‘Behold, the sweet narcissus’ bloom.’
Ah wretched me!
I now begin too late
To find out all the long-perlex’d deceit
It is my self I love, my self I see;
The happy delusion is a part of me.
I kindle up the fires by which I burn,
And my own beauties from the well return.
Whom should I court? How utter my complaint?
Enjoyment but produces my restraint,
And too much plenty makes me die for want.
These lines are taken from book III of Metamorphoses by the acclaimed Roman poet Ovid (1). They recount the mythical story of Narcissus and Echo. In the story, Echo is a nymph from the mountains who falls in love with Narcissus, but that love is not reciprocated. Instead, while drinking from a pool of water, Narcissus sees his own reflection and falls in love with that. So besotted with his own self-image, Narcissus wastes away until all that remains of him is a flower. Devastated and broken-hearted, Echo too wastes away, until the only remnants of her is the sound of the ‘echo’ of her voice.
From this story and its various Greek/Roman accounts, comes the word narcissism. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, narcissism is defined as:
Noun (mass noun)
- Excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance.
- Psychology: Extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one’s own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterising a personality type.
- Psychoanalysis: Self-centredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, either in very young babies or as a feature of mental disorder (2)
Unsurprisingly, there is a great deal of scholarly research in relation to narcissism and what is now referred to as the narcissistic personality disorder (3). That research hasn’t gone unnoticed. Social commentators and journalists have also highlighted this problem, pointing out many of the narcissistic traits have now become quite commonplace in society (4).
The fashion industry, television and increasingly social media seem to reinforce what seems to be the worst aspects of narcissism. It isn’t therefore a surprise to see much of the ‘cult of celebrity’ also overly indulged with self-appearance and image, often to the point of the extreme. Whilst it may be easy for those of us who are old enough to step back and take a critical look at this, for the younger members within society, there can be a real pressure to have the ‘right’ physical appearance; to be wanted, adulated, or even adored. A newer trend that also seems to have stemmed from this, is the rise in online bullying and trolling. Men in particular seem to target women more now online, seeking to harass and humiliate them solely on the basis of their looks and appearance.
When society lauds materialism as being a goal in and of itself, should the rise in narcissism be a surprise at all? Karl Marx famously stated that religion was the opium of the masses. But such a statement clearly rings untrue in today’s age. [pullquote]Surely, entertainment has become the opium, and with that, an ugly narcissism as an adage.[/pullquote] The desire for wealth, fame, adulation; the body-beautiful, and being idolised seem all too often to be the modern markers for success. Or so the peddlers of the opium of entertainment would have us believe.
What of governments, elected-officials and the like? From their perspective, there doesn’t seem to be much of an issue or problem. Surely it is better to have a populace consumed within its own self, rather than one which is communal, caring and unwilling to stand for injustice. An atomised society of self-absorbed individuals is far easier to rule over, than one which isn’t.
Perhaps one of the antidotes to the increasing level of narcissism is to offer a different worldview. One that allows the acquisition of wealth, but couples it with charity. One that does not prohibit dressing in finery and beautifying oneself, but curbs its excess with modesty and humility. A worldview that places a higher premium upon the values of justice and good conduct. All that can be best summed up with the most blessed of speech, uttered by the best to grace all mankind, the Prophet Muḥammad (peace be upon him) where he said:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ لاَ يَنْظُرُ إِلَى صُوَرِكُمْ وَأَمْوَالِكُمْ وَلَكِنْ يَنْظُرُ إِلَى قُلُوبِكُمْ وَأَعْمَالِكُمْ
Verily Allah does not look to your faces and your wealth but He looks to your heart and to your deeds (5)
الرَّاحِمُونَ يَرْحَمُهُمُ الرَّحْمَنُ ارْحَمُوا أَهْلَ الأَرْضِ يَرْحَمْكُمْ مَنْ فِي السَّمَاءِ
The Compassionate One has mercy on those who are merciful. If you show mercy to those who are on the earth, He who is in the heaven will show mercy to you (6)
There shouldn’t be any doubt that there are greater things to life than the mere acquisition of wealth. And indeed, there are far more important things than self-admiration and how one looks. Let us not allow such a reminder to be forgotten, or even relegated to a mere echo in the wilderness. Let us look deeper beyond the reflection of image to that of the heart and soul.
As so many celebrity cases now seem to attest, the sole pursuit of wealth, fame and beauty doesn’t in fact bring happiness. Testimony from those circles shows it is awash with loneliness, depression and a spiraling abyss that descends into drugs, to escape the pains of all of this.
Ultimately happiness cannot be derived from the pursuit of that which will ultimately perish. It is in reality, as the Prophet (peace be upon him) said:
لَيْسَ الْغِنَى عَنْ كَثْرَةِ الْعَرَضِ وَلَكِنَّ الْغِنَى غِنَى النَّفْسِ
Richness does not lie in the abundance of (worldly) goods but richness is the richness of the soul (self) (7)
And in the book of Allah, the Qur’ān, we are furnished with a short richly worded chapter. A chapter that encapsulates not only wisdom, but the proper perspective toward life itself. Such guidance is enduring and it is beyond the immediacy of ourselves or even the banal that society can offer:
وَالْعَصْرِإِنَّ الْإِنسَانَ لَفِي خُسْرٍ
إِلَّا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْحَقِّ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْر
By time Verily, mankind is in loss Except those who believe and do good deeds, exhorting one another to truth and patience (8)
The caption picture is a depiction of the mythical character of Narcissus that has been ascribed to the Italian painter Caravaggio at the end of the 16th century.
The title for this piece is taken from some lines of poetry written by Ibn Ḥazm in Tawq al-Hamama (The Ring of the Dove). The full stanzas (translated by A J Arberry) read as follows:
Behold, the sweet narcissus’ bloom
A lover in delirium
Looks on with wide, bewildered glance
And sways as in a drunken dance
How faint, how pallid is his hue
Ah yes, he is a lover too
Distraught and passionate to hold
The tender tulip’s cup of gold.
- Ovid, Book III, Metamorphoses (translated by Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al.) Text can be accessed at: [http://classics.mit.edu/Ovid/metam.3.third.html]
- Reference to the word from the Oxford English Dictionary
- For example, see: Elan Golomb (2016), Trapped in the Mirror: Adult Children of Narcissists in Their Struggle for Self; Jean Twenge & Keith Campbell (2010), The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement; Pat MacDonald (2013), Narcissism in the modern world
- Zoe Williams, ‘Me! Me! Me! Are we living through a narcissism epidemic?’ The Guardian, 2nd March 2016
- As recorded by Imām Muslim in his Ṣaḥīḥ with the following channel of transmission (isnād): ‘Amr al-Nāqid narrated to us Kathir ibn Hishām narrated to us Ja’far ibn Burqān narrated to us from Yazeed ibn al-‘Aāṣim from Abu Hurayrah, he said that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said. Muslim also cites other narratives with some slight variation of wording, but essentially carrying the same meaning.
- The ḥadith is narrated in various places. The wording here is taken from the Sunan of Abu Dāwud. He has recorded this narration with the isnād: Abu Bakr ibn Abi Shayba and Musaddad narrated the meaning to us, they said Sufyān narrated to us from ‘Amr from Abu Qābus, mawla to Abdullah bin ‘Amr from Abdullah bin ‘Amr and with it reaching the Prophet (peace be upon him).
- As recorded by Imām Muslim in his Ṣaḥīḥ with the following isnād: Zuhayr ibn Ḥarb and Ibn Numayr narrated to us, they said: Sufyān ibn Uyayna narrated to us from Abu Zinād from al-A’raj from Abu Hurayrah, he said the Prophet (peace be upon him) said.
- Qur’ān, chapter 103