Sometimes I get my ideas for new thematic unity by the recollection of a song. Sometimes a single line is all it takes... As in today's case. Here's the song that inspired this new unity:
In my opinion, Genesis, the British supergroup, had their most creative years in the first half of the 70s. Selling England By The Pound is one of the greatest albums of all time and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway was a great album as well. Musical Box is one of my favorite songs, which could be a part of a future thematic unity. Supper’s Ready, today's song, is an extended epic that takes up a whole side of a vinyl album (its length is around 23 minutes) and would become the closing song of their live shows. At around the 10 minute mark, there's the line: "We watch in reverence, as Narcissus is turned to a flower." This is the line that inspired me to do this current theme, which will demonstrate how mythology affects art. This unity will appear every Saturday and/or Sunday for the next few weeks. Our first subject is Narcissus. Of course.
The painting above is by famous (and personal favorite) Italian painter Caravaggio, circa 1597–1599. It depicts Narcissus gazing at his own reflection. Several versions of the myth have survived from ancient sources. The classic version is by Ovid, found in book 3 of his Metamorphoses (completed 8 AD). The story is as follows:
A long time ago, in the Boeotian realm of Thespiae, a boy was born to the River God Cephissus and the Naiad Liriope. Even in infancy the other nymphs, Dryads and Naiads and Oreads, of the mountain vales and forest glades could see majesty in the young boy's form. Such a sight to behold as baby became boy! His fair mother cared deeply for her boy, and sought out the legendary seer, Tiresias, '"fam'd far and near for knowing things to come", for comfort as to his fate. Liriope asked the prophet if her son would enjoy a long life, or was doomed to a short one. Seeing the gift of beauty the gods had empowered the boy with beyond all other mortals, the wise sage replied "If e'er he knows himself he surely dies". "Long liv'd the dubious mother in suspence, 'till time unriddled all the prophet's sense". So the boy grew older yet, and his handsome visage stronger yet. Narcissus was the name his mother had given him, and all who set eyes upon him were stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of him. His sixteenth year began, and the list of maids who had declared their adoration for him swelled greater yet, each confession another brick in his tower of pride, each doomed to fail.
The above photo is of a statue by French sculptor Paul Dubois, from 1867. It is found in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
Here's a beautiful song called Narcissus by Patricia Barber from Chicago, US:
To continue with the myth:
Then, one day as Narcissus hunted in the forest glades, one of the Oreads, the mountain nymphs, caught sight of him for the first time. Echo was her name, and this moment would forever haunt her destiny. Poor Echo was a cursed being. For it was the sport of Zeus the Thunderer and King of the Gods to make merry with the many nymphs of the world in secret, when Hera his wife's gaze would be averted. Many times would she have caught her husband in the act were it not for stories Echo would tell her, to delay her coming. The time came one day when the deception was laid bare before the fearsome Queen of Olympus, and the roots of the mountains shivered before her fury. "That tongue, for this thy crime, which could so many subtle tales produce, shall be hereafter but of little use". Forever would the nymph be cursed, unable to speak except the words used by others. It is from Echo's name that the aural effect today takes its name. Now Echo clapped her eyes upon the perfect youth stalking the undergrowth. Young Echo was overjoyed to see Narcissus for once alone, for usually he was trailed by a vast entourage of sycophants. But, with tears of frustration, she was unable to speak and put her feelings into words.
The painting above depicting Narcissus is by Hungarian painter Benczúr Gyula (1881).
Here's one of the most recent songs on the subject, Narcissus Is Back by French group Christine and the Queens:
Back to the myth:
Long did she follow him through the woods, desperate to open her heart to Narcissus. Then, at last Narcissus is aware of her presence. Turning to see her, he laughed at her pitiable obsession, and bid her turn away. Crushed by his words, the tearful Echo took to melancholic days in solitary caves, shady glades of the woods and other dark places of despair. But the vengeful goddess Nemesis was angered by Narcissus, and wove her plans of retribution.
The painting above is called Echo And Narcissus, by English painter John William Waterhouse (1903).
Here's Narcissus by Canadian Alanis Morissette:
But what happened next? This:
So fair Narcissus, weary from his long hunt, came to the forest clearing. Wiping the sweat from his brow, he knelt at the side of a crystal pool of cool water. As he bent down to splash water on his heated face, a new kind of warmth flooded through him, as he saw a being of astonishing beauty before him. Such a handsome youth, the very image of the Olympians! Sparkling eyes, hair that Apollo himself would be loath to show. So Narcissus was consumed by the fire that was his own, though he knew not who the perfect being was in truth.
The painting above is Metamorphosis of Narcissus by famous Spanish painter Salvador Dali (1937).
And here's a song about a female Narcissus, called Narcisissma by one of my favorite singer-songwriters, American Don McLean:
And here's the rest of the myth:
Long did Narcissus lie there, staring into the pool, thinking not of sleep or food, as his body wasted away, entranced by the passion afire within the calm ripples. To the trees of the glade Narcissus cries, languishing for he cannot ever reach his beloved, cruelly separated as they are by the surface of the pool. "When my arms I stretch, he stretches his. His eye with pleasure on my face he keeps, he smiles my smiles, and when I weep he weeps. When e'er I speak, his moving lips appear to utter something, which I cannot hear". Then the hammer blow falls, when fair Narcissus sees the truth laid bare. "It is myself I see! The happy delusion is a part of me!" A terrible sorrow gripped the proud youth for the vanity of his desire. So totally entranced was he with his own image, he did declare "I wish him absent whom I most desire, and now I faint with grief; my fate draws nigh; in all the pride of blooming youth I die. Death will the sorrows of my heart relieve!" So Narcissus turned back to the pool, as his warm tears splashed upon the surface. Now the image is but ripples and flashes, and the boy's sorrow grows "whither dost thou fly?" he laments. The Autumn began to fade, and the glorious features began to dwindle in Narcissus's form. All those things which made him desired slipped away, but there was one nearby the pool who stood there still. For Echo could not bare to leave his side, and her tears for Narcissus flowed.
So Narcissus breathed his last, transfixed forever by his own reflection, and ever after one who possesses such vanity has been known as Narcissistic. Echo's heart was broken. Out of respect for her the other Naiads and Dryads sought to gather the boy's remains, but upon reaching the shore of the pool, found not bones and flesh there. In his place stood a stalk of verdant green, crowned with golden blossoms, that most majestic plant which now bears his name...
More paintings depicting Narcissus were made by Poussin, Turner, Carpioni, Lagrenée, Roos and Boltraffio.
Other sculptors that sculpted Narcissus include Gibson, Gréberf and Netzer.
Now, some more songs. Here's Narcissus by Californian Rock band Say Anything. It's good:
Here's a different take on the myth, by Canadian urban artist Sean Leon:
Hedley is also Canadian (a group). Their song is Narcissist:
Narcissus in a Red Dress is a song by Californian Indie rockers The Like:
There's a Narcissus that originates in South Korea, sung by Kim Heechul and Wheein:
Russian composer Nikolai Tcherepnin wrote his ballet Narcisse et Echo, Op. 40 in 1911 for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and was danced by Nijinski.
From England here are funny guys Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band with their own (short) Narcissus:
Another contemporary song, Narcissus Soaking Wet by the American band Chris Robinson Brotherhood:
Here's an Alt Rock version: Narcissus by Softengine from Finland:
Here's UK progressive metal band The Threshold with their own Narcissus:
US Hip Hop artist Tonedeff, born Pedro Antonio Rojas, Jr. gave us his own Narcissus:
Finally, Greek Rock band Septic Flesh also have a song called Narcissus:
There's also a cartoon, with a (simplified) telling of the myth:
A famous gay cult film from 1971 was called Pink Narcissus and it involves the narcissistic erotic fantasies of a hustler. Here, you can watch all of it:
A wonderful Oscar-winning film by the great Michael Powell was Black Narcissus (1947) with Deborah Kerr, David Farrar, Flora Robson and Jean Simmons. It's visually beautiful, best watched on the big screen. Alternatively, you can watch it here:
Literature was also greatly influenced by the myth: among them, we find Stendhal's novel Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), André Gide's study Le Traité du Narcisse ('The Treatise of the Narcissus, 1891), the only novel by Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, Herman Melville's Moby Dick and others.
Also the myth influenced the birth of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Seamus Heaney, as well as A. E. Housman in his poem Look not in my Eyes from A Shropshire Lad. (The latter being one of my all-time favorite poems).