Monday, October 8, 2007

For the love of Narcissus

As good to write as for to lie and grone,
O Stella deare, how much thy power hath wrought,
That hast my mind, none of the basest, brought
My still kept course, while other sleep to mone.
Three years ago I read parts of Sir Philip Sydney’s Astrophil and Stella in a literature survey course, and I quickly determined that I did not like the speaker of this sonnet sequence of unrequited love. Astrophil makes a pattern of identifying the advice of reason and virtue and then quickly dismissing it for no higher cause than a glance at Stella’s eyes. He came across to me as unprincipled and whiney.

Three years later, our little Astrophil strikes me as just as unprincipled and whiney, yet I find myself more able to sympathize with those flaws. What strikes me this time around, damning to myself as much as him, is not the consuming nature of his passion, but its direction. Astrophil is not as much in love with the lady as he is with himself.

This observation may be true of most love poetry, certainly of my own. The lover is much less a worshiper of the beloved than of what she brings to him… I love people when they make me feel special or happy or cared for or intrigued or compelled or wise or funny. When I see that trait in myself, I am somewhat bewildered as to an alternative; do I even possess the capacity to love outside my own betterment? Doesn’t that make me a 21st-century Narcissus, whose captivation with another image is really a love of myself?

Perhaps when Christ tells us to love as we love ourselves, that is more radical than I have imagined; even my love of others is often an effort to serve myself. When he takes that a step further and commands us to love those who hate us, that seems downright supernatural.

I suppose it is supernatural. And until I learn it from him—learn it by example from Christ the Good Samaritan who binds up my wounds and nurses me to health before telling me “Go and do likewise”—I will continue to follow in the footsteps of Narcissus, finding that everyone I thought I loved was really a reflection of myself.
For Venus named it love that was desire
As if its name could make it any less a fire,
And taught me worship of my needs, and so
I craved my neediness, my friendly foe
That charmed me with my love of me, the one
Most apt to languish in its empty sun.

No comments: