NARCISSUS AND THE DRAWBACKS OF BEING A HOT TEENAGE BOY
The myth of Narcissus as told by the Roman poet Ovid isn’t so much about narcissism and self-discovery, as about what it is to transgress the norms of male sexuality
Was Narcissus really a narcissist?
The Greek myth about the beautiful Narcissus, who was too proud to love any of his admirers and was condemned by the gods to fall in love with his own reflection. It has always been seen as a warning against excessive self-love.
But is this really the best way to read the story?
Retold at the beginning of the first century CE by the Ancient Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, the story has much to say on a subject that is still uncomfortably resonant today: toxic masculinity.
The Narcissus tale in Book III of the Metamorphoses, in its barest outline, is actually a story about a teenage boy who rejects the sexual advances of some other teenagers, and then starves to death staring into a duck pond.
His downfall is framed as cosmically just. But the judgement can be read as not one against self-love, but as a reflection of the aggressive way society punishes any manifestation of teenage male sexuality that contradicts the norm. The idea that to be a man is to be perpetually on the look out for sex.
In reading the Narcissus tale today, the biggest difficulty a modern audience faces is to somehow divest our protagonist of all of his cumbersome cultural baggage.
Just as any knowledge of Freudian psychoanalysis fundamentally ruins the experience of trying to read Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, so the mental equation that Narcissus, the mythological boy = narcissism, the peak of egotism, obscures what the tale is actually telling us.
This equation turns the reader’s gaze inward and prevents us from seeing the interesting monsters in our peripheral vision, in this case the toxic norms of male sexuality.
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