Is David Cameron a Narcissus (. . . Or, was John Prescott right?)
In the excitement about John Prescott’s “Dame Osthenes” gaffe/joke, people have generally been less interested in his other creative use of classical learning. For on this parliamentary occasion, classical allusion was matched with classical allusion. If Cameron had likened Prezza to the combination of Bevin and Demosthenes (a truly horrific mixture, even if it was meant as a kind of back-handed compliment), then Prezza was ready to fight back with some Greek mythology:
“The Leader of the Opposition reminds me of someone too. When I read classics and Greek mythology at the Ellesmere Port secondary modern school, we learnt about Narcissus. He died because he could only love his own image. Yes, he was all image and no substance!”
The trouble is that the message of the Narcissus story isn’t exactly about being all image and no substance. It’s far nastier than that.
The version of the story we know best is from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It starts with one of those mysteriously dark predictions given, on his birth, to Narcissus’s mother by the blind and gender-bending seer Tiresias. Narcissus, he said, would live a long life, provided that he did not get “to know himself” (a puzzling reversal of the famous slogan displayed at Delphi which says that “knowing yourself” is exactly what you should aim at).
Of course, the prediction comes horribly true. Narcissus grows up to be a real stunner, but far too proud to reciprocate any of the many advances made to him. That’s where Echo comes in: she, poor nymph, wasted away to just a voice, pining for his affections. But another rejected lover had a more spirited response, and begged the goddess Nemesis for vengeance in a particularly ingenious form: let her make Narcissus fall in love with himself.
And so drinking from a pool, he spots his own reflection and becomes instantly infatuated with what he sees. Unable to have his desire (for it was only a reflection), he too pined and died (and the narcissus flower grew up in that very spot).
But there’s an earlier version of the story too, which turned up on an Egyptian papyrus in Oxford a few years ago. Some of the basics are the same. But here it is men who are in love with Narcissus, not women. And instead of just pining away, Narcissus kills himself – and from his blood the flower grows.
My first instinct was to think that the Deputy Prime Minister was just plain confused with his Greek mythology. It’s not that Narcissus simply is “all image”. The sharper point is that he is in love with (the image of) himself.
But then I wondered if we shouldn’t be giving Prezza’s classical learning the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was cleverly hinting at the theme of self love – and even (supposing that he’s kept up with Oxford version) a tinge of homo-eroticism. After all even the “Dame Osthenes” line has a bit of a classical pedigree. There was no trick that ancient orators enjoyed playing more than accusing their rivals of effeminacy.