Beside the pleasant pool Narcissus lay
And bending over, quenched his thirst, to find
Within his heart a thirst of different kind…
Narcissus was an exceptionally beautiful sixteen-year-old Greek boy, hard and disdainful, who scorned everyone, including the nymph Echo who had fallen madly in love with him. But Echo got her revenge: one day Narcissus lay down beside a pool and, seeing his own reflection, was so smitten by his beauty that he fell in love with himself.
Narcissus never discovered that he was only looking at a reflection. He tried to clasp and kiss it, but naturally was unable to do so. Frustrated and tormented by not being able to possess the object of his desire, he grieved and grieved. When mourners came for him, even his body had disappeared. All that was left of him was a flower next to the pool.
This is the first recorded reaction to seeing one’s own reflection – a pretty depressing story, to say the least. But now let’s fast forward a few millennia and shift our attention away from the cradle of western civilization to a distant outpost of the late l9th Century British Empire. For it was in Australia that a historic man-mirror encounter of quite a different sort was taking place. How did it compare with Narcissus’ sad tale?
Frederick Matthias Alexander was an exceptionally talented young man from Tasmania who spent a great deal of time looking at himself in a mirror. One can easily imagine his friends and colleagues becoming concerned about this odd behavior: “Fred just stands there in front of that damned mirror for hours on end. Can’t even get him to come down to the pub for a beer anymore.” “I know. Yesterday, when I stopped by his rooms, he was having an intimate talk with his reflection. That voice problem of his has gone to his head.”
Alexander eventually left his mirror and his homeland and moved to England. No doubt some he encountered there also thought him a bit strange – in a harmless sort of way of course. Others saw genius in the man and attached great value to his discoveries. They read his books, gazed intently into their own mirrors, and gladly paid good money for lessons in his Technique. A few of them devoted their lives to furthering his work. This pattern continues today, almost sixty years after Alexander’s death.
Narcissus became world famous. His story is perhaps the best known of all the tales of ancient Greek mythology and his name has become synonymous with self-love and self-centeredness. Alexander, on the other hand, remains comparatively unknown, although his name too has crept into the vocabulary of his followers. One early American disciple suggested that the President and all members of Congress ought to be fully and completely “Alexanderized” before they assumed their duties. Students of his method sometimes speak of “doing their Alexander” and at time accuse each other of being stiff “Alexandroids”.
Alexander teachers and students can occasionally be accused of narcissism – when our legitimate Alexandrian emphasis on paying attention to ourselves slips over into obsessive self-interest. But for for the most part we continue to use mirrors, and other tools for self-observation, in a discerning and reasoned manner. This is something Narcissus was simply not able to do. He was overcome with self-love, and in no condition to bring his critical faculties to bear on his predicament. “That poor chap was simply not in communication with his reasoning,” Alexander might well have declared.
Unlike Narcissus, who wanted to merge with his reflection, Alexander used his mirror as a means of distancing himself from his faulty sensory awareness. In his own “creation story” – Chapter I of Use of the Self – Alexander systematically brings his mirror into play at each step of his quest. While Narcissus lost his human form and was transformed into a flower, Alexander used his reflection to gain accurate information about himself in order to fulfill his human potential. Indeed the mirror proved to be his principle tool for learning the truth about his behavior, and about the effectiveness of the attempts to make useful changes in that behavior.
As far as we know, Alexander was the very first person in history to use a mirror in that way. He forever changed the relationship between man and mirror and that in itself is worth reflecting upon.
The opening translation comes from The Metamorphosis of Ovid – An English Translation, by A. E. Watts, University of California, Berkeley (1954)
Most interpretations of the Narcissus myth treat Narcissus as a deluded and tragic figure. A very different interpretation has been put forth by Thomas Moore in his best-selling book, Care of the Soul, Harper and Collins, New York (1992).
A fascinating account of our historical relationship with mirrors is provided in The Mirror and Man by Benjamin Goldberg, University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville (1985) and in Coming to Our Senses, Morris Berman, Simon and Schuster, New York (1989).