Scholars' Association News
Issue 37
February 2016


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In front of the mirror: Special issue on the myth of Narcissus and its contemporary implications

I don't care what you think unless it is about me.

Nirvana, “Drain you” (1991)

The ancient Greek myth of Narcissus exerts an inexhaustible appeal. It has always been a source of inspiration for artists and intellectuals, offering many layers of analysis and potentials for application. Especially in modern times, Narcissus has been elevated to a kind of mythological superstar. The word “narcissism” is all too commonly bandied about. Modern Western societies have developed an obsession with image and everything that it represents: the attachment to beauty, the search for oneself, or the often overmagnified Ego. Never have there been so many alternatives for marketing oneself: social networks, selfies, memoirs of celebrities as well as of ordinary people. It feels like there are many little narcissists all around us. The term “narcissism”, drawn from the field of psychoanalysis, is now a fully-fledged part of modern culture.

When do we accuse somebody of being a narcissist? When we feel that they don’t give us as much as we ask of them. Who can deny that the need for “more” is the mainspring of the modern era, where it is easy to lose all sense of measure? At the same time, the myth of Narcissus is undoubtedly a myth of loneliness: Narcissus is punished by Nemesis for his arrogance because he boasted of his unrivalled beauty and disdained those who loved him. His punishment is fatal, unreciprocated love for his own image which he sees reflected in the waters of a pool.

The Western world, infused as it is by loneliness, could not but be fascinated by this myth. Narcissus dies of sadness for his unfulfilled love. The unattainable dream, the desire that cannot be satisfied are elements that add to the appeal this myth exerts on the modern world. Next to the pool where Narcissus sat, a flower with an intoxicating scent grew and was named after him. This is the flower Persephone picked before Hades grabbed her and took her into the underworld. The distance between narcissism and the underworld seems to be only a stride away…

The myth emerged for the first time around the 1st century BC but its most popular version is the one by Ovid in book 3 of his Metamorphoses, where the poet associates it with the myth of the nymph Echo. Newer versions appeared in the work of later poets in Roman times, for example Parthenius, Virgil’s teacher of Greek, or the mythographer Conon from the 1st century AD, who chose a violent death for his hero. Nevertheless, they all agree on one thing: unrequited love, obsessive egoism and arrogance are sterile standstills leading to death…

The multi-layered issue of narcissism was the theme of a four-day festival hosted in autumn at the renovated Onassis Cultural Centre NY (see ΑΩ magazine, issue 36). It was a celebration, and at the same time an exploration, of the numerous aspects of the myth and its influence on modern culture. Building on that festival, with the help of prominent contributors, some of whom include G. Athanasopoulos, G. Zarkadakis, B. Davou and P. Olalla, the ΑΩ magazine prepared its own brief feature dedicated to the complex and fascinating myth of Narcissus which you can read in the pages that follow.

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