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Narcissus in the Text

 Originally Appeared in: The Georgia Review: Volume 30, Number 2 | Published: Summer, 1976

Readings of Ovid’s Narcissus story are not to be found within critical discourse so much as in the intertextual practice of other poets. It is by no means an innocent procedure when the literary historian points to the source of a particular work or says that one text refers to another. The moment we are drawn into the logic of concepts like source and referent, we are tempted to assume that the “original” text has an undisturbed and stable significance that later authors repeat. For example, the most comprehensive survey of Narcissus texts treats the Ovidian version as a collection of “themes” variously realized or expanded in other authors.* Ovid’s narrative does not, however, supply a set of stable meanings that can serve to anchor another text’s thematic organization; it does not even provide a plot that another text could innocently recapitulate, and it situates its central characters, Narcissus and Echo, in a way that allows contradictory interpretations of their relation to one another. Only by unraveling the fabric of Ovid’s Narcissus will it be possible to open a way into that larger network of writings that read and rewrite Ovid’s narrative.

  1. Mythos, Dianoia, Ethos

A certain desire for mastery no doubt propels any reading of a literary text. Seeking theoretical foundation in the concept of literary form, the desire for mastery would be fulfilled at the moment when the literary discourse revealed itself to be a stable and coherent set of interrelated elements. Whether reached at a particular point in the reading process or held off by the temporal complications of a hermeneutical circle, the telos of the critical act has always been conceived as the apprehension of just such a unified totality.

Putting the concept of formal unity into question is certainly a major theoretical task today. However, that cannot be accomplished by means of a simple leap outside the borders of the critical tradition. The problem is not merely one of replacing old methods with new. The desire for mastery cannot be renounced so painlessly, precisely because it is incited by literature itself. A more difficult problem must be posed: To what extent has literature, throughout its history, authorized this desire of literary theory? In order to effect a radical break with our own critical tradition, it would be necessary to aggravate a tension that already exists within literary practice.

These problems and questions define the lines of tension within which our reading of Ovid’s story of Echo and Narcissus ( Metamorphoses III, 339-510) will be situated. In order to analyze that level of organization which leads us toward reading the Ovidian text as a formal unity, I am going to borrow a set of formulations from Northrop Frye. Frye has attempted to give a rigorous definition of the constituent elements of literary form and their interrelation. His definition is derived from Aristotle and so reminds us of the essential continuity that runs through the history of criticism in spite of its many avatars. The reference to Aristotle serves another purpose as well; Frye believes that in following Aristotle, rather than Kant or Hegel, it is possible to keep poetics at a safe distance from metaphysics. What allows Frye to construct an “anatomy of criticism” that systematically relates disparate critical procedures is a single conception of literary form that all critical methods (could) share. This conception grounds a multileveled theory of literature, arranged as literal, descriptive, formal, archetypal, anagogie. At any level of the system, whether the individual work (formal) or the whole of literature (anagogie), the constituent elements of literature’s for mal unity are mythos, dianoia, ethos. Plot, meaning, character and setting.

At first, then, I will examine Ovid’s text as a narrative system composed of these three elements. Mythos , or what Aristotle called mimesis praxeos, “is a secondary imitation of an action, which means not that it is at two removes from reality, but that it describes typical actions.”* And dianoia “is a secondary imitation of thought, a mimesis logon, concerned with typical thought.” A certain synthesis of space and time is fundamental to Frye’s poetics in that the formal unity of the literary work is essentially the synthesis of its temporal movement, mythos, and its “spatial” pattern, dianoia: “The word narrative or mythos conveys the sense of movement caught by the ear, and the word meaning or dianoia conveys, or at least preserves, the sense of simultaneity caught by the eye. We listen to the poem as it moves from beginning to end, but as soon as the whole of it is in our minds at once we ‘see’ what it means” (p. 77). While Frye’s definition of meaning as spatial pattern is undoubtedly open to question, there is reason to suspend a critique of this particular issue. Even a theory that sees interpretation submitted to a complex temporal movement presupposes, insofar as it posits an ideal end-point which orients its movement, that all the significations of a text could, ideally, be gathered into a unified meaning. Frye comes close to acknowledging such a position when he goes on to qualify terms like “the whole” and “at once”: “More exactly, this response is not simply to the whole of [the poem], but to a whole in it: we have a vision of meaning or dianoia whenever any simultaneous apprehension is possible” (pp. 77-78). In pursuing an analysis of the narrative system of Ovid’s text, I want to conserve the essential point of Frye’s description of mythos and dianoia- namely, that their interaction is complete and synthetic, so that any “moment” in a text will at once develop the mythos and belong to the dianoia. Frye puts it thus: “The form of a poem, that to which every detail relates, is the same whether it is examined as stationary or as moving through the work from beginning to end. . . . The mythos is the dianoia in movement; the dianoia is the mythos in stasis” (p. 83). In its sequential development Ovid’s narrative oscillates between Narcissus and Echo, placing their encounter within the web of circumstances and consequences that make up the discourse we read. That oscillation can be charted and its center located as follows: Narcissus’s birth and his character when he is sixteen; the origin of Echo’s limited speech; Echo’s pursuit of Narcissus and his rebuke; the wasting away of Echo’s body; Narcissus’s infatuation with his own image, and finally his death….

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