The Curse of Narcissus – Balancing uniqueness and mundanity

Continuing my ruminations on love and the person, I’ve found my journey has led me to the steps of ancient Greek myth – Narcissus. Though a difficult article to write – having to cut it down in half for publication – I refrained from personal reflection. A part two will be written, but it’ll be an unpublished reflection on over three years of thoughts on the subject.

The article below was originally published in The Chimes, here.


If you have visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City or walked through The Getty Center in Los Angeles, you will undoubtedly remember the peculiarity of their paintings. You may find a Salvador Dali or a van Gogh, and you may find the artist peculiar, as perhaps you may find the word “peculiar” to be peculiar, but you will never find the colors of the painting to be peculiar, and that is precisely what is peculiar. There are no unique colors, there are unique paintings.

THE PROBLEM

This tension may strike us closer to home when we consider ourselves. We may each have an allergy or a sniffle, but we all blow through a nose. We all may exercise in a different gym or at a different time, but we all compete in the same sporting events. When we consider ourselves, we find the same peculiarity as Dali or van Gogh—we are unique but we are all somehow mundane.

The problem is not that there exists a tension between the unique and the mundane. A painting, composed of the same scope of colors as any other painting, does not rob us of enjoyment. The problem arises when we unravel the tension between uniquiness and mundanity. If we view ourselves as utterly unique, without equal or parallel, we become as cursed as Narcissus. If we view ourselves as utterly mundane, with only equals and parallels, we become as cursed as Nietzsche.

THE CURSE OF NARCISSUSOP_Narcissus_Bing.com_gallery_view.jpg

The story of Narcissus, from which the word “narcissist” is derived, is about the son of the river god Cephissus. He was told he would live a long life unless he came to recognize himself. One day, a goddess named Nemesis attracted Narcissus to a pool of water. Upon seeing his own reflection, he fell in love with his own image—staring at himself until he died.

The temptation is to seek our own uniqueness at the exclusion of our mundanity. Our personal experiences, looks, desires, achievements and circumstances all contribute to building an image of ourselves that we find unique—surely, we think no one is like ourselves. However, the consequences are steep. By overemphasizing the unique, we cut our connections with anything outside ourselves such as friendships and romances. By falling in love with ourselves, we lose our ability to function in the world around us.

THE CURSE OF NIETZSCHE

Friedrich Nietzsche, a German existentialist philosopher most notable for the words, “God is dead,” believed that nihilism was the catalyst for creating new cultural meaning. For a culture to continue, it must recognize its values as meaningless and fabricate new ones.

The problem with this approach, often referred to as the “Noble Lie,” is that culture loses all of its existential funding. Nietzsche recognized this. Imagine creating cultural values which say “life is meaningful,” “God loves you” and “You should pursue your dreams for fulfillment.” However, believing the Noble Lie these have no ultimate meaning. The temptation of Nihilism is to believe the Noble Lie: you must behave like Narcissus.

A BALANCED SOLUTION

In a world that tends to emphasize utter uniqueness or utter mundanity, Christians must balance them both. Humans are utterly unique because we alone are created in the image of God, but we are also utterly mundane, created from the dust of the earth. For those enamored by Narcissus, it is a reminder that we are not without equal or parallel. For those captured by Nietzsche, it is a reminder that we do not consist only of equals and parallels. This duality held in tension is what keeps us sane. It is the only escape for the cursed.

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