Ours has been called “The Age of Narcissism.” Nobody who can at once participate in, and reflect upon, contemporary society will have any uncertainty as to what this phrase is meant to communicate. Every year sees the release of new means for consumers to capture their likenesses in technological reflection. From social-media to selfie-sticks, the modern era has seen the utter proliferation of such inventions. As a result, the human being today finds herself in constant confrontation with her own self-image, conveyed in myriad multimedia. When social critics call our time “the Age of Narcissism,” they mean to draw attention to the epidemic of self-absorption that these technologies have enabled.
Like everything in the world, however, the phenomenon of narcissism discloses its meaning according to the nature of the ones who are inquiring into it: “as a man is, so he sees,” wrote the inestimable William Blake. If we presume to have comprehended the phenomenon of narcissism with an initial glance, then our superficial method of inquiry will find its reflection in a superficial measure of understanding. A philosophical aspiration will prompt us to wonder, therefore, whether conceiving of narcissism as “self-absorption” exhausts its potential meaning.
If we would uncover the origin of the term, we must return to the thinkers of antiquity. The Classical poet Ovid recounts the story of Narcissus in the first century in his classic work, Metamorphoses. Ovid tells us of the fair youth sauntering in a wood. Parched by the sultry Roman summer, Narcissus gratefully stoops to refresh himself in a pool when he catches sight of his own reflection on its surface:
And as his own bright image he survey’d,
He fell in love with the fantastick shade…
The well-turn’d neck and shoulders he descries,
The spacious forehead, and the sparkling eyes;
The hands that Bacchus might not scorn to show,
And hair that round Apollo’s head might flow;
With all the purple youthfulness of face,
That gently blushes in the wat’ry glass.
Transfixed by a reflection, Narcissus substantially neglects the original that is the reflection’s source:
Still o’er the fountain’s wat’ry gleam he stood,
Mindless of sleep, and negligent of food…
And now the lovely face but half appears,
O’er-run with wrinkles, and deform’d with tears.
“Ah whither,” cries Narcissus, “dost thou fly?
Let me still feed the flame by which I die.”
Pining away, yet unable to rend himself from his own state of self-contemplation, Narcissus ultimately brings about his own undoing:
Then on th’ wholsome earth he gasping lyes,
‘Till death shuts up those self-admiring eyes.
Given the fate of its protagonist, Ovid’s account seems to contain an implicit admonishment against excessive self-absorption. By the twentieth century, the myth of Narcissism had acquired an explicit and distinctly psychological connotation. In 1914, Sigmund Freud published an influential paper under the title “On Narcissism.” Perhaps it will be of little surprise to the reader that Freud conceived of Narcissism as (1) auto-eroticism, (2) a latent neurosis, and (3) a drive common to all everyone as a deterministic result of ego development. “Loving oneself,” Freud wrote, is the “libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation.” Thus, Freud equated Narcissism with self-love and argued that it was a psychological expression of sexual drives.
In the century since Freud’s time, Narcissism has come to indicate a specific diagnosis amongst the psychological community. “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” is characterised by such traits as a bloated sense of self-importance and lack of empathy for others coupled with a reciprocal dependence on them to validate one’s own self-worth. These qualities together suggest that Narcissistic Personality Disorder denotes a condition of low inherent self-esteem coupled with a correlatively high need for supplementation from external sources. Thus, in its current psychological usage, Narcissistic Personality Disorder might also be called “‘The Lady doth protest too much, methinks’ Syndrome.” In parallel with this clinical meaning, Narcissism has also acquired a popular meaning of general self-absorption, a continual quest for superficial success, and a sense of unwarranted entitlement. In 2013, Time Magazine associated the millennial generation with narcissism and gave it the epithet “The Me Me Me Generation.”
Thus, the figure of Narcissus has undergone a metamorphosis according to the historical context in which he appears. People of a given time find their ways of thinking reflected in their respective interpretation of narcissism. Conversely, we can perceive Narcissus’ image mirrored in manifold different ways according to the tides of history. But what, we may wonder, is the essence that is being mirrored—the being of Narcissus, who appears mythically in a poetic context, libidinally in a psychoanalytic context, and behaviourally in a psychological-popular one? In the most crucial sense, Narcissus represents a first-person mistake of a representation for the being which it represents. In this way, narcissism is a first-person form of idolatry in which one’s own image becomes the idol and one’s soul the unconscious idolater. The Hebrew tradition offers perhaps the keenest insight into the general nature of idolatry in the 135th Psalm:
The idols of the heathen are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands
They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not;
They have ears, but they hear not; neither is there any breath in their mouths.
They that make them are like unto them: so is every one that trusteth in them.
The psalmist’s admonishment corroborates Ovid’s account, for Narcissus diminishes his own existence to the level of his shade. An image becomes an idol in the same measure as one disregards the former’s essence. In the same manner, Narcissus, as subject, outsources and projects his identity onto an object of his awareness, thus rendering his image into an idol. As the eye cannot see itself except in a mirror, so the I—each of us in soul and in spirit—becomes self-aware through the perceptions that we experience. In this way, every perception is at once a potential idol and the potential spark of self-awakening.
One manner whereby the I may recognise itself is in the ideas, ideals, and ideologies that it entertains. Naturally, certain ideas serve as more effective catalysts for self-experience than others. Still, even to entertain the most antisophical ideology like Marxism, Epicureanism, or materialism, is to place before the soul a mirror in which she may recognise a(n more or less-distorted) image of her own likeness. Indeed, in the very profession of a self-negating worldview that outwardly denies the soul’s existence, the soul inwardly affirms it in her very deed of its profession, and could therefore recognise herself at any instant. That she often does not win through to this self-experience does not disprove this possibility, only its realisation. No less does the fact that a goldfish fails to recognise its image in the side of a fishbowl refute the fact of reflection than does the soul’s frequent inability to actually to perceive herself amongst her myriad opportunities to do so.
Together with the manifold ideal possibilities for self-recognition are innumerable psychological and emotional ones. Every desire and every adversity is an invitation to recognise the soul that suffers it. The sine qua non and inner germ of true psychology is to simultaneously comprehend the nature of the soul (1) in herself, (2) in relation to her passions and, further, (3) in their projection onto external circumstances. What the soul is in incidence, a passion is in refraction. Finally, the outer event is revealed according to the quality of this refractory light. Let us suppose, for example and by analogy, that melancholy is the colour blue. Then soul’s inflection will colour the world in that very mood. The outer country as canvas and the inner atmosphere as refractory medium both point back to the soul as central sun and the source of incident light, by which everything else appears and without which nothing that appears could appear.
Perhaps the soul’s most concentrated theatre is the corporal body that it both suffers and animates. In our infant bodies, our souls first become self-aware. Every breath is a whisper of the soul’s true name, and every heartbeat a bell of self-remembrance. Our souls soon tend, however, like Narcissus, to identify with their sensual images in the mirror nonpareil that is corporeal nature. Nevertheless, the soul that succumbs to infatuation with its own image can only bring about its privation and eventual demise. It is written: “Man does not live by bread alone.” Nourishing the body by itself implies the soul’s starvation. For this reason, a philosophy that acknowledges only material, sensual, and emotional aspects of reality is not worthy of the name. The former ought rather to be recognised as the curtain of nescience that it: a funeral shroud over the soul’s self-knowledge that fosters the very conditions of her perdition.
Thus, to suppose that one has understood the phenomenon of narcissism when one has grasped only the popular and modern usages of that word is to dream one has awakened and, in self-satisfaction, simply roll over in one’s sleep. To affirm that one knows the self to which narcissism as “self-image” refers, therefore, is to propagate a passive attitude towards self-awakening, which is a contradiction in terms. Philosophical complacency is antisophy by another name. Only “when we dream that we are dreaming [is true] awakening at hand.” In a retrospect upon this exploration, we may perceive the manner by which the self has unconsciously dreamed meaning upon the phenomenon of narcissism according to the changing colour of its own incident light. In this perception of its own activity, the I may, in a flash, awaken from the fugue of our age; in metanoia, the I may break the spell narcissism.
Notes: painting by Caravaggio, 1594.
† Metanoia means “turing about of one’s mind.” When the word “repent” appears in English translations of the New Testament, it is a translation of metanoia, which would seem to obscure its essential meaning,
† Novalis wrote “Only when we dream that we are dreaming [is true] awakening at hand.”
† Scientific-technological culture is an embodiment of narcissism in that it enables people to create mechanical instantiations of their deeds, ideas, and values. These technological images of the human being are subsequently regarded as idols in fulfilment of the psalmist’s warning: “They that make them are like unto them.” Thus, as the robots become more humanoid, humans become more like unto the robots. This is evident, for instance, in the fact that many people conceive of the brain according to the technological analogy of a supercomputer, and in the expectation of understanding human behaviour through statistical modelling.