The Narcissus Theme from «Fin de Siècle» to Psychoanalysis

Crisis of the Modern Self

by Niclas Johansson (Author)
©2017 Thesis 480 Pages


The story of Narcissus, who falls in love with his own image in a spring, has fascinated writers and thinkers ever since Ovid first gave poetical form to the myth in his Metamorphoses. This study systematically investigates the elaborations of the theme at the turn of the century around 1900. It argues that a sense of crisis in the modern foundation of selfhood explains the heightened interest in Narcissus during this period.
The book investigates three different aspects of the theme: as a symbol of a poetic apotheosis of the self in French Symbolism; as a narrative of a dissolving self in English, Austrian and French decadent literature; and as the concept of narcissism in sexology and psychoanalysis, where self-love provides an instinctual foundation of the self.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Abbreviations and A Note on Quotations
  • 1. Introduction
  • Theoretical Considerations
  • Theme
  • Intertextuality
  • Myth
  • The Narcissus Tradition
  • Crisis of the Modern Self
  • Fin-de-Siècle Decadence
  • Subjectivity and Selfhood
  • The Modern Self
  • The Tensions of Modern Selfhood
  • Previous Research
  • 2. Crystalline Reflection: The Symbol as Refuge from Life
  • Poetic Apotheosis
  • Valéry I
  • Gide
  • Mauclair
  • de Régnier
  • Conclusions
  • Narcissus as a Polemical Figure in Fin-de-Siècle Poetics
  • de Bouhélier
  • Gilkin, Giraud, Bernard
  • Gasquet
  • Conclusions
  • Living with the Constitutive Incompleteness of Being
  • Royère
  • Valéry II
  • Conclusions
  • 3. Narcissus Comes of Age: Narratives of a Dissolving Self
  • Faust and the Modern Narcissus (Wilde)
  • The Intertextual Situation and the Narcissus Theme
  • The Mirror Scene
  • The Faust Theme and the Opposition between Basil and Lord Henry
  • The Pathetic Fallacy and Narcissic Mirroring
  • The Modern Faust-Narcissus
  • Conclusions
  • Knowledge and Otherness (Andrian)
  • The Narcissus Reference
  • Selfhood and Otherness
  • Knowledge
  • Initiation and Bildung
  • Princes of Lost Origins
  • Narcissus suspicious of himself (Adam)
  • Narcissus and the Androgyne (Scheffer)
  • Narcissus as Pharaoh (Lorrain)
  • Conclusions
  • 4. The Birth of the Concept out of the Narcissus-Like Tendency: A Drive-Theoretical Foundation of the Self
  • Narcissism as Perversion (Binet, Näcke, Ellis)
  • Literary Responses to the Sexological Concept (Chassé, Gourmont)
  • Narcissism in Psychoanalysis
  • The Ways of Appropriation: Metaphor and Myth (Freud, Rank, Pfandl)
  • Aspects of Narcissism and Their Relation to the Literary Theme (Sadger, Freud, Rank)
  • Myth and Psychoanalytic Bildung (Freud)
  • Conclusions
  • 5. Summary and Conclusions
  • Appendix A: The Narcissus Theme in the Works of Salomé and Rilke
  • Appendix B: The Narcissus Theme 1890–1930
  • Bibliography
  • Index of Names

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My deepest gratitude in completing this project goes to my advisors, professor Torsten Pettersson and professor Björn Sundberg at Uppsala University, the sense and sensibility of this dissertation. Always encouraging me to pursue the paths I have myself found the most rewarding, they have open-mindedly responded to my work on its own premises, judging it critically yet benevolently.

I am highly indebted to Elisabeth Friis, senior lecturer at Lund University, for a very competent opposition at my final seminar. Elisabeth pointed out a wide range of aspects of this study where further attention was required, which I have attempted to address in my continued work with the text. I am also grateful to Carin Franzén, professor at Linköping University, who earlier gave me valuable comments at my licentiate seminar, particularly regarding the theoretical framework of the study.

Some of the most important people during this project have been my fellow PhD candidates, to all of whom I am deeply grateful for providing the intellectually and socially stimulating environment without which this extensive project would have become all too solitary. For discussions, comments and suggestions that have more particularly contributed to this work over the years, I would like to mention Sam Holmqvist, Thomas Sjösvärd, Frida Buhre, Katarina Båth, Malin Nauwerck, Karl Berglund, Ingeborg Löfgren, and Andreas Hedberg.

I am deeply thankful to professor Michael Lucey for giving me the opportunity to spend a most stimulating semester at University of California, Berkeley, in 2014. Professor Valerie DeMarinis at Uppsala University has also been most helpful in reading my chapter on psychoanalysis and suggesting important changes during the final months of this work. Judith Robey at Oxford Editing has been invaluable in helping me increase the legibility of the present text. I furthermore offer my most sincere gratitude to Krzysztof Bak, associate professor at Stockholm University and Jagiellonian University in Kraków, for sowing the first seed of what was later to become this dissertation in our conversations about possible PhD projects.

A special place in my heart and gratitude is reserved for Julia, Albert, and Cora DeMarinis Giddings, without whom I could easily have been lost in the textual mirror. Julia has also been vital in rectifying my sometimes all too unidiomatic prose on different occasions along the way.

Finally, it would not have been possible for me to complete this project without the financial support I have received for trips to conferences and libraries from ← 9 | 10 → Uddeholms resestipendium and Karl och Betty Warburgs fond, for my semester in Berkeley from Uddeholms resestipendium, Letterstedts resestipendium, Sederholms stipendium för utrikes resor, and Birgit och Gad Rausings Stiftelse för humanistisk forskning, for the final months of writing to complete this text from Historisk-filosofiska fakultetens jubelfeststipendium, Helge Ax:son Johnsons stiftelse, Uddeholms forskarstipendium, and Stiftelsen Olle Engkvist Byggmästare, and for editing costs from Gunvor och Josef Anérs stiftelse.

I would also like to thank series editor Thomas Grub, as well as Ute Winkelkötter and other staff at Peter Lang for the smooth handling of the publication process.

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Abbreviations and A Note on Quotations

I have in this book followed the American standard to place quotation marks after the period or comma, even if it is not included in the original. In block quotes, however, I have allowed the original to be preserved, even if it means that quotation marks are placed before the period or comma. All other changes in quotes are clearly marked, and all italics are – unless otherwise indicated – original.

For convenience, the following frequently quoted works are referred to by abbreviations in parentheses:

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1.  Introduction

Upon reading Leopold Andrian’s novella Der Garten der Erkenntnis (1895), Hugo von Hofmannsthal writes in his notebook: “Das deutsche Narcissusbuch. – Es sind wundervolle Augenblicke wo sich eine ganze Generation in verschiedenen Ländern im gleichen Symbol findet.”1 What was it about Narcissus that united a European generation of fin-de-siècle writers? How did they interpret the theme and what significance did they find in it? Based on an investigation of explicit treatments of the theme, I will argue that the common denominator for the turn-of-the-century interest in Narcissus was the sense of a lost foundation of selfhood. Narcissus, reflected in the ephemeral image in the water, comes to symbolize the self who lacks substantial grounding. What crystallizes through the figure of Narcissus is an aspect of what more generally could be called the problem of decadence. In an era of disbelief, of the death of God, and of crumbling social, moral, and metaphysical structures, the self seemed to some the only refuge from chaos. But what if the most intimate thing, the self’s very core, was subject to the forces of dispersion and decay? What if there was no safe ground even for the unity and identity of the self? The Narcissus theme, as we shall see, offered a poetic matrix through which these questions could be asked and also a framework within which they could be answered.

There was, to be sure, no one interpretation of Narcissus at the turn of the century. The authors who turned to the mythological figure did not agree on one view of the myth, but they shared a common concern. The theme constitutes a complex of interrelated visions revolving around what I will call a crisis of the modern self, which amounts to an undermining of the paradigm of selfhood and subjectivity in the modern era. This is a crisis with many faces, and the Narcissus theme, by virtue of its constitutive aspects, allows for a number of them to be represented and explored. The connection established between subjectivity and sexuality at the turn of the century, with its adjoined concern for the normal and the deviant, intersects with the queer love of Narcissus. The psychologization of the soul accords with Narcissus’s inquisitive introspection. Both the psychologization and the sexualization of the self were, furthermore, two sides of the general expansion of empirical science in the 19th century, which for the fin de siècle posed the question of the relation between the real and the ideal. In the ← 13 | 14 → Narcissus theme, we find it applied to selfhood in the question of the ideality or the phenomenality of the image – is the self an ideal ground for being or rather an evanescent phenomenon? Related to this is the epoch’s concern with aesthetics: is the theme susceptible to an impressionist dissociation of being and appearance, or rather to a Symbolist cancellation of contingency through sensory correspondences – i.e., does the poetic work dissolve or unify the self? The story of Narcissus is, furthermore, a story of coming of age, and this aspect connects it to the modern paradigm of Bildung as a path to reconciliation between individuality and subjective coexistence with others in a society with common norms. Just a the original Narcissus died at the threshold of maturity, however, so the modern Narcissus often fails in this reconciliation.

The aim of this study is thus to examine the manifestations of the Narcissus theme around the turn of the century, in its formal and morphological aspects as well as in regard to its semantics. It is an intertextual-thematological study that follows in the footsteps of such works as Louise Vinge’s survey of the Narcissus theme from antiquity until the beginning of the 19th century. But this study focuses on a more synchronic moment in history, giving more space to close readings of certain important texts and aiming at a farther-reaching synthesis of the intellectual concerns raised through the theme.2

The scope of this study is that of fin-de-siècle literature in French, German, and English, as well as the conceptualization of narcissism in turn-of-the- century sexology and Freudian psychoanalysis, regarded as a response to and continuation of literary treatments of Narcissus. The study is thus not delimited by any rigid periodization, nor have I included all texts that make an explicit and pervasive reference to Narcissus, but I think it is safe to say that I cover a more abundant amount of material than any previous investigation of Narcissus at the turn of the century. The texts that have been studied in detail have also been read with an awareness of other treatments of the theme during the period (briefly presented in two appendixes at the end of this study – one providing a general overview of the period between 1890 and 1930, and one focusing on the particularly important contributions by Rainer Maria Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé – in order for the reader to be able to assess my selection and for the benefit of future research). ← 14 | 15 →

Rather than provide a complete inventory, my aim has been to discern a number of important trends, strands, and trajectories in the theme, as well as their significant variations. The study is therefore mostly focused on a limited number of literary and intellectual movements, milieus and traditions. It is mainly a question of the 1890s, except for the afterlife of certain important developments, such as Paul Valéry’s life-long struggle with Narcissus, and the psychoanalytic movement at the beginning of the century. It is generally a Parisian and Viennese affair, with a few excursions to London and Brussels. And it is exclusively a masculine concern, albeit often a masculinity against the grain. Rather than trying to correct these biases, I have taken them as telling of the particular fin-de-siècle interest in Narcissus. The late-decadent movement – taken in a broad sense – peaked in the 1890s and found its theoretical counterpart in the sexologist and psychoanalytic discourses. Its capitals were Paris and Vienna, and it was highly misogynistic: its destabilization of gender norms only reinforced the exclusion of women. In appendix B, one will find some Narcissus texts that apply the theme in a traditional and rather uninteresting way, some that accord with the general line of argument in this study, and some that point in entirely novel directions, but that are not possible to cover here. If one limits oneself to the 1890s, however, one will probably not find much that contrasts starkly with the general picture I present in this study.

The analyses will be divided into three chapters based on three dominant modes in which the Narcissus theme is developed, and, corresponding to these, three general ways in which the crisis of the modern self is confronted. In chapter 2, I will examine elaborations of Narcissus as a poetic symbol. These treatments typically focus on the coincidence of man and flower in the crystalline clarity of the water as a way to depict or evoke pure self-referentiality. Narcissus here becomes something of a symbol of symbols, a means of pointing the way to reconciling the contingency of individual, finite existence with an ideal foundation for selfhood through poetic epiphany. This type of elaboration of the theme is generally found within French Symbolism and evoked reactions as well as further developments that will also be discussed here.

Chapter 3 focuses on narrative elaborations of the theme within the broader framework of decadence. These elaborations develop the Narcissus theme as a coming-of-age story, describing a process of Bildung that, in one way or another, fails. They transport Narcissus to a modern world, where he is exposed to a confusing and insecure environment, losing certainty concerning, above all, his own self. In this modern version on Narcissus, the recognition motif is delayed, perverted, or abandoned as unattainable. These Narcissuses are often caught in a ← 15 | 16 → game of masks and immersed in irony to the extent that a substantial foundation can never be reached, and they invariably succumb to the crisis of the self.

In chapter 4, finally, we will turn to conceptual elaborations of the theme. Beginning with sexology and continuing with classical psychoanalysis, we will discern the process through which the literary theme is turned into a medico-scientific concept, as well as how it relates to the theme’s origin in myth. The concept of narcissism reduces the Narcissus theme to one of its core aspects: self-love. But because of the fundamental place that psychoanalysis awards sexuality in the understanding of human identity, the reversal of the sexual drive onto oneself is given far-reaching consequences and turns the theory of narcissism into an explanatory paradigm for the problems exposed in the literary Narcissuses. Through narcissism, psychoanalysis establishes sexuality as the foundation of selfhood and ties subjectivity to biological causation. But psychoanalysis also suggests a path of Bildung leading to self-knowledge and subjective autonomy.

In this introductory chapter, I will first present the theoretical premises of this study, focusing on the governing notions of thematology, intertextuality, and myth. Next, I will give a brief overview of the Narcissus tradition, from antiquity to the late 19th century, to provide the needed background for this investigation. I will then set the study within the relevant context of intellectual history by recapitulating some of the distinguishing traits of fin-de-siècle decadence and demonstrating how it can be understood as a crisis of modern selfhood. Finally, I will give an overview of some of the previous research that has been dedicated to Narcissus during this period and state my relation to it.

Theoretical Considerations

The general procedure applied in this study will be informed by intellectual history and intertextual-thematological analysis of the Narcissus theme at the turn of the century, with a focus on the fin de siècle and psychoanalysis. In this section, I will give a presentation of my approach to the concepts of theme, intertext, and myth (and central aspects of the intellectual history required as background will be presented below). The investigation-defining concept of theme is taken from thematology as it developed in the 1960s. Despite its age, I consider the thematological approach to be a still quite viable research direction that allows us to grasp aesthetic as well as intellectual processes at work in history through the prism of a common theme. The theorization of thematology, however, precedes, or coincides with, the explosion of theory in literary studies beginning in the 1960s, and therefore its relation to other theoretical developments demands some clarification. This is particularly true in relation to intertextuality. The theme of ← 16 | 17 → thematology is of course an intertextual phenomenon par excellence – it is constituted in the interchange between texts – but its theorization precedes even the term “intertextuality.” I will show how the concept of theme can be placed on an intertextual footing and how it can be slightly refined through an intertextual brush-up. “Myth” is sometimes used more or less interchangeably with “theme,” particularly when, as in our case, the theme derives from an actual myth. However, myth is a term that is semantically charged after at least two centuries of theory-laden discussions about the nature of myth, and I will therefore not use it as an operative concept but rather to designate myth in the narrower sense of a certain kind of traditional tale in a predominantly illiterate society (and not the literary afterlife of that oral tale). That the theme of Narcissus derives from the myth of Narcissus has, however, been important for how it has been understood, and in the last part of this section, I will give a brief presentation of some of the views on myth pertinent to the period under scrutiny.


The study of themes (in German, Stoffe) is almost as old as literary studies itself, but its modern theorization dates back to the thematology (in German, Stoffgeschichte) of chiefly Raymond Trousson and Elisabeth Frenzel in the 1960s.3 Trousson defines theme in the following way, vis-à-vis motif:

Qu’est-ce qu’un motif? Choisissons d’appeler ainsi une toile de fond, un concept large, désignant soit une certaine attitude – par example la révolte – soit une situation de base, impersonelle, dont les acteurs n’ont pas encore été individualisés – par example les situations de l’homme entre deux femmes, de l’opposition entre deux frères, entre un père et un fils, de la femme abandonné, etc. Nous avons affaire à des situations déjà délimitées dans leurs lignes essentielles, à des attitudes déjà définies, à des types même – par example le révolté ou le séducteur – mais qui restent à l’état de notions générales, de concepts: dans ce sens, l’idée de bonheur ou celle de progrès, la rébellion métaphysique ou l’avarice sont des motifs.

Qu’est-ce qu’un thème? Convenons d’appeler ainsi l’expression particulière d’un motif, son individualisation ou, si l’on veut, le résultat de passage du général au particulier. On dira que le motif du séducteur s’incarne, s’individualise et se concrétise dans le personnage de Don Juan; le motif de l’artiste créateur dans le thème de Pygmalion; le motif de l’opposition entre la conscience individuelle et la raison d’État dans le thème d’Antigone; le motif de l’intolérance religieuse et philosophique dans le thème de Socrate. […] ← 17 | 18 → C’est dire qu’il y aura thème lorsqu’un motif, qui apparaît comme un concept, une vue de l’esprit, se fixe, se limite et se définit dans un ou plusieurs personnages agissant dans une situation particulière, et lorsque ces personnages et cette situation auront donné naissance à une tradition littéraire.4

There are two aspects to this definition. On the one hand, theme is defined as a unit of literary content that functions as a particularized expression of motif – i.e., a general situation, attitude, type, or concept. In this way, Narcissus would be regarded as a theme expressing the motif of self-love. On the other hand, the theme is defined – intertextually – through the fact that it constitutes a literary tradition. In this way, we can conceive of a Narcissus tradition, more or less definitely originating with Ovid, but we cannot conceive of a tradition of self-love.

Frenzel defines theme in a different way (but to my mind a compatible one) in relation to the “Rohstoff” of any element of the world outside of the literary work:

Stoff im engeren und wissenschaftlich fruchtbaren Sinne ist daher nicht dieser Rohstoff, sondern eine schon außerhalb der Dichtung vorgeprägte Fabel, ein “Plot”, der als Erlebnis innerer oder äußerer Art, als Bericht über ein zeitgenössisches Ereignis, als historische, mythische, religiöse Fabel, als ein bereits durch einen anderen Dichter gestaltetes Kunstwerk oder auch als selbsterfundene Handlung dichterisch gestaltet wird. So verstanden ist poetischer Stoff bereits ein durch einen geistigen Prozeß erzeugtes Substrat aus dem, was in der natürlichen Welt als Stoff gilt.5

In a way that recalls Trousson, Frenzel thus defines theme as a unit of content insofar as it is configurated in a literary work. In her definition, Frenzel evidently allows for themes with no tradition, but her research focus is on those themes that do form such a tradition.

As regards the structure of the theme, Trousson and Frenzel differ in their accounts, but not irreconcilably. As we see in the quote above, Frenzel seems to be pointing in the direction of a formalist conception of theme as fabula or plot. This is partly accurate in that she typically regards the theme as constituted by a number of components. But she does not limit her concept of theme to a narrative ordering; nor does she in a Proppian fashion (or even a Greimasian one) conceive of the theme as a pre-established sequence. She admits instead that the exact definition of a certain theme can be difficult to nail down and that it ultimately lies in the point of intersection between its different configurations: ← 18 | 19 → “Wenn so Stoff an sich schwer fixierbar ist, braucht seine Existenz doch nicht geleugnet werden: sie liegt in dem geistigen Nenner aller Fassungen.”6

Frenzel conceives of the theme as constituted by smaller elements, motifs, which she defines as “einen elementaren, in sich einheitlichen Teil des poetischen Stoffes.”7 Here we seem to run into a contradiction with Trousson, who regarded motif as the poetically uninstantiated general concept expressed through the theme. This contradiction must, however, not be regarded as an absolute one, even if there are certainly differences in focus and orientation between the two accounts. When we look at the examples that Frenzel gives of well-defined motifs, such as “Vater-Sohn-Konflikt, Bruderzwist, Mann zwischen zwei Frauen,” etc., we find that they to a large degree overlap with those of Trousson.8 Frenzel furthermore concludes that a single motif cannot have a literary history of its own, and in this, she agrees with Trousson.9 The main difference between their thinking on this subject seems to lie in the fact that whereas Trousson focuses on the theme as the expression of one motif, Frenzel considers it to be composed of a number of motifs. But this difference is less distinct than it seems. Trousson does not conceive the association between theme and motif as a strict one-to-one relation; rather, he repeatedly stresses the polyvalence of the theme and highlights the process whereby different themes in certain historical periods can converge to express the same motif while one theme can express a number of different motifs. Conversely, Frenzel highlights the role of a “Kernmotiv” as the most important motif of a given theme.

Yet Trousson’s main emphasis is on the relation between one motif and one theme, whereas Frenzel distinguishes structural relations between a number of different motifs within a theme. The latter approach seems to be the most useful to me, and it is also the one Vinge applies in her study. It allows us to distinguish in the Narcissus theme the motifs of self-love, self-knowledge, reflection (subdivided into error or illusion and recognition), beauty, and arrogance, etc. while examining the relations between them as supporting or conflicting, central or peripheral, etc.

What both Frenzel and Trousson focus on as one of the main advantages of thematological research is that it allows for both wide and long synthetic takes on texts from different historical periods, different languages, and different genres; as some have pointed out, this approach also allows for a semantic point of ← 19 | 20 → contact between literary and non-literary texts.10 The individual texts become links in a chain, where the theme provides a tertium comparationis.11 Frenzel emphasizes particularly the structural changes that can be observed as a theme adapts to a new genre, is used to express a different message, or is placed in new political or ideological circumstances. For example, a peripheral motif may become central; the order of motifs may be reversed; a theme may be condensed into a single motif or even a symbol; or a certain form of the theme may become cemented in a specific genre. Trousson stresses instead the intimate connection that thematology establishes between literary history and intellectual history. On how the latter becomes readable through the former, he writes:

Souple, protéiforme, polyvalent, indépendant des cadres narratifs, le thème de héros est susceptible, par la multiplication quasi illimitée de ses manifestations, de s’intégrer aux charactéristiques de la pensée, des moeurs et du goût d’un siècle, d’apparaître nanti de toutes les significations, voire les plus contradictoires, s’adaptant à toutes les nuances de l’état présent des idées, en épousant toutes les variations: la Stoffgeschichte se révèle simultanément Geistesgeschichte.12

Of course, these two emphases are not in opposition: both are valuable for our investigation.

However, as particularly Trousson stresses, the historical opportunities of thematology also place high demands on the researcher, who must cover vast amounts of material in order to discern the important developments and variations of a theme. He also contends that nothing less than an all-European and historically all-encompassing thematological study is satisfactory and that without such a scope the researcher may mistake the derivative for the original or miss important nuances or currents in the theme, thereby making unjustified generalizations. This is obviously not the scope of the present study, focused as it is on a much more synchronic moment in history and the three culturally most important European languages at the time. Frenzel appears more forgiving and highlights the interest in focusing on specific conceptions of a given theme as defining for certain epochs or generations. In this context, she mentions Narcissus as particularly interesting for a study of the epoch of decadence.13 My rather synchronic approach is thus more narrow in scope than classical thematological ← 20 | 21 → studies, but it follows one of the paths suggested by Frenzel. Yet, the large historical context is always important to bear in mind, and we have to our benefit the backdrop of Vinge’s study, which does indeed live up to Trousson’s demands. I have also chosen to focus on discerning some important general trends as well as dedicating a great deal of space to certain complex and influential texts while discussing others in a more succinct way.


From today’s perspective, it seems reasonable to place thematology within the larger theoretical framework of intertextuality. Thematology historically precedes the very notion of intertextuality, but it is in no way alien to it, and possibilities of fusing the two have been suggested.14 Doing so has at least two major advantages. First, it allows for a generalization where the specific intertextuality of the theme is inscribed in a system of relations between texts, many of which will prove of vital importance in the analysis of individual texts in this study. Second, it allows us to specify and emphasize certain aspects that remain more obscure in thematological theory. This regards, for instance, the relations between structure and meaning as well as the importance of meaning-generating textual relations independent of any kind of psychologization of the author. In traditional thematology, theme is for example exclusively defined as “Inhalt,” as opposed to “Form” and “Gehalt” as aspects of the literary work.15 These distinctions seem rather artificial in light of literary theory from recent decades, and it is also rarely upheld in the actual practice of even traditional thematology. It is typically also imbued with rather old-fashioned concerns about influences and sources, authorial intentions and the originality of artistic genius. These are all different forms of turning a psychologically conceived perception of the author, relatively de-emphasized by more text-centered perspectives, into the center of attention.16 Correcting these biases through intertextual theory may contradict the letter, but certainly not the spirit of thematology. What, then, would it imply to turn theme into an intertextual concept? ← 21 | 22 →

Intertextuality is based on the insight that no text exists in a vacuum, that texts are created from texts. It states that the meaning of a text is in part determined by its relation to other texts, as these relations impose multiple codings on the text’s elements. Intertextuality thereby challenges the sovereignty of the work. It switches the master metaphor of literary history from flux, as in the study of influences and sources, to texture, with its focus on structure and spatially conceived relations.

The notion of intertextuality was developed by Julia Kristeva in the late 1960s as a generalization of Mikhail Bakhtin’s dialogism. It appeared as an integral part of the post-structuralist revision of the concept of text, carried out by Kristeva, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and others.17 In this context, intertextuality connoted a radical break with traditional views on meaning, authorship, subjectivity, etc. In the view of the post-structuralists, intertextuality denotes the borderless productivity of a textual space. As part of the critique of logocentrism, intertextuality de-centers the subject of enunciation, which is no longer seen as the author of a text, but rather as an epiphenomenon of the production of meaning. In this view, the text is no longer semantically closed in upon itself but instead weaves itself into the general text.

As interest in intertextuality rose in the 1970s, the terminological confusion and the manifold of competing conceptions of intertextuality grew exponentially. The mid-70s marked what Laurent Jenny identified as a division in scholarly focus between implicit and explicit intertextuality.18 Implicit or general intertextuality refers to intertextuality as a general feature of texts. Its theorizing – developed within deconstruction, reader-oriented criticism, and socio-culturally oriented criticism – continues to pose a challenge to traditional criticism. Explicit intertextuality, which Marko Juvan terms “citationality,” refers to observable relations between individual texts. Here, intertextuality is regarded as a strategy of literary art involving phenomena such as imitation, parody, citation, montage, and plagiarism. Theoreticians focusing on citationality developed applicable methods of analysis and a systematization of the phenomena of intertextuality – ← 22 | 23 → notably in the works of Michael Riffaterre and Gérard Genette, to name a few.19 As this view of intertextuality developed, mainly in the fields of semiology and literary hermeneutics, the possibilities of analyzing and classifying intertextuality grew, but it also meant that the theory lost some of the radical impetus it had toward mainstream criticism within the context of post-structuralism.

The problem with a theory of citationality is that it largely makes the intertextual relation dependent upon the intention of the author and therefore loses sight of one of the core insights of intertextuality: that there are aspects of the text’s meaning production that evade the control of the author. Theories of general intertextuality, on the other hand, have often proved too unspecific in their emphasis on the infinite semiosis of textuality to be applicable to textual analysis.20

Manfred Pfister has suggested that these models need not be mutually exclusive.21 They can rather be regarded as the two ends of a spectrum, depending on the strength of the intertextual reference. He proposes a heuristic model where the strength of an intertextual relation is determined by six qualitative criteria – referentiality, communicativity, autoreflexivity, structurality, selectivity and dialogicity – discernible through textual properties, which are weighted quantitatively. General intertextuality, which regards any text in relation to all other texts as the universal intertext, must be regarded as a weak relation, whereas the specific relations of explicit intertextuality are necessarily stronger. In this study, we are obviously less concerned with general properties of texts as such and more interested in a certain strong intertextual relation, that of the Narcissus theme. It will therefore be the more specific intertextual relations that will be of interest here. This leaves us at the admittedly more traditional end of the intertextual spectrum, yet without disavowing its core lesson: that the meaning of a text is generated in relation to other texts, partly – but not completely – independent of the intentions of the author.

The overabundance and inconsistency of intertextual terminology can easily lead to confusion. Apart from self-evident intertextual terms such as “quotation” and “allusion,” I will only adopt a small technical vocabulary of intertextuality. Some of the terminology, common in current usage, is taken from Genette’s ← 23 | 24 → extremely ambitious and influential taxonomy in Palimpsestes.22 This includes the term “paratext,” used to designate any piece of text that is directly attached to a main text without stricto sensu belonging to it (such as a title, preface, illustrations, epigraphs, etc.), and “architextual,” used to designate a text’s adherence to a genre in a wide and variable sense of the word. I will also use the term “hypertextuality,” which Genette defines as “toute relation unissant un texte B (que j’appellerai hypertexte) à un texte antérieur A (que j’appellerai, bien sûr, hypotexte) sur lequel il se greffe d’une manière qui n’est pas celle du commentaire.”23 Paradigmatic examples of hypertextuality are, for example, those of Virgil’s Aeneid and Joyce’s Ulysses to Homer’s Odyssey. As Genette did in his study, I will only apply the term in those cases where the hypertextuality is of considerable pervasiveness in the hypertext and is not limited to punctual references.24

Genette’s classification of intertextuality is, however, a classification of intertextual practices. His account relies entirely on an assumed authorial intention. I will therefore not go beyond these general terms into the depths of his wide-ranging taxonomy. As regards the theorization of the semiotic mechanisms of intertextual relations, I will instead turn to Renate Lachmann, who describes these mechanisms in terms of relations between signs and signifying structures. Her account, just like Pfister’s, mediates between specific and intended intertextuality, on the one hand, and more generalized and intention-independent intertextuality on the other. More parsimonious when it comes to typologies, Lachmann argues that there are, schematically, two kinds of signals of intertextual reference: contiguity and similarity. Contiguity occurs when the manifest text takes up a constitutive element from the referent text. Similarity occurs when structures pointed out in the referent text are equivalent to structures in the manifest text. These signals of reference indicate two different types of intertextual relations. Contiguity indicates a relation of contamination, in which

der ursprüngliche Referenzrahmen eines Elements, sein Stellenwert in einer Texttotalität wird aufgegeben und ein Kontakt zu jeweils anderen fremdtextlichen Elementen ← 24 | 25 → hergestellt. Es entstehen auf diese Weise heterogene Reihen oder Schichten; einem Vorgang der Zerstreuung folgt der einer Zusammensetzung zu einem neuen Textkomplex.25

Similarity, on the other hand, indicates a relation of anagram, where elements of the referent text are distributed in the manifest text in such a way that it is possible to recognize the coherent structure by reassembling scattered pieces:

der Referenztext ist als Anatext präsent. Die anagrammatische Signalisierung schafft eine Rätselstruktur, die durch ein kombinatorisches, rück- und vorverweisendes Lesen dekodiert wird. Das kontaminatorische Signal verlangt eine Lektüre, die kompensatorisch die jeweiligen ursprünglichen textuellen Ordnungen wiederherstellt und die identifizierten Elementen in ihre Rahmen zurückverweist, ohne dabei die Sinnkomplexion abzubauen, die in der (ludistischen) Heterogenisierung der Elemente erzeugt werden konnte.26

Anagram and contamination serve either to synthesize or to differentiate semantic series. Anagram collapses hierarchies and liberates semantic potential; contamination condenses meaning and makes an element of the text resonate with different voices. The types of relations, however, are not mutually exclusive, but should be seen as ideal types that interact with each other in any intertextual relation.

Intertextuality effects a growth of meaning through these relations between texts. However, this expansion of meaning also implies the possibility of hypertrophy and semantic evacuation. To counter this, there is an opposite force that strives to close the individual text and re-establish the semantic integrity of the work. Any text, Lachmann argues, is inscribed in the dialectic movement of decomposition and recomposition.27 As intertextuality decomposes the structure of the text and thereby disperses and multiplies meaning, the moment of recomposition integrates the structure of the text and condenses meaning. The relative strengths of these moments in the individual text determine the semiotic openness of the text. Lachmann notes the difference:

zwischen den avantgardistischen Synkretismen, in denen das Heterogene in der Kontiguität und Friktion der Formen Sinnkomplexion erzeugt, und der postmodernen ← 25 | 26 → Versammlung von elementen verschiedener Kodes, die gerade in der Glättung der Zerstreutheit den “Formverlust” – den die mise en abîme nicht etwa aufhält, sondern beschleunigt – nicht verschleiern kann.28

Just as in Pfister’s account – but with regard to structural features of the entire text rather than the particular features of the specific intertextual relations – the conflict between a hermeneutic conception of intertextuality (which insists upon the semantic integrity of the work) and a post-structuralist conception of intertextuality (which asserts the decentering of the work in the limitless semiosis of the general text) is thus relegated to an internal conflict of the individual text that is settled by the structure of the text itself.29


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (March)
Wilde, Oscar Gide, André Valéry, Paul Freud, Sigmund Narcissism Selfhood Subjectivity Decadence Symbolism Reflection
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 480 pp.

Biographical notes

Niclas Johansson (Author)

Niclas Johansson studied Literature at the Universities of Stockholm and Uppsala and has previously published articles on Birgitta Trotzig, Willy Kyrklund, and Vilhelm Ekelund.


Title: The Narcissus Theme from «Fin de Siècle» to Psychoanalysis