Narcissus. Article by Murray Stein

Narcissus (1)

History and its interpreters

Interpreters of the myth of Narcissus, its additions and lessons are many and varied. This mythologeme has been subjected to analysis and various types of preaching hermeneutics from Neoplatonic philosophers to Christian theologians, literary critics and psychologists . (2) History continues to fascinate us and excite our imagination, despite the fact that it eludes the final interpretation. The elusiveness of understanding, which is one of its strengths, characterizes the myth, and it is this quality that pushes us to deeper psychological reflections. Turning to the mythologeme of Narcissus, I will consider several interpretations from the point of view of depth psychology.

The story of the young Narcissus has come down to us from antiquity in several variations, the classic story appears in Ovid's Metamorphoses. In all versions, the main theme of this story is love and unsatisfied passion. She belongs to a group of myths and fairy tales that tell about the complexities of erotic love.

Narcissus is a handsome young man who falls in love with his reflection in a pond. He becomes frustrated at not being able to connect with the object of his love, so he slowly withers and dies, leaving behind a narcissus flower. This is a story in the most general terms: about passionate love, disappointment and death.

The element that separates this story from other love stories is the nature of Narcissus' love object: his own reflected image. It is this feature of the love story of Narcissus that has aroused such interest among its readers and interpreters.

The unfortunate end of Narcissus led many to regard this myth as a warning. The narcissistic complication among the many vicissitudes in the world of Eros is dangerous and destructive; it is a pathology and should be avoided. However, the main problem is to determine what exactly to worry about. Is this story a warning against looking into still waters? James Fraser has argued that the story reflects the primitive belief that water spirits hide in ponds and streams and are able to steal the soul (i.e., the reflected image of the self) if it comes within their reach . (3) Or does history speak of the dangers of vanity, as early Christian commentators believed? (4) Here the interpretations moralize against excessive looking in the mirror, against preening and admiring the carnal. Or should we take it as a warning against disturbing other impulses of love that offend Eros himself? This was the interpretation of the ancient Thespians of Boeotia (5) , and it is actualized in psychoanalytic discussions of pathological narcissism. Or, finally, should we follow the Neoplatonists, taking this story for a parable about the descent of the soul into matter?

Each of these points of view requires psychological research, and each of them provides different insights, which, however, are united around this fascinating mythology and refer to its complex symbolic meaning. In this essay, I will try to do justice to each of these interpretative approaches, without necessarily favoring one of them.

Narcissus and death

Fraser finds the roots of the myth of Narcissus in the primitive belief, “according to which one should not look at one’s reflection in water, lest the water spirits drag this reflection, which is the soul, under the water and leave the person soulless. ” (6) According to Fraser, the original version told of a young man who looked at his reflection in a pond with such admiration that he forgot about the danger and gave his soul to a lurking water spirit, after which he died. This version of history is not found in ancient literature and is purely speculative. Fraser essentially re-mythologised the story. However, instead of criticizing him for this, I will try to "consider from a psychological point of view" his interpretation . (7)

According to Ovid, Narcissus' parents were Liriope, "naiad of the river", and the river god Cephis. W. H. Roscher, a German compiler of classical mythology in the nineteenth century, considered this Narcissus genealogy to be a mythological way of saying that the narcissus flower originates and appears in the vicinity of rivers and springs . (8) He explains that it is unlikely that anyone will be able to determine whether a flower was named after a young man or a young man after a flower. In any case, both of them are closely associated with water, and Fraser's deadly water spirit is associated with the youth's mother. Thus, Narcissus becomes another example (along with Adonis, Tammuz and other mythological characters) of a young man (puer aeternus) who loses his life, entangled in the mother complex.

Antique depictions of Narcissus show a soft, lazy youth leaning sleepily over a pond. Its name, like “drug,” comes from the Greek narke, “stupor.” Accordingly, there are various associations, both ancient and modern, with the narcissus flower: it is “beautiful and useless”, it “withers after a short life”, it is “sterile”, it has a “soporific aroma” and it is poisonous . (9) These emotional reactions to the flower also speak of a collective reaction to the youth of Narcissus and to the state of consciousness that he embodies: useless, barren, poisonous. His lack of masculine virtue and his characterization as a carefree puer aeternus are further emphasized by the similarities between this "weary youth" and such figures as Dionysus, Hyacinth, Adonis, and "the spirit of rest or death."(10)

The story of Narcissus does not include a heroic journey into the world, leaving home, facing life face to face, overcoming the dragon mother. He begins and ends his life with the movement of water down into the shadow of death and the underworld. Ovid says that Narcissus sees his imago and umbra in the pond. Vinge notes that “the words for shadow and reflection (umbra and imago) have long remained interchangeable and also refer to the 'shadows' of the dead.” She further notes that Schickel put it this way: "skia" or "umbra", a sad word for the existence of Eurydice in Hades, is also used to describe the reflected image of Narcissus" (11), as if Narcissus, contemplating his reflection, contemplates his own death and the afterlife The story of Ovid does not end with the death of Narcissus on the bank of a pond, but continues as a journey into the underworld, where, crossing the river Styx, the young man continues to look longingly at his reflection in the water.(12 )

The daffodil flower is also associated with death and the underworld. According to some sources, Persephone was gathering daffodils when the earth opened up and Hades rose up to kidnap her. Narcissus flowers were often planted on graves and used to honor the dead. In Eleusis, where the mystery of death and rebirth was celebrated, this flower was symbolically used in ceremonies . (13) Opening to death and the underworld, Narcissus represents the image of the secret and unconscious eroticism of death, he invites death, courts her, flirts with her and longs for her embrace - longs to connect with his umbra (Shadow).

Thomas Mann's novel "Death in Venice" is permeated with narcissistic scents. The fatal passion for the youthful image of all-consuming beauty, the dissolution in Aschenbach (whose name means “ash stream”) of ego structure and habits, the undercurrent of Dionysian temptations, the sickeningly sweet smells of decadence and decay are all themes of the Narcissus mythologeme. In both, we feel a passionate desire to experience the mystery of death and the desire to descend back into the primordial waters of the unconscious.

The loss of a soul in these bottomless depths is tragic from the point of view of the living who remain to mourn:

In the terrestrial world, the naiad sisters

They mourned him, and the dryads mourned,

and Echo wept with them,

prepared the funeral heap, stretchers and torches . (14)

From the point of view of the soul, the descent brings liberation from attachment to the ego, to the ecstasy of its dissolution in the arms of death.

Narcissus and Vanitas

In early Christian literature, Narcissus became a symbol of vanity and its dangers. Clement of Alexandria outlined the understanding of mythologeme in his Pedagogue. Ignoring the male gender of Narcissus, he denounces vanity, especially in women, and uses the figure of Narcissus to illustrate the unfortunate end that comes with cultivating physical beauty. As Vinge writes, the Christian Church Fathers strictly adhered to the notion that "only spiritual beauty is true and worthy of love . " (15) The narcissist here represents a value system that prioritizes appearance, superficial, bodily beauty, and cosmetics. This system lacks depth, morality, spiritual fortitude, and manly “character.”

Clement's comments on Narcissus may lead us into deeper psychological territory, which may be implied by this use of him as an antidote to female vanity. He writes: “Even the beautiful Narcissus, as Greek history tells us, did not find happiness in watching his own image.” (16) This designation of Narcissus as "observer of his own image" opens up a question of a different kind than the mere vanity described above. One would expect that it would be about egocentrism, focusing on one's exclusive reality, egoism, and it is noteworthy that the Church Fathers did not follow this line of argument in connection with Narcissus. However, as Vinge points out, Narcissus was never used in antiquity "as an illustration of conscious self-love." (17) Although his story can be understood as a psychotheme illustrating the revaluation of materiality and appearance, this further step in the development of it as a symbol of self-love is blocked by the presence in all texts of the “illusion motif”: Narcissus does not know that he is in love with his own image .

The story of Narcissus is a true love story, it claims that he does not realize that the object of his passion is his own image. From the subjective point of view of Narcissus, his love is object-oriented: he accidentally discovered the human form of perfect beauty and fell passionately in love with it. The fact that Narcissus realizes that he is in love with his own image, that his passion is love for himself and not love for another, leads to a tragic denouement in Ovid's story. This insight leads directly to despair and death.

The story of Narcissus parallels that of Oedipus in that the moment of tragic realization is the discovery of who the lover really is. Whereas the tragedy of Oedipus is based on the horror of mother-son incest and the archetypal taboo on incest, the tragedy of Narcissus is based on the horror of solipsism and invokes the taboo on vanity. If we assume that taboos are taboos placed on deep, natural tendencies of the libido, then the existence of a taboo on vanity suggests that there is a deep natural impulse towards loving objectifications (images, reflections) of oneself. In other words, there is a deep unconscious craving for self-absorption, for loving yourself in the mirror. The poet Yeats, quoting Shelley, writes: “We are born into the world, and there is something within us that from the moment we live, more and more longs for its likeness.” We have “a soul within our soul that describes a circle around its true paradise, which pain, sorrow and evil dare not jump over", and we labor to see this soul in many mirrors so that we can possess it more fully. (18)

Psychologically, the taboo on vanity works to keep a person "humble," to fix the gaze outward, away from reflections of the subject's own seductive beauty. Looking too long at one's own reflection in the mirror, appreciating one's own achievements too highly, and accepting praise too enthusiastically is excluded precisely because such attention is extremely fascinating and seductive. It takes a person away from extraversion and adaptation to external reality and lures him into private isolation, into solipsism. When Liriope, the mother of Narcissus, asked the wise blind old man Teresia if her beautiful son would live to old age, the seer replied: “If he himself does not find out.” (19) Such self-knowledge is dangerous and violates the taboo on vanity.

Self-knowledge of Narcissus, however, is of a special kind. In Christian moralizing against Vanitas, Narcissus represents a loving knowledge of appearance and image, excessive thoughts about his own surfaces and appearance. Narcissistic self-knowledge must be distinguished from Saturnian self-knowledge, which "sees through" the surface of appearance to deeper character traits. Narcissistic self-knowledge stems from the relation of the anima to the appearance of the subject. In some stories, Narcissus loves his sister (his anima), who loves him back, and when she dies, he goes to the water to look at an image that resembles her, and so their relationship continues on that imaginary level. Narcissistic self-knowledge is driven by the anima rather than by the spirit, which would be a Christian preference, hence its focus on image and appearance. The inhibition mechanism associated with the taboo on vanity is to overcome the turn of the anima back to the subject. For the subject to know himself in the narcissistic modality means to love his most superficial image.

Narcissus and the Reflection Instinct

If at the heart of Narcissus' mythologeme lies the taboo of vanity and the horror of solipsism, then its "warning" also speaks of the pathological development of what Jung called the instinct of reflection. Reflexio means “turning back.” The libido ceases to move outwards towards the object, undergoes "psychization" and "deviates" into the endopsychic sphere. (20) Jung attributes psychological richness and complexity to this instinct. This is a purely human instinct, and without it, culture and inner psychological reality would be unthinkable. But, as Jung points out, every instinct (he lists five) has the potential for pathological development. Pathology usually appears when one of the (five) instincts begins to dominate the others and restrict their movement towards satisfaction. The narcissist provides an example of such a pathological development in the reflective instinct: the activity of reflection (turning to oneself) dominates and excludes eating, ordinary sexuality, activity and the entry of any new thoughts or impulses (creativity).

The narcissist loves his reflection, which, as we saw earlier, is his umbra, his soul. This connection between the reflected self-image and the soul is age-old, and it is this point that Fraser emphasizes in his interpretation of the myth. Under the influence of the anima, a person loves what he thinks about and thinks about what he loves. The narcissist is in love with his own reflection and therefore can never leave the still waters of the pond where this activity is possible. He is immersed in reflection.

As a warning, this story seems to tell us: do not think too much about yourself, do not reflect on your path, do not consider your “inner world” of mental events and images for too long, so as not to fall deeply in love with what you see, and in this activity itself, so as not to become an egocentric (soul-absorbed) contemplative of one's navel (self-obsessed). Taboo ensures that we do not succumb to the instinct of reflection. In a culture as obsessed with action and practical extraverted behavior as ours, the warnings against over-reflection and attention to particular inner events of the psyche are especially harsh. These extreme warnings must be based on an extremely strong focus on Narcissus.

The danger of going too far along the narcissistic line of soul love and reflection lies not only in uroboric self-restraint, solipsism, intrapsychic incest, but also in suicide. The narcissist is essentially killing himself by refusing to eat. This anorexic suicide is motivated by disappointment: the image of the beloved found in reflection has no equivalent in the world of objective reality. The danger of narcissistic reflection is that the subject may find a mental image of such overwhelming attractiveness and beauty that he will drown in it and subsequently be unable to find equivalent objects of love in the outside world; his motivation to adapt and enter into life will dry up, and he will prefer suicide to a second-rate external reality. This disillusionment with what reality has to offer, as opposed to what reflection and imagination can produce, defeats the need for adjustment to external reality and threatens the authority of practical fathers. If the real world and its rewards cannot match the value and beauty of the inner image, why join the system? Why adapt?

Narcissus and Projection

The love of Narcissus is genuine love for the other, as opposed to mere selfishness, but it is directed towards an image that has no independent reality. Psychologically, his love is purely projective, because what he loves is a reflection of that aspect of himself that he is not aware of. Ovid tells how it happened. According to the story of the August poet-lover, Theresia's enigmatic prophecy came true by Nemesis when she heard the prayer of one of Narcissus's many rejected suitors: "May Narcissus one day love himself this way, and not defeat the creature he loves." This was the prayer that Nemesis fulfilled by making Narcissus see himself in the pond.

As Ovid relates, Narcissus is an extremely handsome youth who is courted by nymphs, naiads, oreads, and youths, but remains completely untouched and cold to their flirtation. This remarkable self-restraint of Narcissus has been commented on by many commentators and has even become one of his main characteristics (“symptoms”). His deafness to the appeals of love, to mutual sexual attraction, to relationships with his neighbors makes him look like Hippolytus, a young man who devoted himself exclusively to the Virgin Artemis and thereby provoked the angry revenge of Aphrodite. Both youths have the quality of untouched virginity and the innocence of the erotic forces at play around them, and both pay the price of archetypal retribution for this.

If we look at the psychological phenomenon of passionate love through the prism of the Narcissus mythologeme, we will come to the conclusion that love and projection are inextricably linked: love becomes possible only when a person finds a suitable reflective surface. From the point of view of this mythologeme, the possibility of love is based on the possibility of projection. Passionate love is an experience in which the subject meets the projection of the soul in the object of love and desperately seeks to connect with it. Moreover, the object of love reciprocates and accurately reflects the feelings of the subject:

He wants my hugs.

Why, every time I move my lips

to the sparkling lake

he raises his face to me.

Of course I could touch him

so thin is the line that separates us from each other. (21)

There is a perfect harmony of desires and feelings. They are both "in the same place"; lover and beloved move together in perfect synchronization of thought and feeling. The longing for unity is excruciating: they cannot get close, they are always separated by a “thin film of water”, an impalpable, invisible, impenetrable barrier. The union so passionately desired is identified by this mythology as the desire to merge with the unconscious aspect of the subject, and for this reason it cannot be completed in a relationship with another person. The nature of the installation frustrates the fulfillment of the desire it has ignited. From the point of view of the Narcissus mythologeme, passionate love is an impossible love based on projection and fueled by illusion.

The turning point in Ovid's story comes when Narcissus discovers his illusion and recognizes the projective nature of his love. It is this moment of insight that turns into a tragic climax. He realizes that his love is unattainable, forever removed. The mythology warns us against projected love, for disappointment will inevitably follow and lead to death. Here Narcissus' taboo extends from vanitas to projection. The danger of projection lies in the fact that a person mixes his soul with another and loses this part of himself for another. But projection, as a reflection of the unconscious soul, also represents an opportunity for expanding consciousness and, in fact, for gaining access to this part of the self. The decrease in the value of projective experience makes it sterile and devoid of psychological value; it is regarded simply as stupidity or a mistake. This failure to turn projection into further reflection (reflection on reflection, so to speak), which means continuing reflection after the illusion has dissipated, is a decisive psychological failure in the transition from literalism to a symbolic position. It is the inability to turn reflection on the projected content and use it creatively. The narcissist could have cured himself by taking it one step further and thus conquering his suicidal despair with wisdom.

Narcissus and Narcissism

In psychoanalytic theory, the name Narcissus was originally applied to the phenomenon of autoeroticism, and later the term narcissism came to cover all forms of libidinal attachment to the ego, all forms of self-love. At some point, Freud defined narcissism as selfishness. Havelock Ellis, who first coined the term "narcissism" in an article on autoeroticism, acknowledges the somewhat tenuous connection between myth and psychoanalytic conception, the main problem being that in myth the Narcissist is not aware of self-love and, as a result, "was never used in as an illustration of conscious self-love.” (22) Autoeroticism does not appear clearly in the myth. However, despite these warnings, we can delve deeper into Narcissus' mythology by considering how it affects the imagination of the psychoanalytic interpreter.

"Narcissistic neurosis" is a term used by Freud to describe "a mental illness characterized by the withdrawal of the libido from the external world and its focus on the ego." (23) This corresponds to the Narcissus we know in Ovid as he was before he fell in love: impervious to erotic advances, indifferent to friendship, emotionally withdrawn. “The charm of the child,” wrote Freud, “is mainly in its narcissism, self-sufficiency and inaccessibility, like the charm of some animals.” (24) Narcissistic neurosis is seen as the opposite of transference neurosis: the current of libido does not flow through the ego to create transference, it remains locked up in it as in a reservoir. (25) Thus, narcissism, by definition, excludes love for an external object. To the extent that the libido is under the influence of narcissism, the person is self-absorbed and unable to show interest in the "other" or the outside world.

In the story of Narcissus, told by the Greek author Conon, who lived in the first century, the youth is described as "very handsome, but proud of Eros and those who loved him" . (26) Narcissus' behavior is seen in this story as a "crime against Eros", and the outcome of his life led the Thessalians of Boeotia to "fear more and honor Eros in public services". (27) This emphasis is in line with what psychoanalysis finds in Narcissus, for narcissism is also an insult to Eros, object love and erotic attachment to another person.

An antique fresco depicts Narcissus leaning on his arm and looking dreamily into a pond. Behind him stands a small winged Eros who holds a torch and extinguishes it on the ground in front of him. This action signifies the death of Narcissus. (28) In psychoanalytic theory, this is not physical death, but psychosis, since "the group of narcissistic neuroses includes all functional psychoses." (29) Karl Abraham associated narcissism with schizophrenia: “The mentally ill person transfers to himself alone, as to his only sexual object, all that libido that a healthy person turns on living and inanimate objects of his environment.” (30) Thus, the increased worship of Eros among the Boeotians (“fear and reverence” for him) can be understood as a prevention of psychotic disorders.

The myth of Narcissus seems to function in psychoanalytic theory as a lightning rod for the fear of being trapped in the solipsistic system, the libidinal ouroboros. The taboo of vanity reappears in psychoanalysis, but it has now moved away from the Christian view of emphasizing the flesh and physical appearance to include more subtle psychological phenomena such as introversion. “Introversion means turning the libido inward,” Jung wrote in his original definition of the term, “in the sense of a negative relation of subject to object. Interest does not move towards the object, but away from it into the subject” (31) A close similarity between introversion and narcissism is found in the standard dictionary of psychological terms, which defines introversion as “a kind of temperament or personality characteristic of individuals who are interested in their thoughts and feelings, and (32) Freud himself was very suspicious of introversion. In his General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, he wrote: "The introverted person is not yet neurotic, but he is in an unstable state; the next disturbance of the shifting forces will cause the development of symptoms if he is not will be able to find other outlets for his pent-up libido.” (33) We see here the anxiety about the 'retarded libido', which has nowhere to go but the uroboric circle.

The psychoanalytic use of the figure of Narcissus directs attention to his psychopathology as well as the potential pathology of introversion. It cannot be said that extraversion does not also have a pathological (manic) possibility, as shown, for example, by the Ovidian companion of Narcissus, the nymph Echo: an extreme extrovert, she does not have her own inner life, but only echoes the sounds of the outside world. If one of Jung's proudest contributions was to point out the richness and objectivity of the "inner world" and contrast it with our overvalued extraverted approach to reality, then one of Freud's most cherished, self-aware missions was to deal a death blow to human narcissism (and with him and the egocentric tendencies of introversion). Freud believed that psychoanalysis was the weapon for the third and decisive crushing blow to human arrogance and egocentrism (narcissism, vanitas): the first was inflicted by Copernicus, who displaced the earth from its central position in the cosmos; the second was inflicted by Darwin and freed man from his fantasy of being unique in the animal kingdom; and the third shock arose in Vienna, when psychoanalysis demonstrated the biological roots and, in particular, the sexual origin of the human spirit. All of them play a certain role in the displacement of human consciousness from the primitive animistic attitude, which “corresponds both in time and content to narcissism”, and in its transition to a scientific attitude, to maturity, where the individual, having “renounced the pleasure principle and adapted to reality ... looking for its object in the outside world.” (34)

In Freud's frame of human development, narcissism is viewed as a primitive childhood stage, an attitude of clinging to the pleasure principle and fantasy and ignoring scientific objectivity: instead of seeing the world realistically and relating to it objectively, the narcissistic subject objectifies his own inner space and relates to this fantasy content. -thoughts. N. Walder, a pioneer of psychoanalysis, writes that it is characteristic of narcissism to “create a world for oneself (sich seine Welt zu dichten)”, and “we can call a method narcissistic if it allows us to build constructions from our mind relatively freely and arbitrarily.” (35)

The omnipotence of thought, as opposed to the omnipotence of objective scientific fact, Freud wrote, has been preserved in our own civilization, in art. “In art alone, it still happens that a person, absorbed in his desires, produces something similar to the satisfaction of these desires, and this game, thanks to an artistic illusion, causes the effect as if it were something real.” (36) Art is a return to primitive animism and a narcissistic act of self-gratification by the artist. Like Narcissus by the pond, the artist projects an image of himself onto canvas or paper, and instead of loving (adultly) the right person, he loves his own image. Here Freud places the entire artistic process in the mythology of Narcissus.

The poetic and artistic imagination is thus rooted in the narcissistic movement of the libido and the thought process. The narcissist, looking into the pond, becomes an image for imaginary activity, striving outward, towards the imaginary world, and not from outside, towards the objective world. In other words, to reach the imagination and the imaginal dimension of reality, the functioning of Narcissus in the psyche is required; the psyche moves towards the imagination and the imaginal realm through the functioning of narcissism. In this way, narcissism becomes a tool for becoming more creative and freeing ourselves from the literalism of object orientation. Wallace Stevens's lines from "Tea in the Hun Palace" are in the tradition of Blake, Coleridge and other Romantic poets who realized the powerful liberation offered to the human spirit by its capacity for creative activity: "I was the world in which I walked, and that I saw, heard or felt, came from myself.” By drawing the libido back into the subject (the subjective), narcissism enlivens the world of fantasy and imagination and activates images from within. Thus, the slavish dependence of man on the object is broken.

Like imagination, archetypal thought is rooted in Narcissus. Jung comments on narcissistic thinking in his discussion of the introverted type. When introverted thinking reaches the extremes of its natural course, he writes, it loses contact with facts and objective data and develops "ideas that come closer and closer to the eternal reality of the original images." (37) Thought becomes mythological, losing connection with empirical data and observations. When thought and fantasy are lost in Narcissus and his gaze into the "pond" (the unconscious), they penetrate into the archetypal world.

Narcissus and Neoplatonism

If psychoanalysis understands narcissism as a rejection of the objective world (objective reality) and subject-object relations, then the Neoplatonists viewed Narcissus as a symbol of the opposite: hopeless passion and attachment to the material world of objects and phenomena. The Neoplatonists focused on the lovesick Narcissus, not on the impassive, distant, self-sufficient youth. For these thinkers, Narcissus personifies the victim of illusion, for which appearance is reality, and thus the tragic entanglement in the temptations of the material world.

This interpretation is reminiscent of that of Church Father Clement of Alexandria, with whom Plotinus was roughly contemporary. However, Neoplatonists have an unbiblical myth that may interpret the mythologeme of Narcissus as a story about the fall of the soul into matter, the late classical anonymous mythographer Narcissus writes:

For he did not drown in the water, but when he saw his own shadow in the stream of matter, that is, the life in the body, which is the final image of the true soul; and when he tried to take it as his own, that is, filled with love for this life, he drowned and sank under the water, as if destroying his true soul, that is, the true life that belonged to him. (38)

As Vinge points out, the identification of mirror and matter is a common Neoplatonic device: the soul, peering down from its transcendent state of pure form, sees its reflection in matter and falls in love; when the soul bends down to embrace the object of love, it becomes entangled in the material world and is enclosed in corporeality. The soul falls from its purely spiritual state into the gross material world.

The 19th century German scholar Kreuzer, in his book "Symbolik und Mythologie", argues that this Neoplatonic interpretation represents the true meaning of the Narcissus mythologeme. He found a parallel to this story in the Orphic myth of the Mirror of Dionysus. About this mirror, Plotinus said: “The souls of people, seeing their reflections in the mirror of Dionysus, seem to enter this kingdom by jumping down from the Almighty.” (39) The desire of the soul to enter into material life is the result of looking into a mirror, "the same mirror into which Dionysus looked before he turned to the creation of individual things." (40) The mirror serves to stimulate in the soul the desire for the body, for excellence, individuality. For Neoplatonists, this movement also symbolized the descent from unity to multiplicity, from one to many, from Pleroma to Creatura, to use Jung's terminology from his Septem Sermones ad Mortuos (Seven Instructions to the Dead).

The connection between Narcissus and Dionysus, which was considered by Kreutzer and also by the classical authors Philostratus and Nonnus, is based on a common fallacy which (according to Kreutzer) says that truth and beauty exist in the material world of "ten thousand things" and not exclusively in the transcendental realm. which these things point to and which they (deceptively) represent. This illusion is possible because of the "mirror effect" within matter. Kreuzer defined the symbolic meaning of Narcissus's mirror, which is equivalent to the "river" of the anonymous mythographer, as "the pleasures in which the human life." To support this idea, he quotes the words of Plato, Plotinus and Proclus about the “stream of oblivion” and about “life as a reflective stream in which the soul sees its image disheveled and distorted” (41)

Applying the language of depth psychology to the Neoplatonic interpretation, the Narcissus myth seems to represent the Self emerging from the depths of the unconscious and entering the phenomenal world in the form of the ego. The danger pointed out by the Neoplatonists is the ego's loss of awareness of its origin in the Self. Kreutzer speaks of the return of the soul to an awareness of its archetypal origin:

The soul is looking for itself. If she seeks where she is now, in reality, she becomes accustomed to this conditioned state of being, this empty, immaterial (non-essential, incorporeal) life, so now she must swim sadly in frustration, for through this she cannot get satisfaction. Only when she searches for herself as she was and as she will be again, the essential, divine "I" - only in looking and spiraling upward towards her Idea - can she find salvation and happiness. (42)

Only by looking back at archetypal origins can consciousness find the answer to its longing. The myth of Narcissus teaches that trying to find a soul in a mirror (that is, in the world of material objects) is an illusion. The mistake of Narcissus is that he seeks satisfaction for the soul in the world of material reality. The Neoplatonists teach us to look from this “mirror” back to what is reflected, back to the soul that is reflected in the mirror, back from the perceived to the perceiver. There you can find the true reality of the soul.

The Neoplatonic interpretation would agree with the psychoanalytic one in that Narcissus symbolizes a state of alienation. But for the Neoplatonists, alienation has a different source and meaning: it is not an alienation resulting from a rupture between subject and object, but an alienation between the subject and the archetypal source of its being. Both subject and object see the need to avoid egocentrism, but the suggested escape routes lead in opposite directions. The psychoanalytic solution is to abandon the primitive, infantile state of narcissism; this is complemented by devotion to Eros, who governs the libidinal attachments to external objects of love. The Neoplatonic solution is to sacrifice attachment to the object world and look within yourself for archetypal origins. For both subject and object, the guiding and motivating presence of this search is Eros. But the route goes from the projection carrier to the projection source. This is a closing circle. According to Kreutzer:

Eros is a celestial genius that can bring people to bliss, causing in the bodies the reflection of divine beauty ... through the contemplation of external beauty, he causes a reflex of memory ... of this divine, worthy of the soul, psychic and truly genuine and wonderful Beauty. (43) 

The Neoplatonic vision leads to a decision about what to do with the projections, not just dissolve them and let them disappear into the unconscious. Thus, one could use them as images of the archetypal background, the realm of the soul. This "memory reflex" links the ego-consciousness to its archetypal origins.

1. Article first published in Spring 1976 and later with minor revisions in Soul: Treatment and Recovery (Routledge, 2016). This version of the article is based on the second publication and includes additions.

2. For a detailed discussion of various interpreters and interpretations, see L. Vinge, The Narcissus Theme in Western Literature.

3. JG Frazer, Taboo and the Perils of the Soul, p. 94. Frazer quotes Artemidorus, according to Greek belief, a dream in which a person looks at his own reflection was seen as an omen of death.

4 Vinge, op. cit., pp. 35-6

5. Ibid p.20

6 Frazer, op. cit., p. 94

7. For psychological analysis, see James Hillman, Re-Visioning Psychology, pp. 334ff

8. WHRoscher, Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, Vol. 3, p. eleven

9 Vinge, op. cit., p. 18

10. Roscher, op. cit., p. 16

11. Vinge, op. cit., p. 12

12. Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk. III: 505-6

13 See Roscher, op. cit., p. 15 and Vinge, op. cit., p. 35

14. Ibid 507

15. Vinge, op. cit., p.36

16. Quoted in Vinge, ibid.

17. Ibid., p. 41

18. WB Yeats, Essays and Introductions, p. 69

19. Ovid, Metamorphoses, Bk. III: 348

20. CG Jung, “Psychological Factors Determining Human Behavior,” in CW 8, par. 241ff

21. Ovid, op. cit., Bk. III: 453-7

22. H. Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex, Vol. 7, p. 359

23. J. Laplanche and JB Pontalis, The Language of Psycho-Analysis, p. 258

24. S. Freud, quoted in Ellis, op. cit., p. 359

25. Laplanche and Pontalis, op. cit., p. 255

26. Vinge, op. cit., p. 19

27. Ibid p. 20

28 Roscher, op. cit., p. 19

29. Laplanche and Pontalis, op. cit., p. 258

30. Ibid p. 255

31. C. G. Jung, Psychological Types, para. 769

32. J. Drever, A Dictionary of Psychology, p. 145

33. S. Freud, A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, p. 326

34. S. Freud, Totem and Taboo, pp. 870-71

35. Quoted by Ellis, op. cit., p. 374

36 Freud, op. cit., p. 871

37. Jung, op. cit., pp. 637

38. Vinge, op. cit., p. 36

39. Plotinus, The Enneads, IV, 3:12 (p. 265).

40. Vinge, quoting Creuzer, op. cit., p. 318

41 Vinge, op.cit., pp. 36ff

42. Vinge, pp. 38-9

43. Vinge, ibid. p. 322