Narcissus and his Redemption by Dante

There is thus a serious risk involved in this self-reflexivity that is so pervasive and foundational for language and for the very reality that is reflected in the medium of language. The emblem of this menace is Narcissus. Selfreflexivity can symbolize the very epitome of unproductive circularity— tautological emptiness—as reproducing always the same. It relentlessly reduces all to the self and apparently makes no progress. Such sterile reiteration of what already exists can represent the epitome of vapidness and futility. And yet, self-reflexivity can also show up as the fecund source of all production and creativity. We need to be able to identify and disentangle the generative and the degenerative models of narcissism in Dante’s poem and in the broader cultural worlds that it refracts.

Narcissism’s linguistic equivalent is, precisely, the lyric: language in love with itself. As in narcissism, so in the lyric, the image in its immediacy, even the nakedly verbal image, asserts itself as absolute reality. Any other lover, and even any objective or referential meaning, at least provisionally, fades away into an insubstantial Echo, as language itself becomes primary, the source of its own higher reality—or at least self-reflexively gives itself out to be such a self-sustaining reality. Language in the lyric, absolved from being merely mediation of other things, asserts itself as something immediate and absolute. This self-referentiality represents the key to language’s redemption through emulation of the divine Word—and at the same time the risk of its greatest perversion and vanity.

Narcissus in the Middle Ages is typically a negative exemplum—as he often still is, at least in part, in the psychoanalytic critique of modern society.1 This was the tenor set already by Ovid’s satirical treatment.[1] In Ovid’s myth in Metamorphoses V.338-510, the irresistibly beautiful boy

Narcissus is the illegitimate offspring of the nymph Liriopé, who was violated by the god Cephise. At his birth, the question of whether he will live a long life is answered by Tiresias to the effect that he may do so, but only “if he does not know himself” (“Si se non noverit,” 348). The dangers of self-knowledge are thus flagged at the outset as the moral of the story. There is a thought-provoking reversal here of the conventional wisdom “Know thyself” that was inscribed over the temple of Apollo at Delphi. Knowing his own image proves fatal to Narcissus, since he falls desperately in love with it and cannot detach himself.

In the biblical archetype, likewise, the state of blessedness in the Garden of Eden is one of innocence or ««knowing, and it is only after the Fall that Adam and Eve become self-aware. They then reflect and know that they are naked, and are ashamed (Genesis 3:7). Dante similarly represents the serpent in the Garden in insistently self-reflexive language: it turns its head again and again (“volgenda ad or ad ora la testa”) to lick its back like a beast that sleeks itself (“’1 dosso leccando come bestia che si liscia,” Purgatorio VIII.100-102). Of course, the serpent’s temptation of Eve by the promise of becoming like God, knowing good and evil (Genesis 3:4-5), also incites an insidious kind reflection on oneself.

Traditionally, then, these stories warn against certain perils of the passion for self-reflection. But Dante is trying to reinterpret selfreflection’s potential resources for wisdom as having more positive implications with regard to self-knowledge. He is pioneering a revalorization of self-reflection in relation to self-transcendence that will gather force again on the threshold of the Romantic age, notably with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Narcisse ou l’amant de lui-même (1732). Modem analysis of the myth’s ambivalence, pointing the way toward more positive valuations, was instigated by Lou-Andréas Salomé, Narzissismus als Doppelrichtung (1921) and further developed by the Psychoanalytisches Seminar Ziirick.[2] After all, self-knowledge is the indispensable means to personal awakening and enlightenment in some of the oldest and most venerable strains of wisdom in the West, not least within Gnostic currents, where the soul’s own self-reflection is necessary to orient it beyond a fallen world to its origin in another world, the world above.

However, the dangers of the Gnostic path to self-knowledge are also persistently contemplated by Dante and medieval tradition. The originally negative valence of Narcissus in Ovid remains evident in medieval moralizing treatments such as the Old French Lai de Narcisus (1165-75) inserted into the early fourteenth-century Ovide moralisé. Dante himself, in Inferno XXX, associates “the mirror of Narcissus” (“lo specchio di Narciso”) with base sins of counterfeiting in the persons of Mastro

Adamo and Sinon Greco. In Purgatorio XXX, Dante must be purified of the narcissistic gaze by looking away from his own image in the “clear spring” (“chiaro fonte”). Nevertheless, most significantly, a series of reflections of his own image in Purgatory builds up to a scene which has already been recognized by some as Dante’s reenactment and correction of the self-reflexive sin of Narcissus.[3]

In the second half of Purgatorio XXX, Dante emerges as a “ ‘corrected’ Narcissus” who looks away in shame from his own image and cries tears of repentance rather than of frustrated desire, and so heads toward redeemed life rather than death. The similes surrounding the act of selfreflection in Purgatorio XXX.76-79 as a purifying—specifically as a melting of snow (“neve ... liquefatta,” 85-91) and a melting of candles (“par foco fonder la candela,” 90)—are evidence of Dante’s reworking of Ovid’s text. They draw especially from Metamorphoses III.486-90, with its “liquefacta” and “igne leui cerae matutinaeque pruinae” and “paulatim carpitur igne” for the melting of soft wax and morning frost by fire as images for the shedding of tears. Dante transforms Narcissus’s futile death into a scene of repentance leading to redemption and purified life.

A moment earlier, Dante had already seen his left, his “sinister” or sinful, “side” mirrored in the reflecting waters of the Earthly Paradise:

L’acqua inprendea dal sinistro fianco,

e rendea me la mia sinistra costa,

s’io riguardava in lei, come specchio anco.

  • (Purgatorio XXIX.67-69)
  • (The water came up from the left bank, and rendered my left side to me, so that I looked into it just as into a mirror.)

And even earlier, on entering into Purgatory proper by treading the three steps, Dante had mirrored himself, as if in self-examination preparing for the rite of confession:

... e lo scaglion primaio

bianco marmo era si pulito e terso,

ch’io mi specchiai in esso qual io paio.

(Purgatorio IX.94-96)

(... and the first crag

was of white marble and was so clean and smooth

that I mirrored myself in it just as I appear.)

Such self-mirroring serves for the critique of self and the repudiation of sin—for repentance in order to restore an unblemished relation with the Creator and Redeemer God. Via such mirroring and self-examination, the sinner is restored to the creaturely status of being a pure reflection of a transcendent divinity. The idea of a transcendent reflection—this time not of the self so much as of an idealized, divinized image seen nevertheless by mirroring—is clearly present again later at another key transition in Purgatory, where Dante dreams of Leah singing. Leah’s dream song focuses on her own beauty and adornment and represents the first of two different degrees of self-reflection. The second is represented by her sister Rachel, who focuses on beautiful eyes as opposed to working hands and models a more contemplative form of self-reflection:

Per piacermi a lo specchio qui m’addorno;

ma mia suora Rachel mai non si smaga dal suo miraglio, e siede tutto giorno.

Elbe d’i suoi belli occhi veder vaga

com’io de l’addornarmi con le mani;

lei lo vedere, e me 1’overare appaga.

  • (Purgatorio XXVII. 103-8)
  • (“To please myself at the mirror I here adorn myself;

but my sister Rachel never disenchants herself from her mirror, and sits there all day long.

She is delighted by the sight of her beautiful eyes as I am by adorning myself with my hands; she is satisfied by looking and I by doing.”)

Rachel’s habitus looks dangerously vain. Yet, within the traditional allegory of Leah as the active and Rachel as the contemplative life, Rachel is understood to be really contemplating not just her own image, but Christ. These Old Testament figures serve as archetypes for a typological reading of the Martha and Mary story in the New Testament. While Mary sat apparently idle, yet was contemplating the Lord, her sister Martha was busy about many things. In answer to Martha’s complaint, Jesus replies, “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42). Seemingly idle speculation often looks like self-adulation but can in reality be contemplation of the divine. Poetry, particularly as Dante creates it in the Paradiso, would seem to be in this same ambiguous case.

When Dante gazes into the mirrors of Beatrice’s eyes, after his cleansing in Lethe, he too beholds not just himself but an allegorical image of Christ—the gryphon:

Mille disiri più che fiamma caldi

strinsermi li occhi a li occhi rilucenti, che pur sopra ’1 grifone stavan saldi.

Come in lo specchio ¡1 sol, non altrimenti

la doppia fiera dentro vi raggiava, or con altri, or con altri reggimenti.

  • (Purgatorio XXXI. 118-23)
  • (A thousand desires more than fire riveted

my eyes to the resplendent eyes

that on the gryphon remained fixed.

As in a mirror the sun, not otherwise

the double beast was reflected therein, now with some, now with other features.)

The importance of this image as an allegory for reflection of transcendence—the transcendent God incarnate in Christ, with his two natures—has been grasped by critics.[4] But how and why the pattern of redemption through self-reflection extends to the figure of Narcissus calls to be worked out in detail and requires theological analysis. This is precisely what the Paradiso provides, as has already been suggested from different angles of approach.

At the end of Purgatorio, Dante begins to use ineffability vis-à-vis Beatrice’s beauty in the way he will continue to develop throughout the Paradiso. The revelation of her beauty, once she finally smiles, induces uncontainable intensities of desire in him. His desire reflexively feeds on its own in/satisfaction and is thereby made insatiable:

“Mentre che piena di stupor e lieta

l’anima mia gustava di quel cibo

che, saziando di sé, di sé asseta ...”

(Purgatorio XXXI.127-29)

(“While full of stupor and happy my soul tasted of that food that, in satiating of itself causes thirst for itself ...”)

After the mirroring gazes of both Rachel and Leah, which are reflected further in a certain self-absorption of Mathelda in Purgatorio XXVIII.40-41 and XXIX.4-9 (the reflexive verb si gia describes her solitary movements), and after Dante’s repeated sightings of his own image, we cannot but acknowledge the necessity of passage by way of self-reflection for the restoration to innocence in the Garden. However, Dante’s purification in Purgatory involves also—inverting Narcissus—a gazing at himself in abhorrence. Beatrice makes him face his life and its egregious failings when he sees himself in the clear stream of the pristine paradise of the Garden and is ashamed:

Li occhi mi cadder giü nel chiaro fonte, ma veggendomi in esso, i trassi a 1’erba, tanta vergogna mi gravó la fronte

  • (Purgatorio XXX.76-78)
  • (My eyes fell down upon the clear fount,

but seeing myself in it, I drew them back to the bank, such was the shame that weighed on my brow.)

Dante is made to see through and beyond self to a transcendentally pure origin reflected to him through Beatrice. This type of self-gazing is modeled in Rachel, and perhaps also in Mathelda. In them, contemplation necessarily entails a structure of self-reflection. Mathelda reflects an innocent eros regained in the Earthly Paradise pervaded and intensely colored by the desire she awakens. Self-reflection and auto-affection are restored to a kind of natural innocence: they are given a productive role in human growth and self-building. From this point forward, and throughout the Paradiso, self-reflection plays a progressively more positive role in Dante’s redemptive project.

  • [1] Echoes of Narcissus (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000), ed. Liebe Spaas, surveys some of the myth’s manifold reassessements and revaluations. 2 Kenneth J. Knoespel, Narcissus and the Invention of Personal History (New York: Garland, 1985), Chapter 1, analyzes Ovid’s own presentation of the myth. Chapter 2 reviews the medieval background, while Chapter 3 discusses medieval and Renaissance appropriations.
  • [2] Die neuen Narzißmustheorien: zurück ins Paradies? (Frankfurt am Main: Syndikat, 1983). 2 On this Gnostic quest, see Henri-Charles Puech, En quête de la Gnose (Paris: Gallimard, 1978).
  • [3] Michelangelo Picone, “Dante e il mito di Narciso: Dal Roman de la Rose alia Commedia," Romanische Forschungen 89 (1977): 382-97. 2 Kevin Brownlee, “Dante and Narcissus (Purg. XXX, 76-99),” Dante Studies 96 (1978): 201-6.
  • [4] Rodolphe Palgen, “L’Ascension du griffon,” Revue des etudes italiennes 11 (1965): 302-28. 2 The project of a redeemed Narcissus to be discerned by vertical reading of the cantos XXX in each cantica is intriguingly adumbrated by R. A. Shoaf, Dante, Chaucer, and the Currency of the Word (Norman, OK: Pilgrim Books, 1983), especially Chapter 1: “Introduction: Narcissus and the Poet,” 21-38. Important suggestions are found also in Roger Dragonetti, “Dante et Narcisse ou les faux-monnayeurs de 1’image,” Revue des etudes italiennes 11 (1965): 85-146. The subject is pursued further in Heather Webb and George Corbett, eds., Vertical Readings in Dante’s Comedy (Cambridge: Open Book, 2015-17). See also Akbari, Seeing through the Veil, 170-77.
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