The Echo of Boredom

 Originally written in Italian.

In his “Metamorphosis,” Ovid relates that Echo, a nymph somewhat prone to gossip, lent herself to Zeus’ flattery and agreed to distract his wife, Hera. At the same time, he continued his clandestine love affairs undisturbed. When such deception, one among many moreover, was discovered, Hera punished Echo by condemning her to be unable to utter any more words except in the monotonous repetition of the last syllables she heard.

Echo thus became, despite himself, the personification of a particular form of frustration which, like that represented by Sisyphus, is mainly expressed in the dual awareness of the possibility (in terms of idea, motivation) and simultaneously in the impossibility (in terms of implementation).

The drama of the affair reached its climax when the “poor” nymph, by then an outcast in a world that could no longer listen to her laments, let alone converse with her, fell madly in love with Narcissus, a character (in-)consciously brought in to feed every female frustration, and began fruitlessly courting him.

Unfortunately, as one can well imagine, his genuine intentions were constantly futile by his nature and, as Ovid himself narrates, “…How many times she wished she could have seduced him with sweet words and addressed persuasive prayers! But her nature opposed it and did not allow her to take the initiative. She was, however, prepared to do what she was allowed to, which was to wait to catch sounds, based on which she would send back words….

At this point, without necessarily having to reach the tragic conclusions of the mythological narrative, we can conduct a philosophical-psychological analysis to highlight some characteristic traits of this character now ascribable to the boundless pantheon of archetypes.

Starting from her fate, Echo is first presented as a nymph perpetually “bored“: there is a perpetual conditionality in her that never finds a chance to convert into action. “She would like,” but its nature does not allow it to do anything; it can only wait for the world (in a broad sense) to offer it a voice, a cue, a possibility, but without ever having “possession.” He can only catch and repeat the last syllables, just as the bored man moves in vain from stimulus to stimulus, grasping only a few dead petals.

Echo is condemned to feel the necessity of the will but, almost paradoxically, is constantly removed from the decision, a condition that justifies its state of perpetual waiting. But all waiting always has an object, concrete or dispersed in the most abstract ideas, and this gives meaning to the stasis that the almost involuntary succession of events would otherwise swallow up.

This is not the case for Echo: her waiting is conscious of waiting for a possibility that will not be able to saturate the very act of waiting, and this becomes more and more apparent when the handsome Narcissus stands before her. Like a firefly in the night, the young man seems to open the door of possibility for her, giving her the image of excitement, of the erotic, emotional dance that swirls in the minds of lovers, but, unlike her, he waits for an answer. Narcissus has a definite object in his mind and desires, even without guaranteeing any certainty of correspondence for Echo, for the nymph to produce it within the dialogue.

Unfortunately, this asymmetry has no chance of being bridged. Echo repeats the last words heard, and Narcissus, unaware of the nymph’s fate, soon grows impatient, almost mocked by such a helpless being. On the other hand, the woman discovers her identity in a mirror very similar to the one where the young man used to contemplate her beauty; a mirror made not of water but of intentions paradoxically deprived of the “tension” that tends them toward the desired object.

Echo realizes that she can only do and be the shadow of a perpetually distant possibility. So, almost like Pan, who remained terrified by his scream, she became bored with herself and conceived of her destruction as the only way to evade the fate (personified by Hera) that had been so ruthless with her.

In this sense, however, Ovid’s account describes neither the idea nor even an actual plan of suicide as generally understood in such circumstances since such a choice, in its cold and naked reality, would remain an expression of accomplished resolve: possibility transmuted into act without any risk of incursion by moral judgment. Eco cannot kill herself. To do so would be to put such an act on par with any other possibility and thus, on the one hand, disqualify it in its symbolic value and, on the other hand, nullify Hera’s spell.

Both of these options are impassable: death can only be an act of boredom (suffered) structured in the same form as the other stimuli that she used to seize to feed her illusion of possibility; on the other hand, Hera’s power would have been countered primarily by Zeus (guilty after all of that fate), but the father of the gods prefers to continue his erotic-loving relations and forgets about poor “helper” Echo altogether.

Boredom becomes the means of attaining identity: indeed, nothing can be thrown into the world without it generating its origin, and thus, the distance between (the) Echo and the world becomes greater and greater, isolating the nymph’s being in limbo of indeterminacy (which is the opposite of her previous tendency to gossip!). Hearing an echo leads man to turn his gaze uncertainly: any direction can be the cradle of that strange call precisely because no place is, in fact, the origin: It is in the one who turns to look for it!

The bored person realizes his loneliness precisely in the spasmodic search for another who is not herself and has the power to bend the arrow of his will in a sufficiently fulfilling direction, but how could such an evanescent lure succeed in such an arduous task? In this perhaps seemingly trivial question lies another diabolical aspect (in the original sense of dia-bàllein, or of “separation“) of boredom.

It, like bad faith, deludes man that it originates from the outside, and just as the echo seems to be the voice of the rocks (which, by the way, is the final stage of the nymph’s progressive decay), boredom masquerades in all forms: a book, a TV program, the idea of calling a friend, taking a walk, and so on without ceasing. But hidden in this multiplication is a splitting within the same individual: the bored is his boredom; he reiterates it, deluding himself that he can transform the embryo of a will into a strong motivation, but in doing so, he lays the foundation for the destruction of the motivation itself. In the form of the world’s response to the advances, the expected dialogue mechanically reproduces the same advances and merely deludes about a potential concordance.

The bored person, therefore, heads for what he thinks will reduce the heaviness of the state he is in, but as soon as he gets close, the echo stops (just as in small spaces, it is physically impossible), and he, dismayed, finds himself alone and ultimately unfulfilled.

But why was Echo condemned to that oppressive fate? Referring back to the myth recounted by Ovid, she tried to distract Hera, goddess of marriage and fidelity, so that Zeus would have a good time without any danger. In a sense, we could say, pivoting on the figure of the latter god, that Hera represented for him the personified image of stability that, while immersed in a continuum devoid of particular roughness, constantly offered the possibility of commitment.

Precisely as in the case of the “Seducer” by Kierkegaard, Era stood in direct opposition to the indistinct (and thus fundamentally lacking the identity that allows for dialogue) a multitude of women with whom carnal intercourse was consummated only to satisfy an irrepressible erotic urge. But if Zeus never falls prey to the existential boredom that instead affects the “Seducer,” it is precisely by the knowledge that he has a wife to whom he must be accountable for his past, a woman with whom dialogue is inescapable and who, thus confronts him, no longer with mere contingency, but with concrete necessity.

This is possible as long as Era remains, in turn, aware that her husband is prone to behavior that could degenerate into a “very boring” reiteration of a ritual now emptied of all meaning; therefore, its re-challenge takes on the characters of a process of signification that confronts Zeus with the difference between the indistinct that can only bore him and her, Hera, who instead embodies that inalienable commitment.

Echo’s attempt, at this point, takes on the character (albeit by the “apparent” will of Zeus) of an overflow of the possibility of boredom into that territory structurally banished to it. The nymph “tries” to distract Hera, but that would mean eliminating for Zeus the certainty that his wife is not merely a mere element in the universe of overlapping female bodies, and such a condition, by the marital union that binds the two gods, is impossible. Hera notices the deception, brings her attention back to the rendezvous, loving husband, and relegates Echo to her world of pure boredom.

The nymph is, therefore, punished with a contrapasso very familiar to her: forced immersion in the indistinct and indistinguishable. Echo repeats, namely “asks again what has already been asked“; she thus becomes the appendage of any being capable of emitting sound and, as a result, loses her identity to acquire that transparency of pure sound, which is well suited to every circumstance.

Boredom thus presents itself in a dual guise: as an awareness of “wanting without ever being able” and as the blind attempt (in bad faith) to disavow the (at least theoretical) possibility of the presence of conditions hindering dispersion in the multitude.

We could say that the second reality precedes the first: boredom arises from denial and can “emerge” as a diversion to prevent attention from fixing too long on an object. The “Seducer” cannot love his pseudo-lovers for too long, must prevent at all costs that the dialogic conditions for a bond can be created, and, therefore, goes from one woman to another without any care: he forecloses the possibility of seeing his lovers as human beings precisely so that he can continue to be bored and, thanks to this boredom (with the ambiguous character of “spur,” actually), avoid having to stand before a single (s)object with its full identity, invested with all burdens and honors.

In much the same way, Echo, in a moment of impulsive dominance (falling in love), tries to escape her condition through the courtship of Narcissus, but, again, this would have removed her from boredom, that is, from herself, and so, in that very momentum, she rediscovers her nature and flees in despair. An adjective, the latter, which is appropriate: Echo, as boredom, cannot have, let alone find hope (i.e., the belief of possibility) since, as already mentioned, its innermost essence is always negatively conjoined in the realm of “power.” Falling in love with Narcissus is akin to a twist of fate: her past as a gossipy nymph claims attention and gives her a glimpse by denial of what she now irreversibly is.

Echo can only resign herself to dying of boredom. Alone, unable to manifest her identity, she shuns external stimuli and thus loses the constant possibility of repetition. She slowly fades away, as does the termination of our shouted name in a vast empty building, and all that remains of her is a faint sob of voices, tediously repetitive.

Originally published in Euterpe – Journal of Literature, No.9 – Oct.2013 (ISSN: 2280-8108)

References (Italian versions):

    • Ovidio, Metamorfosi, (translation by Giovanna Faranda Villa), BUR, 2003


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