Myths Old and New

In the spirit of circular logic that governs our age, I submit: It is an old idea that there are no new ideas.

And since we also live in an age of irony, allow me to update the story of Narcissus for my own humble advantage.

There are several variants of this Greek myth of the beautiful boy who died staring into his own reflection. In some versions the boy takes his own life, in others are elements of revenge and unrequited love, so precedents exist for reinterpretation. However, all are based on the tragedy of a boy captivated by his own image, in what the root word for Narcissus–narke–suggests as numbness or sleep.

The modern analogue to this cautionary tale is our culture’s myth of self-reliance. The idea that the good fences of self-help books and single-occupancy-vehicles help make good neighbours. That with enough personal coaching, do-it-yourself industries can extend to every civic and spiritual yearning.

As a life strategy, we have rebuffed the indignity of the crowd for the less troubling company of ourselves. Balancing the yin of motivational self-talk, with the yang of preventive Botox, in what passes as our full daily assessment of virtue and personal fault-finding.

We have no need for community, nor its infrastructure. Our virtual communities provide for limitless self-expression, in forums–agreeably constructed–to exclude the expectation of follow-through. Where political consciousness is reduced to a list of memes, displayed like scout badges–proof of our theoretical concerns but untested by any fire-building in activism’s wilderness.

(Myths aren’t meant to serve as literal descriptions of truth, but is there any other way to see our numb gaze into the glassy mirror of our Facebook self than Narcissus incarnate?)

The medium of all myth is tragedy. And our withdrawal from the commons portends accordingly. We have struck a bargain to exchange society’s last and best safeguard–our neighbour’s conscience–for the unbending logic of profit. The free exchanges of aid and ideas, and the cooperation of communal spirit, have been replaced by the tribalism of brand loyalty. An allegiance that provides all the trappings of community, but none of the power.

Autonomy’s seemingly innocuous comforts are in fact a thoroughly mediated dependence on industry. We now rely on pundits for our ideas, oil companies for our transportation, media conglomerates for our entertainment, big box stores for our commodities, and reality television for our sense of superiority and a withering capacity for indignation.

And so we sit–modern Narcissus–content in our own company, but surrounded by a coterie of corporate nymphs. Malevolent sprites busy in the work of dismantling another of Greek’s famous creations: The Ancient Agora, the gathering place, while whispering sweet mollifications to ensure our steady slumber.

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