And then, realizing that the beautiful youth in the water was only he, himself, Narcissus was overwhelmed by the unobtainable nature of his passion and transformed into a flower. And thus that’s where we get the Narcissus, or Daffodil, genus of flowers….
This concludes our special presentation of Narcissus, starring Chris Hemsworth. Up next, in our “Narcissus through the Ages Film Marathon” the silent movie classic, Narcissus. Followed by the 1940s version, The Reflection of Narcissus, starring Frank Sinatra. But first these important messages from our sponsors.
“That nymph can’t compete with me.” Echo observing Narcissus observing himself, John William Waterhouse, 1903, via Wikipedia
I was thinking about the myth of Narcissus this past week as I did a bit of an accounting of how many streaming services I’ve accumulated over the past years (and especially during the last months of the pandemic). It started simply enough—I was a long-time subscriber of Netflix (back when DVDs were all they had and I regularly stopped by the local Blockbuster). Then Netflix expanded to online streaming. A few years back, I added Amazon, and then HBO (occasionally at first but now consistently—suckered by their monthly cinematic release—well played, HBO, well played). Add to those the recent additions of AMC—to get my weekly Walking Dead fix—and Hulu, as my wife and I enjoy watching The Handmaid’s Tale.
That’s on top of access to films from our local library—in DVD form and the library’s streaming service, Hoopla—and the infinite sources of free (and ad-free if you install Adblock Plus*) viewing material on YouTube, Vimeo, and so on.
Just listing all that is embarrassing.
Why? First, because of the resources spent each year. If I consistently subscribed to all these services, it would add up to nearly a thousand dollars a year. Ugh! Obviously there are far better ways that money could be used, from charity, to philanthropy, to supporting more Gaian community activities.
The second reason disturbs me even more: because inevitably the more choices we have, the more we watch. This past week I watched the HBO film, Tenet, an interesting action movie in which some people move backward through time (and which turned out to have an environmental message—half-assed as it was). It was clever and interesting, and kept me up an extra hour to see what happens. But in truth, I had never heard of it and probably wouldn’t have sought it out if I hadn’t seen it listed on HBO.
That pattern—discovering something exciting, and staying up late to finish it—at best entertains me, at worst eats up my time and/or my alertness—as I’m either stealing that media consumption time from sleep or from other opportunities, such as writing, communicating, playing with my son, or evening meditation sessions, which for the most part have remained aspirational (I wonder why…). I’m literally, to borrow Neil Postman’s phrase a second time, “amusing myself to death.”
And so Narcissus’ myriad nymph lovers continued to gather him up to their cheeks. Other than Echo, of course, whose residual voice ripples instead from the corners of living rooms every time we turn on our TVs. (Photo illustration by Erik Assadourian compiled from AdinaVoicu and Free-Photos via Pixabay.)
Media as Mind-numbing Medicine
As Postman argued in a speech-turned-book in the 1980s, the future will probably look more like Brave New World than 1984, as we willingly numb ourselves—with media rather than Soma—and become passive and oppressed without even realizing it.
Why did this make me think of Narcissus? Well, Hollywood is a bit subtler,** but every time we watch a film, it activates our best selves—perhaps through our mirror neurons—and we imagine ourselves reflecting back from our screens. We watch Michael B. Jordan single-handedly defeat the bad guys and avenge his pregnant wife and think, yes, I want to live my life like that (other than losing one’s wife in the first place, of course, or having any of those other horrible things he experiences happen). Whether we’re watching an action movie, a romantic comedy, a deep psychological thriller, we picture ourselves as part of that reality—hence the research that finds that people create “parasocial interactions” (or imaginary, one-sided relationships) with characters in their favorite TV shows.
And that leads us to the rebooted, modern myth of Narcissus:
Narcissus, while walking through a house of a king discovers an enchanted box—flickering with untold realities and enchanting stories. When Narcissus sits down and starts to watch, he quickly falls in love with the oh-so-beautiful people he sees. And while he often vows to get up, he decides that he’ll just finish this episode, this series, this spin-off. And over time he starts to transform, first losing his youth, his beauty, his luster, the spark in his eye. Then as the months go by, he widens, turns palid, and eventually morphs into a large brown tuber, often known as the couch potato, but whose Latin name is Solanum narcissum.
Stay tuned for the next installment in our bingeworthy Narcissus marathon: a sci-fi version where Narcissus travels back in time to warn his earlier self, and instead falls in love with him. But first, a message from our sponsors.***
A final point: it wasn’t easy but I canceled HBO and Hulu, AMC, and Netflix’s DVD service**** (my wife put her foot down on Netflix’s streaming service, and Amazon is an annual bill and well-woven into our food purchasing habits—yes, Amazon, Whole Foods was an excellent acquisition). But that cut total costs by two thirds (67.7%) from last month’s peak and by 38% over our typical media spending. That’s not too shabby, and it will reduce choice (and impulse-watching) by a significant degree.
If you, too, feel like you have too many media choices, and are slowly turning into a Solanum narcissum, and instead want to get back into the world after a long period of COVID-induced media-zombification, try cancelling some of your streaming services. And if you do, let me know how it goes!
*If you’re reading this note and don’t have Adblock Plus—which is free and blocks nearly every ad on the Internet—you should stop reading, install it (and click the box in settings that says I don’t want any ads at all), and then come back to this essay. Your brain will thank you over the days, weeks, and months to come. Frankly, I’m not sure I’d use the Internet without Adblock Plus.
**Or maybe Hollywood is just low-tech still. Perhaps one day, with digital scanning, movies can be made where it’s really you starring in the film. You get to be the action star, the romantic movie star, the porn star—the protagonist of all your (or more accurately, Hollywood’s) dreams without ever getting off the couch.
***In this modern form of televised storytelling, most of the sponsors’ messages were actually embedded in the film, itself: the zoom-in on the Samsung brand of TV; the slow pan across the IKEA couch; the shot of Narcissus exploring the mystifying black box of the Roku. As the viewer, you probably missed it, but part of your brain was primed for the next time you upgrade your living room (or perhaps better labelled “unliving room”).
****In sake of full transparency, HBO has actually already expired. The other services still have a week or two before they become inaccessible. But we did cut HBO mid-series without difficulty, which is a good sign that this new reduction in media access will hold.