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The Narcissus Theme from «Fin de Siècle» to Psychoanalysis

Crisis of the Modern Self


Niclas Johansson

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.

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Appendix A: The Narcissus Theme in the Works of Salomé and Rilke


At the end this investigation of turn-of-the-century Narcissus, I would like to add a couple of Narcissus/narcissism treatments that could be argued to constitute an independent development of the theme and would indeed be worthy of a chapter of their own, but which it has not been possible to cover completely. I will present them here briefly to highlight how they connect to both the psychoanalytic and the Symbolist views of Narcissus while renegotiating the perspective of the relation between self and world. This development of the theme is found in Lou Andreas-Salomé’s essayistic writings on narcissism and Rainer Maria Rilke’s poems on Narcissus. Creating an opposition to the individualistic conception of the self and the prospect of a mystic union between the self and the world (realizable in the act of poetic creation) and set in the language of psychoanalysis by Salomé, this branch of the Narcissus theme envisions something similar to the Symbolist notion of Narcissus but cast in organic rather than crystalline metaphors and realizing the poetic apotheosis through a loving embrace of the world rather than through a withdrawal from it. Above all, the feminine aspect of Narcissus – seen in all of our past investigations – is here revalorized and conceived as the solution to a dilemma resulting from a masculine predicament. This development of the theme thus offers a feminine corrective of sorts to the overwhelmingly male-dominated discourse on Narcissus in the fin de siècle and to Freud’s monosexual theory.

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