In search of narcissism . . .
Ah, narcissism. Springing from a bottomless place, narcissism uses fear, conceit, and cruelty to satisfy its consuming and ultimately futile desire to be filled. Narcissism has a terrible record of moral abstraction, carelessness of others, grandiosity, and self-entitlement; for bending thought to its purposes, distorting reality, undermining reason, inhibiting curiosity, obstructing self-knowledge, nourishing hubris, forging pernicious identities and, finally—given the opportunity—persecuting difference. Narcissism is a false way of being in the world, and the narcissist is the ultimate pretender, a fancy scarecrow, stuffed not with straw, but with duplicity, deception, self-delusion. As characters, narcissists are committed to ‘supplying’ this false self, ignoring reality when it doesn’t conform to their liking, and possessing an abundance of flaws. They are, therefore, abundantly interesting. Here are only a few of many.
. . . in literature
Euripides, Medea (431 BC)
Betrayed by her husband Jason, Medea takes revenge. She sends her rival Glauce a dress laced with deadly poison. Of symbolic interest and in line with how the narcissist’s ego demands the sacrifice of others, Glauce leaps into a well in a vain attempt to wash herself of the poison, enduring a kind of double death. And then, while trying to save her, Glauce’s father Creon is also killed. But even this is not enough to satisfy Medea’s consuming narcissism. She kills her own children in order to deprive Jason a legacy, escaping to Athens with their bodies, and hurling a final insult at him,
I do not leave my children’s bodies with thee; I take them with me . . . And for thee, who didst me all that evil, I prophesy an evil doom.
Ovid, Metamorphoses (8 AD)
Originally meaning “sleep, numbness”, which refers perfectly to the emotional capacity of narcissists, the Narcissus myth is the origin of the term narcissism, now referring to a fixation with oneself. In Metamorphoses, Ovid presents a Narcissus renowned for his beauty. The son of a river god and a nymph, he is also exceptionally proud and disdainful of those who love him. Nemesis, the spirit of divine retribution (against those who succumb to arrogance) notices this and attracts Narcissus to a pool where he sees his own reflection in the water and, not realizing it’s an image, falls in love.
The story features another casualty. Echo, whose voice has been lost to Hera’s jealousy, falls in love with Narcissus. An explanation for why he doesn’t realize that he’s looking at a reflection is because any words of love he mutters to the image in the pool Echo repeats around him. Those involved with a narcissist often experience the loss of their voice, subtly conditioned over time to parrot back the approval and praise upon which the narcissist desperately depends.
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (1513)
Machiavelli’s The Prince is written in the ‘mirrors for princes’ style and serves as an instruction book for kings on appropriate aspects of rule and behaviour. More broadly, the term is also used to refer to histories or literary works aimed at creating images of strong kings for the purpose of imitation. Even this general terminology reflects the essential narcissism at the heart of the book, providing a ‘mirror’ for rulers to gaze into and guidelines to establish ‘images’, but Machiavelli’s name has been co-opted as well. As early as 1626, ‘Machiavellianism’ (also known as the ‘machiavellian mask’) was widely used to refer to “the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct”. Today, because of Machiavelli’s widely proclaimed philosophy that “the ends justify the means”, Machiavellianism is now considered to be one of the three personality types, along with narcissism and psychopathy, referred to by psychologists as the ‘dark triad’. Though they are closely related, narcissists tend to seek admiration and special treatment, and psychopaths are generally defined by callousness and insensitivity, while Machiavellians focus on gaining advantage through manipulation.
William Shakespeare, King Lear (1608)
Act 3, Scene 4, Lear:
Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies.
Is man no more than this? Consider him well.
Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on ’s are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself.
Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.
Off, off, you lendings! Come. Unbutton here. [tears at his clothes]
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Faust (1808)
As Faust sits up through the night, the cave of his inwardness grows darker and deeper until at last he resolves to kill himself, to seal himself up once and for all in the tomb his inner space has become. As he reaches for his flask of poison, he’s miraculously saved in true Romantic fashion. His pact with the devil is not about possessing all knowledge but about being reunited with lost feeling that rushes in on him in waves—love, desire, tenderness, unity—everything that has been lost to him since childhood. The rush of joy is a figment. Despair returns. It is the two extremes of desiring the ideal and falling short of the ideal that Faust (and narcissists, in general) must synthesise.
George Eliot, Middlemarch (1874)
Middlemarch abounds with characters in the grip of self-delusion. The ambitious Dr Lydgate chooses unwisely and marries the devastatingly attractive but materialistic Rosamond Vincy. Her materialism alters his career and his connection to her family subjects them to near ruin. Rosamond’s uncle Bulstrode is a powerful financier and foremost citizen of Middlemarch. He’s also a hypocrite, twisting Christian doctrine to accommodate his corrupt motives. Saddest of all is Dorothea Brooke. She marries Casaubon, a man she believes to be undertaking a monumental work, in the hope she might help him with it and gain purpose in her leisurely life. On her honeymoon, she discovers not only that Casaubon’s work is a fraud but that his heart is cold. With subtle manipulations that play on Dorothea’s sincerity and faithfulness, he demands her absolute compliance with his every wish. While this is worrisome, it’s only after he dies that she discovers just how encompassing his narcissism truly is.
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890)
Narcissists are known for their ‘shallow emotions’. What this means is that, although feelings of love may be proclaimed passionately, they are empty words that are all too often replaced by other empty words that express opposite sentiments. This cycle of idealisation and devaluation is represented perfectly in Wilde’s novel.
Dorian is first enraptured with the actress Sibyl Vane, idealising, idolising her. But he’s fallen for her too quickly and cruelly turns his back on their fragile relationship, all because he’s unsatisfied with that one performance. He speaks to her with disgust:
You have killed my love. You used to stir my imagination. Now you don’t even stir my curiosity. You simply produce no effect. I loved you because you were marvelous, because you had genius and intellect, because you realized the dreams of great poets and gave shape and substance to the shadows of art. You have thrown it all away. You are shallow and stupid.
A little while later, he wonders if he’s acted too hastily in rejecting her.
L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)
We all know by now that the Wonderful Wizard isn’t all that wonderful. He’s established himself as the mighty and powerful ruler of the Emerald City, claiming the power to send Dorothy home, give the Scarecrow a brain, outfit the Tin Man with a heart, and provide the Cowardly Lion some courage. He’s actually a fraud, a poser, exposed when trusty Toto pulls back a curtain and finds the Wizard pushing buttons and pulling levers to produce pyrotechnics, bellow orders, and inspire general fear.
Edith Wharton, The Custom of the Country (1913)
Even now, however, she was not always happy. She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.
Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees (1957)
In the second volume of Calvino’s fantasy trilogy, Cosimo Piovasco di Rondò decides, after an argument at dinner on June 15, to go off and live in the trees. Cosimo travels only from tree to tree and never comes down from the fantasy world he ‘s created to join the real world that presses its tumultuous claims. At the end of the novel, when he’s near death and it seems he must finally succumb to gravity, an air balloon flies over the forest, trailing a rope. He makes one last leap, catches the rope and disappears. This playful story reveals the extent to which narcissists avoid reality, content to live a rarified existence, avoiding real intimacy, refusing to engage in the world except from a lofty perch.