The Myth of Narcissus: Reflections on Narcissism and Self-Destruction, II
One of the problems with relying on a medical model and a clinical definition of narcissism is that it tends to obscure the fact that almost all human beings fall into the trap we have come to call “narcissism”. It is, perhaps, the inevitable fate of creatures that develop ego-awareness, and is a problem that must be worked through. The universal religions arose in the form they did because of narcissism, even if it was earlier called by another name — idolatry. For the idols were traps for consciousness, and they remain so today, even if today they are now called “ideals” rather than “idols”.
The problem with the clinical or psychiatric definition of narcissism, which prevents us from seeing through the problem of narcissism clearly and thus escaping the condition, is that it relies upon a wholly mistaken understanding of the myth of Narcissus and Echo. It is a mistake that is also repeated by Twenge and Campbell in The Narcissism Epidemic. In their own words,
The word narcissism comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus, an attractive young man who set out looking for someone to love. The beautiful nymph Echo falls in love with him and repeats everything Narcissus says, but he rejects her and she fades away. Narcissus keeps looking for the perfect mate until one day he sees his own reflection in the water. Narcissus falls in love with his own image and gazes at it until he dies…. The myth of Narcissus captures the tragedy of self-admiration, because Narcissus becomes frozen by his self-admiration and unable to connect with anyone outside himself — and his narcissism harms other people (in this case, Echo). The legend reflects real life, with the most serious consequences of narcissism falling upon others and society.” (pp. 18 – 19)
This is a very simplified rendering of the myth, which is far more profound, and in some ways also an inaccurate rendering. Echo did not “fade away” except from Narcissus’ awareness due to his single-minded focus on the image in the reflecting pool. Echo continued to play an important role in the myth even after Narcissus’ awareness was captured by the image in the pool.
The error that Twenge and Campbell commit is the same error that informs the so-called “clinical” or empirical definitions of narcissism. Narcissus did not know that the image in the reflecting pool was his own so to call it self-admiration is an illicit interpolation into the myth itself. This is crucial to understanding the meaning of the myth. But contemporary observers of the myth assume a privileged position as an abstracted, disembodied consciousness having a kind of god’s-eye view of the scene — sub specie aeternitatis, as they say. And from this abstract vantage point they conclude that Narcissus fell in love with his own image, fascinated in self-adoration until he wasted away and perished.
The problem is, however, that none of this is true. Or, we should say, it is at best a half-truth for the reasons given. Nowhere in the myth is it suggested Narcissus knew the image in the reflecting pool to be his own reflection. He believed it to be someone else. This is where the role of Echo becomes crucial, but is often edited out or overlooked. When Narcissus spoke his cosseting words of adoration to the image, Echo, befitting her name and the compulsion of the curse laid upon her, repeated them, which Narcissus took to be the words spoken by the image, thus reinforcing the trap he had fallen into. Echo, trying to warn him of the danger, reinforced it instead. And unable to break the magic spell cast over his mind by the image, he poured out his own life’s energies into it until he wasted away to nothing.
So, what is the story? It is not a story of self-love but of idolatry. It is a story of being trapped by and in one’s projections, especially in the projection called “self-image”. The reflecting pool is the mirror of the world.
The cultural historian Jean Gebser devoted a few paragraphs in his Ever-Present Origin to interpreting the myth of Narcissus and Echo, and decided it was a myth about the awakening of the soul, since the name Narcissus is related to the words for sleep (narcosis) and also remotely to water, which is frequently an image or symbol of the soul. This can only be true, however, if we assume a “meta-narrative” to the myth that involves an ironic self-judgement of the mythological consciousness upon itself in the very act of telling the story — that the gods themselves are only images, idols, and echoes, projections or exteriorisations, of what is human, and that Narcissus is actually Mr. Everyman. Only if we assume this “meta-narrative” does the story of Narcissus and Echo remotely suggest the soul’s awakening to itself. For the very name of Narcissus means “sleeper” by its close association with “narcotic”.
What the myth states is what every subsequently arising universal religion promising “enlightenment” also states: man has fallen into a stupor by confusing soul with ego, or self with self-image. The critical thing to observe about the myth of Narcissus, and thus of narcissism, is that it is a state of sleep, a trance-like state, a dark enchantment cast over the mind. Today, we would call this a bubble of perception, and it is very closely akin to the problem of the divorce that has occurred between “the virtual economy” and “the real economy”, too, as well as much else besides. The simulacra. And the self-image is only a simulacrum of the authentic self.
If the culture of narcissism represents a destructive threat both to the individual and society — for there is something of the myth of the fall of Icarus in it too — it is because of this narcosis or sleep-like, unawakened trait of narcissism in which the self-image consumes the life resources of the authentic self just as the ancients sacrificed, even their first-born, to their idols. Nietzsche called this our “flowing out into a god”. The self-image, which is only a conceit and a nothing, consumes far too much psychic energy. It is the real “vampire”.
What is the self-image? It is usually what your parents and your society tell you it is, in all sorts of subtle and tricksy ways. It is sustained and maintained by our internal monologues — the stories we tell ourselves incessantly. We go to bed at night telling ourselves who we are and what our world is like, and we arise in the mornings telling ourselves who we are and what our world is like. Like Echo in the myth.
And like Echo in the myth also, that internal voice that tells us who we are and what our world is like may not even be our own voice. Almost invariably, it’s not. And so we keep ourselves within the circle of trance and under its spell.