Author’s note: A sketch leading to this essay was published in Exquisite Corpse and that sketch appears elsewhere on my blog.
The ancient Greek myth of Narcissus — he who fell in love with his own reflection in a river and pined to death from unrequited love — has, of course, come down to us as a parable about vanity. His name is synonymous with conceit. However, I believe that there are other, equally plausible, modern interpretations of the meaning of Narcissus.
In the version of this tale described by Pausanias, Narcissus fell in love with an image HE DID NOT KNOW WAS HIMSELF. Believing he saw a “beautiful waterspirit,” he was disappointed because the loved one fled when he tried to kiss it/him. Thus, in this version of the myth, it was not love of self but a delusion of otherness that caused Narcissus to pine to death from what he imagined was unrequited love. Pausanias comments incredulously that, “it is utter stupidity to imagine that a man old enough to fall in love was incapable of distinguishing a man from a man’s reflection.”
Perhaps not. The failure to recognize oneself, or parts of oneself, is a symptom of several illnesses. In dissociative identity disorder — formerly known as multiple personality disorder — it is the defining symptom. This very rare mental illness is, of course, easily sensationalized and readily lends itself to drama. Most of the public is familiar with it through the Joan Woodward movie The Three Faces of Eve and the best-selling book and equally famous made-for-TV film starring Sally Field, Sybil.
According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Fourth Edition Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, “the essential feature of Dissociative Identity Disorder is the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of behavior.” The sufferer’s conviction that her/his own personality states belong to another is strikingly akin to Narcissus’s belief that his reflection is another person.
Narcissus’s delusion of “otherness” may also be also analogous to physical illnesses of the autoimmune system in which the “biochemical substances in your blood that normally protect you from infection, attack a part of your body” because it “believes” those parts to be foreign. The fatal heartbreak which killed Narcissus could be seen as his soul’s “attack” upon a self which could not recognize itself.
The crisis of the Narcissus story as depicted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is diametrically opposed to that in the legend known to Pausanias. In Ovid’s masterpiece, Tiresias prophesies that, “if he but fail to recognize himself, a long life he may have.”
Even here, however, Narcissus fits the diagnosis of narcissist quite imperfectly. The diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder include a tendency to “exaggerate achievements and talents” and to “require excessive admiration,” as well as being “envious of others.” Ovid’s Narcissus does not exaggerate his own beauty but knows correctly that he is beautiful. Far from “requiring excessive admiration,” he is annoyed by the admiration he gets. Knowing himself so loved and admired, he is hardly “envious of others.”
Narcissus does meet one of the diagnostic criterion for narcissism. He certainly “lacks empathy for others,” as shown by his cold rejection of Echo. She “strives to wind her arms around his neck. He flies from her and as he leaves her says “Take off your hands! you shall not fold your arms around me. Better death than such a one should ever caress me!” Similarly cruel rebuffs of other suitors of both sexes lead Nemesis to put the curse on him which causes him to fall in love with his own reflection.
At his moment of epiphany, Ovid’s Narcissus recognizes himself, telling himself that, “this that holds your eyes is nothing save the image of yourself reflected back to you.” This knowledge plunges him deep into despair for Narcissus cannot be content with admiring himself, hugging and touching his own body, and masturbating while viewing his own loveliness. He wants that special sense of intimacy that comes from loving and being loved by another.
Pausinias knew the tragedy of Narcissus as stemming from a crazy kind of ignorance; Ovid described it as the fruit of sad self-knowledge. However, neither depicted with exactitude what we now call a “narcissist.”