Ancient and modern

Ancient and modern: Ovid on selfies

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

11 January 2014

9:00 AM

A ‘meme’ is ‘an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture, often by mimicry’. If selfies, blogs, Facebook, Instagram, tweets and all the other means of drawing attention to oneself are anything to go by, rampant narcissism (derived from the mythical figure Narcissus) is the current, dominant meme. The Roman poet Ovid’s version of the Narcissus story captures the dark consequences.

Narcissus is a beautiful baby, and his mother Liriope asks the prophet Teiresias if he will enjoy a long life. ‘Only if he never knows himself’, comes the paradoxical reply — for such ignorance is usually disastrous (cf. Oedipus).


Narcissus grows up, lusted after by men and women alike, but there is an inflexible pride in his tender frame (a typical Ovidian antithesis), and he rejects all advances. Eventually one spurned male prays ‘May he too fall in love, and find his love unreciprocated!’ Since Narcissus is entirely hostile to love, one wonders how this could possibly come about, but ‘The god of vengeance assented to this just request.’

And so to the dénouement. Hot and exhausted from a day’s hunting, Narcissus kneels down to drink at a still, limpid pool in a cool, grassy, deserted glade — and catches sight of himself. He is enthralled at the vision, and off Ovid goes, exploiting as only he can the paradoxes and ironies inherent in a situation where one and the same person is both the subject and object, the active seeker and passive recipient of desire. Narcissus’s ‘love’ looks perfect because it is so symmetrical, exactly matched and returned by the empty image of himself on the surface of the water. Ovid apostrophises the situation: ‘It is just the shadow of a reflected image! It has no substance! With you it arrives, with you it stays, and with you it will depart, if only you will make yourself depart!’ To no avail: Narcissus, captivated by his own image, unable to reciprocate with anyone but himself, withers away and dies.

Image and delusion: an allegory for our selfie times, indeed. How Ovid would have adored the linguistic irony of this ‘me-me’.

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