When I teach the novels of Edith Wharton and Henry James, the students have an easy time relating to the characters. It isn’t at first clear why this should be so. The world of upper-crust Americans in turn-of-the-century New York and London and the Continent couldn’t be much farther from the social lives of Millennials in America in 2016. As Wharton said of her childhood in the memoir A Backward Glance:
Bringing-up in those days was based on what was called ‘good breeding.’ … They treated their language with the same rather ceremonious courtesy as their friends. It would have been ‘bad manners’ to speak ‘bad’ English, and ‘bad manners’ were the supreme offence.
This is the opposite of “what-EV-errrr.”
MRS. (RICHARD BENNETT) LLOYD BY SIR JOSHUA REYNOLDS (1775-6); imitated by Lily Bart during the game of tableaux in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905).
But still, the connection happens. The characters in the novels enable it. Lily Bart and Isabel Archer, Daisy Miller and May Welland, have something that Millennials recognize instantly: the kind of beauty that stops people short. Straight off, they are presented as lovely to look at, and people in the books look at them a lot. In one scene in The House of Mirth, Lily plays a part in a tableau vivant, dressing up as a fully feminine character in a painting by Joshua Reynolds. When she is displayed before the audience, everyone is astounded by her appearance, even those who dislike her.
Here there could be no mistaking the predominance of personality—the unanimous “Oh!” of the spectators was a tribute, not to the brushwork of Reynolds’ “Mrs. Lloyd” but to the flesh and blood loveliness of Lily Bart.
She produces an effect. She is a beautiful image, silent and composed, her beauty speaking for her. She doesn’t have to say anything and she doesn’t make eye contact. At that moment, she doesn’t recognize anyone else, yet she feels everyone’s eyes upon her.
“Nearly half of all content on Instagram issued by teens is in selfie form. They want to record themselves, to look at themselves, and to have others look, too.”
The Millennials understand. Much of their leisure time goes into being seen, as a perusal of Facebook proves. Nearly half of all content on Instagram issued by teens is in selfie form. They want to record themselves, to look at themselves, and to have others look, too. They know, also, that nothing draws attention like beauty does. To be beautiful is to be noticed, and the sight of beauty has a wholly different impact than does the sight of power or humor. It carries the force of desire and envy. If you ask a Millennial, “Would you rather be feared or laughed at or loved?” the choice will be obvious.
When Being Seen Becomes a Curse
This is why I sometimes shift the class presentation away from the novels and toward a human truth. “Let me tell you something,” I begin. “Being extraordinarily beautiful and wonderfully handsome is not a blessing. It is a curse.”
I pause and let that sink in. They stare with blank faces. It’s an opinion they haven’t heard before. “I know, I know,” I continue, “all teenagers want to be ‘hot.’ Girls want to be pretty and boys want to be dashing. You remember 9th grade, just starting high school and looking up at those three or four seniors as gods and goddesses, the athletes and cheerleaders, shapely and tall. They seemed to have all the advantages. Life could only be wonderful for them. Right? They had glowing skin and deep eyes and a smile that, when it turned anybody’s way, leaves that person a pile of mush. I remember them. I didn’t even envy them. They were so far above me that I couldn’t compare myself to them at all. I just gazed at them with the unselfish desire of a shy fan.”
Narcissus and Beauty’s Curse
That scenario sounds like a refutation of my opening statement. But there is more to say. It turns on the story of Narcissus. In the most popular version, in Ovid’s
Book III, Narcissus is the child of a river god and a nymph, “a lovely boy / Whom the soft maids ev’n then beheld with joy.” While Narcissus is a baby, however, the blind seer Tiresias makes an ominous prediction: “If e’er he knows himself he surely dies.”
Narcissus grows to age sixteen and realizes all the beauty of his infancy. He has “sparkling eyes” and a head of hair “that round Apollo’s head might flow.” Nymphs and virgins love him, but he remains unmoved. One of them, Echo, falls for him the second she sees his face. She follows him around but, because of a curse imposed by Juno, can only speak the words that others say. Frustrated and lovesick, she wastes away until nothing is left but her voice, the echo of others’ voices.
“Then the catastrophe happens. Narcissus comes upon a fountain in the woods and leans over to take a drink. The thing he sees staring back transfixes him, just as it has struck others. For the first time, he has fallen in love.”
Then the catastrophe happens. Narcissus comes upon a fountain in the woods and leans over to take a drink. The thing he sees staring back transfixes him, just as it has struck others. For the first time, he has fallen in love. He reaches down to caress the being in the water, a “purple youthfulness of face” that looks up at him with love. He leans over to kiss him, but can’t. The moment he touches the water the surface shimmers and the reflection dissipates.
Narcissus languishes and grieves, but can’t depart. He is tortured and perplexed. He can’t understand why his newfound love doesn’t emerge and embrace him after so many others have declared themselves willing to do so. Time passes but he doesn’t depart. He doesn’t eat, either. Eventually, Narcissus, too, wastes away (Echo watches this happen) until he becomes nothing more than a yellow flower rooted beside the water.
All of this was predictable. Narcissus never had a chance. From his first awareness of other human beings, he sees something in others’ faces again and again that the rest of us experience rarely, if ever. They look at him and see beauty, wondrous and singular beauty, a visage that marks the accomplishment of human perfection. He looks at them and registers its impact. At first, the five-year-old doesn’t quite understand it. People express something to him and the cause isn’t apparent. They can’t help but show their infatuation, but he doesn’t know his own beauty. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, he encounters rapt faces, though, and as he grows up he begins to realize that he is the cause. He sees that it doesn’t happen to other people and concludes that his condition is distinct.
“Extreme beauty is, indeed, the cause of his fall.”
My students imagine this situation as bliss. What could be better than to have everyone fall for you? How nice to pass through the land as if it were a habitat of adoration and you were the center. Every rejection they have suffered would never have transpired. Every boy or girl they have loved would have loved them back.
That’s what they envision when they hear me tell his tale. When we reach the end, they easily disconnect his terrible end from his beauty. Facing your reflection for the first time and falling in love? That wouldn’t happen to me. I wouldn’t become fixated on my own image. I wouldn’t let the world disappear and sink into myself. I would never be so … narcissistic. If everybody loved me, I would love to enjoy their love, of course, but I would remain generous and thoughtful. My students believe they would never suffer his paralysis and metamorphose. They would look in the mirror, smile, and go about their day. Extreme beauty is great.
Caravaggio, Narcissus (1597-1599)
No, I tell them. Extreme beauty is, indeed, the cause of his fall. My students think themselves immune to narcissism only because they didn’t grow up the way he did. He has never known anything but universal infatuation. They have.
Indifference is necessary / a gift
Indifference teaches, “you are not the center of existence”
In other words, Narcissus isn’t normal. He doesn’t live in the universe that the rest of us do. His environment is unique. Beauty has placed him somewhere else. People don’t relate to him as they do to others, and they never have. His beauty alters everyone’s approach. Everything gets filtered through their response to it. They can’t dispel their ardor, eye him blankly, and mutter, “That will be five drachmas for the wine.” People can’t ask him, “Sir, do you know where is the road to Thebes?” without their expression changing the moment Narcissus turns to face them. It has been that way all his life, and by the time he reaches 20, he is altogether solitary. He has no sense of who we are, and little sense of himself. We haven’t given him the chance to find out. He hasn’t received the full range of human feeling from others, most especially of all indifference, which bears the all-important message that one is not the center of existence. He has developed a frame of mind in which he need never discover that difficult truth.
“The narcissist has self-love, yes, but that’s not really love. It is a conception of self that reduces a person to an object of desire.”
It’s a cognitive problem. When beauty reaches a certain point, it becomes powerful and impactful. Others find it hard to ignore the beauty and respond to other characteristics. People who are extraordinarily beautiful recognize the force of their beauty and underestimate other virtues. How easy is it to forget issues of character when one’s beauty does so much?
They do something similar to the individuals in their lives. When everyone’s a lover—an unrequited one—the beautiful boy or girl simplifies other people into smitten individuals. Infatuated people are, in a sense, narrow. Love overcomes them. They feel other things, anger and joy and curiosity, but those emotions are filtered through the all-consuming love whenever the beloved figure is around.
This is, indeed, a curse. Narcissus’ fate is not an accident. It is a risk that goes with jaw-dropping beauty. It deprives a person of awareness, both self-consciousness and consciousness of others. The narcissist has self-love, yes, but that’s not really love. It is a conception of self that reduces a person to an object of desire. Worse, the love of others isn’t experienced as a gift and a surprise. It is experienced as an entitlement.
And so my final questions to the students: “Do you all understand that rejection is one of the ways in which you grow up?” When they sigh at that, I say, “How many of you would like to end up on a desert island with a narcissist?”