Monday, July 19, 2010

I Love Me

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.”


  1. What a hiss! But, oh, such witty bliss
    in the Bard of Buffalo Bayou's verses.

  2. "A flower ... 'sprung' up .."???? Oy veh!
    I tried to get Safire to explain to me why Americans are "suddenly" using the past participle of verbs [the one that I keep seeing is "the boat sunk" and variations thereon]instead of the perfect tense, but he never replied -- and this was several years before he died, too. But et tu, Brute?! [Or as Daddy used to insist that Julius woulda said, "καὶ σὺ τέκνον ?"][He was in good company, I discovered -- he cribbed from Suetonius. And here all this time I thought he was so smart.]

  3. To: frogprof

    Your objection to "sprung up" is noted, but explained as follows:

    "Although sprung [as a past tense] is labeled "American" by NODE [New Oxford Dictionary of English] in CIC [Cambridge International Corpus] it is used in British texts in 45 percent of the instances and in American texts in 47 percent, so there is only a small, probably insignificant difference."--John Algeo, British or American? A Handbook of Word and Grammar Patterns, Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    The OED (as well as Merriam-Webster's reliable New International 2nd edition) also list sprung as an alternate past tense to sprang, with no indication that it is sub-standard, so it may not be that there is any difference between US and UK usage. Both of these reliable lexicons also list other vowel-shifting verbs such as sung and, yes, even sunk, as acceptable alternative past tenses. I must confess, however, that sung and sunk do not ride well on my ears, as sprung easily does.

    The reason for such usage I think must be analogous to verbs like sting and sling, for which the past tenses stang and slang are obsolete, and would not be used by any educated English speaker. Sprang, sang, and sank may be on the same path to oblivion.

    Thank you for your comment.