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Narcissism for All

Forty-five years ago, Christopher Lasch identified what has become a defining feature of modern activism—“the ever-present, neurotic need to be recognized and affirmed.”

· 9 min read
Narcissus looking at his reflection in the water from “Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse, oil on canvas 1903.
Narcissus looking at his reflection in the water in a painting entitled “Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), oil on canvas 1903. Detail from a larger work. Alamy

On my last visit to the National Gallery in London in October 2022, during Frieze Week, the wall beneath Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers still displayed noticeable palm-sized daubs of unmatched gray paint. The day before, Just Stop Oil protestors Phoebe Plummer, and Anna Holland had glued themselves to that wall, after dousing the painting with Heinz tomato soup. Their timing (Frieze Week) and venue for this instance of performative activism was not incidental. It pitted the purported excess of attention given to art—here represented by Van Gogh’s masterpiece—against the scarcity of “food” and “justice” for those affected by rampant inflation. In this zero-sum scenario, a choice had to be made between culture and human beings: “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting, or the protection of our planet and people?” demanded Plummer, as she knelt beneath the soup-stained still life, one palm already affixed to the wall behind her. The efficacy of this attack, news of which quickly spread across both legacy and social media, derived from the cult status of Sunflowers: its cultural cachet, its recognizability and ubiquity. Yet Plummer and Holland saw it only as a prop for acting out their scripted and rehearsed demonstration.

To the casual observer, this stagy use of an artwork as a backdrop for an ideological statement might have little in common with another, much subtler case when a different National Gallery painting served as a prop. This time there was no super glue, tomato soup, or declarative recitations, and no need to involve security. No paintings were harmed in the making of a short film posted in early February to the National Gallery Instagram feed. Narrated by the lovely and mild-mannered University College, Oxford DPhil. candidate Holly James Johnston (currently working on a thesis titled “Why Am I as I Am—and What Am I?”) the video references Claude Gellée’s 1644 painting Landscape with Narcissus and Echo. This presentation was a part of a “Picture of the Month” series, in this case chosen for the occasion of #LGBTplusHM (history month). Johnston, who has previously been described as a “non-binary activist,” now goes under “writer, presenter and performer.” In early 2017, Johnston debuted an act as a drag king “Orlando” on the Royal Vauxhall Tavern stage, undertaken as the performer’s “first and foremost a coming-of-age project.” “Queer coming-of-age stories” are also the subject of Johnston’s doctoral research, making for a neatly uniform, if solipsistic theme. 

Visually, the five-and-a-half-minute video is tasteful and restrained. Everything—including the slide backgrounds and the narrator’s outfit featuring a cotton jacquard crewneck vest with narcissus design by Chateau Orlando “made responsibly in the Veneto region of Italy”—is color-coordinated with the room’s blue-gray walls and the ochre of the gilded picture frame. The video opens with Johnston’s generally accurate but prosaic retelling of Ovid’s tale, on which Gellée’s painting is based. It corresponds to The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts 1300–1990s (Oxford UP, 1993), which summarizes the story as follows: 

Narcissus. The beautiful son of the river-god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope, Narcissus fell in love with his own image reflected in water. Drawn to this likeness but unable to touch it, he pined away and was transformed into the flower that bears his name. According to Ovid, this metamorphosis occurred as punishment for his spurning of the nymph Echo, who had been deprived of normal speech by Hera and could only repeat what others said. When Echo tried to seduce Narcissus by imitating his speech, he rejected her. Overcome by grief, she wasted away until nothing was left but her voice.

Accessorized with a mirror, and an actual daffodil (narcissus) flower, Johnston addresses the subject matter (what the painting is about), without wading into the painting’s content (how is this subject matter expressed), or its formal characteristics. Nor is there any mention of Gellée’s sublime approach to classical pastorals, his penchant for the idyllic, or his persistent avoidance of representing tragic, dramatic, or erotic scenes. Despite the live flower brandished throughout the video, there is nothing about the role of nature, which the art historian Claire Pace, in her discussion of the landscape, described as “the idea of integration and interdependence with the natural world, an idea at the heart of the pastoral dream.” In contrast to the pithy yet complex analysis of the subject offered in a 1949 article by another art historian, Dora Panofsky—who argued that in Ovid’s story of Narcissus “self-love and self-negation are locked into one diagram of mutual extinction”—Johnston proffers a facile explanation for Narcissus’s demise, suggesting that he perished because his sexuality was not affirmed:

The Narcissus myth is a story about desire, or more specifically, the “wrong” kind of desire. In the myth, Narcissus thinks he is desiring another man, he initially does not realize that it is his own reflection that he desires. Either way, he has a desire that he cannot fulfill. There is an impossibility to his desire which speaks to queer experience, particularly in the past, when queer identities were not publicly sanctioned. 

There is nothing in Ovid’s text indicating that Narcissus’s carnal desires are outside societal approbation. To the contrary, one gets a sense of equivalence in his mention of “many youths, and many young girls [who] desired him,” (Ovid, III: 339–358) and in his scorning both the “nymphs of the rivers and mountains and the companies of young men.” (Ovid, III: 402–436) This makes sense, because in Ancient Greece, where the myth originated, paiderastia (relationships between older men and adolescent boys) was the most common and socially significant among the many types of same-sex relations. In this context, Johnston’s off-the-cuff claim that “in the past queer identities were not publicly sanctioned” is absurd, although it may seem plausible because a lack of acceptance is a feature of recent queer experience. Such culturally relativistic projection is the result of what Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan described as the “fragmentizing” nature of mass media, which makes all civilizations contemporary with our own.

Narcissism and Fraudulence
Intensive con artistry may be a narcissistic strategy for the avoidance of self-knowledge.

Johnston, who is slated to lead “A Queer History of Art” course at the V&A museum this Spring, justified this anachronistic take on Narcissus by observing “that each generation has remade the myth in their own image.” While acknowledging that “the Narcissus myth is commonly interpreted as a cautionary tale against the perils of vanity and self-obsession,” Johnston succumbs to a comparable self-obsession by identifying with the myth. Like Narcissus lamenting the pain of unrequited love: “he gazes at that false image with unsated eyes, and loses himself in his own vision” (Ovid, III: 437–473), Johnston displays an inability to see beyond the self. Historian Christopher Lasch described this exact scenario in his 1984 book The Minimal Self:

As the Greek legend reminds us, it is this confusion of the self and the not self … that distinguishes the plight of Narcissus. The minimal or narcissistic self is, above all, a self uncertain of its own outlines, longing either to remake the world in its own image, or to merge into its environment in blissful union. The current concern with “identity” registers some of this difficulty in defining the boundaries of selfhood.

Ironically, one could easily argue that Narcissus was indeed queer, but not because he desired another man. Ovid’s text suggests that Narcissus was asexual, the “A” in LGBTQIA+. In a recent article titled “Asexuality is the Queerest Thing,” published on the Stonewall website, Alice Olivia Scarlett argues that asexuality is “the queerest thing” today because “love without sex is a difficult concept for society to grasp.” Despite his popularity with “many youths, and many young girls [who] desired him,” Narcissus’s reluctance to erotically engage with either sex is spelled out by Ovid: “there was such intense pride in that delicate form that none of the youths or young girls affected him.” (Ovid, III: 339–358) When Echo attempts a hug, “he runs from her, and running cries ‘Away with these encircling hands! May I die before what’s mine is yours.’” (Ovid, III: 359–401) His repulsion is eerily similar to Scarlett’s description of her disgust at the older lover’s sexual advances. Her traumatic experience of abuse at his hands also brings to mind the story of Narcissus’s mother, the naiad Liriope whom the river-god Cephisus “clasped in his winding streams, and took by force under the waves.” (Ovid, III: 339–358) No wonder that Narcissus, a child of rape, would shun unwelcome sexual advances from the nymphs and the youths who stalked him. The narcissism of Narcissus was a form of avoidance.

Sigmund Freud’s 1914 paper “On Narcissism” emphasized that very point. Freud’s concept of narcissism described self-love as a withdrawal of libidinal interest from the outside world. Freud was not the first psychiatrist to describe narcissism, but he was the first to relate his definition to wider society. This connection was later developed in an earlier bestseller by Christopher Lasch. Published in 1979, The Culture of Narcissism went through multiple editions, and was reprinted most recently in 2018. Over four decades since its initial release, Lasch’s book now seems prophetic. The titles of its chapters and sub-chapters read like a bullet list of the current narcissistic zeitgeist: “the awareness movement and the social invasion of the self”; “the narcissistic personality of our time”; “the banality of pseudo-self-awareness: theatrics of politics and everyday existence”; “ironic detachment as an escape from routine”; “schooling and the new illiteracy”; “the atrophy of competence”; and “paternalism without the father,” are a few of the topics he tackled. 

Lasch’s exposition of the “denial of the past, superficially progressive and optimistic” but proving “on closer analysis to embody the despair of a society that cannot face the future” anticipates 21st century revisionist movements that range from dumbing down the curricula to rebranding commercial products deemed insufficiently sensitive:

In a narcissistic society—a society that gives increasing prominence and encouragement to narcissistic traits—the cultural devaluation of the past reflects not only the poverty of the prevailing ideologies, which have lost their grip on reality and abandoned the attempt to master it, but the poverty of the narcissist’s inner life. 

The cornerstone of this narcissistic modality, according to Lasch, is the ever-present, neurotic need to be recognized and affirmed. Not necessarily grandiose, the contemporary narcissist often “submerges their identity to a larger cause,” such as the identity politics of recent years. Academic practice suffers too, because the new narcissist is unable “to take an interest in anything beyond immediate experience,” so that “relevance” overrides the canon of knowledge, resulting in the proliferation of “[fill-in-the-blank] studies” and, as I’ve called it elsewhere, hashtag art history

On the personal level, Lasch noticed how the religious aspirations of the past (salvation, restoration of a golden age), gave way to prioritizing “momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.” The “therapeutic sensibility” supplants the formerly dominant puritanical one, and yet the new narcissist is no happier, doubting “even the reality of his own existence.” Nor is there any relief on the libidinal front: despite the newly permissive attitudes and the emancipation from ancient taboos, there is no sexual peace. That is replaced by the “escalating cycle of self-consciousness—a sense of the self as a performer under constant scrutiny of friends and strangers,” which drives the new narcissist to “perform himself” in a bid to capture, cajole, win over and seduce “relevant audiences.”

Such role-playing leads to a special circle of personal hell because “in order to polish and perfect the part he has devised for himself, the new Narcissus gazes at his own reflection, not so much in admiration as in unremitting search of flaws, signs of fatigue, decay. Life becomes a work of art…” Incidentally, a variation on this life-as-art phenomenon was practiced by the Russian fin-de-siècle symbolists (they called it zhizhtvorchestvo), with some disastrous real-life results. 

In 1970s America, Lasch tells us, such performativity did not take either—“the ironic detachment as an escape from routine” failed as a strategy because these “self-created roles become as constraining as the social roles from which they are meant to provide ironic detachment.” In an attempt to construct “the illusion of intense experience without emotion,” people reach for drugs, or else their “flight from feeling” may be manifested as “sexual separatism,” as in Ovid’s retelling of the Narcissus myth. The ultimate escape, the “ultimate numbness” is a suicide, and this is how the Narcissus story ends, as we see from his final monologue: “Now sadness takes away my strength, not much time is left for me to live, and I am cut off in the prime of youth. Nor is dying painful to me, laying down my sadness in death. I wish that him I love might live on, but now we shall die united, two in one spirit.” (Ovid, III: 437–473)

The afterword that Lasch wrote for the 1990 edition describes the crux of cultural narcissism as “the longing to be free from longing,” a “backward quest for that absolute peace upheld as the highest state of spiritual perfection” unattainable in a “society of the spectacle” where “people respond to others as if their actions were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time.” In the brave new world of the society of the spectacle, there is no peace for those who perform themselves nor for their alter egos. The limelight is mandatory, whether as a goal or a byproduct, as is articulated by the interviewer who spoke with Holly James Johnston for a profile in Felix magazine: 

Q: Are you narcissistic? Are you an attention seeker or can viewers not help but stare? 
A: Hmmm!

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