Tuesday 5 March 2013

Narcissus is an oldie

'Narcissus lean and slippered' in Samuel Beckett's translation of Ernst Moerman's poem about Louis Armstrong (see last Saturday's blog) got me thinking. Narcissus is usually portrayed as a handsome youth, as that's what the myth insists upon. But the name Narkissos (Greek: Νάρκισσος), possibly comes from ναρκη (narke) meaning 'sleep' or 'numbness' and has nothing to do with beauty. It is all to with self-absorption.

Auden had his own take on the story:

Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it is beautiful, but because it is his. If it were his beauty that enthralled him, he would be set free in a few years by its fading.

Daumier had a similar thought, portraying the enraptured twit as a spindly, big-nosed, middle-aged creature:

I'm not sure whether this 1842 lithograph of le beau Narcisse is some kind of political satire or aimed at a particular individual, although the figure reminds me of the potty French writer Michel Houellebecq. It puts me in mind of a witty thing the actress Joan Collins once said: 'to be born beautiful like being  born rich and growing a little poorer every day'.

Daumier was an artist Auden particularly admired: ('All Cezanne's apples I would give away / For one small Goya or a Daumier' he wrote, in Letter to Lord Byron.) Every man, said Auden elsewhere, secretly loves his own pot belly because it incorporates the feminine, allowing him freedom from the fretful and time-consuming pursuit of sex. Well, it's a theory. Auden's 1973 poem A Lullaby is one of the last he wrote, and has a nod to the Narcissus myth. Not his best, perhaps, but a favourite of mine, and here it is:

The din of work is subdued,
another day has westered
and mantling darkness arrived.
Peace! Peace! Devoid your portrait
of its vexations and rest.
Your daily round is done with,
you've gotten the garbage out,
answered some tiresome letters
and paid a bill by return,
all frettolosamente.
Now you have licence to lie,
naked, curled like a shrimplet,
jacent in bed, and enjoy
its cosy micro-climate:
Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

The old Greeks got it all wrong:
Narcissus is an oldie,
tamed by time, released at last
from lust for other bodies,
rational and reconciled.
For many years you envied
the hirsute, the he-man type.
No longer: now you fondle
your almost feminine flesh
with mettled satisfaction,
imagining that you are
sinless and all-sufficient,
snug in the den of yourself,
Madonna and Bambino:
Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

Let your last thinks all be thanks:
praise your parents who gave you
a Super-Ego of strength
that saves you so much bother,
digit friends and dear them all,
then pay fair attribution
to your age, to having been
born when you were. In boyhood
you were permitted to meet
beautiful old contraptions,
soon to be banished from earth,
saddle-tank loks, beam-engines
and over-shot waterwheels.
Yes, love, you have been lucky:
Sing, Big Baby, sing lullay.

Now for oblivion: let
the belly-mind take over
down below the diaphragm,
the domain of the Mothers,
They who guard the Sacred Gates,
without whose wordless warnings
soon the verbalising I
becomes a vicious despot,
lewd, incapable of love,
disdainful, status-hungry.
Should dreams haunt you, heed them not,
for all, both sweet and horrid,
are jokes in dubious taste,
too jejune to have truck with.
Sleep, Big Baby, sleep your fill.

© the Estate of W. H. Auden

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