Narcissus blooms in spring. They are striking flowers that seem to grow anywhere. Their yellow and white trumpets sprout forth from gardens, roadsides, woods and fields. Around March, the supermarkets start to sell them in little bundles. Along with chocolate bunnies and hot cross buns, they are a sign that Easter is coming.
Better known by its common name, the daffodil, the scientific name for this complex genus of flower is nonetheless a source of much confusion. Many assume that Narcissus is named after the infamous hunter from Greek mythology, who was so fatally enchanted by his own watery reflection that he fell into it and drowned. But in the classic telling of the tale, penned by the Roman poet Ovid in his Metamorphoses, Narcissus tears himself apart. Captured by his gaze and unable to escape his own attractive pull, he does not fall into his reflection but dies trying to get away from it. After his death, the nymphs of spring mourn him and prepare a pyre on which to burn his remains. When they return to collect his body, it has gone. “Instead of his corpse, they discovered a flower with a circle of white petals round a yellow centre.” A Narcissus grows in his place. This is no coincidence. The flower was already well-known at that time, suggesting that the man was named for the flower rather than the other way round. Indeed, the hunter is arguably a personification of the flower’s cultural associations, just as Echo, the nymph who inadvertently lures Narcissus to his own reflection, is the personification of her namesake as well.
This confusion around etymological origins is nonetheless long-standing. Writing around the same time as Ovid, in the first century AD, the Roman philosopher and naturalist Pliny the Elder was the first to use the now familiar plant’s Latin name, discussing its medicinal qualities in his exhaustive Natural History. He notes that, when taken orally, the plant “is injurious to the stomach … and produces dull, heavy pains in the head: hence it is that it has received its name, from ‘narce,’ and not from the youth Narcissus, mentioned in fable.” The word “narce” remains in usage today, becoming the prefix “narco-”, as in narcotic, which is common to many Indo-European languages.
This relationship to narcotics is hardly surprising. Narcissus was certainly a man who became intoxicated with himself, but for the ancients, “narce” primarily referred to feelings of “numbness” and “lethargy”, and so the flower has associations with tiredness and sleep as well. These, too, have persisted into modernity. Narcolepsy, for example – literally meaning “an attack of numbness” – is a chronic brain condition related to excessive daytime drowsiness and sudden lapses into unconsciousness.
Still, the flower isn’t all bad. Though dangerous if administered incorrectly, Pliny describes Narcissus as a “very useful” flower. When ground down and mixed with oil to create an ointment, it is an effective treatment for burns and sprains, as well as bruises, frostbite and earache. Though it might make you sick, itis also useful when “employed for the extraction of foreign substances from the body.” Most famously, it is “good for tumours”, he writes – a use also mentioned by Hippocrates, for whom it was a recommended treatment for uterine tumours in particular. This usage has more recently led to the flower being adopted as a symbol of hope by various cancer charities.
Between cancers of the womb and sleeping disorders, the flower is unsurprisingly also associated with death. The ancient Egyptians saw it as a tomb flower to be grown around burial sites, and daffodils are still a familiar sight in cemeteries around the world today. But they are also a symbol of life, birth and resurrection – lest we forget their symbolic ties to Easter in Christian countries, with Jesus’ resurrection retaining Pagan echoes of seasonal new beginnings. In Iran, too, they are tied to celebrations of Nowruz, or the New Year, held on the spring equinox. This does not make the daffodil an emblem of contradiction but of transformation. With death comes rebirth. The end of winter brings with it a new spring. Narcissus, as a perennial, will itself return year on year. As one of the first flowers to show itself after the deep sleep of winter, its droopy appearance is a fitting form for a lethargic creature newly awoken from a long hibernation.
Despite these complex associations, today Narcissus tends to remind us of one thing: “narcissism”. The hunter’s pride becomes a cardinal sin, or a pathological affliction in the age of psychoanalysis. To be a narcissist is to have an excess of vanity or pride, particularly regarding one’s looks, or to indulge in delusions of grandeur regarding one’s social status. In the age of social media, it seems to be an increasingly common disorder. The politics of aspiration lead to a social landscape in which most hope to appear somehow above their station. To be a narcissist is also to post too much online, or “overshare” the minutiae of your daily existence, as if we are all narcissistic in assuming that the details of our lives warrant so much attention from others. At a time when everyone has a platform and can acquire their fifteen minutes of fame on any given day of the week, there is a narcissist to be awakened in all of us. (Those who abstain are by no means exempt, as even cultivating an offline air of mystery is seen as putting oneself above the chattering masses.) Though ubiquitous, and therefore surely innocuous, to be a narcissist is apparently one of the worst things a person can be. From behind our computer screens, we repeatedly diagnose the most deplorable members of society with narcissistic personality disorders (NPDs).
Clinically speaking, an NPD can take many forms. In his seminal study of this spectrum of conditions, Heinz Kohut explains that a narcissistic personality disorder is often “the result of the psyche’s inability to regulate self-esteem and to maintain it at normal levels”, but this understanding of the disorder “extends from anxious grandiosity and excitement, on the one hand, to mild embarrassment and self-consciousness, or severe shame, hypochondria, and depression, on the other.” Despite this, narcissism is popularly understood as a form of sociopathy today, since we more readily associated its stereotypical displays of self-centredness with a distinct lack of care for others. This understanding has only become more pronounced since the United States of America elected a narcissist-in-chief to the White House in 2016. As a result, many now see narcissism as the defining pathology of our deluded age.
But we may already sense that there is another “narcissism”, lurking beneath our popular understanding of the term. The narcissism of self-transformation, rebirth, and self-overcoming. Though lying in plain sight, revealing itself to us every spring, and continually dramatized and depicted in cultural forms around the world, this narcissism is otherwise hidden from view. It is drowned out by the unending production of self-help books or works of popular psychology, not to mention the casual symptomologies paraded around by the media, which scream that narcissism is a plague whilst audiences nonetheless continue to yearn and strive for something new – be it new selves or new worlds.
Can narcissism ever be a positive affliction? Though such a suggestion may sound exceedingly contrarian, in considering its understated place in popular culture we might note that its initial theorisers were very much of the opinion that this pathology was a complex set of psychological traits that emerged following a drastic need for change following trauma. The feedback loop of the gaze of Narcissus is, in this sense, a form of repetition compulsion. It was not a cardinal sin but a symptom of libidinal blockages. Because, despite being self-destructive, narcissism is often rooted in one’s own drives for self-preservation and self-transformation.
First coined by the German psychiatrist Paul Näcke in 1899, “narcissism” was, at that time, a term used to describe the “perversion” of autoeroticism, exemplified by a wide range of (largely innocuous) sexual behaviours, including homosexuality and masturbation. Sigmund Freud’s more popular reading of the term suggested that, whilst he could corroborate Näcke’s clinical observations of sexual “misfunction”, there was much more to narcissism than that.
In his case studies, as with Kohut, Freud found that your average narcissist’s excessive self-concern was not always vainglorious but also anxious. Indeed, certain traits described in Näcke’s pathology were common to many mental disorders. Freud surmised, then, that narcissism was not just an expression of self-love but also the product of great pain, since a person in pain so often “gives up his interest in the things of the external world, in so far as they do not concern his suffering.” Though he retains Näcke’s view that narcissism is a deviation from nature – through which our sexual and self-preservative instincts are blocked inside the ego, rather than finding satisfaction in external objects, as they should – he recognises that this pathology can be acquired through trauma, rather than defining a person outright through a series of uncorrected personality traits. This makes narcissism a central part of various illnesses, from anorexia nervosa and hypochondria to dementia praecox (or, as it is now known, schizophrenia). Each is defined, through delusion, paranoia and dysmorphia, by a maladjusted self-image and, furthermore, an excessive concern for and control of that image.
Contra Näcke, this was not an opportunity to moralise mental illness but recognise the obvious. Drawing on a marvellously succinct couplet from the comic poet Wilhelm Busch, who is writing about his toothache, Freud summarises this broader view of narcissism in another way:
Concentrated is his soul
In his molar’s narrow hole
With this version of narcissism in mind, we might ask the following questions of our narcissistic age: Are we not in pain? Do those who overshare their lives online perhaps have the most difficulty coming to terms with the offline lives they see reflected back at them? Is our societal self-concern not encouraged by the media or capitalism more generally, which blocks our desires inside its narrow purview? Are we, as a result, not morbidly aware of our own fragility – not just as people but also a part of a wider and endangered natural world? Institutions and organisations, with unfettered access to ourselves, now ventriloquise our worries and our ideals for their own gain, encouraging our ecological self-destruction and our own individualised paranoia in order to line their own pockets. Am I doing enough? Perhaps not, but the solutions to the problems of our era are unlikely to be extracted from capitalism’s exacerbation of our individualised self-concern. Caught between arrogance and hypochondria is a clear desire for a new (or renewed) world.
The politics of narcissism are not limited to crises of ecology, of course. What of the depressive narcissism that supposedly afflicts the underrepresented and the marginalised in society today? After all, marginalised communities have persistently struggled with the tandem scrutiny and self-knowledge often thrust upon them in the modern world, and the age of social media in particular.
The discourse surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, supposedly has narcissists on all sides, with the notion of a “collective narcissism” being hurled repeatedly across the divide between the movement’s supporters and detractors. Aaron Smale, writing about Black Lives Matter for the New Zealand news website newsroom. has argued that racism itself is an example of collective narcissism. “Narcissism in individuals is characterised by self-centredness, arrogance, seeing others as objects rather than equals, perceiving themselves as unique or special”, he writes, describing the pervasive entitlement he sees displayed within white supremacist societies. Indeed, nationalism and supremacy in general are narcissistic pathologies for Smale. “When that pathology grips a whole group of people and the institutions they have run for hundreds of years, it isn’t going to die overnight.” The problem, however, is that critics of Black Lives Matter agree with his characterisation, albeit when used to describe the movement itself. For those critics, the movement’s eponymous motto is the perfect example of excessive self-concern.
For the conservative commentator Shelby Steele, writing for the Wall Street Journal, watching “the antics of Black Lives Matter is like watching people literally aspiring to black victimization, longing for it as for a consummation.” In his framing, the collective narcissism of Black Lives Matter is a form of mass hysteria or, perhaps more accurately, mass hypochondria. Society is sick, the protestors say, and racism is endemic. Those who have nothing demand reparations or the redistribution of wealth and power. But Steele believes that freedom is far more pervasive than those who resent their more successful peers are willing to believe. “We blacks are, today, a free people”, he writes. “It is as if freedom sneaked up and caught us by surprise.” That’s not to say that racism has gone away though – Steele concedes that there will always be some racism in society – but that doesn’t mean we need to bleach it in some great revolutionary gesture. Like a mysterious rash, racism is an affliction that might always be with us, he argues, and so we mustn’t worry ourselves too much out about it. Like a hypochondriac making a nuisance of themselves at the hospital, to keep demanding treatment for some relatively innocuous blemishes risks doing more harm than good.
In a blogpost written for The American Conservative, Rod Dreher makes the connection between Smale and Shelby’s positions far more explicit. Black Lives Matter is an example of “collective narcissism” as well, he argues – a term he borrows not from Smale but from psychology researcher Agnieszka Golec de Zavala. Intriguingly, de Zavala’s research around collective narcissism is promiscuous – an article she has written about the term is illustrated with an image of English far-right nationalists but discusses Muslims and Argentinians as two groups who have been collectively offended by perceived insults made by individuals or relatively smaller groups. Though de Zavala may have been aiming for impartiality, Dreher’s conclusion is predictable. Whilst the right’s “collective narcissism” may well have fuelled wins for Brexit in the UK and Trump in the US, “it’s only fair”, he says, that we “ask the same about black protesters and their critics.” But rather than indulging in whataboutery, Dreher goes on to make an interesting point. Perhaps the problem is with the diagnosis. In being so easily applicable to both sides, collective narcissism, he rightly notes, might just be “a way to dismiss a group’s grievances by psychologizing them away”.
Narcissism, then, at the level of pop-cultural understanding, is less a useful diagnosis than a blunt scalpel taken to societal scar tissue. But what is missed in all of the analyses above, by those on both the left and the right, is the full spectrum of narcissistic personality disorders, which already covers the full breadth of opinions typically associated with conservatives and progressives. On the most basic level, we can say the obvious: progressives want change, conservatives do not. One group believes that things are fine just as they are and so they are vainglorious in their cultural hegemony; the other believes that change must come, and it will risk self-destruction to free itself from its given image. In this regard, both are clearly narcissistic, according to one definition or another, but who can really blame Black Lives Matter for their self-concern? In fact, if anything, BLM epitomises the torment of Ovid’s Narcissus absolutely.
Captured by their own gaze, black communities see themselves routinely frogmarched across television screens and murdered in body-camera footage. Whereas other social groups may look upon these images and find a way to distance themselves from supposed “criminals” or “anti-social” persons, finding any opportunity to “other” those on screen who supposedly deserve death for their misdemeanours, black communities see themselves and, like Narcissus, are tormented by it. They may lash out, and politicians may dismiss the resulting communal “self-harm”, but such violence is a sure sign of a need for transformation. Riots break out and property is damaged as black communities tear at their own social flesh, doing anything to free themselves and transform.
Yes, Black Lives Matter are the real narcissists, but in the only way that matters.
This understanding of narcissism may appear far less contentious and provocative when we consider the plights of other marginalised and maligned groups. Many of the most seminal works of queer art and literature produced over the last two centuries, for instance, from Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray to James Bidgood’s 1971 film Pink Narcissus and beyond, have a very different relationship to Ovid’s classic tale than your average political commentator.
By reclaiming ownership of Näcke’s offensive pathologizing of homosexuality – in Wilde’s case, even pre-empting it – artistic explorations of homosexuality have been as concerned with the surreality of same-sex love as they are with the difficulty of self-acceptance, and the ways that sexual fantasy and self-reflection are entwined together in queer culture provide each of these narcissistic works with a great psychological depth. What is most notable about these examples is that, alongside their expressions of pain and self-critique, there is a clear striving for self-transformation, and not just a transformation of the self but of one’s wider social standing as well. In Bidgood’s Pink Narcissus, for example, the protagonist imagines himself as such – that is, as a protagonist – seemingly for the first time. As a sex worker left alone in a client’s apartment, all too ready to sate the needs and appetites of others, he places himself centre-stage and enacts a series of fantasies where he is cast in various lead roles. Power is not always in his hands – in one sequence, he is a slave to a Roman emperor – but he is nonetheless the focus of attention. (Submissiveness can, of course, be its own kind of power play.) In every instance, the protagonist’s fantasies do not define his self-obsession but give form to his dreams of self-overcoming. The pink Narcissus raises himself up in the world, as perhaps only he can.
We seldom hear from these narcissists today. Though daffodils remain popular symbols for rebirth, recovery, renewal and change, we rarely think of these associations when we consider our own habits of self-reflection, whether at an individual or societal level. But this is hardly surprising. Though an inexhaustible source of inspiration for millennia, there are very few well-known readings or adaptations of Ovid’s tale that hope to affirm Narcissus’ floral becoming directly. But why not? Yes, Narcissus loved himself to death – and any drive that culminates in one’s own death is catnip to the Freudian psychoanalyst – but Ovid’s tale is not a moral one. Indeed, Narcissus is hardly described as having an overabundant ego. His beauty is objectively recognised and so, in being captured by his own reflection, his demise is narrated like an occupational hazard.
Furthermore, though Narcissus’ self-transformation was a reason to mourn for those who saw and loved him, it nonetheless brought him relief from his suffering. And Narcissus did suffer. His beauty was so intense that few allowed themselves to get close to him. Though loved, he was painfully alone. This may explain his chosen profession as a solitary hunter. Unaware of his own beauty, Narcissus did not understand why he was shunned by the world around him, but he was not so vain as to lash out at their inattention. Instead, he retreated into the wild. But when he was eventually captured by his own reflection and experienced what it was like to both see himself and be seen, the torturous feedback loop was too much to bear. “I am in love, and see my loved one”, he declares, “but that form which I see and love, I cannot reach, so far am I deluded by my love.” The hunter is caught in an erotic feedback loop. Whereas those around him can simply avoid him or turn away, Narcissus cannot separate himself from himself.
But the tale does not end there. Narcissus’ delusions cause him to scratch and lash out at his body, now reflected before him. Though he may love his aquatic imago, he is tormented by it, and soon he wishes to shed the outer shell that has so forsaken him:
In his grief, he tore away the upper portion of his tunic, and beat his bared breast with hands as white as marble. His breast flushed rosily where he struck it, just as apples often shine red in part, while part gleams whitely, or as grapes, ripening in variegated clusters, are tinged with purple. When Narcissus saw this reflected in the water … he could bear it no longer. As golden wax melts with gentle heat, as morning frosts are thawed by the warmth of the sun, so he was worn and wasted away with love, and slowly consumed by its hidden fire.
It is surely no coincidence that Narcissus’ decay is repeatedly compared to the seasonal transformations of nature in bloom. In the end, though the man may be dead, his desires suddenly seem more befitting of a flower anyway, and so Ovid’s Narcissus quickly complicates the convenient view of the early psychoanalysts, who saw narcissism as a deviation from nature. The tale instead depicts nature’s return or, at the very least, its transformation into a new phase of itself. Narcissus, then, is the story of nature’s self-overcoming. It is the story of the seasons, and nature’s yearly cycle, which may start with pollination and germination, but which always ends with a holocaust of its own making, only to begin again.
Though we moralise and criticise our propensity to gaze at ourselves, rarely do we discuss this part of the story today. But perhaps we should. It would certainly save us the repeated embarrassment of re-discovering, apparently against all the odds, our own capacity for self-renewal. This is so often demonstrated by our cultural commentators, who publicly despair over our propensity for self-obsession, turning their backs on a society supposedly tearing itself apart, taking it upon themselves to prepare the funeral pyre on which to lay the dreams of a dozen self-critical social movements. But when they return, they too may bear witness to a transformation they did not expect. Not a death, but a new beginning, and an affirmation of a radical future that our past selves have been desperate to give form to.
 Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Mary M. Innes. London: Penguin Books, 1955, 87.
 Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, trans. John Bostock. London: Taylor and Francis, 1855. Accessed via the Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University, edited by George R. Crane: <http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=urn:cts:latinLit:phi0978.phi001.perseus-eng1:21.75>
 Heinz Kohut, The Analysis of the Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2009, 20.
 Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction” in On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey, ed. Angela Richards. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books; The Pelican Freud Library, Volume 11, 1984, 75.
 Aaron Smale, “A collective narcissism”, newsroom., 13 June 2020: <https://www.newsroom.co.nz/a-collective-narcissism>
 Shelby Steele, “Black protest has lost its power”, Wall Street Journal, 12 January 2018: <https://www.wsj.com/articles/black-protest-has-lost-its-power-1515800438>
 Agnieszka Golec de Zavala, “Why collective narcissists are so politically volatile”, aeon, 12 January 2018: <https://aeon.co/ideas/why-collective-narcissists-are-so-politically-volatile> The author describes collective narcissists as follows: “Collective narcissists are not simply content to be members of a valuable group. They don’t devote their energy to contributing to the group’s betterment and value. Rather, they engage in monitoring whether everybody around, particularly other groups, recognise and acknowledge the great value and special worth of their group. To be sure, collective narcissists demand privileged treatment, not equal rights. And the need for continuous external validation of the group’s inflated image (a negative attribute) is what differentiates collective narcissists from those who simply hold positive feelings about their group.”
 Rod Dreher, “Racial Protest and ‘Collective Narcissism’”, The American Conservative, 16 January 2018: <https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/racial-protest-collective-narcissism/>
 Ovid, Metamorphoses, 86.
 Ibid., 87.