Narcissism Week, Day 1
Narkissos was the son of the nymph Leiriope and the river-god Cephisus. Leiriope consulted the great seer Teiresias about her son, to be told mysteriously that ‘he would live to a ripe old age provided he never knows himself.’
As he grew up Narkissos made many young admirers unhappy, for he stubbornly refused to return their affections. One of his admirers, the nymph Echo, who had been doomed to repeat the words of others as a punishment for colluding with Zeus against Hera, followed him on a stag hunt, approaching him when he happened to distance himself from his companions. But roughly he spurned her advances; then strode away.
Narkissos was sixteen when, because he was keen on hunting, he wandered onto the divine mountain Helicon, in the Thespiai region of Boeotia. As he travelled he chanced upon a spring with a shaded lake that had no ripples upon its surface, and, as he threw himself down in exhaustion to quench his thirst, he saw his own reflection for the first time. He was entranced by the sight of the beautiful face, and fell in love, though only a little later did he realise that the face was himself. So he found himself unable to move, enraptured with his own reflection, pining away.
Echo, still following him, grieved as he took a knife and stabbed himself to death. But from his body and his blood sprang the white-and-red narcissus flower, from which unguents are prepared.
Narcissism is a normal feature of human development. All human beings are born narcissistic.
A general (not clinical) definition of narcissism is: living life in such a way that the real, external world is experienced as unreal, with the self alone as real. The narcissistic person does not accept that the real world has autonomous existence and is populated with real independent human beings; rather, all is some construction of their own mind, experienced only in terms of their own thoughts and feelings, hopes and desires. And when the real world demands some response, they either fail to respond, disconnecting themselves from it, or respond solely in terms of themselves.
Narcissism is universal in primitive cultures. Human social evolution could be represented as the gradual overcoming of narcissism.
The universality of narcissism as an aspect of psychological development is due to the fact that everyone is a conscious human being. The self, which is to a person the most important thing in existence, is not a fixed entity since it is created over time from millions of interactions with other people: in other words, it evolves. But consciousness is experienced very soon in a person’s life, beginning between the ages of one and two (before this time an infant is not separated from reality, experiencing no ‘I’). So, since consciousness is not first experienced at the end point of psychological development, it is experienced by a person during the creation of their self, when they are not yet authentic and whole. In this situation, of consciousness simultaneous with development of the mental model, the self is at first experienced as more real than reality – more important too, since it cannot be allowed to fall apart. If it did collapse, the person would die, becoming insane from self-annihilation. Narcissism can therefore be seen as an inevitable consequence of human consciousness, and an essential one in the early years of life.
It is the urgency of constructing a conscious self which gives rise to narcissism. Human narcissism is the experience of consciousness by the inauthentic, undeveloped self, one not complete, one with a less than whole understanding of itself.
Narcissism is therefore an inevitable and unavoidable part of psychological development. An evolving self is incomplete except at its full flowering (if it achieves such a thing), and is therefore more self-directed than reality-directed. Narcissism is both survival method and therapy for the fragile self. Narcissism is the force bringing fragmented parts of a conscious self together when they are not yet composed into a whole; and the more fragmented the parts the stronger the required force, and thus the more intense the narcissism. But the penalty – the necessary penalty – of making the self more real than reality is that reality is demoted.
Narcissism can therefore be envisaged as the ‘force of gravity’ holding together individually chaotic fragments which would otherwise drift apart, fragments which have not been synthesized into a whole by experience and natural development, and which, since they must somehow be made whole to create a coherent entity – a conscious self – have to be forced into union. This artificial conglomeration into an inauthentic, incomplete entity results in the narcissistic self.