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.