On the same page (Op-Ed) of a recent New York Times two well-known personalities were identified as narcissists. One is Mel Gibson, who has been receiving tons of publicity (all of which spelled his name right) for reportedly berating, cursing, demeaning, and possibly striking his inamorata. The other supposed narcissist is the late Larry Rivers, an artist who created a cinematic history of his two pubescent daughters’ developing breasts; the films are now the subject of a dispute between Rivers’ foundation and the adult daughters, who regard them as an invasion of their privacy.
The merits of these two sensational cases, replete with juicy revelations, are not the subjects of today’s disquisition—but lest you be disappointed, I assure you that things are likely to get fairly libidinous anyway. Narcissism is a Freudian term denoting an exclusive absorption with oneself. It may include an erotic desire for one’s own body and personality. Normal in childhood, so the Freudians say, narcissism becomes a pathological disorder in an adult when it impairs social functioning. A narcissist has an exaggerated sense of his own importance, suffers delusions about his unique abilities, and depends on others to reinforce his self-image. (I use the pronoun his, since the individuals mentioned are male, but females can also be narcissists. Can you think of any?)
The term comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus. As the Roman poet Ovid tells the story, Narcissus was an incredibly handsome youth about 16 years old (think Justin Bieber) who disdained all who loved him. One day he was followed into the woods by a beautiful young nymph (or perhaps she was a nymphet—think Miley Cyrus, or, on second thought, maybe not) named Echo. She was unable to utter a word, and finally he heard her footsteps. “Who’s there?” he called. And she answered, “Who’s there?” It went on like that for a few more exchanges until Echo rushed forward and embraced Narcissus. He pushed her away and told her to leave him alone. Heartbroken, she spent the rest of her life pining away for him until only her voice remained—but not before she had asked the goddess Nemesis to take revenge on Narcissus for rejecting her.
Narcissus came across a pool of water and, bending over to take a drink, saw a reflection of himself for the first time in his life. He fell in love with the beautiful boy he saw—not realizing at first that it was himself. When he finally figured this out, he became upset, flailed about, and died. His soul went to hell, where he continues to gaze at his image in the River Styx. A flower called the narcissus (a.k.a. amaryllis, daffodil, or jonquil) sprung up where he had died. Anyway, that’s the story, which you can believe or not.
More shrinking violet than narcissus, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou was in full bloom when he wrote the following:
There was a young man named Narcissus,
Who said, when disdaining a missus,
“My image and I
Are both quite a guy,
There must be some way we can kiss us.”