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Narcissism

Freud’s mind seemed drawn to tragedy when he set about understanding the unconscious; Narcissus is another well known Greek myth which Freud relied upon to articulate his scientific formulations in psychoanalytic theory - and his choice again betrays his own shame. Narcissus carries many of the same themes as the Oedipus story, but it is, according to Freud, from a primary, auto-erotic level of development. Nevertheless, just like the story of Oedipus, Narcissus is a myth riddled with images of blindness and vision, failures of eyes and mirrors, looking and reflection which provide rich material on the theme of shame (Ayers, 2003: 89-93). In the interest of brevity, however, I want to focus only on the birth of the hero Narcissus, and the unfolding relationship between himself and his mother.

Liriope is a nymph who was raped and nearly drowned by the river god Cephisus while imprisoned in his waters. When it was time for her to give birth, the beauteous nymph brought forth a son, whom she named Narcissus. Through the naming of her son, Liriope announces her expectations and wish for closeness - Narcissus was to be the birth of a version of herself. Such a mother cannot send back sight of her child, because she can only see herself reflected. Graves (1955: 288) states that Liriope means literally “face of (ope) the lirion,” another name for the narcissus flower after which her son was named. Motivated by her own need for mirroring, perhaps stemming from her conception of Narcissus from a rape and her ambivalent feelings towards his birth, she is the first to test the reliability of the blind seer Tiresias (who also played a prominent role in the story of Oedipus). She consults him to ask whether her son is going to live a long life or die young. He predicts that Narcissus will have a long life so long as he does not know himself.

Narcissus was “a child with whom one could have fallen in love even in his cradle” (Ovid, 1955: 83). Even a nymph would love him as a child. Long before Narcissus used his eyes to see his own reflection and fall in love with himself, many others were in love with him. All the youths and maidens sought his love, but “in that slender form was a pride so cold that no youth, no maiden touched his heart.” The child must free himself from the admiring reflection of his mother, and at this task Narcissus fails. His life is to end in tragedy because of this inability to grasp the fleeting image he loves so dear: “Hanging there motionless” where “no thought of food or rest can draw him from the spot . . . he gazes on that false image with eyes that cannot look their fill and through his own eyes perishes.” According to Freud’s second conception of narcissism, its prototype is to be found in intrauterine life (Grunberger/Diamanti, 1979: 1). The infant is born into a complete state of oneness with mother. Although this fusion during the postpartum period facilitates human development, its persistence can lead to various narcissistic pathologies. Narcissus is the quintessential image for a person who has completely withdrawn libido from objects and remains self-contained in a state of primary narcissism, or union with the symbiotic but absent mother because she is seeking her own reflection. The human infant naturally selects his mother’s face as the first point of orientation, and looks for his reflection there (Ayers, 2003: 34-60). What did Freud meet in his mother’s eyes?

 
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