Mirrors; or, Narcissus Reloaded
I often find myself having to elaborate on the concept of projection and its effects on our relationships with others. The questions posed are rarely direct, but rather they follow the realization that what is found outside one’s self is a stark reminder of what is found within (especially during analysis). I inevitably employ a symbolic language – how else could one speak of the workings of the psyche? The symbol of a mirror lends itself beautifully, since it’s the quintessential image of reflection: What we see within it is what we present to it. As Sylvia Plath’s Mirror[i] explained, it is the perfect symbol of an image reflecting back itself:
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike
I am not cruel, only truthful…
Mirrors were not invented. They existed since the beginning of life on earth. What were these first reflective surfaces mirroring, we cannot know. I can imagine the first humans making use of reflected images on the pond’s surface – to get to know their faces, to decorate themselves, to gaze dreamily into these looking glasses. And so, inevitably, mirrors were part of early cultures’ belief system. They could see and, according to some, steal your soul, or even reveal a dark secret.[ii]
This possibility still fascinates: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall…’ What does the mirror divulge that we do not know? What is hidden behind the reflection? What Snow White’s Evil Stepmother didn’t quite realize is that what she was finding within her magic mirror was a mere reflection of her own self: her deepest fear that she was not the fairest of them all. The mirror was reflecting back her profound insecurity. The unconscious knows infinitely more than consciousness, and we can get glimpses of its vast wisdom within the mirror’s reflection. We plunge into our depths in search for an image that can capture our essence, and project it outwards so that it can become visible. Only within the reflected we can view the inner.
Mirror: ‘to admire’ (Latin mirari). Admire what?
Reflection: to ‘bent back’ (Latin reflex). Back where? Back to where one started from, perhaps; that is, back to one’s Self-image.
Looking (back) at oneself in admiration.
Narcissus’ story cannot be avoided. He is the archetypal reflecting-image-of-oneself in a mirror’s surface. He bent his self-perception to an infinite point, to the point where his own image was a self-consuming reality. The only light that would be allowed inside was his own. Inevitable psychic and somatic death ensued.
Narcissus’s tragic myth is hugely misunderstood. I would blame Freud for that, since he pathologized it, giving it a particular twist that is not a complete reflection (pun indented) of the narrative. According to Freud, we all possess an innate instinctual level of narcissism (“primary narcissism”) which aims at self-preservation of the infant. With development, this pre-existing narcissistic state is directed towards an object, and so affection is projected outwards. “Secondary narcissism” – a form of neurosis that we have associated with “narcissism” in popular culture – develops when an individual turns the object’s affection back on him/herself. Hence the link to Narcissus’ state.[iii]
However, in the above formulation the essence of the myth has been neglected. Let’s go back to the sources. Even though the ancient narratives vary, the various stories end in the same tragic way. Ovid tells us the story of 16-year-old Narcissus who was, by all accounts, stunning and thus the object of everyone’s affection. Proud Narcissus rejected and avoided everyone – male and female alike – including the voice nymph Echo, whose body was annihilated because of it: She suffered agonizing rejection and eventually only her voice was left. Nemesis, who heard her prayers for revenge, deemed it just; Narcissus had to be punished for Echo’s fate. Unable to release the projection, he died an excruciating death, only to find himself admiring his reflection in the surface of the Underworld’s river Styx. Konon’s version of the tale tells us of Narcissus’ contempt for Ameinias’ love, which lead to his suicide and subsequent revenge via the gods upon the dead boy’s request. In both versions of the story, Narcissus’ youthful sin was his self-absorbed state and his lack of responsiveness to the Other’s desire. The gods’ punishment followed suit: He was doomed to project the Love Object onto the mirror, and subsequently to fall in love with the unattainable projection.
In essence, Narcissus was cursed following the deadly self-harm of someone who burned with desire for him. Unrequited young ‘love’ gone bitter. Narcissus’ hubris and collapse was his reliance on his own existence, outside the cosmos. The world could not take that, and so he was punished. How cruel that the gods would curse a 16-year-old to a tragic death, for abiding by his self-absorbed teenage nature!
The erotic paradox of Narcissus is often discussed in psychoanalysis, though outside the particular story – Freud claimed the part of the myth that he deemed relevant to his point, leaving Narcissus with a pathology named after him. We fall in love with that which we project onto another, and thus we love the other via those projected parts of ourselves. That is not necessarily pathological, but it is nonetheless tragic in its inevitability.[iv]
According to Ovid, Narcissus’ curse, predicted by the blind prophet Tiresias, was to perish as soon as he recognized himself; he would have lived a long life, had he not known himself (“si se non noverit” Ovid, book 3.348). The thing with prophecies given by ancient prophets is that they cannot be averted. I am certain that upon hearing Tiresias’ words his mother, the “sea-blue nymph Liriope” – who loved her child even though he was the product of rape by “snaking river Cephisus”[v] – must have known the inevitable dreadful end. I can imagine her wondering in despair. Which is worse: Death by self-awareness, or having lived a long life not knowing who you are? To cut a tragic and captivating story short, the cause of Narcissus’ premature and tragic death was self-knowledge. The ancient gods were as cruel as the humans who deemed them necessary.
Someone told me recently (and this was the inspiration for this piece): “I aspire to not gazing into the pond.” An aspiration that is as noble, as it is futile. We must rely on the image in the pond; that is the way of the psyche. “Whoever looks into the mirror of the water will see first of all his own face. Whoever goes to himself risks a confrontation with himself. The mirror does not flatter, it faithfully shows whatever looks into it.”[vi] We cannot exist outside the mirror images of the Self projected onto the world. The crucial task is to do so consciously, all the while being aware that what we are looking at is not an image as such, but rather parts of our Self reflected back at us. Narcissus’ downfall was not that he gazed into the pond; it was that he confused the reflection for the Other; that he projected unknowingly. And that is a terrifying, yet all too common prospect for the psyche.
The confrontation with our “true face” as presented in the mirror – as opposed to the mask we present the world with (i.e. the persona) – presupposes “courage on the inner way, a test sufficient to frighten off most people, for the meeting with ourselves belongs to the more unpleasant things that can be avoided so long as we can project everything negative into the environment.”[vii] Bearing the burden of the knowledge that what is reflected is our Selves can solve, as Jung… encouragingly put it, “a small part of the problem.”
The confrontation with that which is projected and reflected is cast anew every time we gaze within a mirror. We must keep trying, recalling each time that that-which-is-reflected is a simile, a symbol in the original sense of the world [Greek σύν + βάλλω (to put)], a placed token. And so, the original remains intact, ready to be reflected again and cast a new light.
[i] Sylvia Plath, Mirror (1961)
[ii] Parts of this Musing have been included in the Introductory Note for the program of the art exhibition “Κάτοπτρο/Mirrors” held in July 2020 at the Limassol Municipal Arts Center (Apothikes Papadaki), Cyprus, curated by Mariza Bargilly.
[iii] Sigmund Freud (1914) On Narcissism: An Introduction. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, edited by James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1925).
[iv] For a discussion on this particular aspect of Romantic Love see “We: The Fairest Tale of the All” (Yiassemides, April 10, 2022). https://www.angelikiyiassemides.com/en/news/we-the-fairest-tale-of-them-all
[v] Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1989). Translated by Charles Boer, Spring Publications, Inc.
[vi] Carl Jung (1934/1954). Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious, CW 9i, Para 43
[vii] Ibid. Para 44