When conception begins and the egg’s perfect curve is invaded and made to split, cleft into double after double of itself, diligently producing copies of its soulmate, at which point does perfection cease and the chaos of asymmetry begin? We grow inside the perfect egg, and we become imperfect, even our bilateral symmetry is damaged by individuality, the mistake of living. The egg is the last time we are comparable to the idea of us. After that, we are born, born towards imperfection. Can there be symmetry in faces, in teeth? The potential of it, at least, is written into the idea of teeth, Platonic dentures floating up there in the ether.
On his receptive, emptied skin, Narcissus feels the radiant heat of primordial symmetry, and underneath the heat he feels a cooling, feels perfection vanish as it cracks, the burning sphere rolling itself out into the chaotic lumps of a spreading present. We are placed, says Martin Gardner, into “a cold universe of broken symmetries,” and with the heavy book on his lap the thought fills Narcissus with dread.
From a violent imperfection, that is to say from similarity but not sameness of desire, Narcissus was born perfect, a body smooth as an egg, a face as compelling as water to the fading mouth. His body is a star, long dead and compelling in a way that pulls the eyes up into the dark. His perfection precedes the god’s a beam of rage, shot through the soulmates’ spherical bliss. Narcissus carries within himself a fullness, a two-ness, while all others are left with a lack, on a hopeless quest for their invisible, missing half.
When separated from those who believe they are his half, Narcissus finds himself more complete than ever – outward desire has never been more than a lie. His body in the arms of another is an impossible solution; with those of an other his fluids can never mix. In the withdrawal that is his home, Narcissus is whole.
And now this thought, that even he was born from a necessary loss of symmetry, from that which breaks after the egg is fertilised. Narcissus’s heart, like Echo’s heart, lies to the left, and breaks at its lack of bilateral harmony. The heart, remember, the man’s heart just stopped. Narcissus knows the heart can be beaten into stopping, by fists whose drumming is fuelled by an unbearable unhappiness. More than that, the food the heart was given was too thin, insubstantial, and the heart bled out.
In the mirror of the pool, the symmetry appears so perfect, so perfect it breaks when touched. Touch is the sense that breaks the illusion of perfection, touch is the most worthy emissary of reality, winged at the ankles, flight sprouting from the talus, from underneath the lateral malleolus, useless, demonstrative feathers where the rotation takes place. Touch, the most connective and regulated of senses, and yet how many split creatures haven’t given in to its solace when the strangling embrace of the self entices. We have so long lived with ourselves, the parts of us that are unlovable, and with those parts we have made a domestic cohabitation based in disembodiment.
Echo would, but cannot, touch. The artwork hangs behind ropes, behind refusal. Narcissus only wants to touch, and be touched by, that which can never be held.
The heart was given no more than the mere idea of blood, no longer the blood of life, of love, and in consequence the heart bled out. Life ran from it in streams, all down the left side, the course of its dying crooked. There is so little to say about this, about hearts and the way they fall short, short of what? Their function. And yet so few functions are incontestable.
The symmetry of things lies in the fact that one overlaps with the other, and that the appearance doesn’t change after rotation, that the move to a different angle will not alter anything about the way we understand a thing. Narcissus cannot learn because he is born from water, drawn to water, drawn only to what is the same from all sides. Narcissus cannot change his past or learn from it, nor escape it, nor become anything but what he is, because Narcissus believes only in what is symmetrical.
“Water,” says Martin Gardner, “has spherical symmetry. Like a crystal ball it looks the same no matter how you turn it. But when water freezes, under certain conditions this perfect symmetry shatters to produce the lower but more beautiful hexagonal patterns of snowflakes.”
The world has been getting colder. Echo feels it in the mornings, and sometimes when she speaks another’s words she sees them appear in a plume of mist before her mouth. She wants to suck the escaping heat back in, and the words it contains. Narcissus came across himself as the seasons changed, and would the water have frozen over, hiding his reflection behind the dull milk of ice? A mountain knows no symmetry, not the absolute symmetry of water, and this is why on a mountain Echo can orient herself on the cracks and peaks, and Narcissus gets lost in the sameness of water, which is himself. From every angle, all Narcissus sees is Narcissus.
In the pool, he finds the symmetry he desires and and he cannot live up to its perfection, not even he after whom so many have fallen prey to the despair of unrequited love. Narcissus wants to undo perfection by reaching into it. Water and light cause the straight line to break, and it is his own arms he sees plunging into and disturbing the dear face. To relate to the world by touching it, pressing into it, rubbing one’s skin against the skin of it, entering its folds, feeling oneself stroked and surprised by it, all this is what takes the many bodies of Echo back into the parts of herself that are available to the light. In a person, there is no such thing as perfection.
How can recomposition occur, how can harmony be attained, when what has vanished precedes us all, the universal ovum split and opened itself up to a loss of symmetry? In a centaur, a figure composed of two reconnected parts that found themselves by accident, the problem is one of maladaptation. The lower body is a horse, all power and demand, the capacity for speed and muscular function, and yet the lungs feeding all this power are up there, in the human torso, adapted to the human brain, utterly unfit for the energy expense of a galloping horse. The horse’s legs are hampered and curbed by a human heart and lungs that cannot keep up with their demand for oxygen, for fresh blood. If the recomposed centaur self chooses to live out the drives connected to its lower parts, its heart and lungs will explode.
Echo the divining rod spreads open before Narcissus, trembling as she feels the water rushing under his skin. She has found him, the most beautiful spring, born from violent waters clashing, she trembles for him, but water never trembles in return, water only causes the tremor in the seeking wooden spine, only causes the thirst inside the aching throat. Echo cannot make herself invisible enough, cannot let go of her body enough, all she can be is voice, the invisible voice to the face in the water. Narcissus, too, bent over the pool to quench a thirst.
Between the stars, the harmony has been torn, and all things wear out and ripple and break. Bubbles and lumps appear in the cosmic flesh, like growths under the skin of the void. What is it that broke us, that tore us from perfection? What is it that made the bumps in our nose, the crooked ribs, the scar on our arm? What is it that pushed our heart to the left?
“You and I,” says Gardner, “are the broken symmetries of fertilized eggs.” Two hearts breaking with desire for that which they want to hold and melt into with their touch. And yet similarity is not the same as symmetry, it is not enough to those who want perfection. When Narcissus, who resisted being held, finally chooses to extend his touch, it is more than a choice, it is his entire body compelling him to, what he reaches into is not the warmth of another body but cold water cradled by the earth. His desire is to spread himself onto, into another body, but this body can never be held. Narcissus’s eyes see something his body is not capable of reaching, a self decomposing, withdrawing itself from the world.
Narcissus will not age, says Tiresias, his sight fogged up behind a second lid. Old age comes to a version of him who does not know himself. Only a fate could say that to see oneself is to know oneself, and what about the necessary asymmetry of being ground like meat through the holes in another’s body? The lover’s body grinds the own until little remains of it but parts whose relation must be reevaluated, their webbing rebound.
Echo returns the world to its chaotic swirls. Echo the Oread is rock, is heights, is isolation. Her feet crave the uneven terrain. In Echo there are gorges, chasms, ravines. She has seen men fall to their death after the strength of their hands let them go. Echo is the first to see the sun creep from its grave, to see the light lick its way like a tongue across the jagged rocks. Echo feels the coarse hairs of leaning trees creep from the cliffs. Echo the Asymmetric takes the other’s words and returns them halved, sliced apart by electricity. She modifies their sound and meaning innocently, she transforms. It is easier to love what one has loved before, to reproduce, symmetrically, what already exists; producing copies of the same takes less energy, no need to take deviation into account when rotating the clay under the palm, and the whole process is less of a chore.
If Narcissus had not encountered the pool in which his visage swam, if there had not been a drop of water in all his life, if, like Echo, Narcissus had lived on the dry and salty mountain peaks, his hair would have grown grey, his face torn to cracks by the light of the sun, and he would have encountered someone else there, a father figure unlike his own, the immortal water god. A mortal man to love without passion, and he would have moved along.
The unfortunate thing is the match between image and desire, nothing is harder to resist than the illusion of every desire met in a single source. The heart cannot resist.
if you do not teach me I shall not learn
saying again there is a last
even of last times
last times of begging
last times of loving
of knowing not knowing pretending
a last even of last times of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love
Samuel Beckett – Cascando
Between Echo and Narcissus, the choice isn’t real, and cannot be made. The webbed existence of the two heartbroken children, the chaotic swirls of Echo, the bilateral illusion of Narcissus. Two imperfect creatures, and neither can offer relief. They are not like rams, running into each other like pistons in a world without consequence, in which mutuality does not wear down.
The tragedy of this has already occurred within Narcissus, and the attempt is now to rectify it through a negative symmetry. Narcissus speaks these words to himself, the self he thinks he sees. Spherical Narcissus remains trapped in himself, the cave in which he and he and he all overlap.
Echo cannot say this: “Come to me, Narcissus, be my smear, my deviation.” She cannot say it because Narcissus will never say it first, not even an approximation of it.
In all animals, symmetry is broken in some way. Because we rely on each other, need each other, we cannot be anything but broken, in some way. We are alive and fettered to each other in the realm of the imperfect; we are no longer swimming in the globular fire.