Narcissus and Me

March 19, 2007

Edited/updated below. Because I am in love with my words and can’t get enough of them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Narcissus lately.

Narcissus, Ovid tells us, was condemned by the gods to fall in love with the reflection of his own image, and to waste away in that state, forever enchanted by that image, unable to break away from the posture of self-regard.

So it was with Narcissus, so it is with bloggers, we are told: narcissists, all of them, but especially the mommy bloggers, who are so enchanted by the minutiae of their personal lives that they are compelled to lay them bare upon the screen. Photographs, stories, reflections, all manner of fecal anecdote: we cast these upon the reflective waters of our virtual pond and gaze and gaze and gaze, unable to break away. Narcissists, the lot of us, or so we are told.

And not only narcissists, but privileged narcissists, as all narcissists must be. Who else falls in love with their own image, with their own story, if not those whose images and stories are struck through with sparkle and glimmer and gold? Who else has access to the pond? We are, all of us, privileged children of pride, are we not?: vain, bourgeois, convinced of our worth, enchanted by the reflection of our image, our words, our stories, in love with all that is our own, determined to expose and share that love and able to expose and share that love. Look, look, look at me! My stories are fascinating; my ideas are fascinating; I am fascinating.

I’m reluctant to cop to being narcissistic – however self-regarding I might be, I don’t believe myself to be hopelessly infatuated with myself. I have not, I do not think, damned myself with my self-regard. But I am self-regarding. I am extremely interested in my own thoughts, my own ideas, my own stories. I spend a lot of time in contemplation of these. I write them down, the better to contemplate them. I sometimes get lost in such contemplation. My ideas, my words – these are my reflection. Even when their subject is someone, something, other than myself, they remain reflections of me.

I cannot say, of course, that I do not love these reflections. No writer, no artist, can say that they do not love their own reflection: their words, their stories, their art is that reflection. (‘The inventor of painting… was Narcissus… What is painting but the act of embracing by means of art the surface of the pool?’ Battista Alberti.) Why else do we put our thoughts to words, and cast those words upon the page, the screen, the reflective pond, if we do not love them?

Perhaps love is not the right word. Attachment? Whatever it is, it is a kind of love. It is not always constant; it is, sometimes, harsh; sometimes, it is bound, untidily, with frustration and self-recrimination. But it is, I think, a kind of love. And so, I must admit to being, in some (I hope) limited degree, narcissistic, if we understand narcissism simply as a sort of love of self that is made manifest in self-regard.

I must also admit to being privileged. Most of us, who have the skill and the equipment and the time and the inclination to write, to blog, to indulge ourselves in ‘embracing the surface of the pool,’ are in some measure privileged. We might not be rich, we might not be powerful, we might desire neither of these things – but we have the means, the ability, the support, to pursue this indulgence, and that is no small thing. We have, in some form or another, rooms of our own. This is not to say that we do not struggle; this is not to say that our lives are not, at times, difficult. It is simply to say that we are at enough of a remove from struggle and difficulty, enough of the time, to devote energy and resources to what is, in some respects, a form of self-indulgence. That is, at least, true for me. I am privileged.

I’ve been thinking a lot about narcissism and privilege, since last week’s posts and the wonderful, thought-provoking comments that attended those posts. I’ve been thinking about how resistant I am to both ‘narcissism’ and ‘privilege’ as terms of description, about how both terms cause me to tense up, to become defensive. I’ve been wondering why I am so resistant. Narcissism is the more obviously problematic of the two words, and so my resistance to it is easier to explain: no matter how finely I slice it, no matter how neatly I reposition its connotations, ‘narcissism’ remains a synonym of vanity, of the worst kind of vanity. I can only embrace narcissism if I purge the term, the story, of its connotations of damnation. It only works if I see only the pool, and the reflection, and the figure bent in contemplation. So it goes with narcissism: I must make it serve my purposes.

Privilege, on the other hand… what (as some of you asked in response to my mother’s description of mom-bloggers as privileged) is so terrible about laying claim to privilege? In fact, isn’t there something troubling about declaiming our privilege, about refusing to acknowledge that we are privileged? About refusing to acknowledge that we are fortunate to have the means, the resources, the opportunity to practice our art/craft/business/indulgence – to have rooms of our own? It is a privilege to be able to write, to be able to read, to be able to tell and share our stories, to be able to build community and mobilize community and be in community. Whether we came by our privilege through hard work or good fortune, however understood, it is something to be thankful for. It is something to bear responsibly. It’s a kind of power. Soft power, maybe, but power nonetheless.

And it’s power that we lose if we declaim it. We privileged ones, we write and we talk and we share; we indulge ourselves in the luxury of examining and contemplating our ideas, our stories, our selves. If we deny that this activity is a privilege, if we deny that this activity emanates from and demonstrates what must be, if not an outright love of self, a powerful sort of self-esteem and self-regard, then we deny everything that is empowering about this activity. What is radical about being a ‘mommy-blogger:’ it is a way of stepping up and saying I have something worth saying. I have the capacity, the ability and the will to say it. I hold my words in the highest esteem; I know that my words matter. And I know that yours do, too.

Hello, my name is Her Bad Mother and I am a privileged narcissist and proud of it, sort of.

And, I’ll show you my reflection if you show me yours.

You are all correct, sweet commenters, that narcissism carries the connotation of overweaning self-regard, of self-regard to the exclusion of regarding others, of self-regard to the point of pathology, of self-regard that – at least from the perspective of the classics – warrants punishment. As I said above, I’m aware that the term ‘narcissism’ cannot be purged of those connotations, and I’m also of the belief that the term, in its full, classical sense, cannot be and should not be applied to mommy-bloggers. But I wanted to advance the argument that there is something of the ‘you’re a narcissist’ charge that we should accept and embrace – inasmuch as we can claim that charge and rework it to emphasize our attachment to/love of our own ideas, stories, words. Because as writers – and we are writers – we must love those words, in whatever complicated manner. Otherwise, why do we write? To share, of course, to find community – but we use our words and ideas and stories in that outreach because we do, at some level, consider those to be, if not the best part of ourselves, a most important part of ourselves.

Obviously, I can’t purge and twist the term ‘narcissist’ to make it mean what I’d prefer it mean, but I can try to pull meaning from it, which is what I did (emphasis on TRY). ‘Privilege,’ on the other hand… I set it against ‘narcissism’ because I wanted to suggest that ‘privilege’ need NOT carry the negative connotations of the latter term. I can claim my privilege positively – all the while remaining aware that it is relative privilege, that privilege refers many things etc, etc, – and DO, without worrying about damnation from the gods. (Well, maybe just a little bit…)

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    { 63 comments }

    V-Grrrl March 21, 2007 at 4:46 am

    This is a topic that has been pinging on my subconscious for a while, and one that I haven’t quite digested yet.

    There were no mommy blogs when I had my kids roughly 10 years ago. However, by the time they started school, there were endless rows of video cameras at every single school event because still photos were not enough anymore.

    There were people devoting large amounts of time and money to enshrining family photos in elaborate scrapbooks because plain photo albums were not enough anymore.

    There were photographers charging hundreds of dollars JUST for a sitting and then selling 8×10 photos for almost a $100 each.

    And there are entire companies devoted to selling albums, furniture, and storage solutions for all the photos, DVDs, scrapbooks, and equipment.

    Where will it all go when we die? How many generations will want to relive our lives in such detail?

    And are we so obsessed with packaging our lives in pretty paper and neat smiling sequences that we’re failing to live them?

    I journal. I blog. I photograph. I scrapbook. And I wonder why I do it.

    Is it to document my existence, to leave a footprint? Is it to justify my presence, to prove I did something of worth? Is it to convince myself that I’m happy and led a good life?

    No answers. More reflection. The vicious circle.

    When I blogged on this topic, someone e-mailed me and said that remembrance is a luxury enjoyed by those who have enough to eat.

    Yeppi March 21, 2007 at 6:16 am

    This was a great post. I have recently extended my own audience to include my mum but had to send her an e-mail first to warn her of my self indulgence. It got me asking these type of questions..why write it? Why share it? Why want to share it?

    Complicated.

    Maybe it’s art on the go. Art is for sharing. But who am I to say it’s Art.

    I think perhaps I wanted to share because it keeps me in touch with myself and keeps those I love as close to me as possible.

    It is often I have wished that those I love would keep their own blogs.

    It is because I want to know.

    Kate March 21, 2007 at 8:57 am

    There was a blog I stumbled upon several months back that was published by someone who really is a true narcissist. She happened to be a “mommyblogger” and the blog was all about her describing herself in the third person in several pictures of herself and all the posts were about how “sassy” she is, etc. It was quite annoying. To me, she defined the term narcissist.

    So you raise an interesting point about whether we as bloggers are really innately narcissists. We all are somewhat narcisstic, but so are actors, writers, directors, etc. Nothing wrong with us wanting to believe we are important – I see that as self-confidence, not narcissism. And we are contributing to this world a form of art. Our own art. This is our form of self-expressionism. It just happens to be channeled through our kids in some cases. But the woman behind the “all about me” blog is truly self-important, and perhaps it is those few that give the bunch a bad name. Wish I could remember the name of this blog. Goes to show how much we ignore those who stand up and shout out for attention.

    (Sorry for such a grossly long comment!)

    Lisse March 21, 2007 at 10:50 am

    Someone mentioned this earlier, but I always thought that narcissism was a concern with oneself at the expense and sometimes to the detriment of others.

    Seeing that we are writing about a part of our lives that is essentially given in service to others (our families) I find the accusation ironic.

    The more I think about this stuff (which I would not even have done before reading the experiences of others) the more I think that this backlash against and belittling of “mommybloggers” (a word I despise) is related to the real discomfort our society has developed with children and families. In spite of all the political lip service.

    journalist, memoirist, diarist, blogger – all writers.

    Ruthie March 21, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    You’re right about the world needing the self-contemplation of writers. How else would ideas end up in written form?

    While I think that blogging (in conjunction with a host of other things) can sink to the level of self-absorption, I also think it also has the capacity to be constrictively reflective and expressive.

    And certainly not all bloggers are what we’d typically consider to be “privileged,” in the classic societal sense of the word. We are certainly lucky and privileged to be able to express ourselves, to be able to read and write and reason. But from a socioeconomic standpoint, all one needs to become a blogger is access to the internet and the ability to write.

    Laural told me to read your blog, and I’m glad I did, it’s very interesting. We’ve been writing about some of the same things.

    mothergoosemouse March 21, 2007 at 2:30 pm

    The term “attachment” hit home for me. I’ve used that exact term to describe my feelings for some of the pieces I’ve written – namely my NaNoWriMo novel and my recent column on No Child Left Behind. Interestingly, it’s the pieces that are not about ME ME ME that inspire my deepest attachment to them.

    Therefore, perhaps my pool-gazing qualifies me as a narcissist, but it’s when I see others’ reflections – and my relationship to them – that I’m most pleased with what I have to say.

    I identify strongly with Wordgirl’s points regarding privilege – perhaps even more so considering the unfair conclusions that many might draw about me based on my politics (as I said in my comment on the other post). But I cannot control what others think of me; what I can do is ensure that how I live reflects how much I value the world around me and the people in it.

    SuburbanOblivion March 21, 2007 at 3:50 pm

    I think Meghan and Izzymom hit the nail on the head for me. I write to put myself out there and make my mark, but I also write for the connection. There are so many things that we go through as mothers that you really wonder “Am I horrible? Am I the only one who has ever gone through this?”, and the answer is usually NO, you are not! It helps to hear of other moms experiences and know we are not alone.

    Piece of Work March 21, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    I very respectfully submit: it’s a little much ado about nothing, don’t you think? Some of us are narcissistic-in the common sense of the word–some times. Some blogs are narcissistic, some posts are narcissistic, some times. I think, because blogging is essentially writing a daily column about your own life, that most bloggers probably succomb to a truly narcissic post or two over the course of several months. That’s okay, in my book: I can easily skip over those posts to get to the more interesting ones.

    Her Bad Mother March 21, 2007 at 4:39 pm

    Straight to the point, Amy/POW – and too right.

    Karen March 21, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    yes, damnation be damned.

    fancypantsnancy March 22, 2007 at 12:01 am

    Well if bloggers are narcissistic (sp?) your readers are all voyers

    braiding mommy March 22, 2007 at 8:26 am

    Most of this went completely over my head, I am sad to admit.

    Yes, I do enjoy my thoughts and getting them out there – but I also equally enjoy reading the thoughts of others – especially parents who are willing to share all of the good and bad of parenting. That’s hard to find outside of the world of blog.

    g December 29, 2008 at 1:08 am

    ah, well, at some point aren’t all writers narcissists, since we/they write down our thoughts to share with the world, on the premise that we are fascinating or at least interesting?

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