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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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3. Narcissus Comes of Age: Narratives of a Dissolving Self


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3.  Narcissus Comes of Age: Narratives of a Dissolving Self

In this chapter, we will turn to narrative developments of the Narcissus theme. These narratives can generally be referred to as decadent in a wider sense, but, as opposed to the Symbolist and anti-Symbolist texts discussed in the previous chapter, they are not united by a common literary-historical environment or by direct allusions in the texts themselves. They do, however, have a remarkable number of morphological characteristics in common. I will briefly present some of these and indicate the aspects of the crisis of selfhood that they seem to be related to.

One feature that all texts in this chapter share is that they are stories about growing up. In one way or another they all show us Narcissus in the process of coming of age. This feature of course builds upon the fact that Ovid presents us with the rudiments of such a story, in that he gives us Narcissus at birth, with the perspective of growing up “to reach well-ripened age” (Met. 3:346f: “esset / tempora maturae visurus longa senectae”), and then interrupts this perspective at the threshold of adulthood. In most of these stories, the threshold is preserved (but often delayed from Narcissus’s sixteenth to his twenty-first year) as a test, which he sometimes succumbs to, and sometimes passes (but then radically altered). In these stories the coming-of-age aspect is often emphasized, in some cases to the point...

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