In the Greek myth of Narcissus, the young man of the same name is gorgeous. All the wood nymphs fawn over him, including Echo—only able to speak in repeating what she hears after a nasty run-in with the goddess Hera. Narcissus is well aware of his beauty—he’s pretty much the very definition of conceit—and he rejects them, convinced that no one is good enough to be with him. As the legend goes, the gods got sick of Narcissus being so cocky, and they cursed him so that he would know the sting of unrequited love. As a result, one day Narcissus saw his reflection in a pool of water and thought it was a stunning water spirit. He was immediately enamored, and pined after his one true love, himself, for a long time. The legend ends with Narcissus plunging into the pool, face-first, to his death.
In the first chapter of Moby-Dick, “Loomings,” Herman Melville alludes to the well-known myth of Narcissus as a capstone to a series of illustrations of his idea that water, especially the sea, acts like a magnet to human beings. He describes how the people of the “insular city of the Manhattoes” flock to the sea, almost mindlessly, as though pulled there by some invisible force, sometimes just to gaze into it. Of course, the water in the myth of Narcissus isn’t itself magnetized; he’s just in love with himself. But then, isn’t love itself a sort of magnet? The myth is relevant to Melville’s point, which seems that humans cherish a potentially self-destructive love for the sea and, therein, search out the meaning to life. Earlier in the chapter, the narrator, Ishmael, humorously describes his urge to knock the hats off people’s heads when he’s been too long on land and finding himself “bringing up the rear of every funeral [he meets].” These “hypos” tell him that he needs to get back on a boat and in the water as soon as possible. The chapter is filled with examples of the water’s magnetic virtues, the near obsession with H2O that human beings have always in one way or another cherished.
Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.
Melville is equating the image that Narcissus sees in the pool, that beautiful (but impossible) image of perfect love, to our own personal visions of fulfillment: “[t]he ungraspable phantom of life”—happiness. The sea is the answer to all of life’s unanswerable questions; it is where we go to “find ourselves” and to be utterly captivated with what we find. Hopefully, we won’t be like Narcissus and drown.