I was listening to the 70 years tribute to Desert Island discs, and chuckled at Simon Cowell's choice of a luxury - a mirror, so that he could gaze at himself. I never believed that anyone could really be that like Narcissus in real life. He was asked if he really wanted that as his luxury, if people really wanted to know that he liked to look at himself like that. He said yes!
In Greek Mythology, Narcissus was a hunter who was exceptionally renowned for his fine looks. to a pool where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely an image. Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus died. Here's where he falls in love with his reflection, from the earliest version recorded of the myth, in Ovid's Metamorphoses:
Here the youth, worn by the chase and the heat, lies down, attracted thither by the appearance of the place and by the spring. While he seeks to slake his thirst another thirst springs up, and while he drinks, he is smitten by the sight of the beautiful form he sees. He loves an unsubstantial hope and thinks that substance which is only shadow. He looks in speechless wonder at himself and hangs there motionless in the same expression, like a statue carved from Parian marble.
Prone on the ground, he gazes at his eyes, twin stars, and his locks, worthy of Bacchus, worthy of Apollo; on is smooth cheeks, his ivory neck, the glorious beauty of his face, the blush mingled with snowy white: all things, in short, he admires for which he himself is admired. Unwittingly he desires himself; he praises, and is himself what he praises; and while he seeks, is sought; equally he kindles love and burns with love. How often did he offer vain kisses on the elusive pool? How often did he plunge his arms into the water seeking to clasp the neck he sees there, but did not clasp himself in them! What he sees he knows not; but that which he sees he burns for, and the same delusion mocks and allures his eyes.
O fondly foolish boy, why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image? What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away, and the object of your love will be no more. That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own. With you it comes, with you it stays, and it will go with you - if you can go. (Metamorphoses, Volume I, Book III, pages 149 - 161, translated from the Latin by Frank Justice Miller)
But on the opposite pole to the extreme narcissism of a Simon Cowell in Desert Island discs was Joss Ackland, and the life he has lived, a life full of tragedy and hope.
Sue Lawley asked him if he could recall the night in which their home went up in flames, and everything that was within it was destroyed.
In 1963, while he was acting in the West End, their house caught fire. His wife, Rosemary who was then five months pregnant with her sixth baby, threw the children from a window. Then she leapt out. With all the smoke and flames, she missed the fireman, and broke her back. Doctors thought she might die, and that the baby would be lost. Yet she gave birth to a healthy daughter, and became the the first person to walk out of Stoke Mandeville hospital in Buckinghamshire after suffering such severe injuries, 18 months later. The daughter is now married with children of her own.
Sue Lawley: So you didn't lose everything in that fire.
Joss Ackland: I lost nothing.
It's true stories like that which move the listener. Hearing that question, and that reply, is something of a challenge to most people; it certainly was to me. Of course, we know that people matter more than possessions, but when you hear the testimony of someone whose family has literally been through the flames, and himself has suffered the trauma of coming back to a street, with a house on fire, and the news that his wife might not walk, their unborn child might not live - it really brings that home to you.
Years later, in the 1985, when he played the part of C.S. Lewis in the BBC Everyman film "Shadowlands", Joss Ackland could draw upon his own grief to act convincingly the part of Lewis, suffering the loss of his wife, Joy Davidman. Or, as he explained on Desert Island discs, that experience of grief never left him, it was always part of him, and he just brought that truth to the film.
It was a vastly superior production to the later cinema film starring Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins is a good actor, but the experience of grief is largely left out of that movie (as well as one of Joy Davidman's sons, present in the BBC film). In the BBC version, a whole section of the script, with Ackland narrating his experience as Lewis, is taken from Lewis' own recollections, in his book "A Grief Observed".
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.
Imagine a man in total darkness. He thinks he is in a cellar or dungeon. Then there comes a sound. He thinks it might be a sound from far off-waves or wind-blown trees or cattle half a mile away. And if so, it proves he's not in a cellar, but free, in the open air.
Or perhaps, even, on a lush desert island at night, with the waves lapping at the shore, and the cry of birds in the distance...
For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face.
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