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Narcissus Redeemed—Positive Precedents from Plotinus

Dante’s program of redeeming Narcissus is not without powerful precedents for a positive valuation of narcissistic love particularly in Neoplatonic tradition. Julia Kristeva elucidates Plotinus’s “magisterial synthesis” of narcissistic autoerotic love of one’s own image with the Platonic quest for ideal beauty.1 Plotinus, in effect, transforms Platonic ideality into speculative interiority. Loving the ideal image of oneself contemplated interiorly, as opposed to a doting fascination with exterior beauty, is integral to Plotinus’s ascent of the mind to the One. This latter is “the object of love, love itself, and love of itself,” in Plotinus’s language insisting on the self-love theme.

Lovable, very love, the Supreme is also self-love in that He is lovely no otherwise than from Himself and in Himself. Self-presence can hold only in the identity of associated with associating; since, in the Supreme, associated and associating are one, seeker and sought one—the sought serving as Hypostasis and substrate of the seeker— once more God’s being and his seeking are identical: once more, then, the Supreme is the self-producing, sovereign of Himself, not coming to be as some external willed but existing as He wills it?

Plotinus’s statements portray the One as a perfectly narcissistic lover: “Thus the Supreme can derive neither its being nor the quality of its being. God Himself, therefore, is what He is, self-related, self-tending ...” (Enneads VI.viii.17). Plotinus even alludes to the Narcissus myth5—not by name but by reference to the fable of the man who desired to sieze his own beautiful image in the water (Enneads Although generally the attachment to images as such issues in a dispersion of self, the image can [1]

also be used to orient the self to the ideal and one and thereby turn the self back toward oneness within itself.

The divine self-relatedness entails that the human quest for wisdom, too, must turn self-referentially inward:

Seeking Him, seek nothing of Him outside; within is to be sought what follows upon Him; Himself do not attempt. He is, Himself, that outer, He the encompassment and measure of all things; or rather He is within, at the innermost depth; the outer, circling round Him, so to speak, and wholly dependent upon Him, is Reason-Principle and Intellectual-Principle.

(Enneads Vl.viii. 18)

The seeker imitates the same self-sufficient self-relatedness of the divinity that is sought: “The Sage, then, ... is already set, not merely in regard to exterior things but also within himself, towards what is one and at rest: all his faculty and life are inward-bent” (Enneads III.viii.6). The same becomes another same, one for one (monos pros monon). The autoeroticism of one’s own idealized image is implicit in the whole course of the quest for the divine in Western literature as a return to origin, to the true self and the same. Kristeva finds invested in this myth the very invention and opening of the interior space of subjectivity by the Neoplatonic turn in Greek philosophy. Thence it passes through Christian interpretations, in which the inner space of reflexivity and subjectivity becomes incarnate. Bodily pulsions are integrated into the ideality of this speculative love, as we follow its evolution to the subtle contradictions of the psyche probed by Freud and by psychoanalysis in his wake.

Dante’s reversal of Narcissus’s error in Paradiso III. 16-21 puts us on guard against underestimating the power of images for mediating and revealing the real world. Even what appear to be images in Paradise are, more deeply considered, real substances (“vere sustanze”), and in fact we always need to understand images on the basis of the realities in which they are grounded (sections 43-44). Quite generally, poets’ intimate sources of inspiration are reflectively projected as some form of Other. Beatrice, the image of beauty that inspires Dante, is his Other par excellence. Aesthetic narcissism produces a religious devotion to alterity. Narcissism, in Kristeva’s analysis, is recognized as a necessary foundation for art and religion (section 40).

Such interpretations of his depth psychology notwithstanding, Narcissus, according to the surface sense of his narrative, is tragically isolated and condemned to death, a melancholy and pathetic personage.


Giuseppe Mazzotta, “Literature and Religion: The Error of Narcissus,” Religion & Literature 41/2 (2009): 29-35 demonstrates the inseparability of aesthetic and religious impulses for Dante.

And yet tradition has not failed to imagine his redemption.[2] He may even point the way to salvation, as realized through lyric poetry. In fact, Narcissus opens up the world of imagination as mirroring one’s own reality, the sphere of phantasy, of speculative fiction. He opens a new horizon for subjectivity. His very suffering for love becomes redemptive— as already in courtly lyric from the Troubadours through the Sicilians and beyond. The suffering of the self opens it toward otherness. Marsyas, the satyr flayed of his skin or “vagina” (1.19-21) by Apollo, serves as surrogate for Dante invoking Apollonian inspiration in a sort of rebirthing to divinity. Martyrdom can be a primary, indispensable mode of engendering openness to the Other.

This struggle of the self develops in a distinctive way in Western tradition, the way of subjectivity, and it finds its most representative expression in the lyric. The self-sufficiency of the perfect artifact, its “resting in itself,” is shown by Dante to be a form of prayer, an opening to what is beyond verbal structure: its Other is evoked and called upon by the verbal fixing of limits. This dialectical logic is known classically as “coincidentia oppositorum” and was developed eminently by John Scott Eriugena before being made proverbial by Nicholas of Cusa. The paradigm of selfreflection, understood through such a logic, has widespread influence throughout Western tradition.

The most important lesson of Dante’s Paradiso for our purposes is that self-reflexivity paradoxically renders possible an orientation outward toward the radically Other—and this means, finally, an orientation also “upward” toward a divine Source—or “downward” toward a divine Ground. Generalizing from what has been discovered at work intensively and paradigmatically in the Paradiso, we might say: “it seems to be precisely in the presence of the most effective stratagems of reflexivity that we see literature most clearly and diligently engaged in its fundamental business of being about something other than itself.”

Edward Nolan’s meditations on the meaning of Paul’s “seeing through a glass darkly” (per speculum in aenigmate, I Corinthians 13:12) emphasize that

[I]t is precisely at this juncture [between subject and object, knower and known, Creator and creature], where we come to the absolute end of ourselves and touch the beginning of the radically Other, that

language signals its fundamental limitation, its inevitable and final inability to bring us to the object of our desire.


The compatibility and indeed inseparability of self-reflection and devotion to the Other is ingrained in the wisdom of the poetic and noetic tradition that Dante assembles and carries to its culmination at the intellectual summit of the Middle Ages. Chaucer’s work still basks in reflected rays of glory lingering over the sunset of this age of medieval culture oriented to a theological Absolute. There is, however, also a dark side to this glorious synthesis: a surreptitious undermining of the ideal is paradoxically necessary to its realization.


I pry open this angle of vision in “ ‘Enditynges of Worldly Yankees’: Truth and Poetry in Chaucer as Compared with Dante,” The Chaucer Review 87/1 (1999): 87-106, reworked in Secular Scriptures, Chapter 2, 43-69.

  • [1] Kristeva, Histoires d’amour, section on “Plotin, ou la théorie du reflet et de l’ombre: une intériorité,” 134-39. 2 Plotinus, The Enneads, trans. Stephen MacKenna (Burdett, NY: Larson, 1992), VI.viii.15. 3 These allusions are sifted searchingly by Pierre Hadot, “Le mythe de Narcisse et son 4 interprétation par Plotin,” Nouvelle Revue de Pyschanalyse 13 (1976): 81—108.
  • [2] Louise Vinge, The Narcissus Theme in Western European Literature up to the Early 19th Century (Lund: Gleerups, 1967) and Liebe Spaas, ed., Echoes of Narcissus (New York: Berghahn Books, 2000) survey this vast tradition and its widely diverging optics. Andre Green, Narcissisme de vie, narcissisme de mort (Paris: Minuit 1983) analyzes its positive and negative spins. 2 Rosalie Colie, Paradoxia epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966) offers one reliable witness. 3 Edward Peter Nolan, Nou: through a Glass Darkly: Specular Images of Being and Knowing from Virgil to Chaucer (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 10.
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