It all began with mirrors – the birth of self-consciousness as well as the realization that we have been cut off from the great Earth mother, and therefore the source of life. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Narcissus died from the shock of recognizing his own identity. He was a young Greek of extraordinary beauty, but crippled by self-love. He rejected the love of others, and most famously that of the cursed nymph Echo. Gazing at an image on the surface of a pond, Narcissus became entranced with it. But once he realized that the image was his own reflection, and therefore couldn’t consummate his love, he fell into despair and drowned himself.
In this blog, I will delineate the history of narcissism, and then follow up with a second one on American narcissism.
History of Narcissism
“Self-esteem is cleverer than the cleverest person in the world.” – La Rochefoucauld
By the 17th century, rather than a hubristic or deluded figure, Ovid’s Narcissus appeared as a cunning and perverse passion that could outsmart even the cleverest person. Amour-propre was the word of the day for moralists like Marquise de Sablé and La Rochefoucauld as well as essayists like Pascal. These French authors appropriated the Augustinian opposition between amor sui (amour-propre) and amor Dei (charité). For La Rochefoucauld in particular, amour-propre appears as an unequivocally maleficent passion that must be constantly guarded against.
“In order to punish man for Original Sin, God has allowed him to make a god out of his self-love, so that he will be tormented by it throughout his entire life.” – La Rochefoucauld, Maxime posthume 22
However, La Rochefoucauld differentiated the common terms used to describe egotism in the 17th century: l’interêt (self-interest), l’orgueil (pride, or Hobbes called it, vainglory), and la fierté (pride as it manifests itself externally such as haughtiness, insolence, snobbery). While these terms and concepts were closely related, La Rochefoucauld considered them quite distinct.
Self-interest is the “soul” of self-love, the faculty that gave self-love the ability to perceive sensations and react to them. Rather than just a series of desires to be fulfilled, or objectives to be attained, but also a paralyzing force that prevents us from reacting to or even being fully aware of the aims or concerns or impulses of others.
Basically, self-interest helps self-love maintain contact with the outside world, with society, but at the same time, paradoxically, it prevents self-love from taking any interest whatsoever in anything that will not help it to fulfill its own needs or further its own goals. Because we are so preoccupied with our own problems, hearing about the problems of others has a paralyzing effect on our desire to carry on a conversation with them.
The other two terms La Rochefoucauld used to describe the fundamental egotism of human beings, l’orgueil and la fierté, carry a similar relationship to one another as do self-love and self-interest, in that l’orgueil is pride in the sense of an innate predilection to prefer personal interests and achievements over that of a rival, whereas la fierté involves the many ways in which pride exhibits itself externally and is perceived by others. People are all equally proud, but they do not all display their pride in the same way or to the same degree.
Sigmund Freud originally defined narcissism as a sexual stage in the development of the child that occurs between autoeroticism and object love, and must be conquered in the development of maturation. Later, in his essay “On Narcissism” (1914), he postulated a structural narcissism, a secondary narcissism that was a libido-stagnation, and could not be removed by any analysis. He understood primary narcissism was operative throughout life in all love experiences. They both formed part of a general developmental egoism in all humans. Initially, the narcissistic imperative enabled babies to get what they needed to survive, and this oftentimes continued well into maturity.
For the writer Lou Andreas-Salome, narcissism was not just self-love, but a creative energy that continued throughout life. In 1921, Salome explored the problem of self-love in her essay Narzismus als Doppelrichtung (The Dual Orientation of Narcissism) in which she proposed it as one of the two conflicting emotions that are aroused during the sexual act – the other being the longing for self-surrender. Salome’s contribution to psychoanalysis was her insistence that the narcissistic phenomenon, properly understood, always included both self-love and self-surrender.
“One must remember that the Narcissus of the legend does not stand in front of an artificial mirror but before one of nature. Perhaps he does not only see himself reflected in the water but, in addition to himself, everything else as well, otherwise would he have stayed? Would he not have fled in horror? Does not his face express melancholy as well as enchantment?”
Narcissus was enchanted because he was delighted with his own image, and melancholy because he had suddenly become aware of his separate existence, aware the he was no longer an integral part of earth, water, and air. In other words, Narcissus saw the entire world when he looked into the pond, and alternatively, he might see only a distorted image. Therefore his identifications ranged from the grandiose to the fragmentary. In becoming himself, he can only become more or less than himself.