The Mutual Exchange of Beauty

Saturday, September 19, 2009

When I started reading the world renowned book The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho it started with a very interesting prologue. It’s about an Alchemist, who is later introduced in the novel, finding a complete version of the classic parable of Narcissus, the boy who knelt by a lake on a daily basis to contemplate on his own beauty then drown to his own narcissism, which has a completely different meaning. Here’s the Prologue for The Alchemist:

The Alchemist picked up a book that someone in the caravan had brought. Leafing through the pages, he found a story about Narcissus. The Alchemist knew the legend of Narcissus, a youth who daily knelt beside a lake to contemplate his own beauty. He was so fascinated by himself that, one morning, he fell into the lake and drowned. At the spot where he fell, a flower was born, which was called the narcissus.

But this was not how the author of the book ended the story. He said that when Narcissus died, the Goddesses of the Forest appeared and found the lake, which had been fresh water, transformed into a lake of salty tears.

"Why do you weep?" the Goddesses asked.

"I weep for Narcissus," the lake replied.

"Ah, it is no surprise that you weep for Narcissus," they said, "for though we always pursued him in the forest, you alone could contemplate his beauty close at hand."

"But..... was Narcissus beautiful?" the lake asked.

"Who better than you to know that?" the Goddesses said in wonder, "After all, it was by your banks that he knelt each day to contemplate himself!"

The lake was silent for some time. Finally it said:

"I weep for Narcissus, but I never noticed that Narcissus was beautiful. I weep because, each time he knelt beside my banks, I could see, in the depths of his eyes, my own beauty reflected."

"What a lovely story," the Alchemist thought.

Originally the parable taught us the woes of narcissism, an extreme obsession of appreciating your own beauty. But this iteration of the classic parable has a much different lesson to teach, it teaches how beauty is contemplated through another’s beauty. Narcissus looked onto the lake in order to see his own beauty, but in return the lake looked onto Narcissus in order to see its own beauty too. Was Narcissus or the Lake narcissistic? In this version, no they weren’t. Narcissism is an extreme obsession of oneself, an intense self-worship, where the person completely disregards everyone else and only cares about themselves. A narcissistic person is blinded by their own self-obsession so much that they are unable to see another’s beauty. Narcissists do not really find themselves beautiful nor have high opinion of themselves, rather they are obsessed with trying to find their own beauty, they make that their only goal in their life, and in the process they ignore everyone else and everything else around them and thus they never discover their true beauty. But in this story neither Narcissus nor the Lake are true narcissists because they are able to see their own beauty. And how they see their own beauty? Through another’s beauty. This story says something important about ourselves, about how we see ourselves through the reflections of everything around us. The story is trying to teach us a very important lesson and that is the only way to see your own true beauty is to appreciate another’s. It’s the perfect reciprocation of love. Love others and you’ll love yourself and also vice-versa. When we see something that is beautiful, whether it’s a flower, a person, the sky, an animal, a symbol, a lyric, a painting or anything else, somehow through that appreciation of that beauty we find our own. Let me put this real-world terms, if you find a person so beautiful and you express your appreciation to that person, eventually that person will reciprocate and express an appreciation for your own beauty. Narcissus used the Lake’s beauty in order to see his own, and through that appreciating of that beauty Narcissus saw his own beauty and the lake continued showing his own reflection to him. So is appreciating or seeking your own beauty selfish? No on the contrary, we all need to appreciate our own beauty. We all need to love ourselves so we can love others and through an appreciation of our beauty we begin to realize and see all the beauty around us. The Lake in the story was starting to appreciate Narcissus’ beauty, but when he died the lake was overcome with sadness. Throughout our lives we are taught that beauty is a one-way thing, we find some people beautiful and some people might find us beautiful. We are taught since a very young age that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And though that statement is very true, it fails to acknowledge the mutual exchange of beauty. Beauty can also be seen through the eye of the beholder. Think of this, a photographer takes a photograph of something they find beautiful, it might be something not all of us might find beautiful, but the fact that the photograph takes that photo he then expresses his own beauty through that photograph. What is beautiful in a photograph, the object or person in the photo, or the photograph itself, or the person who took the photograph? The answer is all three, because all three were able to feed off each other’s beauty. The photographer showed his appreciation of something beautiful by taking a photo and thus the photo became something beautiful itself and even the photographer’s beauty became apparent as well. So beauty is a two-way thing, it’s something we gather from others and others gather from us. Such as a photo, beauty is a mutual exchange. You cannot have beauty without having something else to appreciate that beauty. It’s like love; you cannot love if there is nothing to love. Love is also two-way exchange, you love to be loved and you are loved in order to love. Same thing as beauty, we find something beautiful so that beauty can reflect our own beauty, and our own beauty shows others their beauty.