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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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2. Crystalline Reflection: The Symbol as Refuge from Life


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2.  Crystalline Reflection: The Symbol as Refuge from Life

Around 1890 there is an eruption of interest in the Narcissus theme among the young male poets in the Symbolist circle centered around Stéphane Mallarmé. What seems to have attracted them to the theme is its emphasis on beauty, seclusion, and self-referentiality. They also tended to connect the Narcissus theme with the notion of the symbol. I will not venture to give a rigid definition of that notoriously elusive concept in this context, since part of what these authors examine through the Narcissus theme is the very nature of the symbol. Suffice it to say that the symbol is here conceived as a sign that effects a transition from the sensuous to something beyond appearances; the symbol requires (and invites) the active participation of the beholder.

Paul Valéry, in his text “Existence du symbolisme” (1938), is in retrospect skeptical about attempts at any common Symbolist definition of the symbol; thus, he argues that taken as a whole, “[i]l n’y a pas d’esthétique symboliste” (Valéry I, 690). Instead, he writes, “[c]e n’est qu’une négation qui leur est commune, et qui est essentiellement marquée en chacun d’eux” (Valéry I, 690). Valéry describes how the Symbolist (who in his account is a young male bachelier entering into adulthood, which takes the form of a bookstore) rejects the acclaim of the public as well as that of...

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