Despite the prevelance of Narcissism in our culture, the literature offers little to help us understand how such things have come about.
We have to turn to more ancient, deeper sources of wisdom.
“Myths are a primordial language… psychic phenomena that reveal the nature of the soul…. healing the conflicts which threaten the child.” CG Jung
So we refer back to myths as a form of public dreaming in order to become reaquainted with our preverbal experience, that within our individuality that likewise seems lost in the mists of time.
”Myths are clues… that have to do with deep inner problems. They carry rich, live, vivifying information [so that] experience will have resonance to our own inmost being and reality.” J Campbell.
A myth that gives us some clues to the problem of Narcissism can be found in the story of Hercules. It describes not only the resolution to psychopathic behaviour but helps us to see how and why it manifests in the first instance.
We will turn to the well known labours shortly but lets begin with the circumstances of Hercules early life in order to get a sense of the provisional life that besets Narcissism and why it is that creativity and relationships are so problematic.
Hercules’ problems start very young. He is the child of queen Alcmene of Tiryns and the God Zeus. Hera, Zeus’ wife, was none to happy about this. Even though he had been named after her as a gesture of appeasment she vowed revenge….
Alcmene, fearing Hera’s retribution, abandons the child Hercules in a field hoping the gods will take care of him.
The disenfranchisment of the Divine Feminine is sweeping across the known world. Everywhere the goddess is being unseated, cast out and humiliated. A wedge has been driven between women and their sacred counterpart so that mother/infant relations have become unbearably strained.
On the one hand Hercules is ‘special’, the son of Zeus. On the other he is deprived of nurture and care. Alcmene invests all her spiritual longing into her redeemer son. She needs him to fill the gaping hole in her psyche where once her sacred femininity was lodged and with which she is now hopelessly at odds.
Meantime Hercules struggles with being the contradiction of being the future lord of all Greece whilst being left forgotten in the dusty stubble.
By chance, Hera and Athene wander by and see the child. Hera, unaware of his identity, picks him up and suckles him, but he sucks so hard that she throws him down in anger. Athene, more patiently, takes the child to Tiryns and gives him to Alcmene to be bought up as a foundling. Alcmene, overjoyed, hopes the three drops of milk that Hercules has managed to suck will preserve him from Hera’s ill-will.
Its not to be. Hera finds out what has happened. She’s furious and sends two pythons to kill the baby while he sleeps.
”One suspects that there is often a kernel of truth in paranoid delusion.” S. Freud
The raging goddess, once the archetypal container of infancy, is now dead set against the child. Her devaluation by Zeus throws her into revolt and overwhelms the maternal instinct to care and protect.
Hercules becomes the proto-type of the deprived child.
As our story indicates, emotional deprivation is not simply the absence of nurture. The emotional vacuum is constued as an aggressive attack the best expression of which is paranoid fantasy. Something, somewhere is trying to get me.
”Maternal failures produce reactions which interrupt going-on-being and [constitute] a threat of annihilation.” D Winnicott.
The snakes symbolise the intrusive, cold-blooded, devouring quality of emotional deprivation lived out on a human scale by the curious detail that Alcmene now raises her son as if he were a foundling. She is a mother playing at being a mother which can only produce a child pretending to be himself.
This pretence is what RD Laing calls ‘elusion’. He quotes an example from Sarte of the waiter in a cafe who is not ‘in’ what he is doing. He is somehow not himself. Not that he is pretending to be someone else, which would be less confusing, but insofar as he is pretending to be himself. He is playing at being a waiter in a cafe and has that touch-me-not quality of Narcissus.
”He is never invested, never completely interested, never “all in”. From fear and diffidence, he always keeps the essential part of himself out.” K. O’Brian.
I pretend I am not pretending to pretend….
Hera’s snakes are an envious double bind, an attack on both the burdensome dependence and the dismissive autonomy of the child. Her devalued status makes her cling to him and try to live through the child whose own destiny and unique unfolding gets in the way. Whatever he does he cannot get it right.
In my family this took the form of the contradictory injunctions,
‘If you don’t ask, you don’t want.’
”I want doesn’t get.’
There is no way around such a double-bind. Like the twin snakes it can choke the life, or at least the aliveness out of you. Mother, in urgent need to elude ambivalence and pretend not to be pretending reads the ensuing ..
”extraordinary passivity and listlessness as satiation.” G Miller.
It gets worse. The child, faced with mother going through the motions of being herself must follow suit and tie himself up in the knots of pretending to be a small boy. Such pretense must exclude creative possibility since..
”any striving is construed as malign ingratitude..” ibid
I dreamt I was in a jail, like out of a spaghetti western with bars all down one side against which I was smashing a club, screaming to be let out. Behind me, lying down on a bunk with his hat pulled over his eyes is, ‘the-man-with-no-name’. He says,
”door’s open you know”…
I throw down the club and cower in a corner… terrified at the thought that I could leave at any time..
The dream shocked me. I thought I was mature. I thought I was free and creative, despite my substance abuse at the time and the fact that I had no greater aspiration than to turn admiring heads at the traffic lights with my expensive motorcycle….
I thought I was living the bohemian life..
and so long as the life I was living was not my own I could coast along unchallenged..
secure in the knowledge that family and friends would eternally excuse my narcissistic life style and save me from the real world.
The fact was that all this being let off the hook was not the loving indulgence I took it for but rather the active witholding of Life’s Rule Book in order that I continue to accept the constrictions with which I had been raised.
My abberant lifestyle was not ‘rebellion’ at all, but a profound yet hidden conformity that my own destiny was a taboo for which I was both under-resourced and had no permit.
May as well go and pilfer the drug store..
or start a fight.
There’s nothing else to do.
Hercules does not have to play by the rules. Its his compensation for having his soul hi-jacked. And because no-one will discipline him or be sufficiently involved to teach him the ropes he is effectively caged and feral despite being given ‘every advantage’. One day kills his music teacher Linus for daring to correct his playing and instead of having to face the consequences his family spirit him off to the countryside where he can continue to be symbiotically attached to mother by whom he is..
”worshipped like a god and denigrated like a demon.” D Mathers
Hercules is not allowed to grow up. His psychopathic behaviour increases. He goes mad and kills his children in a fit brought on by the hidden hand of Hera, determined that he should not have his own life or live in his own world.
Fortunately, Hercules now has to pay his dues. He becomes depressed and accepts being sent into the service of Eurystheus, his cousin, who makes him perform many labours, a metaphor for the hard work of the psychotherapeutic process.
He has to become aquainted with all his split off aggression symbolised by the Nemean lion, the Cretan bull, the Styphalian birds, his bullshit symbolised by the filthy stables of Augeus, the Hydra that hides in the swamps of his unlived potential.
He has also to realise his own spiritual gifts, all those aspects of his own soulfullness he’s had to put on one side in order to be a vessel for others. These are represented by his task to fetch the Golden Apples of the Hesperides whose whereabouts are hidden deep in the Unconscious that require a night sea journey in a great cauldron for a boat. The metaphor is one of being slowly cooked, being transformed and being able to be taken in.
But Hercules doesn’t quite make it. Despite his successful labours he is tricked by the centaur Nessus who gives his second wife Deianira a poison tunic to give him should his affections wane, which you could pretty much count on given his habitual lack of relatedness.
The tunic consumes him….
and he throws himself on a pyre begging for death.
Then, as now, your clothes are statements of identity, embodiments of personae. The poison tunic is an identity not one’s own, that stifles soul and gives rise to self destruction.
”Unlived life does not sit idly on the shelf. It will turn around and bite you” ML von Franz.
The great tragedy for the narcissist is not just the poverty of his early years but that it renders him so hogtied when faced with the enormity of his own potential. The first words I ever said as a client in therapy were, ‘I have more energy than I know what to do with.”
”The possibility that a once great capacity for positive living and other potentialities may have played some part in the development of psychopathy.. is worthy of careful consideration…. in reverse they might deserve the estimate of genius.” H Cleckley.
So the narcissist is doubly burdened, firstly by all the split off rage, confusion and pain at being un-mothered and secondly by the creative tension in him that demands expression.
The bonus is that all the material he has to integrate is already his own authentic Self. The difficulty is that he is at one and the same time much smaller than his puffed up image of himself, yet much bigger inside than he could imagine.
If we can accept that our own labours are noble and redeeming, worth doing for their own sake, that our creativity will both unhinge and restore us, that there is meaning and aliveness in suffering, we might fare better than Hercules who at the very least gave us a template for our own experience.