Monday, April 5, 2010

Cinque Favole-Numero Uno: Narciso (And The Fountain Of Youth)

Just a few days ago, Amba tweeted that exercise is like a fountain of youth. About three months ago I began going to a gym where I've been working out doing mostly weight training and cardio. I've seen changes in myself and I'm about one quarter to where I want to be. Not bad considering it took me about 10 years to get to where I'm starting from.

Now like most gyms, the one where I go has lots of mirrors. Those weight trainers (men and women) sure do like to look at themselves. I've never been comfortable looking at myself so much (this may have something to do with how I got to where I am). When I think of mirrors, I automatically think of Narcissus and the origin of narcissism.  Here is an original source of the story which I copied from a book called Beginning Readings in Italian. The story of Narciso comes from Chapter 1 which is a collection of Cinque Favole (Five Fables). According to the book the story originates from the Novellino which first appeared around the end of the 13th Century. The simple Italian language of Narciso is entirely written in the present tense. I plugged the text into Google Translator and got some amusing results:

Obviously the machine translation on the right still needs some work and polish. It might be cool to see where exactly the machine language translation fails worst. I took some liberties with punctuation and syntax, trying to make the simple meanings clearer. Here's what I come up with:
One day Narcissus rests at a beautiful spring. He looks into the water and sees his reflection, which is very beautiful. He begins watching and rejoicing over the spring and the reflection does the same. He thinks that the person in the water has life and he does not realize that it is his reflection. He begins to fall in love with it, so strongly that he tries to grasp it. He puts his hands in the water riling it and the reflection disappears. So then he starts crying. The water clears and Narcissus sees that the reflection cries like he does. Then he falls into the spring and dies.

It is springtime, and some women come to the spring to amuse themselves. They see the beautiful drowned Narcissus, and with great lamentations they pull him from the spring and support him standing at the side of the well. Hence the God of Love makes a beautiful almond tree, green and vigorous, which is the first tree to bloom and renew love.

Back to narcissism. It is an ancient affliction. Figuratively, Narcissus becomes fatally enthralled by his own image. But what is the real moral of this fable? Don't become too enamored of your own image? I suppose that narcissism turns people inwards and thus away from one another. I also suspect that we are all susceptible to it to some degree. But isn't a certain amount of it a good thing?

Then there's the foreboding warning in W.H. Auden's O Who Can Ever Gaze His Fill (1937):
And slyly Death's coercive rumour
In the silence starts:
A friend is the old old tale of Narcissus,
not to be born is the best for man;
An active partner in something disgraceful.
Change your partner, dance while you can.
Can't win I guess.


  1. Thanks for the link Jason. I knew that the story was older than the 13th Century, and I didn't mean represented it originated that late. I think the editors of the book were saying that the story in Italian originated from around then. But then so did most of what we designate as Italian in the sense of a modern language.

    I like that Caravaggio painting better than Waterhouse too.

  2. A certain amount, yes. A certain amount is thought to be necessary.

    A pathological amount is a whole different ball of wax altogether, though.

    For some reason, I've found the inimitable Hal Holbrooke's quote in Wall Street to be a good description of where narcissism gets you - or where your avoidance of it saves you:

    "Man stares into the abyss, and there's nothing staring back at him. That's when man finds his character. And that's what keeps him out of the abyss."

    Pathological narcissists are very scary in that their identity is essentially nonexistent - at least in the manner that an adult would understand identity. They are literally frozen in a different state of development entirely.

  3. That's a great quote from Wall Street Ritmo- thanks for putting here.

  4. You're brilliant, Oceanside. :)