Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Trickster, Narcissism, and the Search for Soul

by Deldon Anne McNeely

From the new revised edition of Mercury Rising: Women, Evil, and the Trickster Gods

Since what “seems to be” has higher priority than what “is” in narcissism, Trickster is always evoked by the narcissistic complex. Pelton says the Trickster “pokes at, plays with, delights in, and shatters what seems to be until it becomes what is.”(1) Trickster tells it like it is, for communication is uppermost, how-it-is is uppermost, how it seems to be or should be is meant to be shattered. This puts the Trickster at the center of the narcissistic dynamics, paradoxically as the antagonist of the narcissistic defenses, yet simultaneously as the only one who can truly understand and accept them. For there is a paradoxical aspect of the narcissist’s preoccupation with the mirror, and it is this: if we can ever find the Self in the image, we can be free! If we can find the Self, separate and emerge from it, know its Otherness, we can relate to it rather than identify with it. We can have the mirror inside, have it speak to us, hold us, wait for us, instead of having to be so omnipotently self-protective. We would let go, and know.

In the Trickster something wants to show us “how it is,” not only by pointing to our shadiest qualities, but holding them up to the sun’s gaze for the greatest possible multitudes to see. Trickster doesn’t hold up only our conventionally positive traits; she brings the shadowy, unattractive, and shameful elements into the sunlight of collective consciousness too. And that is what appears to be happening in a tricksterish way as our society becomes more enamored of seeing itself. In our current preoccupation with exposure we have taken the old first lines of the primer which for many of us was the introduction to collective life, “See Dick, See Jane,” and exaggerated it to enormous proportions. Jane and Dick’s every tear, dream, and orgasm is enlarged for the super-screen in the sky. Yet we are finite, and limited to seeing only a few things at a time. What is missing from this picture? What nuances are overlooked, what shades lurking out of range of the camera’s eye, what small secrets of the soul slipping through the cracks? What data are we, in our narcissistic society, refusing to take in? And what is it we are looking for as we scrutinize our own reflection?

Schwartz-Salant, by noting the similarity between Trickster and narcissism, suggests that what is being looked for and overlooked is the relationship to the feminine and its capacity for reflection:
Narcissism is a trickster, leading one to all kinds of inflation and self-importance with nothing in the end to show for it.... Generally, narcissistic character structures are involved with individuation much as Mercurius is.... They represent both the urge toward individuation and the drive toward the regressive fusion of ego and Self. Narcissistic character structures can lead to a birth of the feminine or to the repression of this realm of being and body with its own spirit and consciousness. As well, they can lead to a capacity for reflection, or to its continual suppression under the dominance of a grandiose-exhibitionistic power drive.(2) (Italics-DM.)
Mythical Narcissus gives us an image of one whose longing for connection to his own soul is so great that it overrides all other concerns. Similarly, the narcissistic character is preoccupied with seeking the truth of herself, and to care for anything or anyone else at this stage of her development would only divert her from her primary task: that of finding the soul she hid protectively so long ago that she does not remember that it is hidden, although she feels compelled to retrieve it from the mirror. Here we meet ourselves today, bereft and thoroughly preoccupied with retrieving what we know not. Taking our cues from the narcissistic personality, we can surmise that modern society’s urge toward self-absorption means that we are seeking the truth of ourselves. We must find the Self in the mirror in order to separate from it and to relate to it instead of improperly identifying with its power. Our relationship to the feminine inner world is out of balance. As a narcissistic society, we can assume that we are probably skewed toward too much masculinity; we identify with power and extroversion, as we project into our god-images. We search the mirror for our missing soul parts, which will bring us closer to completion and help us to experience affection without fusion.

In the West African Ashanti theology, there is a balance of male and female powers, as we have seen is also true in the Fon. Ashanti goddess Asase Yaa is equal in power to the male god Nyame. She is neither his wife nor his creation, but the likelihood is that “each has a hidden aspect somehow reflecting the chief characteristics of the other.”(3) The social order of the earthly society reflects this double divinity: the King has a Queen Mother who shares his rule, and each chief and subchief shares power with a Queen Mother. “The Queen Mother is to the King as Asase Yaa is to Nyame: the resource out of which the source of life draws life and renews life.”(4)

It is practically impossible for us, so long steeped in Western tradition, to imagine a psychological foundation that is informed by an early teaching of the masculine and feminine nature of God and that can assign true value to the psyche and to introversion. More often our way is to tolerate the inner life only if it proves pragmatic or attention-getting in some way. Our extroverted values bias us toward seeing other cultures as less successful if their technology and levels of material comfort are less advanced than our own. Like a narcissistic personality who disdains the experience of others, a narcissistic society tends to overlook the wisdom and information conveyed by the philosophies, arts, and music of other cultures, which are often much more sophisticated and differentiated than its own. In our society we tend to overlook the closeness that some other cultures have with animals and children, and with nature herself, connections which are often far more advanced than our own, stressing as they do cooperation with nature rather than conquering.

Cut-off as we have been from our feminine soul as a culture, we express our condition through our narcissistic adaptation, vacillating between fears of fusion and abandonment. Although there may seem to be a developing reverence for “The Goddess,” there are still women and men mutilating their bodies and souls to fit into a masculine image of how we should be. Relatively few of us are at peace with who and how we are. In psychology our bias shows in the experience of the ego in terms of what I think of as “yang functions,” functions of doing, actively participating in, even “overcoming” both outer and inner worlds. Yet we know from experience and from numerous examples in universal stories that it is sometimes adaptive to do nothing but contemplate or wait, to live what is.

Because of our bias toward extroversion, and in spite of Jung’s explorations of the need for balance, introverted behavior is still often pathologized and regarded as weak ego-functioning, when it may be exactly what is needed in order to mediate the unconscious. This bias towards extraversion was abetted by Freud’s view of the unconscious as Id, which was seen as something to be mastered by Ego. It is less so under Jung’s influence, which bids us to respect the information from the unconscious as a valuable source of survival data, data which can balance our over-weighted conscious vantage point. I like to think of the ego-functions as representing the yin-yang principles, able to be active or passive, assertive or reflective, as called for by the circumstances.

With an androgynous view of the ego functions, with regard to the resolution of the narcissistic adaptation, the acceptance of the yin-ego opens one to retrieving the lost element of soul that is being sought in the mirror. We have images for this which indicate the importance of Trickster in the process: for example, Hermes bringing the abducted feminine, Persephone, back to the upperworld; Hermes rescuing the Divine Child, Dionysus, when he was born of Zeus and had to be taken from Hera’s sight to be cared for by nymphs; Biblical nomadic wise-men throwing the plotting king off track to allow the escape of the Divine Child, Jesus. These images of the recovery of the lost soul (represented by the feminine, or by the archetype of renewal and creativity, the Divine Child), with the help of the shrewd and caring Trickster, all imply that there is a central organizing principle by which the fragments are related in their process of continual flux. The notion of a center need not imply stasis, but rather a purposive order as opposed to unrelated random events.

1.  Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982), 62.
2.  This is not to say that every man thinks in a predominantly masculine style, nor every woman in a predominantly feminine style, any more than we can say that every man values independence more than attachment. It does imply that there are gender differences in principle, reflected in generalized differences between males and females. 
3.  Rosemarie Tong, Feminine and Feminist Ethics (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1993). 
4.  Charles Derber, The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Individualism in Everyday Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979).

Order  Mercury Rising: Women, Evil, and the Trickster Gods 

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