ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ — Know Thyself — The Oracle of Delphi
Love is a transformative process of discovery, of recognition, of learning, and of coming to know. So what does it mean to love the Self? Can the loved Self ever be truly distinct from the entirety of the universe? Is separation a necessary predecessor to love, or an illusion? Is it detrimental to the individual and to society to love the False Self as passionately as one loves the True Self, or is it healthy holism? Is individuation of Self an ongoing process of creating and recognizing lovable images of the Self in Other and images of Other in the Self? And is true recognition of the Self, perhaps, the only way to fully understand and unite with the metaphysical divinity of existence? Is it the only true love that exists?
Popular culture, and straight women in particular, often throws the term “narcissist” around as a pejorative slur, generally pointed at men who behave badly in romantic relationships. But Ovid, who wrote about the original Narcissus, and many of the psychological theorists who came after him, would disagree with calling many of these current fellows “narcissists.” Dark triad psychopaths, perhaps, but no compatriots of the beautiful youth who could not love until he learned to recognize the Self in the Other. When Freud, Salome, and Jung were first expostulating about narcissism, they saw it as an amoral constant force in all humans, that had plenty of healthy positives (Downing 2006 and Rowland 2010).
Narcissus’s transformative journey of recognitive love echoes through canonic psychological theory and through contemporary practice, and just as with the original Echo, each echo reflects elements of the original image while bringing individuality to the reflected image. The true journey of Narcissus lies latent within every human heart.
Here are some key thinkers who bring logistical boundaries and individuated definition to this ultimately indescribable mythopoetic truth of the quest for comprehensive, understanding love of the Self.
Ovid: The Lovable Self as a Youth Gazing in a Pool
Ovid gave us the Ur-narrative of what it means to fall in love with the Universe of the Self and the Self of the Universe. His Narcissus is a boy on the threshold of maturity, which can only come with the transformation of recognition of the divine unity of the world. When the vulnerability of love finally transforms him, it is because he sees and loves what is simultaneously beyond him and innate. Redemptive love comes, not when he sees others as Other, but when he sees an Other that is Self and, simultaneously, a Self that is Other. Ovid describes this existential turning point as happening at a still sylvan pool.
 There was a pool silver-clear and bright…its waters were unsullied — birds disturbed it not; nor animals…. Around sweet grasses nourished by the stream grew; trees that shaded from the sun let balmy airs temper its waters. Here Narcissus…lay down, attracted by the peaceful solitudes…. There as he stooped to quench his thirst another thirst increased. While he is drinking he beholds himself reflected in the mirrored pool — and loves…he deems the mirrored shade a thing of life to love. ….All that is lovely in himself he loves, and in his witless way he wants himself.
The words that Ovid uses to describe the loving witnessing process are words that could describe a monk’s ecstatic reverence, or prayer. “Those bright eyes, which had so loved to gaze, entranced, on their own master’s beauty,” he says, intentionally retaining ambiguity: the master may be the youth, or the master may be God, or the master may be love, or the master may be all of these things at once.
Different analysts echo different aspects of Narcissus’s sudden enamoration. Some say he witnesses and falls in love only with the part of the pool image that is a man. That aligns with the superficial pop-culture use of the word “narcissist.” But there is deeper validity in Lou Salome’s interpretation, to be investigated forthwith, that this youth takes in the entire reflected image of the natural world as Self. “The Narcissus of legend gazed not at a manmade mirror but at the mirror of nature.” (quoted Downing 2006 p. 317) The images of the man, the trees, the water, the sky, this is all “Self.” This is creative union. This is true love. For Salome, the scene is “a delighted-in experience of total union with the natural world — or, rather, the vision of it.” (quoted Downing 2006 p. 317) Mature narcissism is unity.
Narcissus’s story echoes wherever the reader themself is ready to meet them. But for those who are ready to see this image in Ovid’s pool, Narcissus sees the truth of the universe, recognizes the self in and as the universe and vice versa, and loves the universe as the self. When he encounters this self-universe in the pool, he stops being an uncaring, untouched, unenlightened youth and becomes a mature lover who recognizes the divinity of the universe.
Freud: The Lovable Self as Morbid Illusory Nostalgia
In 1923 (according to Wikipedia), Sigmund Freud, a Jewish outsider in a Gentile nation, was diagnosed with the cancer that brought him pain, work delays, multiple operations, and ultimately death. That same year he looked into Narcissus’s pool, and the pool reflected separation, loss, and death back to him. His understanding of narcissism had evolved over the years, and by 1923, he saw turning love in on one’s self, instead of turning love out to others, as an illusion of death: “we are not self-sufficient, we are not the world. And thus narcissism is death.” (Downing 2006 p. 314) As befitted someone as well-versed in Plato as Freud was, he believed in a universal longing to return to a time when there was no Self and no Other, there was only One. And so he says, “Eros…is the long way round back to narcissism, to death.” (Downing 2006 p. 314) The deepest truth of desire, according to Freud, was not eroticism, but narcissism.
Lou Salome: The Lovable Self as Unity
In 1921, two years prior to Freud’s cancer sentence and sad assessment of narcissism, Lou Salome’s star was rising. A brilliant woman who had always had friends and lovers in all the right places, her career as a psychoanalyst was taking off, she was close friends with Sigmund and now his daughter, and her life was, as was usual for her, awash with success. According to her autobiography as quoted in Wikipedia, her lifelong philosophy was, “whatever happens to me — I never lose the certainty that arms are open behind me to welcome me.”
So Narcissus’s pool reflected something quite different and far more positive back to Salome than it did to Freud. As quoted in Downing 2006, Salome countered Freud’s model of narcissism as separation, saying that actually, narcissism was an underlying oneness with everything. She echoes the Bible and and pre-echoes Jung, saying that “Narcissus ‘saw himself as if he were all — otherwise he would have fled.’” (Quoted Downing 2006 p.317)
For Salome, a constantly creative Renaissance woman, ideal narcissism is the perfect art supply and study aid: it is a constant universal and individual life force to tap into that reminds us of our oneness with everything. She says it is “an experience of being wholly at one with the world, not just absorbed in oneself…Narcissism is in its creative form no longer just a stage to be transcended; it is rather the persistent accompaniment of all our deeper experience.” (Quoted Downing 2006 p. 317)
Jung and Winnicott: The Lovable Self as a (Sometimes Hidden) God
Narcissus’s transformative encounter with himself reveals loving awe which was previously hidden from him; this is the ultimate Jungian goal. According to Rowland (2010) discussing Jung, “the goal of the psychic quest throughout life is to realize…the Self as the heart of being.” (p. 15)
Salome (1921)’s concept that Narcissus sees himself as the wholeness of Nature finds an echo in Jung’s postulate that “the Self is…the complete wholeness of being.” (Rowland 2010 p. 15)
Jung defines of the Self as a “God-image.” (Rowland 2010 p. 16) In other words, the Self is a lens for understanding the true nature of the natural universe. Ultimately, there is “no separate reality of God beyond the psychic image. ….Jung’s quest for Self regards human life as a journey in search of inner meaning.” (Rowland 2010 p. 17) And Narcissus’s awakening love affair with himself is the culmination of this journey.
Jung preemptively echoes Winnicott, in describing how narcissism can shift from a healthy creative force for unity to an unhealthy trap. What Jung describes as Persona, which he describes as, “a mask of personality that is oriented towards the social and professional environment,” (Rowland 2010 p. 17) is similar to what Winnicott (1960) calls a False Self. Winnicott’s definition of this False Self is antithetical to Narcissus’s quest for aware love. He says (1960) that “the False Self is represented by the whole organization of the polite and mannered social attitude, a ‘not wearing the heart on the sleeve,’ as might be said,” (p. 143) thus consciously verbalizing the False Self, or Jung’s Persona, as a block to true narcissistic unity. Jung pre-echoes Winnicott again, agreeing that, “those imprisoned in their social faces, their personas, are starved of the deep unconscious energies of true psychic health.” (Rowland 2010 p.17)
Jung and Winnicott’s clarification of the Persona and the False Self as an imprisoning attitude pave the way for the eventual, pop-culture, limited understanding of narcissism, not as a healthy love of the image of divine oneness with everything, but as an infatuation with a starved and withholding mask.
Winnicott (1960) describes the opposite of the False Self as the True Self. He says, “only the True Self can be creative and only the True Self can feel real.” (p. 148) Since healthy narcissism is essentially a creative drive to love the true essence of one’s being, narcissism is consequently a mandatory foundation for the individuation of the True Self.
Bromberg and Sacks: The Lovable Self as a State of Mind
Reality is in the mind of the beholder. How we love the Self depends on mental framework. So Bromberg echoes Winnicott’s belief about the creative nature of the True Self, and echoes Jung’s explanation belief that “the Self is…the world coming forth alive into our subjectivity,” (Rowland p. 16) when he, (Bromberg 1993) says that “creativity is…about — the capacity to feel like one self while being many.” (p. 166) This is Narcissus’s creative drive to witness the Self in the Other and the Other in the Self. The creatively singular/plural nature of reality is love.
Changing brain structure can change mental models of the universe, which can change how we understand love. Bromberg (1993) refers to an Oliver Sacks brain damage patient whose new mental constructs of reality match Narcissus’s creative love, albeit replacing Narcissus’ tragic tone with a comic one. The patient felt he was one with everything. He “developed an…incapacity to retain a…personal…identity” and “knew only presence, not absence.” (Bromberg quoting Sacks, p. 156) He now experienced an “organic unity” with the universe, and could no longer “perceive…in part” but rather, only “as wholes.” (Bromberg quoting Sacks, p. 156) This echoes the Bible’s definition of what it means to truly love with maturity and wisdom:
“when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away….For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”
( — KJV 1 Corinthians 10–13)
Intellect can interfere with our connection with the universal Self. But it can be overcome.
Watts: The Lovable Self as Quantum Everything
Since Narcissus’s story is eternal and universal, it echoes all over Vedantic and Buddhist texts, and also all over quantum physics and entanglement theory. Alan Watts simplifies and summarizes these echoes for contemporary popular Western audiences in several books, including in The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are (1966):
“In looking out upon the world, we forget that the world is looking at itself — through our eyes and IT’s. ….You’re IT. ….To come on like IT — to play at being God — is to play the Self as a role, which is just what it isn’t. When IT plays, it plays at being everything else.” (p. 148)
Jung sees Narcissus as God. Watts sees God as Narcissus. They are the same. — Devout Jews say that the human body is a temple of God, and this is what they mean. We are all IT.
“Narcissism” is a word that has been unfortunately co-opted by pop culture and imbued with negative connotations. But Narcissus’s original myth echoes the individual understanding of every being who sees themselves reflected in his pool. When I look into this pool, I see humanity’s journey to understand and love the self as one way of understanding the wholeness of the universe. True narcissism needs to be re-understood as a creative force to unite with this oneness. Individuation, ironically, leads us back to the truth that we are all aspects of one great existence. Let us popularly redefine narcissism as a creative and compassionate journey back to the heart of knowledge, the heart of understanding, and the heart of love.
Bromberg, P.M. (1993). Shadow and Substance: A Relational Perspective on Clinical
Process. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 10(2), pp. 147–168.
Downing, Christine. (2006). Narcissus Reflections. From Gleanings. iUniverse.
Rowland, Susan. Getting Started with Jung. (2010). From CG Jung in the Humanities: Taking the Soul’s Path. Spring Journal.
Ovid. (8. Republished 1993). Narcissus and Echo. From The Metamorphoses of Ovid, Book Three. (Translated More, Brookes). Theoi Classical Texts Library. https://www.theoi.com/Text/OvidMetamorphoses3.html#5
Watts, Alan. (1966). The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. Collier Books, New York.
Winnicott, Donald W. (1963. Republished Oct 2016.) Ego Distortions in Terms of True and False Self. From The Collected Works of D. W. Winnicott: Volume 6, 1960–1963. (Edited Caldwell, Lesley, & Taylor Robinson, Helen). Oxford University Press.