There was once a young man called Narcissus. His mother, anxious to know her son’s fate, consulted the blind prophet Tiresias. ‘Will he live to old age?’ she demanded
‘As long as he does not know himself,’ he replied… The boy grew up to be extraordinarily beautiful and was loved by everyone he met. Although he had never seen his own face, he guessed from their reactions that he was beautiful; but he could never be sure… Thus, he became a very self-absorbed young man.Liz Greene & Juliet Sharman-Burke (2000)
There is a paradoxical conundrum present in this passage. The mother is present in the opening passage of Greene and Sharman-Burke’s (2000) telling of the myth Echo and Narcissus; however, the father’s presence is sorely absent. As I explored in the last installment of this series, an overbearing mother has a significant role in fostering and amplifying the natural state of primary infantile narcissism. From these primary narcissistic traits, a developing child whether it be within the tenets of a Greek myth or in actual life forms the initial ego impressions from which an intact identity emerges. Primary narcissism lays the foundation for both healthy and unhealthy ego development; however, as a psychological construct, it is dependent on the environmental love that is either present or absent within the family triune. What is missing from this passage is an active or even engaged father. This sheds light on a key ingredient that fosters the psyche’s capacity to develop primary and secondary narcissistic traits.
In the first passage of the story, we are exposed to the primary developmental years of the protagonist. No father is present in Narcissus’ life; his primary developmental years occur only in the presence of a Great Mother that meddles in the life of her son in order to shelter him from himself. The absence of the Great Father is sadly present in the opening paragraph of the story. Therefore, Narcissus has no exemplar of healthy masculinity. No hero, King, or masculine god (Zeus) energy is present in the life of this young man. The boy has no man to look up to. There is no wisdom present that he can imitate, which in turn denies him the capacity to be initiated within the tenets of a healthy masculine identity. Instead, the story presents an inept trinity, a blind and simple (masculine) prophet, an overbearing mother, and a young man sorely focused on exterior beauty rather than developing an understanding of his emergent true nature.
The primary focus in the initial passage is on the mother / son dyad, which unfortunately leaves the boy without the capacity to develop traits of mature masculine merit. While the story goes on to show how primary narcissism can cruelly affect the development of secondary object relationships (the transition of love from a primary object (mother and father) to the acquisition of romantic love of another), in this installment I will focus primarily on the archetype that is missing, or even worse, is included but only within its shadow perspective: a Blind Fool that presents himself as a soothsaying prophet.
The Father Archetype
The father represents the world of moral commandments and prohibitions… [he] is the representative of the spirit, whose function it is to oppose pure instinctuality. That is his archetypal role, which falls to him regardless of his personal qualities.Carl Jung (1911-1912/1967, pp. 260 – 261)
The presence of a father is irreplaceable in the life of a child. While it may be taboo to make such a bold statement in today’s politically correct social environment, it nevertheless is true. However, I make this statement with complete respect to the mother’s who undertake the arduous journey of parenthood alone. As a practicing psychotherapist that has seen the ill affects that follows any family post separation. Because of this, I have a complete respect for any mother or father who traverses the difficult journey of being a single parent. It is a arduous and difficult task to raise a child without a third party present. However, with that being said, a father plays as equally an important role as a mother does in the formation of both healthy and unhealthy forms of ego development within a maturing child.
In the passage above, Jung draws attention to the archetypal poles of the Great Father. Like the God’s of old, Jung likens the archetypal role of the father to qualities of moral commandment and prohibitions, which draws a striking resemblance to the vengeful Yahweh or head Gods of the polytheistic pantheons of old. For Jung, the role of the father was to establish appropriate prohibitive sanctions against pure instinctuality. That is his role, his duty if you will, as Jung stated, “regardless of his personal qualities.” It is from this perspective, that we will now turn an analytical eye back to the story, so that we may understand the effects an absent father has on the development of the secondary narcissistic traits that eventually lead to the downfall of the protagonist.
Narcissus and the Absent Father
A key ingredient to the survival and overall development of the protagonists psyche is missing in the beginning passage. Narcissus’ father is not mentioned in the opening scene. Nor does a father make an appearance anywhere else in this rendition of the mythological story. In fact, the only masculine presence is found in the blind prophet Tiresias, who actively encourages the mother to never let Narcissus know his true nature.
What kind of father figure would deny a son to get to know his true nature? Thus, the plot thickens, as the boy is not only denied a father, but is ultimately denied the capacity to develop healthy masculinity by a blind fool that even though well intentioned, ultimately denies this young man the capacity to get to know himself.
As Jung alluded to above, the nature of the father archetype to prohibit pure instinctuality. However, Narcissus has no mature male role model. There is no man that the protagonist can emulate or imitate as a means to develop a healthy masculine personality. Instead, he has a mother who blindly follows the advice of a blind prophet, and ultimately creates the means by which the protagonist’s demise is sealed.
Can we every truly not begin to know ourselves but through the eyes of another? This was the crux that Narcissus faced, as he was not allowed to know himself. This was further complicated by the absence of the father, which denied the young boy exposure to the mature masculine. While the passage only deals with the youth, the initial wound present in this passage was lifelong and ultimately the source of the protagonist’s demise. Just as no boy can ever transcend childhood proper in order to become a man outside of the influence of an elder and caring man, Narcissus could not rectify his lack of Self-knowledge outside of the influence of the missing Father archetype in this story.
In his pivotal book Iron John, a Book about Men, Robert Bly (1990, 1991) drew attention to importance initiatory rites have the healthy development of the masculine psyche. While this is not a motif explored in the opening scene of the story, its effects can be inferred by the protagonist’s absence of self-knowledge. In fact, you can say that it is from this lack of understanding that the antagonistic theme of the story arises. Narcissus lacks a male role model; therefore he cannot be initiated into, or even truly get to know the special aspects of who he was becoming as a maturing man.
From this perspective, we may glean an idea that narcissism is a masculine disorder. This is not the case! Instead, Narcissism is a disorder that affects both men and women. Narcissism is a disorder in one’s incapacity to know one’s Self, especially as it relates to the natural development of a healthy Ego structure. Jung drew attention to this construct in his development of the self / Self axis. In the story we have a boy who was sheltered from getting to “himself.” A paradox emerges from this theme, especially as it relates to the boy developing a healthy sense of self (ego). While ego traditionally has a negative connotation, it is from the ego/self axis that true Self-knowledge arises. Instead of getting to know his developing identity, Narcissus began to develop an external locus of control, and began to judge himself from the eyes of others. He saw himself through a mirror of others words versus ever truly to getting to know himself at a deeper psychological level.
In the passage, we have a secondary paradox present. The only masculine element of the story besides the protagonist himself is a blind prophet, Tiresias, who offers blindingly bad advice to a mother eager on assuring her child lives to old age. He warns the mother to not let her son get to know his true nature, which ultimately sews the seed for the character’s demise later in the story.
“As long as he does not know himself,’ he replied…”(Greene & Sharman-Burke, 2000). The masculine element in this passage gives prohibitive advise to the mother. Don’t let your son get to know himself! How absurd is this advise? While a prohibitive element is present in this case, there is no discernible moral backing to support this ideal. It is solely for the sake of appeasing the mother’s wish that the advise is given. No empathic concern is paid to the protagonist, which ultimately denies him the capacity to engage an emergent masculine identity.
Narcissus is denied the capacity to get to know his beauty; he is denied the capacity to know his masculine identity. By being sheltered from his emergent beauty, Narcissus can only get to know his identity through the eyes of others. While this is a key construct for secondary object relationships, the foundation of all healthy object relationships centers on a healthy understanding of the self (ego). For as the Buddha said, “You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love & affection.” ~Buddha. A concept held within the age old adage: “You can’t love another until you love yourself.”
The missing masculine in the opening scene assures that Narcissus will never get to know, or even love himself. In the passage, the mother shelters and therefore devours his capacity to develop self-love. While she comes from a nurturing perspective, wanting to see her son develop to old age, she ultimately consumes his capacity to develop self-love. This portrays the archetypal pole of devouring, a key polarity common to the mother archetype. This is further amplified by the absence of moral commandment and prohibition polarities common to the father archetype.
The lack of the father archetype assures that Narcissus has no moral base from which to develop prohibitory actions. He is lost to his developing masculine and must find beauty through the eyes of others. While the mother archetype is present in its negative form, the father archetype is not present in any form. Therefore, the protagonist has no capacity to combat this theme from reaching its natural course. Not only is the father absent, but in this case, the only masculine theme present is portrayed by the blind prophet, who gives blindingly bad advice to the initial antagonist of the story. While the advice helps to solve the immediate need of Narcissus’ mother, it ultimately denies the protagonist the capacity to engage his fait as a truly independent being separate from his mother’s identity.
The fait of Narcissus is sealed in this opening scene by the dysfunction of the family triad. The Divine Child Archetype is present, is overly nurtured by an overbearing mother construct, and lacks the moral commandment and prohibition standards common the Great Father. In the case of narcissism as a disorder, this also reigns true. Narcissists present with a general neediness for external affirmation (nurturing) and an integral preoccupation with a grandiose flights of fancy. These flights belong to the masculine realm of spirit, and present as a form of confused morality. Narcissistic flights relate to social perception rather than internal standards. Narcissist’s lack the capacity to properly nurture an emergent ego. Therefore, they turn to external affirmation as a means to develop a sense of self. This external locus of control places morality and prohibitory aspects of the personality within the realm of group perception. Therefore the narcissist lacks an internal moral compass that is not externally affirmed by flighty dreams towards social status. These themes are but few that drive the dynamics of the Narcissus complex.
In this segment, I explored the role of the Great Father in the development of Narcissism. In this story, he is absent. In his absence, the protagonist has no moral base to engage a healthy form of masculine development. Therefore, the ego stagnates towards an externally preoccupied state. In this case, Narcissus is a boy, and needs to be initiated by a man to become fully functional and knowledgable of healthy masculinity. However, the primary character in this story is sheltered from healthy masculinity and has no healthy man is present from which he can learn.
While the Great father presents one aspect of absence in this story, also present is the lack of an initiatory experience. There is no healthy men available to show Narcissus the way to develop a healthy sense of masculine identity. In the next installment of this series, I will explore the idea of the Wildman, the Puer, and the construct of ascension present in the lack of an initiatory process. For the absence of the father, although a key ingredient to the development of primary and secondary narcissism, is not the only aspect of healthy masculinity absent from this story. Nor is it the sole means from which we can glean understanding of the Narcissistic personality.
What are your thoughts? I would love to hear them!
Bly, R. (1990). Iron John: A book about men. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Bly, R. (Performer). (1991). Iron John: A book about men. Holmes, PA: Sound Editions.
Greene, L. & Sharman – Burke, J. (2000). The mythic journey: The meaning of myth as a guide for life. New York: Simon and Shuster.
Jung, C. G. (1967). Symbols of transformation: An analysis of the prelude to a case of schizophrenia. In H. Read, M.Fordham, G. Adler, & W. McGuire (Eds.), The collected works of C. G. Jung (R. F. Hull, Trans., 2nd ed., Vol. 5). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1911-1912)
2 responses to “Narcissus and the Absent Father: Towards an Ecological Understanding of Narcissism and Ego Development”
Is there hope for the boy? Will he ever be able to see himself truly and love himself instead of relying on others views of him? I believe so. But how. Where do the blindings begin to come off and how?
Yes there is hope, but he must enter through the initial wound. Stay tuned for more to come.