The Concept of Narcissism - a Controversy
A response to "Breaking the Mirror: from the Aztec Spring Festival to Organ Transplantation" by Inga Clendinnen, presented at the 6th Conference of the Brisbane Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies, 10-12 August 2001: Psychoanalysis, Narcissism and the Body

by María-Inés Rotmiler de Zentner

Ovid tells us that Narcissus was born from the embrace of the dark river Cephisus and Liriope, the most fair river nymph. When Liriope asked Tiresias whether her child would live to a ripe old age, he replied, Yes, if he does not come to know himself. Tiresias, who was blind but capable of predicting prophecies, and thus a seer, didn't say when Narcissus would see himself, although this is what we come to understand. Ovid has him say, Yes, if he does not come to know himself, if he shall himself not know. There is an interesting rhetorical twist here, since we are introduced to the possibility of death if Narcissus comes into contact with the lethal knowledge that love opens up if it becomes carnal, a knowledge born out of misunderstanding. This is the same Tiresias who knew both sides of love as he was transformed from man to woman and spent seven summers thus before being transformed to man again.

Presumably answering Ovid, Oscar Wilde tells us the story of Narcissus from the perspective of the pool in his poem in prose, The Disciple. The pool, itself explaining the motive for its grief says, But I loved Narcissus because as he lay on my banks and looked down at me in the mirror of his eyes I saw ever my own beauty mirrored.

Thus we have not only two poetical accounts but also the passage from the love of the subject to the object image of himself, to the love of the object for the subject. These two positions are more than poetical artifices. They mark how, with the passing of the centuries, a same human passion changes its active accent. We are no longer confronted with the subject actively loving his self-image but his self-image - the other - loving him, which of course is the core of what constitutes a structural identification based on love and ignorance at once.

Finally Ovid himself tells us of the fate of Narcissus in the scene by the lake where he finds knowledge in the mirror of his image;

................................... he saw before his eyes
A form, a face, and loved with leaping heart
A hope unreal and thought the shape was real.
Spellbound he saw himself, and motionless
Lay like a marble statue staring down.
All he admires that all admire in him
Himself he longs for, longs unwittingly
Praising is praised, desiring is desired
And love he kindles while with love he burns.
Not knowing what he sees, he adores the sight;
That false face fools and fuels his delight.
You simple boy, why strive in vain to catch
A fleeting image? What you see is nowhere;
And what you love - but turn away - you lose!
You see a phantom of a mirrored shape;
Nothing itself; with you it came and stays;
With you it too will go, if you can go!
My joy! I see it; but the joy I see
I cannot find (so fondly love is foiled!)
Oh, I am he! Oh, now I know for sure
The image is my own; it's for myself
I burn with love; I fan the flames I feel.
What now? Woo or be wooed? Why woo at all?
My love's myself - my riches beggar me.
Would I might leave my body! I could wish
(Strange lover's wish) my love were not so near!
Now sorrow saps my strength; of my life's span
Not long is left; I die before my prime.
Nor is death sad for death will end my sorrow;
Would he I love might live a long tomorrow!
But now we two - one soul - one death will die.

By the end of the poem Narcissus, in grief and haunted by the image that hung heavily in the pool beneath him, succumbs to it and surrenders to death. The loss suffered and the avoided mourning have a price - no life to spare. Having rejected the amorous pursuit of the nymph Echo, unable to de-suppose a knowledge to his image, and whilst still in transference with his own image, he cannot free himself from the love of himself.

Nothing is born out of nothing, including our approach to knowledge, including our own insertion into what in a given moment is our commitment to our work. Similarly, the demarcation of a particular field and the very limits of that field are the basic requirements for a possible work that eventually allow it to be transmitted. Moreover, because psychoanalysis is not an exception and because the analyst is intrinsically part of a structure defined as the unconscious, it also involves the demarcation of such a field. Therefore to speak in the field of psychoanalysis requires among other things the setting of a limit. Psychoanalysis is not able to answer all questions and so differentiates itself both from a Weltanschauung and from hermeneutics since the efficacy of the tool of interpretation, imaginary and symbolic is possible only within the constraint imposed by the real.

Psychoanalysis does not deal with all, nor does it attempt to fill all with meaning, and this concerns our topic in this conference, but it embraces a lot more, too. Mallarmé's words come to my aid here when he says, The flesh is sad and I have read all the books. It is not a precaution against dread and alarm, but an attempt at defining a more accurate application of concepts. There is a limit to psychoanalysis, just as there is a limit to the body. The body is the consistency, it is that which unites, it is also that image without which we are not; but for the same reasons it is that which can, as well, break and fragment, as evidenced in hysteria, in psychosomatic illness, and in psychosis.

Before the close of this conference and in response to the work of Mrs Clendinnen, I invite you to pursue further the notion of narcissism as the love felt for one's own image, love which leads us to the formative moment when the I of the subject recognises itself in the image of an other. This is a place where the I of the subject is identified by the care of the other and also by the reflection that this other offers to his gaze, giving ground to the primordial constitution of an I. Narcissism therefore is neither more nor less than the amorous capture of the subject by this image, a recognition from without, we could say. The I is constituted as an image, an I that is constructed, as it were, on the image of an other, an image that will by its mere reflection shape, form and mould the corporeity of that I found at the heart of the grammatical pronoun. In this way, Lacan's mirror stage, inspired in Henry Wallon's concept, moves beyond a phenomenological development of the I to situate the structural grounding for a formative operation, which takes us to the paradox that I is the other, from where all notion of gregariousness with its roots of hate and love are born. Essentially, this is the very reason for which knowledge, in its constitution, born out of projection and identification, is paranoid in its structure.

In ancient Greece, playwrights from the times of Aristophanes, but possibly even before, and Roman comedies also, dramatically exploited this notion to the full by showing that the I is the other, begging the question at the end about who can rest assured of speaking in his own name, a reason why a comedy carries within itself a dimension of tragedy. And so the aphorism states, Au theatre chacun se fait passer pour un autre ... (In theatre everyone acts as an other). It is said that Gerard de Nerval, having come across a portrait of himself, a lithograph in a biography that had recently been published, inscribed in the frontispiece the following phrase, Je suis l'autre (I am the other), which can be heard as a word of warning to the reader, something like: beware of doing to me that which I have so far avoided, that is, mistaking me for myself.

The narcissistic relation is anchored in a reflection - a specular image, and an identification with the other. There is ambiguity, the subject is at once he, and other [Jacques Lacan]. Pursuing this ambiguity further, let us take note of the following remark written by Hart in 1947, which combines references by Freud, Pfeiffer and Greenacre, When in psycho-analytic literature such varied phenomena, as a state of sleep, a baby sucking its thumb, a girl primping before a mirror, and a scientist exulting over the Nobel Prize are all referred to as narcissistic, a more precise definition of the term seems indicated. They may be traced to the same root but they are manifestly different things ... Narcissism is reported as inherent in the most sublime of sublimations and in the most psychotic of states. In some instances it is held responsible for the heightening of male potency, but in other cases blamed for its diminution. It can be found at work both in feminine frigidity and feminine attractiveness. It is supposed to neutralise any destructive tendencies, yet become a source of anxiety to the I. It is a defence against homosexuality, yet homosexuals are particularly narcissistic. Sleep is a narcissistic withdrawal of libido, yet sleeplessness is the flight of enhanced narcissism from further augmentation. It is used to explain the drag of inertia and the drive of ambition. This paragraph is to say the least controversial, since it demonstrates with overwhelming evidence the absolute contradiction in the situations evoked, whilst simultaneously incorporating in these opposite terms a certain idea of completeness. This is exactly what I referred to before with respect to the limits of a field in which, when limits are ill-defined or ambiguous, concepts become mere terms.

Consider the wealth of such examples provided by Shakespeare, demonstrating once more that literature has always been at the forefront of psychoanalysis. In Much ado about Nothing we hear Hero speak of Beatrice to her gentlewoman Ursula ... she cannot love, Nor take no shape nor project of affection, She is so self-endeared, and then in Twelfth Night, or, What You Will, Olivia says reproachfull, O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and finally in King Henry the Fifth, where the Dauphin says to his father, the King Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin as self-neglecting. No hesitant overtones, just forthright statements - it's either the triumph of the I, or its downfall, but most certainly the portrayal of the I as the pseudo master of a dialectic with an easy penchant to fall on one side or the other.

But, as Diderot used to say, What does this prove? Libido of the I and object libido ... the more of the one the less of the other - the more investments one attracts the more depleted the other becomes. Object libido achieves its maximum expression in the phenomenon we call love and its antithesis, in paranoia, the phantasy of the end of the world. Following on from this, we might add that one loves with the object that one's narcissism lacks. If narcissism were complete there would be no love. Narcissistic love in extremis, the love of a certain image of completeness, with its delusional component, predictably incurs no other burden than death.

Now from this it follows further - and this is perhaps one of the most compelling and revealing readings of Freud that Lacan affords us - that the phenomenon of transference, the situation in which someone addresses an analyst, above all else always implies, even if ambivalent, that he who loves an other attributes him knowledge, and here narcissism is not an exception. That is exactly what Ovid says through Tiresias; if Narcissus comes to know himself, he will certainly fall, he will perish. Thus life, knowledge, love and death are perpetual and inseparably intertwined companions of human existence.

As a matter of fact, because of language, only man ritualises death, and paradoxically, while he has a relation to the knowledge of death in his conscious, for his unconscious death represents castration, and not vice-versa, as Freud relentlessly insisted. The relation of the subject to this abode of language, the dues he owes his host, amongst others, is the fact that as a subject, he can only be represented in his fading, that is, by a signifier for another signifier which is how castration, belonging to the realm of the symbolic, is conceptualised.

But let us move on to the notion of sacrifice in the Aztec civilization, pivotal to the text of Mrs Clendinnen, so long as we remember that breaking the silence of the dead ought to be embraced by us only insofar as we judge someone's work by the standard of its own criteria. Great injustice would be committed if the reality of a certain people were examined in a light different or external to the fundamental principles that structure them as a society. If the conscious is a mystery, even larger than the unconscious, as James Joyce well says, how can one ever attempt to understand something the way someone else understood it? Isn't understanding a rational, conscious operation? At most an interpretation, even if faint, may be attempted, but is it possible to wear someone else's shoes, be they Aztec, Maya, Roman or Greek? Strachey tells us that Freud's work on the conscious was lost, we only read he planned to write it.

The unconscious, Unbewusste in German, means that it is not necessary for the I of the subject to know in order to enjoy - jouir - a knowledge. To exemplify this we only have to recall erotic dreams, night emissions, and the like, whose meaning the subject often ignores. The designation of the conscious instead, that the German language writes Bewusste, is related with Wiesen, to the possession of a knowledge, and therefore it means to know that one enjoys - jouir. In other words the conscious, like the light, has a clear dominion of what falls under within its domain but not of what lies in darkness.

Mrs Clendinnen considered Joyce's reference to the mystery of the conscious, and under that light, but looked at from another angle, is the fact that Lacan dedicated his seminar Le sinthome to him, and worked there the hypothesis - via the securing of the fourth knot to the symbolic, the imaginary and the real - that writing was what made an analysis superfluous for Joyce, adding that his writing achieved for him what Lacan considered a cure in an analysis to be, that is, to make do with one's sinthome. This word is written in the old French spelling of symptom in order to give it its particularity which, at the same time, permitted him in many moments in the course of the seminar to play, à la Joyce, with the word sin and thome - a reference to the notion of sin, and the name of St Thomas Aquinas. However, even in his play on homophonies, there was clearly in Lacan an attempt to balance rhetoric with logic.

In effect, and in accordance with this remark, from the times of Freud to our days, even if continuing and maximising the Freudian discovery, we at the same time move further away from certain of his premises. As an example, if in the times of Freud the cure entailed making conscious the unconscious, and many years later, making of the Id - It - a civilising place in which the subject had to become, today instead, the formulation for us is to make do with the symptom, savoir y faire avec le sinthome, which is the only cure a subject can aspire for. Our perspective is a lot more humble than in the initial heroic times of psychoanalysis - it is humble not because we are humble but because we are aware of our own crippling limitations.

Reflecting further on the notion of sacrifice, we quote Freud who said ... by the killing and consuming, the clansmen renewed and assured their likeness to the god, it was the absorption of the substance of their fellow man. Who did the sacrifices appease? The gods? The tribespeople themselves? Who demanded this from their hands? The painful docility in face of religious obligation that Mrs Clendinnen cites in her work is a phenomenon that still prevails today. The ceremonials of human sacrifice, performed in the most different parts of the inhabited globe, leave very little doubt that the victims met their end as representatives of the deity; and these sacrificial rites can be traced into later times, with an inanimate effigy or puppet taking the place of the living human being [Sigmund Freud].

Furthermore, making use of Robertson Smith's descriptions of the totem meal, we come upon Freud one last time for some light. It is 1912, in Totem and Taboo, where he summons the sacramental significance of the sacrifice, for instance the human sacrifices of the Aztecs. Freud agrees with his conjectures that the sacramental killing and communal eating of the totem animal, whose consumption was forbidden on all other occasions, was an important feature of totemic religion. Except that what Freud does here is to move one step further to describe how transgression gives balance to the law - a festival is permitted, or rather an obligatory excess, a solemn breach of a prohibition [Freud], both in spoken and unspoken laws. It is not that men commit the excess because they are feeling happy as a result of some injunction they have received. It is rather that excess is the essence of a festival - the festive feeling is produced by the liberty to do what is, as a rule, prohibited [Freud]. It is a festive occasion, despite the fact that it is killed, it is mourned. Be that as it may, the fact is that nowadays there has been a shift from a ritual sacrifice to a moral sacrifice [Jean Allouch] where the symbolic killing is reenacted day after day, through all manner of ceremonials. In this way sacrifice is always what a society pays as its due to its debt to nature, in its passage from nature to culture. The law is in this way, always and unavoidably, repressed desire.