Flowers for Thought: Narcissus and Evolution

March 12, 2014 | Posted in: Myths & Folktales, Sociology

Narcissus pseudonarcissus and Narcissus poeticus, Hans-Simon Holtzbecker, 1659

Narcissus pseudonarcissus and Narcissus poeticus, Hans-Simon Holtzbecker, 1659.

“Man is not adapted to live in a mirror-lined box, generating his own electric light and sending for selected images from outside when he happens to need them. Darkness and a bad smell are all that can come of that. We need the vast world, and it must be a world that does not need us; a world constantly capable of surprising us, a world we did not program, since only such a world is the proper object of wonder. Any kind of Humanism which deprives us of this, which insists on treating the universe as a mere projection screen for showing off human capacities, cripples and curtails humanity.” Mary Midgley


Today the daffodils have unfurled: bright yellow petals proclaiming winter’s dominance at last has ended. These trumpet-bearers of spring were my favorite flowers as a child, and I would sneak through parks like some small-time criminal to break a few stems and whisk home with the evidence. Years later, when I became an avid reader of Greek mythology, I was surprised to learn that these sweet flowers were also known by the name Narcissus and are associated with a very strange tale of tragic self-adoration. During my college years, completing my degree in Environmental Studies, I began to see this tale of Narcissus as especially relevant to our modern times.

Here’s my retelling of the well-known myth: Ovid, the ancient poet, tells us that Narcissus’ mother brought him as a babe before Tiresias, who was famed throughout the land for his accurate prophecies, and who, when asked by this mother if her child would live to see a happy and respectable old age, responded enigmatically “If he does not discover himself.” Flash forward fifteen years and we find Narcissus a particularly beautiful and prideful young man, much loved and even desired by the nymphs and other beings who share his forest home. In his vanity he cruelly spurned one admirer after another, till finally one youth cried out to Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution, to curse Narcissus, that he himself may experience the pain of love unrequited.

So it passed that Narcissus, upon lying down to drink from the perfectly still waters of a pool, saw his own visage and fell instantly and compulsively in love with his own reflected form. The days passed as Narcissus lay enraptured by his own reflection, slowly wasting away, losing the very beauty he was so esteemed for. He forgot about the splendor of the world around him, the company of his relatives and admirers, the forests he had loved to walk through. At last, still unable to tear his gaze away, death finally closed Narcissus’ eyes, and it’s said that even as his spirit passed over the waters to the land of the dead he was still striving to see his own reflection in the river’s surface…

Echo and Narcissus, J.W. Waterhouse, 1903.

Like Narcissus, much of humankind has fallen in love with its own reflection, remaking the environment in its own image without regard to the earth processes and fellow species that keep the biosphere healthy and vibrant.

The ecological community that sustains all life is still treated by most societies as merely a collection of resources, and thus has been stripped of any inherent value beyond what humanity can take and make from it. Like Narcissus, we discovered ourselves as we evolved our large and talented brains. And as time passed humans came together in ever greater numbers, developing new technologies that allowed them to live with less obvious and immediate connection to the cycles of the ecological world. Many societies began to fill with pride at their own capabilities, asserting the like of which to exist in no other species (or even other groups of people for that matter).

Such cultures fell in love with themselves to the point of rejecting their inherent dependence on the earth and placed humankind at the top of an imagined hierarchy of beings. Through the ages of human history we can follow this thread of imagined specialness and dominance right up to today, in which an endless pursuit of material goods and attempts to control the environment has led us to a state of ecological crisis, in which we witness an epidemic of species extinction and global-scale degradation of the biosphere.

The Entire City, Max Ernest, 1935.

The Entire City, Max Ernest, 1935.

“Shall we prolong the painful split between mind and body by continuing to neglect our carnal entanglement with this immense Presence, or shall we finally heal that age-old wound by acknowledging Earth’s implicit involvement in all our experience–as the solid ground supports all our certainties, and the distant horizon that provokes all our dreams?”
David Abrams, Becoming Animal

Fortunately for us, nature is far more forgiving than the Greek gods and goddesses. Unlike the poor reckless youth Narcissus who could not escape the deadly curse placed upon him, those of us living in unsustainable societies can choose to tear our gaze away from an unhealthy and aberrant fixation on our own species needs and wants. We can remember instead our dependence on and relationship with the more-than-human world and reclaim our place enmeshed in the matrix of life.

After all, we evolved to our current human form from a long line of nonhuman ancestors, and we were only able to evolve because of our intimate engagement with the larger diversity of life and earth processes. We are only human then because we and our predecessors successfully found ways to live, grow, and develop in a complex, ever-changing biosphere. Year after year, daffodils bloom and adapt, always evolving, never ignoring the ecological community in which they grow. We too have an opportunity, year after year, to change our perspective on humanity’s place in the larger community of life, to evolve our way of being in this world.

I for one choose to live a life of interconnection rather than self-imposed and fictitious domination. The blossoms peeking out all around look all the more lovely when I remember that humans exist because flowers exist:

“The world before flowers was sleepier than ours because, lacking fruit and large seeds, it couldn’t support many warm-blooded creatures. Reptiles ruled… By producing sugars and proteins to entice animals to disperse their seed, the flowers multiplied the world’s supply of food energy, making possible the rise of warm-blooded mammals… Without flowers, we would not be.” Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire

A Group of Tulips, The Temple of Flora, Robert John Thorton, 1807.

A Group of Tulips, The Temple of Flora, Robert John Thorton, 1807.

Just one person out of 7 billion + on a journey to live a life that is vibrant, soul-fulfilling, useful to others, and consciously engaged with the ecological community that sustains all life, including mine and yours.