My dear flautie friend told me about a programme on Narcissism which was aired on Radio Four a few days ago and I felt compelled to check it out on iPlayer. However I was disappointed that it completely ignored current psychoanalysis even though the the original use of the Greek myth was first used in psychoanalysis. Freud was mentioned but not in any depth.
The programme’s main question was based around whether narcissism is a force for good or evil and if you have that as a question you are immediately distancing yourself from an engagement into psychoanalysis. Is narcissism going to make you into a person who makes radio documentaries or is it going to create Hitler? Yes! This was the question raised by Philippa Perry, a psychotherapist who featured on the programme. A smattering of Oscar Wilde and other anecdotes, talk about masturbation and the pressure to be a good lover. Radio Four refusing to go any deeper than popular demand, demands.
Why did Freud choose Greek myths to help explain the way the psyche works? He realised that there was something about the way a myth functions that was similar to the unconscious. Myths have a relationship to real life but the important difference is that they use symbols as a working function.
So the myth of Narcissus is that of the hunter from Thespiae who was known for his beauty. He was attracted to a pool where he saw his own reflection and became entranced by it and stared at his reflection until he died.
The problem with trying to decide whether narcissism is a force for good or evil is that in so doing you overlook the really important message of psychoanalysis, that narcissism is structural and integral to a human being.
We construct ourselves as a human subject by imaginary identifications and spend the rest of our lives captivated by imaginary identifications. Either imaginary identifications with our mirror image or identifications with our carers or important others who ‘made an impression on us’ as young people. It can even be mythical characters passed down from generation to generation in the family discourse. My great grandfather “Ernest ‘the rebel’ Carr has undoubtably been trapped into the pool that I stare into, captivated and captured in my imaginary identifications.
What a shame that our contemporary culture is reducing our lives down to a crude ego psychology, offering merely binary options of behaviours so that we can only function as obedient servants of the capitalist machine, left or right politics, winners or losers, good or bad, right or wrong?
In psychoanalysis, when we look into the pool of our imaginary identifications, it’s not with a purpose of going beyond our evil vanity, so that we can find ‘true love’ free of our ego as was suggested by the radio show. Freud realised that you couldn’t be free from your identifications just by turning away from the pool or looking past it. The hold just gets stronger. There is a strange paradox with the human psyche. The more you try to resist something, the stronger the hold that it has over you.
When you start to become interested in your imaginary identifications, not to bolster your ego in some way but because you know that they hold the key to some understanding, then you begin to access a different kind of freedom