Thursday, July 7, 2011

Eros and the Shattering Gaze: An Introduction

Eros and the Shattering Gaze: Transcending Narcissism
I want to be able to fly. I want to hover around you like a 
winged Cupid in attendance on his Goddess.(1)

From The Golden Ass by Apuleius. Lucius here pleads with his lover, a witch’s apprentice, to steal a magical potion so that he can be transformed into a god. Instead, he is given the form of an ass and must submit himself to an existence as a loathsome beast of burden.

We live in a time and culture predisposed toward life at the surface. Ours is a society that privileges eternal youth and beauty, consumer-driven instant gratification, and narcissistic preoccupation with self-centeredness, not self reflection. Like Narcissus we often look no deeper than the reflection in the mirror, seeing only skin-deep beauty, never daring to know our own—nor the other’s, inner depths.

Contemporary thought has attempted to respond to this cultural climate that, in the words of Stephen Frosh, “[fights] against the deepening of relationships [and love], against feeling real.”(2) Psychoanalysis, analytical psychology, and philosophy have addressed the contemporary individual’s crises of the heart, separation from authenticity, and repudiation of the other. They offer a variety of viewpoints on the problem of narcissism, from its ontological and healthy conformations to its pathological forms, and its grandiose illusions leading to growth or to defense.

Jacques Lacan’s notion of the mirror stage helps us to understand the essential alienation inherent in narcissism and its search for perfection in an idealized image of another. Lacan describes a moment in infancy when the six-month-old child “recognizes” himself in the mirror and falsely identifies the reflection as an image of the unified wholeness and mastery he does not in fact possess. In that moment, the infant, with his smiling mother’s assent, is lured into an illusion of false certainty and omnipotence that splits him off from his fragmented body/self with its accompanying experiences of terror and uncertainty.

Lacan’s conception of the mirror sequence describes the way a mental construction of a perfect, alienating identity can originate, separating the infant from his own insufficient self image. The I itself that takes form here is an artificial representation, a self split between its idealized mirror image and the raw truth of human existence.(3) It is not difficult to imagine, then, how this narcissistic ideal can be later projected onto objects of desire who mirror this ideal.

Narcissism is not limited to the psychology of individuals. American culture, politics, and its recent national wounding uncannily mirror these narcissistic phenomena. The Patriot Act and the War on Terror can be seen as unconscious fantasies enacted upon the world stage. In this post-September 11 world many individuals err on the side of security and rigid borders, thereby sacrificing freedom, relationality, and dimensionality. Nor is narcissism merely a contemporary phenomenon. Literature and history provide ample illustrations of the historical and cultural contexts underlying the problem of narcissism and the way it is transcended.

The essence of narcissism is the repudiation of the other in its differences. Sometimes this takes the form of appropriating the other under the guise of romantic love, and sometimes it takes the form of casting out the other to protect the vulnerable self. In these pages I attempt to present a theory of the transcendence of narcissism, in which the humble capacity to love comes about through the surrender of the self to the shattering truth of the other.

• • • • •

Western culture’s most ancient tale of love, “Psyche and Amor,” which forms part of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, will introduce us to these dynamics. The story features a leading man—Amor, the very personification of Love—whose amorous desires are so embedded in narcissism that he never dares to reveal himself to the object of his passion. The couple, Psyche and Amor, remains suspended in a dark fusion removed from life until Psyche has finally had enough; the illusion is pierced and shattered, and loss ensues. Emerging from his state of wounding, Amor comes in a new way to the side of his beloved, the mortal human Psyche, his act signifying the inner “awakening of the sleeping soul through love,” as James Hillman puts it.(4) How many hundreds of modern romantic dramas follow in the train of the Tale of Psyche and Amor, telling the story of the selfish or hardened man who uses everyone, then loses everything, but then finds a woman from whom he learns how to love?

More than a millennium later, the tales of medieval courtly romances portray the fate of lovers whose longing for oneness can be realized not on earth but only in their sacrificial death and reunion in Heaven. These are tragedies portraying an idealized longing for true love that can never be sustained in our flawed human condition.

The blissful fantasy of everlasting union merely conceals the face of narcissism. This romantic ideal privileges the allure of the lovers’ paradise over the enduring struggles in human relationships in all their vicissitudes. These are the romantic fantasies of a happily-ever-after ending, illusions ultimately deriving from childhood experiences. Time and again, lovers plunge blindly into brief enthrallments that are doomed to failure, yet hold fast to their unquestioned, cherished beliefs, and to a faith in an idyllic innocence that is inevitably shattered. Young lovers blindly enter marriage with the fantasy that romantic love will endure forever. But predictably, when the burning fires of first love’s desires have cooled to warm embers, many men devalue the apparently known quantity at home and look to a passionate love affair with a mysterious other, in which to be absorbed. For the narcissist this process signals the avoidance of human relationship in its fullness, rife with difficulties, limitations, and ethical responsibilities, in favor of the grandiose illusion of ecstatic oneness and freedom from all pain.

Ultimately the narcissistic avoidance of the difficulties of life arises in response to a primal experience—the inevitable wounding and loss suffered in the earliest infant-mother relationship. Thus narcissistic dynamics are deeply impacted by the experience of trauma. Psychological wounds too devastating to bear are reflexively partitioned and buried, while simultaneously, reactionary wars of retaliation against one’s pain are staged in order to provide safeguards from disavowed shame and profound vulnerabilities. Throughout life grandiose fantasies in all their forms will magically supplant the experience of unbearable vulnerability, literally obliterating it.

These clinical themes are richly amplified by cultural signifiers found in the myths and mysteries of antiquity and from the medieval Tales of Courtly Love through the literature of the mystics and Romantics, to Gothic horror stories and modern romances from contemporary popular culture. These provide the historical and cultural contexts for the contemporary problem of narcissism as well as its transcendence.

As we will see, Levinas’s postmodern philosophy describes the way the encounter with the ineffable Face of the Other shocks and deconstructs the sameness and narcissism within eros, freeing the subject to assume an enduring responsibility for the other from which new and transcendent capacities to love may be envisioned.

• • • • •

My theory of the transcendence of narcissism is based on the work of two men: C. G. Jung and the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Jung’s theory of the complexes illuminates two vital concepts that are threaded throughout this book: the ego’s primitive identification with the negative or overly positive aspects of the Mother, and the relationship of the puer aeternus, the eternal boy, with his split-off counterpart, the senex, the old man. We can see how these complexes come about by observing the characters in Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, which contains the immortal “Tale of Psyche and Amor.” The path through which they are overcome leads from the romantic, narcissistic, predatory preoccupations of what I call the mother-bound man to the wound that shatters the isolation of his standpoint. Through the work of the transcendent function this shattering may culminate in the emergence of empathic dimensions of emotion and a humble yet still masculine standpoint.

One of the ways this book contributes to the development of contemporary analytic psychology is through the cross-fertilization of Jungian and contemporary psychoanalytic ideas. For instance, I argue that narcissistic defenses arise not after the development of the complexes, but prior to them. The puer aeternus psychology described by Jung comes into being in reaction to the narcissistic defenses that have appropriated the infant’s most archaic, unsignifiable complex—the mother. These narcissistic defenses encapsulate the infant’s ego, protecting it from experiences reminiscent of its original loss of maternal containing. Another original area of contribution may be found in my analysis of the Grail Legend, where I view von Eschenbach’s Parzival through the lens of eros development in its dual guise, as both a narcissistic and wounding process and one that is relational and healing.

The work of the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas provides the second major source for my theory of how narcissism may be transcended. A traumatic encounter with an utterly unknowable, transcendent Other(5)—sometimes initiated by analytical work or psychotherapy—may violently shatter the narcissistic illusions that maintain, among other things, the individual’s endless, romantically driven projections and erotic fantasies. There is therefore a painful, even violent, yet redemptive potential to the wounding. Levinas’s postmodern philosophy is essential to an understanding of this kind of encounter with the Other by a subject; he too emphasizes its capacity to decenter the ego’s “solipsism”—the belief that the self is the only reality and the only thing that we can be certain of. Levinas attempts to describe this shift from an ego-centered view of the universe as something that defies understanding or category. All religious experience perhaps stems from such a primordial awareness. His ethical philosophy, informed by the Holocaust in which his entire family was murdered, centers upon the “relation of infinite responsibility to the other person.”(6) Levinas provides a profound insight into the dangers of how individuals can be so easily subsumed in the vision of a tyrannical utopia which he often refers to as a “totality.”

To Levinas, the Other is unknowable, ineffable, ungraspable, tormenting, enigmatic, infinite, irreducible, sacred. Its mere trace can only be glimpsed interpersonally or intersubjectively—a term defining a psychological experience created between individuals. The Other does not originate in the psyche. It is infinite, already there, before subject or object exists, and our subjective awareness of it comes through the primacy of its impact upon us. It transcends subjective being, defies our concepts or categories, and cannot be engulfed or appropriated by ego consciousness.(7)

As Levinas would say, the trace of the Other is glimpsed in the irreducible “face of the human other,” who is revealed in (her) vulnerability, sacredness, and nakedness.(8) In Levinas’s ethical view, one’s responsibility emerges from the trauma he feels for the useless suffering and destitution of the one now standing before him. He is taken hostage to the guilt of surviving when the other is stricken. He is even compelled to wish to substitute himself for the other, to put himself in (her) place—but it is too late. This is the torment of which Levinas speaks—the unavoidable responsibility to the other invoked by the shattering Other. It is impossible to evade this summons, which accuses one and even leads him to wonder just how much truth he can bear.

In moving from the ethics of human justice and compassion to personal psychology, one can observe how the traumatic impact of the Other destabilizes and shatters the ego’s narcissism, awakening the subject from his slumber. Such a violent blow often appears to the ego in forms that are dark and shadowy, or that threaten to obliterate its fixed orientation and need for certainty, its wish for everything to remain the same. For Levinas, the ego’s need to appropriate alterity—the other’s difference—and to reduce it to sameness is the origin of all violence: narcissism is violence. In those cases where the shattering encounter is successfully navigated, a restructuring of a man’s core of being occurs. An inner cohesion develops that enables him as an ethical subject to bear love’s separations, uncertainties, longing, as well as its closeness.

Here I propose a significant revisioning of Jung’s concept of the enigmatic Self, conceptualizing it as an idea akin to Levinas’s unknowable Other, where both, I contend, transcend subjective being and the boundaries of the psyche. I argue that this revised understanding of the Self provides the basis for what I have previously described as a unifying theory of the transcendence of narcissism.

• • • • •

Eros and the Shattering Gaze is concerned with men’s problems with love due to narcissism. While some of these difficulties are common to women as well, I will leave the exploration of the woman’s perspective to another. Similarly, I write primarily about heterosexual relationships, but many of these ideas can also be applied to homosexual relationships.

At the same time, though it focuses on narcissism in individual men, the book is not intended to be a textbook on the clinical theory and treatment of narcissism. Rather it is meant to bring to light the prevalence of narcissism in our culture and the possibilities for its transcendence. It does so through stories—stories old and new, epic and personal, fictional and historic. They include vignettes from my over thirty years of clinical experience as well as examples from a variety of cultural and historical sources, beginning with Apuleius and other Greek, Roman, and Biblical material and continuing through medieval romances to contemporary culture. Permission has been given in all case vignettes and each patient’s identity has been carefully disguised. Some case vignettes are composites. I have found films to be particularly helpful in illustrating the forms narcissism takes in contemporary love relations.

• • • • •

Eros and the Shattering Gaze consists of three parts, preceded by a Prologue that follows this introduction. The Prologue summarizes Apuleius’ story for those unfamiliar with it; the retelling of the tale is followed by the description of what I term the Eros template—that is, those narcissistic qualities illuminated in the character of Eros, or Amor, in his relationships to his mother, Venus, and to his lover, Psyche.9 Apuleius’ work offers important glimpses into the reversal of narcissistic states in men, and in doing so also provides the metaphorical entry points for the three parts of this book.

Part One is entitled, “Narcissism in the Romantic: The Mother, Her Son, His Lover.” These chapters depict how romantic and erotic desire for the instant but transient pleasures found in the lovers’ fusion enacts men’s earliest longing to return to the fantasy of a lost maternal paradise. The primitive development of these defensive and destructive forms of narcissism maintains and insulates men throughout life against the perceived threat of retraumatization that emotional depths or mutual relationships could initiate. Their desire seeks its ideal object through projections that colonize the individuality of the other, as the other is used for the colonizer’s own completion. This creates an inflated state of fusion in the couple.

Part Two, “The Predator Beneath the Lover,” shows how this fragile wholeness ultimately collapses. The object is discarded and devalued, leading to reactive attempts to restore the lost union through colonization and manipulation of a new object. As an alternative the subject withdraws into narcissistic encapsulation. Narcissism’s disavowal of the other’s human distinctiveness and mutuality in relationships can be viewed as a tyrannical maintenance of sameness that results in the annihilation of otherness. These obstacles to loving are portrayed in Ovid’s myth of “Narcissus and Echo,” where we see the tragic isolation of the person hopelessly ensnared at the surface of existence. He lives in desperate fear of contact, both with other humans and with his own internal depths. The existence of the other (Echo) is negated through a false sense of superiority. Part Two will enlarge upon these Ovidian themes.

In Part Three, “The Shattering Gaze,” we encounter the traumatic gaze of the Other, who is unknowable and transcendent. It may shatter the individual’s narcissistic omnipotence, whether it comes through unforeseen and unbearable tragedy, loss, or in the naked truth of revelations that seem too devastating or shameful to bear. Following this encounter, a resilient, emotional depth may evolve in a man, signifying the greater psychic cohesion needed to endure love and loss.

1 Apuleius, The Transformations of Lucius otherwise known as The Golden Ass. Translated by Robert Graves (NY: Noonday Press, 1951), 42.
2 Stephen Frosh, “Melancholy Without the Other,” in Studies in Gender and Sexuality 7(4) (2006): 368.
3 Jacques Lacan, “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function,” in Ecrits, translated by Bruce Fink (New York: Norton, 2006), 78.
4 James Hillman, The Myth of Analysis (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 55.
5 The term “Other” stemmed from the philosophy of Hegel’s dialectic and gained contemporary relevance primarily from the work of  Jacques Lacan and Emmanuel Levinas. Lacan doesn’t see the Other in an infinite or transcendent way as Levinas does. Rather, he identifies the Other with the world of the Symbolic, which encompasses the cultural, social and linguistic networks into which the person is born, and from which subjectivity comes into being. The two men are similar in a general way, in that both privilege an ‘otherness’ that is already there at the origins of the subject, and from which the subject emerges. That is, for both, the ‘self’ is not an entity that is present from the beginnings of development. See Simon Critchley, Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity (New York: Verso Press, 1999), 198-216. See also Suzanne Barnard, “Diachrony, Tuche, and the Ethical Subject in Levinas and Lacan,” in Psychology for the Other, edited by Edwin E. Gant & Richard N. Williams (Pittsburg: Duquesne University Press, 2002), 160-181.
6 Simon Critchley, “Introduction,” in The Cambridge Companion to Levinas, edited by Simon Critchley and Robert Bernasconi (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 6.
7 Jung may have had a similar idea of the Other in mind in his conception of the Self as ineffable and different from the ego, in a way that transcends even the psyche and is an infinite mystery disclosing itself only gradually over time. See the Glossary.
8 Adriaan Peperzak, To the Other: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1993), 89, 161.
9 My rendering and commentary is but one in a long line of previous and noted endeavors. Why have so many depth psychologists delved into the subject, and tried their hand at bringing new meaning to the myth, almost in the way that serious actors must all take a stab at Shakespeare? Simply put, we are all intrigued by a story that features as its star Psyche, the namesake of the profession to which we have all tethered ourselves. There must be some profound meaning we may yet discover in the relationship between Love and Psyche. For some examples see Erich Neumann, Amor and Psyche; Marie-Louise von Franz, The Golden Ass of Apuleius; Robert Johnson, She; James Hillman, Myth of Analysis; Donald Kalsched, The Inner World of Trauma; Polly Young-Eisendrath, Women and Desire.

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