I’m in my final year of university now, and the thought that in just a few months that my experience of education will end is as much exciting as it is terrifying. One of the things I love, but often forget that I do is learning. Sure, I hate exams and essays as much as the next person, but sitting in a lecture or a seminar and listening to someone teach me something entirely new is a thrill. Sharing knowledge is a lot like telling stories, in the way that you’re opening up someone’s mind and imagination, helping someone grow with every word. And that’s something that I don’t want to lose. Of course, no matter what job I do, I will be learning something – whether that’s continued on in the bookshop for a while and learning about new books, or if it’s in a new job and learning how to sort out accounts, or even if it’s learning a new trade. But, at least for now, my formal learning of Classics and English is coming to an end. Which is why I want to start a new series on this blog, an infrequent one much like ‘On Being Happy’ and ‘Guide to University’.
So, here is the first post of ‘Revisiting the Classics’.
I want this series to be about ‘Classics’, predominantly ancient classical myths and stories but also occasionally looking at the more recent use of the classic canon, from Milton to Bronte and beyond. The revisiting of ancient stories is a common trope, and there’s a reason for that – hell, it’s what I’m doing my whole dissertation on. Everything from phrases like ‘Achilles’ heel’ to references of Herculean strength and flying too close to the Sun all stem from these ancient myths. Throughout all my years of study, I haven’t even come close to covering all the various myths that we know about, so through this series I want to look at a few favourites, ones that I know and ones that I don’t.
So here’s a short one for today: Narcissus. Most people have a vague knowledge of the myth, and it stems around a beautiful man who falls in love with his own reflection. There are other aspects that go with this myth, like that of the cursed Echo who can only repeat the words others say, who falls in love with Narcissus but is scorned and turned away. Because of this, Nemesis lured Narcissus to the pool in which he saw himself, and he died from longing and frustration of loving himself.
Today, Narcissus remains in our language – the word ‘narcissism’ means to be fascinated with yourself and associated with extreme vanity. The myth is used as a cautionary tale on pride and self-love, and it is evoked throughout literature. It’s within Milton’s Paradise Lost, where Eve sees her reflection and falls in love, and within countless sonnets. For the vast majority, Narcissus is used as a negative portrayal of self-love, but the more I think about it the more I wonder if maybe there can be something positive to be gained here.
Often people want to be the opposite of Narcissus, to not be vain or arrogant or proud – but surely there should be some sort of middle ground where we aspire to have certain aspects of Narcissus, but not fall in too deeply. It shouldn’t be that we don’t love ourselves to the point where we hate our reflection, but rather that we love ourselves, as we all should, just not to the point that we can’t see past our own reflection. To have the ability to love yourself, but still be able to see past that, to be able to act selflessly with others and have empathy for the sufferings of those around us. After all, Narcissus is originally punished for cruelly dismissing Echo, and his punishment is an extreme version of his inability to look beyond himself. It is not the fact that he’s beautiful that causes his downfall, but his own cruel disposition to those around him.
Narcissus is a cautionary tale, but there is more to learn from it that some let on. But one thing myths like this demonstrate is how they are still relevant today, and that is why Classics is so important that it deserves to be revisited over and over again.
Or, at least, that’s what I think.