus staring at his own reflection in the water.  

I remembered studying the painting in art history classes, and of course the original myth from which Caravaggio was inspired, and the more I looked at it the more I began to see something that we don’t usually associate with Narcissus or narcissism: a tragic hero.

Caravaggio’s “Narciso”

In the most common version of myth as told by Ovid, Narcissus is an exceptionally handsome young man who spurns all those who fall in love with him, including the jilted nymph Echo, who prays to Venus for revenge.  

Her prayer is heard, and while Narcissus hunts in the woods he comes upon a pool, and upon seeing his own reflection in the water for the first time, he falls in love with his own image.  

Realizing that he can’t act on his desire, however, he tussles with himself until he expires (in other versions, he commits outright suicide or even wastes away by the water’s edge, ever transfixed by his own beauty).

Now, my friend who sent me the postcard writes this:

I had to buy this postcard because I think all scholars are a bit like Narciso falling into or wasting away at our stacks of books and archives.  I mean that in the best sense of course.

The story of Narcissus is a fitting metaphor for scholarship, and just as Narcissus hunts, so too does the scholar, who tracks sources in old archives and grasps at the trails of hypotheses hinted at from afar.  Like Narcissus’s hunting, scholarship is a solitary job that calls for stealth, cunning, and courage.  

You have to be able to tamp down your own “noise”, whether physical or mental, so that you won’t distract yourself or scare off the prey; your senses must be wide awake and able to detect the slightest hint; finally, you must be able to track down a lead no matter where it goes.  

And indeed, next to to the hunt itself, scholars relish nothing more than capturing their prey, whether it be a long sought-after manuscript or an argument that we’ve finally nailed.

Yet the pivotal moment for Narcissus comes not when he catches the prey, but rather when he stops by the pool to drink.  There, he sees his self-reflection and falls in self-love, a scene that has generally been interpreted as indicative of Narcissus’s fatal flaw, namely his intense vanity.  

However, when the scholar “stops by the pool to drink”–that is, when he’s in those lonely passing moments of respite in the wooded thicket of a library when the pages have stopped rustling and he rubs his temple, or when he walks back to his apartment late at night, empty coffee cup in hand; or less stereotypically, in the supermarket, with a friend, or anywhere where he is susceptible to an epiphany–those are the moments of mental and emotional self-reflection when he sees himself within and falls in love not with his eyes but with his soul.  

Those are the methodless times when everything he’s absorbed paves itself together and leads him somewhere he would have never thought of, just as writing brings out thoughts that the same words spoken aloud would never have prompted.  

It’s enough to arrest him and propel him into something altogether different for what seems like the rest of his life.  What Narcissus and scholars see in those moments is much more than a dumb mirror image or, for that matter, a book or a scroll.  It is the prize of the humanities “in the best sense”: self-knowledge.

In our postmodern/post-Kanye world, we’ve nearly forsaken self-knowledge (and this is not exclusive to scholars) in favor of pursuing the external empirical, but in the myth the two are inseparable.  Narcissus’s admiring pursuers’ incessant pleas are tiresome, and it’s no surprise that he would go out for a day’s hunt after having to put up with the irritating Echo always haranguing his ear.  

Ironically, however, the love that Narcissus shuns is exactly the love he finds within himself for himself.  In a sense, his want for understanding the love within pushes him at the beginning to quest for something without–in his case, venison.  

So, too, do we want our meat, those iPods, movies, careers, families, respectability, abuse, and nescio quae of the world, those external things (whether tangible or not) entire lives are dedicated to pursuing.  Often enough, that’s where those lives end.  

Narcissus’s paradoxical victory isn’t only that he returns and accepts the love he first rejected, but also that he could only arrive at that love through the misleading pursuit brought about by rejecting it.  

The story almost follows the familiar heroic arc, from denial/jilting to quest to victory/self-discovery and acceptance, with the exception that the fight/hunt turns out to be a red herring (albeit, the one that sets us on the path).

I can think of no greater jilter than a scholar, but for all our monkish (and perhaps not so monkish, as in the case of Foucault) shunning, do we end up wiser?  Hardly.  Self-knowledge may be the prize of the humanities, but it’s not actually the end: after all, for Narcissus, it merely unlocks the love that he had fled.  

What I’ve referred to here as Narcissus’s self-knowledge can in fact be split into at least two layers.  The first is self-recognition, which is the transfixing reflexive gaze from which we gain intoxicating self-consciousness, or rather consciousness of the self through the image.  

Once we recognize the self as an entity, we can move to self-authenticity, where we learn, create, feel, and accept what comprises the self.  The tragedy of Narcissus is that he fails to build on his authenticity to create something outside himself, and perhaps that is his ultimate crime.  

Love is more than the sum of two human beings, and if it weren’t then his reflection would probably suffice.  The issue is that the reflection is not a person in the full sense of the word, and really it’s even less than an image.  It’s like the difference between reminiscence and memory that Socrates outlines in the Phaedrus: one is an aid to mere recognition, the other is full knowledge itself.

Fortunately, scholarship diverts from the myth at this juncture, since books are art and art is far more than mimesis, or rather mimesis is more than just copying.  When scholars drink at the pool, we see ourselves in the text but also the text can see itself in us.  

A book has its own inner power and will, and its expressions and composition are ever changing.  It’s not entirely accurate, then, to think that scholars simply waste away next to books because it’s possible for us to engage in a relationship with them; however, it’s true that we might never get up and keep walking.  

Once we confront whatever it was that we were fleeing and accept it, we might still never come back to Echo and tell her what we think now that we possess the capital to think, or even turn around and head straight back into the forest, perhaps looking forward to the day we might slake our thirst again.  

Maybe it wouldn’t be a crime, but it seems like we would have missed the point.

So the question remains, after having taken the time out of our busy schedules to read and write our postcards and after having seen ourselves in them, where do we go?

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