I’m exploring the implications and connotations of the “mirror of Narcissus”, inspired by the use of that phrase in Tim Wu’s Attention Merchants. Predictably, this leads to psychological readings of the ancient myth, and an excellent guide to those is Murray Stein’s essay on Narcissus in his Soul: Treatment & Recovery. Stein examines various interpretations of the myth and their psychological implications, and I have started with perhaps the simplest of these interpretations: namely, that the mirror in the myth stands for a reflective, introverted attitude which is dangerous, and should be avoided on pain of suffering Narcissus’ fate, i.e. despair and death. Such a simplistic interpretation, according to Stein (and I agree) misses much of the positive potential of introversion and reflection; it implies a false warning (or at least it warns us off the wrong things).
But there is something else wrong with this interpretation, and that is a point which Stein, it seems, entirely misses.
1. To see what this is, let’s back up a little and reconstruct the interpretation Stein discusses somewhat more fully. Again, just to be clear: this is not Stein’s own view, but an interpretation he distinguishes from other interpretations, namely, the Freudian and Neoplatonic interpretations. To have a handy label, let’s call it the “Mere Projection Account” of the Narcissus mythologem.
On the Mere Projection Account, as on most other interpretations, the Narcissus myth is a story that wants to deliver a warning: Narcissus is presented as falling into a psychological trap, and this has horrible consequences. These horrible consequences, presented as despair and death, result from his impossible passion — his love for his mirror image. According to the Mere Projection Account, such love is doomed because it is structured in the wrong way: instead of being directed at a real object (another person) in the actual world, it is directed at a mere image — and worse, an image that is a projected image: an unconscious aspect of Narcissus himself, which he perceives (wrongly) as “out there”, whereas in fact it is “in him”.
This view, of course, is why it makes sense to call the interpretation a Projection Account. But it is not merely the notion of a projection which makes the trap for Narcissus so dangerous. On the Projection Account, the love of Narcissus is flawed (and thus leads into death and despair) because it consists of a mere projection. Narcissus, on this account, loves nothing else but only his own unconscious aspect which alone he perceives at all: in its projected form (in the mirror).
We may fruitfully compare the Mere Projection Account with a variation; call it a Partial Projection Account. On that variation, the passionate love is still based on a projection, but not exclusively so. In addition to projecting an unconscious aspect of himself onto the love object, let’s say that the lover may also perceive some real aspects, too — aspects which the love object has independent of the lover’s own perspective. Perhaps under that variation, the consequences would be less dire (mere depression and heartbreak rather than complete despair and death, say). Alternatively, under that variation perhaps there would be a way out of the despair, a way to develop a more healthy passion. Either way, the Partial Projection Account would sound somewhat more realistic (less black-and-white) as a serious psychological view — the Mere Projection Account, in contrast, sounds like a rather purified story: a purification usually intended to draw out a more clear-cut moral or message. (Not untypical in myths, of course.)
2. Thus if it is the element of Projection, and especially Mere Projection, which leads into dire consequences, what is it (on these Projection Accounts) which makes that element of Projection so dangerous?
According to Stein’s reading of the Projection Accounts, there are two points. First:
The danger in projection is that one loses his soul to the other, loses therefore his self-containment and autonomy, his integrity and ability to direct his own life from the ego’s cockpit.
Murray Stein, Soul: Treatment & Recovery, 22.
But this strikes me as simply incoherent. For on the Mere Projection Account, there is no other. The only thing there is, on this account, is the directing ego and some unconscious aspect, projected into the outside world. There may be a risk that the ego loses itself (its autonomy) to that unconscious aspect; but there cannot be any loss of autonomy to any other. Unless we understand one’s “soul” to include the ego only — in Jungian parlance: consciousness, anything related to the complex of the “I”, including one’s awareness and one’s volitional behavior — we must count the unconscious aspect which appears projected as belonging to the “soul” as well. And if that is the case, there is no danger of loss here. In fact, both consciousness and the unconscious are in this experience together, to the exclusion of everything else. If there is loss of soul here, then it must be an entirely different form of loss than “loss […] to the other”.
Stein’s second point (in looking what would be dangerous in projection) seems more plausible at the outset. According to the Projection Accounts, he says:
Projection is seen simply as illusion; insight sees through projection, thereby denuding reality. Reality must be nude of personal trappings, clothing hung there by projection. (Ibd.)
The hidden premise in all Projection Accounts of the Narcissus myth is the idea that projection is tantamount to an illusion, to a misreading of reality. “Real” reality is literal (nude) reality; projection is a refusal to see it as it is, and when it falls away, there’s disillusionment.
3. But if the love of Narcissus is projection, and projection is simply seen as illusion, then why does Narcissus despair only at the moment in the story when he sees through the illusion? After all, Narcissus does neither despair nor die as long as he is in passionate love with his mirror image; he does so when he realizes that this love is not directed at anything else but this image. And that is precisely the point when he is no longer under any illusion. (And no longer projects anything.)
The line of thought implicit in his despair (if it could be spelled out explicitly) must therefore run somewhat like this: “Love is only possible as projection, and projection I have just realized to be an illusion; therefore, all love is an illusion and there is no possibility of any real love.”
In fact, that is exactly how Stein presents the Projection Account:
From the perspective of the Narcissus mythologem, every passionate love would be an impossible love, based on projection and fed by illusion. In this view, the specific attributes of the beloved are unimportant so long as his (or her) reality is capable of mirroring the unconscious beloved of the subject. (Ibd.)
4. But there is an incoherence buried in all this talk of “illusion”.
Consider this: how does disillusionment come about — or, to put it differently, what is it that the subject becomes aware of when they are no longer under the illusion?
Is it some hitherto unknown aspect of the other? Some nude reality previously unseen? Which are the “specific attributes” of the beloved?
The way the Narcissus myth is set up, there is no other, no independent reality, nobody with “specific attributes” — other than Narcissus’ mirror image. And when Narcissus realizes what his passion aims at, the disillusionment does not take the form of suddenly realizing any specific attributes of himself, nor any other underlying reality. If anything, the shocking discovery is precisely that there is no underlying reality, or to be precise, that there is no other.
5. Partly, this incoherence is due to reading into the Narcissus myth a familiar problem of modern relationships. If a person A (in the real world) is in love with person B, and that love is based on a projection (say, person A projects an unconscious aspect A+ of themselves into B), then we would have precisely the problematic illusion the Projection Account talks about. A is under an illusion about the “real” person B, seeing only A+ instead, and should A realize the mistake, they may well despair.
The problem with reading this into the Narcissus myth is of course twofold: for one thing, it’s quite unclear whether any passionate love at all can exist without some form of projection, and it would be naive to require that in “real world” relationships all projections should be withdrawn (since they are “illusions”). Moreover, as Stein quite correctly points out, these projections can be the starting point for personal development: they can be reflected on and integrated into a more rounded individual personality. In that way, at least that person may grow (and quite likely, the relationship would benefit from it, too; although it may also break down and be left behind by both people).
But there is a second problem (one which, I think, Stein overlooks when he simply assigns the mirror metaphor to “illusions”): the Narcissus myth takes a lot of care to construct a situation in which there is no other from the very beginning. It’s not a story that illustrates what happens when reality (the other, specific attributes of the other, …) demands its due over illusions that were upheld for some time. This would be different, say, if the myth had instead of the mirror image an impostor, e.g. some god in human shape. (Ancient myths are full of such episodes, of course.) But that is not the case here. Rather, I think, we should take seriously the myth’s attempt to indicate that we’re not talking about someone’s being wrong about someone else. If something is decisively wrong about the Projection Accounts, then it is that the Narcissus myth isn’t really about projection at all.