Some sixth formers were recently discussing the idea of narcissism—what it is, whether it is getting more common and whether the social media encourage it. One of them said she thought it was rife.
I thought about this—and then about Freud’s theories: he considered narcissism to be a stage of childhood. In this matter, Freud tends to skew the message of a Greek story, as he did with Oedipus (who did not know that Jocasta was his mother).
But then so does the painting Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse1, which is sometimes supposed to illustrate the story in the Metamorphoses. In an idyllic landscape, Echo (with one breast uncovered in pre-Raphaelite style) looks despairingly at Narcissus, who is lying prone at the water’s edge engrossed in his reflection.
Actually in Ovid’s account, the rejected and hapless girl Echo had already faded away with anorexia, to become only a voice by the time that Narcissus looked in the pool. His doing so came later, as a punishment from Juno: she punished him at the request of one of the many suitors whom Narcissus had disdained, male in this case, and it was his excessive pride that she was punishing.
Freud does not really deal with the psychology of the adult narcissist or that of his victims, nor the mental dialectic whereby the narcissist acquires a following: for he is able, strange as it seems, to find people who take him at his own valuation, fall down and venerate him. These things are presumably in the sphere of the transactional analyst.
Nor is the narcissist a product of the days of screen, celeb and admass: John Buchan’s villain Medina in The Three Hostages is recognisably of the species; and then there was Nero, singing on stage with his cithara, while in the audience was his Praetorian Prefect: maerens Burrus ac laudans2.
- in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
- Tacitus, Annals XIV.15.