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19 Mar

Narcissus and Me

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…)