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Narcissus & Narcissism

The myth behind the malady

Is it possible that our righteous rejections of narcissism and love of self - veils a mystery about the nature of the soul's desires? Is our negative branding of narcissism a defence against a demanding call of the soul to be loved? Can narcissism be a shadow quality? Renowned psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung explains: when we meet something of the shadow in another, we often feel repulsed, but that is because we are confronting something in ourselves that we find objectionable, something with which we ourselves struggle, and something that contains qualities valuable to the soul. Is it then possible to preserve the symptom of narcissism, assuming that there is a gold nugget in that clump of dirt? To penetrate through the superficial sludge of excessive self-love to the deeper necessities of the soul, let's study the myth of Narcissus, after whom the disorder is named.

The ancient story of Narcissus, as told in the Metamorphoses by Ovid, is not just a simple story of a boy falling in love with himself. It has many subtle, telling details. For instance, Ovid tells us that Narcissus was the son of a river god and a nymph. In mythology, parentage can often be taken as holding poetic truths. Apparently there is something essentially watery about Narcissus, and by extension, about our own narcissism. When we are narcissistic, we are not on solid ground (earth) or thinking clearly (air) or caught up in passion (fire). Somehow, if we follow the myth, we are dreamlike, fluid, not clearly formed, more immersed in a stream of fantasy than secure in a firm identity.

The next we hear of him, Narcissus is sixteen and so lovely that many people are attracted to him; but he is filled with a "hard pride," says Ovid, and no one can truly get through to him. One nymph falls in love with him, Echo and when she approaches him, he back away. Narcissus says, I would die before I would give my power to you." Echo repeats, "I would give my power to you" and in her grief, feeling rejected and frustrated, she loses her body and becomes a mere voice.

In this early episode, we see Narcissus before he has attained self-knowledge. He presents an image of narcissism that has not yet found its mystery. Here we see the symptom: a self-absorption and containment that allows no connections of the heart. It is hard as a rock and repels all approaches of love. Obsessive, but not genuine, self-love leaves no room for intimacy with another. To respond to another or to an object in the outside world would endanger the fragile sense of power which that tight, defensive insistence on oneself maintains. Like all symptomatic behaviour, narcissism reveals, in the very things it insists on, exactly what it lacks. The narcissist's display of self-love is in itself a sign that he can't find a way adequately to love himself. Narcissism has no soul. In narcissism we take away the soul's substance, its weight and importance, and reduce it to an echo of our own thoughts. Anyway, the story goes on.

One of the young people scorned by Narcissus offers a curse: "May he fall in love and not have what he loves." The goddess Nemesis hears the prayer and decides to answer it. This leads to the next phase of the story - Narcissus approaches an undisturbed pool of water - still and smooth. At a first glance, it looks as though it concerns punishment for pride - as he puts his head to the water to get a drink, sees his reflection and his attention freezes. Ovid describes that Narcissus is fascinated by this visage that looks as though it were carved from marble. Like the young people who desired him before, he feels a great yearning to possess this form. He reaches into the water but he can't get hold of it - here we see the beginning of the symptom's fulfilment.

Narcissism, that absorption in oneself that is soulless and loveless, turns gradually into a deeper version of itself. It becomes a true stillness, a wonder about oneself, a meditation on one's nature. The image Narcissus sees is a new one, something he had never seen before, something "other," and he is mesmerised by it, charmed. Ovid says, "the image you seek is nowhere." It cannot be found intentionally. One comes upon it unexpectedly. What the narcissist doesn't understand is that the self-acceptance he craves can't be forced or manufactured. It has to be discovered. There has to be some inner questioning.

The story then tells how Narcissus feels the longing to be united with the image he has found. Now, like the lovers he spurned, he pines and suffers. One wonders if he will become in his grief like Echo and lose his body. Narcissus lies at the edge of the pool tormented by the realisation that this boy in the water is separated from him by the thinnest membrane, when suddenly he realises "it's me!" Up to this point he did not know that the face he loved so much was his own. Narcissus becomes able to love himself only when he learns to love that self as an object. He now has a view of himself as someone else. This is not ego loving ego; this is ego loving the soul, loving a face the soul presents. We might say that the cure for narcissism is to move from love of self, which always has a hint of narcissism in it, to love of one's deep soul. In other words, dismantling narcissism invites us to expand the boundaries of who we think we are. Discovering that the face in the pool is his own, Narcissus exclaims, "What I long for I have."

The story in Ovid ends with a colourful detail. Narcissus' companions look for his body but cannot find it. In its place they find a flower with a yellow centre and white petals. Here we see the hard, rigid, marble narcissism transformed into the soft, flexible textures of a daffodil, the Narcissus. The story begins with rigid self-containment and ends with the flowering of a personality.

To care for our soul requires us to see the myth in the symptom, to know that there is a flower waiting to break through the hard surface of narcissism. Knowing the mythology, we are able to embrace the symptom, glimpsing something of the mysterious rule by which a disease of the psyche can be its own cure.

Based on work by Thomas Moore.

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