I remember once seeing a science program that showed the worst pain that humans suffer is not physical, but the pain of a broken heart (though I disagree). We long so much for connection that to be separated from one another feels like the severing of a limb. But what does it mean to truly love? Does it come from a complete surrender of the self or is it the opposite, does true deep love of another come from the true deep love of the self? Moralists will argue endlessly in circles on this one.
Today, I continue the study of Symbolism by talking about its subcategory allegory. Allegory is a symbol used as a representative of an idea, but the symbol is made into a concrete thing (like a man, or scythe). The thing encompasses all of the characteristics of that abstraction. So the idea of death is transformed into a walking skeleton named Death. It will embody all of the characteristics of death by carrying people from life to the other side and being indifferent to anyone’s rank in society, sex, or age (King’s will pay him not to take them, and children will cry and beg not to be taken, but he will take them when their time here is up all the same).
This a poem based off of a medieval play which were (for the most part) allegorical, that is about allegories instead of stories about characters. In these plays there were devils that represented the evils of humankind (devils named Theft or Indifference) and the deadly sins were characters; Gluttony, for instance, was played by a big fat guy. And the gods played parts to represent the ideas that swayed the society (Aries the god of war would cause kings to fight). Here, the character Narcissus represents self love or vanity, depending on your take, and he has been transformed into the narcissus flower or daffodil as a punishment for only loving himself. Echo is a bodyless being that only has a voice (in a way, she is his opposite) who loves him no matter what his form, she cries for him when he becomes a flower as he has, in essence, been killed.
The myth implies the moral that self-love is a sin. But I think self-love is not a bad thing and the poet agrees, for he mourns the death of Narcissus. He grieves for Narcissus’s loss.
It always seemed unfair to me that Narcissus, this beautiful being, was punished not for hurting others, but for the act of loving himself – only. I always thought that the goddess who punished him was petty (and the revenge of a nemesis is always viewed as petty) perhaps because he could do what she could not, that it was jealousy and not justice that caused her “punishment”. Certainly, in a place and time where the Community is valued above the Individual, love for no one but self can be viewed as a heinous act. But I wonder if there was an unconscious sympathy for him as it is the goddess Nemesis who transformed him. Nemesis is also an allegory for the Singular, the arch enemy, the one who has declared war on you for his or her own personal reasons (and vice versa). Could it be that the Greeks felt denied the ability of self-love? Perhaps that sacrifice felt like a punishment, an unfair affliction upon them by the unfeeling and random gods.
I’m still of the belief that the most pain that a human can endure is the death of one’s pride and that pride (taken in stride accompanied by a little self humor) is not such a bad thing. Perhaps I’m too much of an individual. But to be egotistical, is that the same as being self loving? Everyone believes that vanity is self-love. But is it? I’ve always considered vanity not a love of one’s self, but instead a hatred of all others. Still the death of pride, feels like the death of the ego, the death of some part of yourself and in some ways it’s not such a bad thing; we all need to let go of values that no longer serve us well (put away childish things). But how much should we sacrifice this love of self in a world that will not extend itself to acts of unconditional love?
Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount, Keep Time With My Salt Tears
by Ben Jonson
Slow, slow, fresh fount, keep time with my salt tears;
Yet slower yet, oh faintly, gentle springs;
List to the heavy part the music bears,
Woe weeps out her division when she sings.
Droop herbs and flowers,
Fall grief in showers;
Our beauties are not ours;
Oh, I could still,
Like melting snow upon some craggy hill,
Drop, drop, drop, drop,
Since nature’s pride is now a withered daffodil.