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Narcissism: When the pool stares back

Those opposed to sanitising history were predictably miffed when Joseph Conrad’s fine 1897 novella, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, was renamed The N-word of the ‘Narcissus’ by a Dutch publisher in 2010.

There are, no doubt, some sound arguments to be made on both sides of the divide about this sort of political correctness, and there can be few among us (but alas, not that few) who see anything but good in the eradication of that racial slur from the world’s vocabulary.

It is less easy, however, to understand why the other N-word has also started to receive the approbation of society.

It’s not narcissism per se that is being mentioned in the same sneering tone as the word hipster – it’s that now ubiquitous term, selfie. Quite why critics of the selfie see it as the harbinger of civilisation’s doom is difficult to determine.

The main accusation from these Nemeses appears to be that selfies are a form of narcissism, and that such self-love has no place being reflected in the general cesspool of social media. Narcissus, as many readers will know, was the Greek god of selfies, the son of a river god called Twitter and a nymph named Instagram. Well, not an actual god – he was a hunter who rejected the affections of Echo, a nymph who loved the sound of her own voice.

In one version of the myth, Echo’s despair caused her to fade away until all that was left of her was her voice.

It’s tempting to see Echo as that vast sounding board that is Facebook, a platform designed to enable you to surround yourself with only people who agree with you. This allows them the luxury of only ever hearing their own opinions repeated back at them as revelation. But alas, despite the ostensible infinitude of the internet, you can still only stretch a metaphor so far before it breaks.

The point is made, though. Many people rail against the rise of the selfie, seeing in it the same sins to which Narcissus was prey: vanity, an excessive and damaging admiration of oneself, and an asocial self-centredness. This is nonsense, of course.

The selfie is not an example of the decay of our societal fabric, but a new way of making sure that societies can be cut from the same cloth. Or less fulsomely: the selfie is a way for people to explain who they are, both to themselves and their audience, to reach out to others, and to render permeable the barriers that different cultures place between them.

In Conrad’s novel, the Narcissus is a ship plying the ocean, crewed by a disparate bunch of sailors who need to put aside their many differences to survive a storm. James Wait is the dying black sailor at the heart of the story, and he becomes the pool in which the sailors, collectively embodying the ship Narcissus, see their own reflection. Wait is almost preternaturally self-obsessed, and it’s his sense of self – his selfieness, I suppose we could term it – that allows the other sailors to make sense of their lives and situation. They become obsessed with Wait, almost to the point of mutinying against the captain.

The narrator’s description of this psychological interchange could stand in for an analysis of the economy of social media.

“Through him we were becoming highly humanised, tender, complex, excessively decadent … We had the air of being initiated in some infamous mysteries; we had the profound grimaces of conspirators, exchanged meaning glances, significant short words. We were inexpressibly vile and very much pleased with ourselves.” Put this passage alongside a New York Daily News headline like “Kim Kardashian draws backlash over sexy swimsuit selfie, called ‘disgusting’ and ‘nasty'”, and the connections are queueing up to make themselves.

The nub of the Conrad extract is that people learn from watching narcissists watch themselves. The haters of selfies are confusing the narcissism necessary to the evolution of the self, and of a society of selves, with the kind of narcissism that’s a personality disorder. Freud referred to the former as primary narcissism, and it would have been hugely amusing to see what he would have made of social media.

If proof were needed that selfies are about the social, and not the selfish, it’s in the haphazard definition of selfie.

One would think that it would be relatively straightforward, given its etymology, which I imagine is derived from painting a self-portrait: a photo of yourself. Self-portraits really only began when artists had easier access to mirrors, and this mirroring is, in a way, the trap that Narcissus fell into when he chanced across his image reflected in a pool.

The selfies of social media, of course, are often the creator’s reflection in a mirror, especially before the arrival of cellphones with front-facing cameras.

The attraction of selfies – the almost addictive attraction – is not that you can get hundreds of people to see you. It’s that you can finally see yourself while being seen.

But selfies has now become a term for almost any photo that includes the person who took it. So a selfie, that supposed exemplar of the selfish, vain narcissist, is actually almost always a social project that’s about community.

The selfie has come a long way from the purity of its conception in 2002, when (according to Wikipedia) Australian Nathan Hope first used the term in a comment on a picture: “Um, drunk at a mate’s 21st, I tripped over and landed lip first … on a set of steps. I had a hole about 1cm long right through my bottom lip. And sorry about the focus, it was a selfie.”

Now, a selfie can be a group photo, with the largest such one shot in November 2014, featuring 2 000 people, according to Wikipedia.

This is called a group selfie, which might strike those who still equate selfies with the negative, self-obsessed side of narcissism as paradoxical.

But there’s no denying that selfies are about narcissism. It doesn’t qualify as proof, but it is instructive to learn that on Time magazine’s list of the 25 best inventions of 2014 is the selfie stick or, to give it the name favoured by the Indonesians who are its most fanatical users, the tongkat narsis, or “narcissism staff”.

But it’s a kind of narcissism that we need, one that allows the hordes of selfie-snappers to break down the old boundaries of identity and ideation, and that brings something positive to the changing world.

Chris Roper is the editor in chief of the Mail & Guardian.

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