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Primary Narcissism or the Death Duel of Self with Nothing

This is the genealogical line for Dante’s “poetics of praise” as outlined in the Vita nuova XVIII-XIX. Dante discovers the principle of a poetics that is generated from within by internal relations and motivations so that his inspiration cannot be taken away from him (“ehe non mi puote venire meno,” XVIII.4), not even when it is directed outside itself and beyond in epideixis of his lady as object of praise. He can cultivate his offering of praise in complete independence from how it is received and judged, including his being mocked (gabbato, XIV-XV) by others. Thus, he can put an end to the (Cavalcantian) drama centered on his own symptomatology as a despairing lover. This stem cell in the Vita nuova will be developed into the full-blown primary narcissism of lyric self-reflexivity in the Paradiso. Narcissism is the radical logical and psychological structure underlying this mode of lyric.

In “On Narcissism: An Introduction” (“Zur Einführung des Narzißmus,” 1914), Sigmund Freud hypothesizes a universal “primary Narcisissm,” and the mobile polysemousness of the notion among his followers is notorious. Julia Kristeva employs the notion of “primary Narcisissm” in describing an “immediate identification without object” in Freud and in Lacan’s mirror stage (Histoires d’amour, 53-56). It is an

“archaic reduplication” prior to any possible choice of object, an “autoeroticism” necessary and constitutive for the “unification” of a subject. Oral, incorporative, and introjective, it belongs to the “oral stage.” Dante’s Paradiso climaxes also in images of regression to an infantile state (XXXIII.106-8), which, psychoanalytically, might be understood as embodying a type of primary narcissism (see section 48). For Dante, it is an imitation of an infantile state by the deliberate act of a subject, whereas what psychoanalysis calls “primary narcissism” is prior to any distinct identity of the subject and does not pivot from an already established subjective identity. Prior to subjectivity and to any choice of object, the energy of the libido is already actively invested in relation to itself. This pre-subjective state, moreover, remains latent throughout the course of later development.

The primary identification of Einfühlung or “feeling-one” that is pre-objectival and pre-Oedipal is also of the order of the unsayable (“indicible”). Kristeva equates it with Lacan’s “objet petit ‘a,’” which she explains as an ungraspable non-object of the order of the phantasm. It is in reality a “metaphoric object” and a “transport” of “auto-erotic motility” into the unifying instance that constitutes the “me” as one. For Kristeva, furthermore, primary narcissism, as original, immediate identification, is correlated with the void, with exposure of being “not all” (“pas tout”) and with the gap (“béance”) of the mirror. In her words, “The chasms of the narcissistic void” (“les abimes du vide narcissique”) remain beneath the fragile constructions of the self (Histoires d’amour, 59).

Similarly to lyric language, courtly love, understood in such terms, represents an absolute or zero degree of subjectivity in which dedication to the beloved risks being exposed as primarily a relation to self that absorbs the lover totally in a sort of narcissistic fixation. Lyrical lovers from Tristan and Troilus to Petrarch and Romantic poets are also notorious narcissists. For all their professedly self-sacrificing, self-abasing devotion to their ladies, their unconditional adoration is at crucial points unmasked as pure pretext for the creation of their poems. Poets exploit their loves for the purpose of projecting an idealized image of themselves and the beauty of their creations. The beloved other who is evoked and cathected with such overweening passion is exposed as really only a confected image of the lover’s own ego-ideal. And yet this movement of absolutization can be opened up into a form of transcendence from within. The subject’s self-reflection can be discovered to be not just a terminal end-in-itself but rather an imitation of an ideal that utterly and unutterably transcends it. Lyric language, with its concentrated self-reflexivity, is peculiarly open to and oriented toward this type of self-transcendence.

The self-reflexive structure in question is Trinitarian, at least for Dante and particularly in the context of the Paradiso. Its model is the divine Being, the Trinity, which creates and continuously generates out of its infinite self-reflection and self-love. The miracle realized already in courtly love and lyric, which lays down certain crucial poetic premises for the Paradiso, is that self-reflexivity is not a dead-end but instead produces an opening to a transcendent love and ideal truth. Here we can speak of “originary narcissism” not as a temporally primary stage but rather as a structuration of drives that gives them a unified self-referential sense.[1]

Although at risk of collapsing into a circumscribed and deadly form of self-enclosure, the circuit of love and lyric can also embody a powerful dynamic propelling the self beyond itself toward the absolutely other and even toward divinity. However, this alchemical transformation of self-referentiality from death to life, as its orientation converts from self to other, does not take place without passing through the most rigorous reduction of self to nothing—in fact, not without a terrifying confrontation with death and nothingness. This death-drama can be found staged from the very origins of modern lyric tradition in the Troubadours, and it continues through to many modern and late-modern spin-offs. It travels to Hegel’s abiding with the negative in order to make it productive, notably through the slave’s fear of death, which he converts through work into mastery (Phenomenology, Chapter IV). It shows up again in the implosion of the idealization of Beauty into abject self-loathing in Baudelaire’s verses oscillating between Spleen and Idéal.' It girates from Mallarmé’s taking destruction as his Beatrice (“La Destruction fut ma Béatrice”) to the dizzyingly punning linguistic annihilations of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.'

Narcissism can entail confronting the self’s intrinsic Nothingness—as suggested by Caravaggio’s painting (see frontispiece to this volume, xvii), in which the reflected image is barely visible to the viewer and perhaps not even to Narcissus himself. Caravaggio’s Narcissus gazes into a dark pond that seems more to engulf than to send back his image. One might well imagine him to be contemplating his own death. Understood thus, narcissism can be a means of spiritual advancement through self-reflection. It results eventually in the death of the ego for the sake of release into God. In any case, not the image as such but the act of self-reflection itself stands forth as decisive for determining what Narcissus sees—as also for determining what the viewer sees or rather projects onto this dis-appearing image. The image blends out into the totality signified by the circle composed by the subject’s outspread arms taken together with their reflection in the water, which swallows all in bottomless darkness.

Interpreted thus, narcissism is not an aberration of human nature, but a condition of its “perfection.”[2] Losing oneself in a kind of mystic death is necessary for gaining God. It entails an opening and springing forth in relation to nothing in particular, “the void.” The regression to a state before the subject-object split, which Dante insistently figures toward the end of the Paradiso in the image of the infant at the mother’s breast (XXX.82-84; XXXIII.106-8), characterizes the mystic’s quest.

  • [1] Jérôme Glas, “Narcissisme originaire et organisation spéculaire,” Revu française de psychanalyse 72/4 (2008): 1081-98. 2 Fabrice Wilhelm, Baudelaire: L’écriture du narcissisme (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1999). 3 Mallarmé is quoted from his letter to Eugène Lefébure, May 27, 1867. I read Joyce in this key in Part II of Poetry and Apocalypse: Theological Disclosures of Poetic Language (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 97-158. 4 See seminal interpretations by Hubert Damisch, “D’un Narcisse l’autre,” Nouvelle revue de psychanalyse 13 (1976): 109-46, and “Deux figures du Narcisse,” in Texte-Image/Bild-Text (Berlin: Technische Universitât Berlin, 1988), 123-29.
  • [2] Pleshette DeArmitt, The Right to Narcissism: A Case for an Im-possible Self-love (New York: Fordham University Press, 2014) defends narcissism as constitutive of the self and “open to the other as other” (96) in studies of Lacan, Kristeva, and Derrida. 2 Christian Moevs, The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), tells this story of a mors mystica as the existential quest to realize the “nondualist” metaphysics of the Commedia. In his review, in Religion and Literature 47/2 (2016): 166-68, of my Dante and the Sense of Transgression: ‘The Trespass of the Sign’ (2013), Moevs makes a telling point. He maintains that aspects of the Paradiso’s negative theology that I bring to the fore through emphasizing its affinities with postmodern thinking of difference in contemporary French philosophy can sometimes be stated with greater precision in terms of Dante’s own medieval sources. In Part II of the present book, especially sections 17-25, I aim to show that what Moevs wonderfully expounds as a timeless metaphysics of the Middle Ages, and as experientially verified and enacted by Dante, can be more accurately historicized in terms of a precise moment of crisis in the history of metaphysics with Duns Scottis. I discuss liabilities of Moevs’s monolithic treatment of medieval metaphysics in “Equivocations of ‘Metaphysics’: A Debate with Christian Moevs’s The Metaphysics of Dante’s Comedy,” Philosophy and Theology 20/1-2 (2009): 29-52.
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