The Passion of the Stubbart

There is a reading of the Narcissus cycle out there which is counterintuitive to the one commonly read, which results in the epithet for so many of today’s youth (or yesterday’s, or the day before yesterday’s): “You’re a narcissistic, self-absorbed, selfish jerk!” The common reading reveals a great deal about human nature; this alternative is a reading which reveals a great deal about human interaction.

Narcissus was a particularly nasty fellow, hurting poor Echo to such a degree that she became nothing but a voice repeating what was said to her. This detail, as I recall, is a key component to the interpretation of the Narcissus cycle. Echo’s mom was infuriated, luring him to a reflective pool of water, wherein he saw a reflection of himself. At this point, you’re supposed to “get it.” Ah, Narcissus finally sees himself and realizes that he is lovely. In Echo he heard himself, but was not able to differentiate himself from her, so he hated her, revealing a self-hatred, making her (and himself) nothing. Nemesis gets her revenge, of course, but what revenge? The higher gods have short-circuited Nemesis’ plan: Narcissus is transformed, becoming the loveliest of flowers, with neck bent in utter humility, which is a love for self. Narcissus loves himself, and we love Narcissus.*


Family systems theory, which is starting to wend its way into the vernacular, loves this alternative reading. “Modernity As An Overlearning of Christianity,” a nice piece by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, called this to my mind today, where  he writes,

Very often, one finds that if the parent had listened more carefully to the child, a lot of bad blood might have been avoided–and we also very often find that the parent and teenager, even as they reject and antagonize each other are, from the outside perspective, like mirror images of each other.

Indeed, the closer we are in a familial circle, the more we see ourselves in each other. A mother who hates herself, for example, will probably hate her daughters, and her daughters will waste away into nothingness, with no sense of the self apart from the opinion, be it ever so low, of Mom. Mom may be carrying forward her own mother’s self-hatred, or she may be expressing her husband’s self-hatred. He may gaze upon flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, and seeing himself, a despicable, unlovable human being, tell himself as much to his mirror, i.e., his own wife. In this way, this system is pre-flower narcissistic. No one has lured any of them to the reflecting pool. In this system, participants have specific roles to play, and those roles are generally assigned by the matriarch. Those who differentiate themselves, showing love to the self apart from the will or approval of the matriarch, are summarily destroyed, or failing that, cast out.

This dynamic extends itself (it also works with healthy systems, too, but those aren’t very fun) into larger circles: extended family (duh), neighborhood, school, community, etc., even into government, where government is dominated by family (see Queen Victoria, WWI; confluences).

Pamela J. Stubbart, who is acquainted, by my reckoning, with a handful of the other bloggers here at Sweet Talk Conversation, recently differentiated herself, with an act of self-love, revealing itself in personal integrity, and the reaction was instructive. When she differentiated herself from the system’s mother, the mother gazed upon herself in Pamela, and she hated Pamela, i.e., hated herself. Choosing not to see something beautiful in differentiation, she rushed upon Pamela, with a cadre armed with rhetorical swords and clubs.

The battleground, as you know, was what Pamela wrote about the porn star posing as a libertarian, or whatever. The battle, on the other hand, had little to do with the ground it was being fought upon, much the same as two enemy kings parlaying where they might decide who inherits the throne of Northumbria. They can fight in the field, in the city gates, or in a van down by the river, for that concern; it doesn’t matter. What matters is which one of them emerges differentiated as King. In a social setting, what matters is which one of them emerges with personal integrity. Integrity comes at the price of something in the way of a battle. Does she love herself or hate herself? Will this battle protract itself to no end, or will one emerge as the victor, with integrity?

Nemesis surely blanched to watch Narcissus transform, developing a lovely soft neck, filled with humility and sweetness, a gift to us all.

*So help me, I looked, and I cannot find the reference for where I read this. I’ll be glad to attribute properly if someone knows its whereabouts.

Ivanhoe, Israel, Virtue, and Vanity

It’s been several years since I’ve read clear through Sir Walter Scott’s subversive little ode to Medieval fantasy, Ivanhoe. I seem to recall as I worked my way through the glad-of-met hail-fair-warrior celebration of Armored Manliness that it had much more of a Dungeons and Dragons flavor to it than the libra verite sensation I suspect it engendered. Bold knights were bold, delicate damsels were delicate.

Cunning Jews were cunning.

What I didn’t do was think about how the novel fit in against its natural backdrop of Enlightenment virtues. By the time 1820 rolls around, the civilizing effects of doux commerce have tamed the savage English countryside, and the Glorious Revolution have long since made the British Parliament one of the most powerful organizations in Europe, if not on Earth. By 1820, Bentham had made his mark—prudence was ascendant, and though it’s hard to gauge from here, I’ve a suspicion that readers may have felt a twang of nostalgia for (relatively) ignored courage, or for self-satisfying myths of martial honor. 

I think I read it wrong. I think the characters were meant to be allegorical. And the character of Isaac of York was meant to represent the ascendant bourgeois affection towards commerce. 

There are a couple of ways to go with this interpretation, depending on how generous you want to be towards Scott. The portrayal of Isaac isn’t entirely unsympathetic. He has his moments of courage and honor, just like the Saxon characters have their moments of disrepute and cowardice. But the question of what Scott intended is less interesting to me than what his contemporary audience might have interpreted. Is it plausible that a typical reader might have gotten through the tale and said “hey! I have Saxon blood, and these dudes are pretty cool” while at the same time thinking, “golly, that Isaac sure is a calculating mercenary, what with hiring help to get his daughter back instead of strapping on a sword and doing it himself—what a coward.”

Tropes feed prejudices feed tropes. More viciously (or virtuously if we’re lucky enough, I guess) if the trope ends up embedded in a popular work. And Ivanhoe was (and is) popular, make no mistake. I’m comfortable claiming without citation that Soctt’s work probably bears the lion’s share of credit for propagating the myth of the noble knight and for the dreary longevity of the weird, sanitized version of the chivalric code that still plagues ordinary folks’ misunderstanding of Medieval society even unto this very day. Dragged along with that, digging its heels in the mud is the transplanted, fish-out-of-water, Merchant-of-Venice (and yes, the trope, like so many others, is hardly original to The Bard) depiction of the Craven Jew. Even though it was probably just for literary purposes, consider the possibility that real flesh-and-blood Jews suffered for it.

Tragically, this was at a time when the historically Jewish virtues of thrift, euvoluntary exchange, merchant honor, and prudence were now becoming commonplace. It’s understandable (if still unforgivable) that pre-Enlightenment folks could have heaped scorn upon the virtues displayed by career merchants (read: Jews), but for folks that have already begun to adopt those very virtues? That’s savage tragedy right there, people. Life exceeds art.

And we’re still paying the price. It has come to my attention recently that here and now, in 20-frigging-14 there are still people out there citing shit from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and making blood libel claims and spewing other bewilderingly benighted anti-Semitic rubbish. Surely Scott isn’t all to blame for this, not by a long shot, but this is strong—nay—very strong evidence in support of the claim that rhetoric matters… a whole lot.