Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Narcissism - Jeremy Holmes

Ovid's version of the Narcissus myth

Many contemporary ideas about narcissism can be found in embryonic form in the classical Narcissus myth which gave its name to the syndrome. Here I follow Ted Hughes' (1997) powerful translation of the Ovid version.

The story starts not with Narcissus but with Tiresias, the only person to have lived both as male and female, and whom Jove and Juno therefore called in to adjudicate in their dispute as to who derived the greater pleasure from the act of sex, man or woman. Tiresias' vote was for women (although in some versions he diplomatically replies that while women experience ten times the intensity of pleasure, men experience it ten times more often!). Juno, inexplicably angry, strikes him blind, while to compensate, Jove opens his inner eye and gives him the gift of prophesy.

Thus Ovid reveals the narcissistic themes of bodily pleasure, envy, and the difficulty in knowing how another truly feels, especially when one is oneself consumed with desire.

Narcissus was the product of his mother Liriope's rape by the river God Cephisus. Narcissus was outstandingly beautiful from birth, so much so that envious gossips came to Tiresias questioning whether a creature so beautiful could live for long. Here the profound theme of the transience of beauty, and therefore of the link between narcissism, envy and death is introduced.

Tiresias answers enigmatically: he can live long, 'unless he learns to know himself The paradox turns on the fatal word unless. The terrible dilemma of the narcissist is thus elegantly summarised. Either the narcissist remains trapped for ever in the shadow world of self-love, or he is released from the bondage of self-unknowing (and by implication being unable to know others), but on price of death. Although the narcissist thinks only of himself, ironically he can never really know himself, since he cannot take a position outside himself and see himself as he really is. If he could accept that beauty fades then his loveliness would be something to celebrate; by grandiosely denying the reality of loss and change, beauty is transformed into monstrosity.

Narcissus grows into a beautiful young man. Many fall in love with him, but he keeps his distance. Then the wood-nymph Echo sees him and is immediately stricken. Previously a chatter-box, she has lost her power of speech as punishment when Juno realised that she was being used as a decoy by Jove to engage her in conversation while he was chasing women. All she can do is to repeat the words she has just heard. How is she to declare her love? One day Narcissus is lost in woods and calls out to his friends: "come to me". Echo reveals herself: "to me" "to me", she calls. Narcissus turns and runs: "I would rather be dead than let you touch me". Echo is mortified, and slowly dies of lost love, until all that is left is her voice.

Narcissists heartlessly break hearts. They cannot see the impact of their actions on others. They attract flatterers and fawners, echoes all, themselves narcissistically traumatized, hoping for reflected glory. Echo's 'God-mother' (Juno) is so envious of her relationship with her 'God-father' (Jove) that she blights the father-daughter relationship so essential to healthy female narcissism (the adolescent daughter who knows that her father sees her as beautiful, and who is at the same time utterly respectful of her sexuality).

Echo, the hypervigilant becomes the mirror image of the oblivious Narcissus. He is untouchable; she eternally longs to be in his arms. He thinks only of himself and is ruthlessly selfish; she can only think of him and her self-esteem is fragile even unto her death. He cannot identify with others and so make their voices his own and thereby enlarge the range of his personality; she has no voice of her own, and is condemned to pale imitation. In attachment terms, both are anxiously attached: she clings insufferably to her object, he for ever keeps his at a distance.

Many others fall unrequitedly in love with Narcissus. Eventually one, in a crucial therapeutic move, has the courage to confront his tormentor (It is a 'his' - there is a suggestion of bisexuality throughout the myth, typical of some narcissists who in their grandiosity cannot be content with the love of only one sex):

'Let Narcissus love and suffer
As he has made us suffer
Let him, like us, love and know it is hopeless...'

One day, thirsty from hunting, Narcissus finds a `pool of perfect water' and there, as he stretches out to drink,

'A strange new thirst, a craving, unfamiliar,
Entered his body with the water,
And entered his eyes
With the reflection in the limpid mirror. . .
As the taste of water flooded him
So did love.'

He falls deeply in love with his own image. But the harder he tried to embrace himself, to kiss the lips that `seemed to be rising to kiss his' the more frustrated and lovesick he becomes. He bemoans his fate. Eternally separated from his love object, he experiences loss and grief for the first time. At last he comes to know himself:

'You are me. Now I see that....
But it is too late.
I am in love with myself...
This is new kind of lover' prayer
To wish himself apart from the one he loves'.

He realises that he must die: 'I am a cut flower' Let death come quickly'. At last he feels compassion for another: 'The one I loved should be let live. He should live on after me, blameless'. But he knows this is impossible. When he dies, both he and his observing self die - and even as he crosses the Styx he cannot resist a glimpse of himself in the water. But at the moment of his death he is transformed - metamorphosed - into a beautiful flower. To this day, the Narcissus, with its evanescent delicate trumpet and seductive fragrance, is a tribute to Tiresias' prescience.

Tiresias, like a good psychotherapist, knew that if we are to survive psychologically, we must outgrow our narcissism. If we can accept our own transience and mortality, then we can be transformed - our self-esteem will be secure and we will be blessed with an inner beauty. If not, we are condemned to a living or actual death, perhaps at our own hands, as our narcissism grows ever more demanding and insistent. We will grow a thick skin over the vulnerability which has made us shy away from relationships. Loving only ourselves we envy those who can relate to others, and do our damnedest to destroy them, using our beauty as a weapon....

Hughes, Ted (1997) Tales from Ovid London: Faber and Faber