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Recalling Narcissus — and the roles of Echo and the pond

We hear a lot about Narcissus. Less attention has been paid to the details of the myth and their currency in the U.S. political scene: the roles of Echo and the pond that confirm Narcissus’ claims for himself.

“Echo and Narcissus” by J.W.Waterhouse, 1903.

Before and after Donald Trump’s election as president, much has been written about Narcissus, the beautiful, self-absorbed figure of the classical Greek myth of Narcissus.

Rev. Gordon C. Stewart

Less attention has been paid to the details of the entire myth and their currency in the American political scene: the roles of Echo and the pond that confirm Narcissus’ claims for himself.

Without Echo, the wood nymph whose love Narcissus has scorned only to become mute except to echo Narcissus’ voice, and without the pond, which reflects back the beautiful image Narcissus lives and dies to see, there would be no more Narcissus.

The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) describes narcissistic personality disorder as “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts … .”

The Mayo Clinic summarizes DSM-5’s symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder as follows:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner.
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Donald Trump was elected president, in no small part, because he successfully channeled long-festering sources of anger: “Make America Great Again,” as in a former age when Mexican immigrants, blacks, and non-Christians knew their place in a white, Christian nation with a manifest exceptional destiny — or because he echoed the American public’s deep frustration with political gridlock and partisan posturing. “I alone can fix it,” said Narcissus. Echo called back to him, “Only I can fix it!”

The socio-psychic health of Echo and the pond (the social mirror) will determine the extent to which the dynamics of the Narcissus myth become the permanent disorder of American political life.

It may help to remember that, according to Tiresias, the blind prophet of Thebes, Narcissus will “live to a ripe old age, as long as he never knows himself.

How long narcissism prevails in American society depends on the American Echo and the pond into which Narcissus looks — whether the American electorate will choose to see Narcissus and ourselves as we really are — a sad man and a public echo without self-knowledge.

In the ancient myth, Narcissus grows increasingly thirsty, but his reflection in the water is more important than slaking his thirst. Enamored with his own reflection but dying of thirst, he refuses to drink because whenever he gets close enough to drink, his reflection disappears. Narcissus dies of thirst, and, according to the Greek myth, at that moment, a lovely flower – a Narcissus (daffodil or joncus) – blooms next to the pond.

In the wake of the American electoral flirtation of Echo and Narcissus, the story won’t be over soon. Yet there remains the hope that something more beautiful and natural than a personality disorder and a mesmerized electorate eventually may bud next to the pond of what remains of the American democratic republic, and that Echo will get back her own voice.

Gordon C. Stewart, the retired pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, is a social commentator, writer and radio commentator. He is the author of “Be Still: Departure from Collective Madness.”


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