Before my afternoon job at FIT the other day, I was having lunch in a small organic health food eatery on Seventh Avenue. I sat quietly, dividing my attention between a mesclun salad and the New York Times crossword puzzle. Two young women were sitting nearby and I couldn’t help but overhear their conversation. One of the women was telling the other that she was planning to break up with her boyfriend. When the friend asked why, the woman replied, “Because I can’t take it anymore. He’s such a narcissist!”. A knowing smirk formed on my face. A narcissistic man in New York City?? Impossible! That’s kooky talk!! 😆
Ah, but I tease my hometown and our psychologically defective residents. The truth is that narcissists are everywhere, flooding our popular culture and inflicting their pernicious disorder on all the rest of us. Paris Hilton, for example, refuses to go away. Ubiquitous reality TV “personalities” expect fame and adulation with no discernible talent or contribution. And now, like the straw that might break the camel’s back, we have the ever-conceited Yankee third baseman Alex Rodriguez appearing in a magazine photo spread kissing his own reflection. Is he purposely trying to make us all vomit, or is our collective nausea just an unintended side effect? Yuck.
Have these fools learned nothing from the original narcissist? He was, after all, their symbolic and etymological namesake; the one and only Narcissus of Greek and Roman mythology. You all know the story. Son of the river god Cephisus, Narcissus was a beautiful and vain young man. While wandering in the woods, he was spotted by the lovely nymph Echo. She followed him adoringly. But Narcissus spurned her love and affection, in a cold and heartless fashion no less. He did the same with all others who fell in love with him because, in his eyes, none of them were worthy. His inflated self-image pushed away all suitors, both male and female. The sweet, innocent Echo was heartbroken, and endured great sorrow over Narcissus’ callous and arrogant rejection.
Narcissus then saw his reflection in a pool of water and, like a true narcissist, fell in love with himself. The Greek version of the myth has Narcissus bending down to kiss his reflected image, falling in the pool and drowning. The Roman version tells us that he kissed his reflection and saw how it disturbed the perfection of the still image. So rather than disturb his gorgeous reflection again, he just stared . . . and stared and stared, until he died of thirst . . . and wasted away. . . never having received love, unable to open his heart to another, unable to break free of his pathological self-obsession.
The story of Narcissus and his tragic fate has been a popular theme for art, literature, and poetry over the ages. One of the most well-known visual depictions was given to us by John William Waterhouse. From 1903, this is Echo and Narcissus:
Here is Caravaggio’s self-admiring Narcissus boy, entranced by his own reflection. I think A-Rod has him beat:
Nicholas Poussin’s Echo and Narcissus from 1628, portrays Narcissus at the end of his rope, after he has expended all his emotional energy pining over himself. With Echo looking on, he dies empty and unfulfilled, left with nothing but his ego and his depleted body on the riverbank:
Although I’ve known many in my life, and been forced to cope with much pain and aggravation due to their destructive ways, I’ve realized that all you can do for a narcissist is pity them. Not because they’re flawed (we all are), and not because they have inflated egos (just “fancy” arrogance), but because they’re incapable of giving. And giving is one of the greatest, most satisfying joys in life, whether it be friendship, devotion, or romantic love – generosity of one’s spirit, sharing and exposing of one’s soul. Without giving, receiving feels corrupt and opportunistic, and pointless. Yes, I pity the narcissists. They have no idea what they’re missing . . . 🙂