17 mar. 2004

My ungoing project of committing all of Shakespeare's sonnets to memory coincides with the continuing discussion of narcissism on Nick Piombino's blog and elsewhere. Narcissism is not about self-love per se, but the misrecognition of self-love. That is, Narcissus is not in love with himself, but with an image he misrecognizes as the other. He doesn't know it's himself he is in love with. Read the story in Ovid. Anyway, the speaker of the poem I memorized last night, who I will call "Shakespeare," accuses himself of narcissism: "Sin of self-loves possesseth all mine eye, / And all my soul, and all my every part. / And for this sin there is no remedy. / It is so grounded inward in my heart." But the accusation has got to be false, since narcissists don't know they are narcissists. Thus we don't believe him when he says "Methinks no face so gracious is as mine / No shape so true, no truth of such account." The next few lines are interesting: "And for myself my own worth do define / As I all other in all worths surmount." The self-sufficiency is striking: the judger and the object judged are one and the same.

The sextet presents the truly narcissistic moment: Shakespeare looks at himself in the mirror: "But when my glass shows me myself indeed / Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity, / Mine own self love quite contrary I read: / Self so self-loving were iniquity." This is curious: if you are beautiful and young, self-admiration is fine. It only becomes a problem when the object of adoration isn't worthy any more. The real narcissism in the poem, then, comes when Shakepeare, gazing at his young friend, assumes that he shares in the friend's youthful beauty: "Tis thee (my self) that for myself I praise / Painting my age with beauty of thy days." In other words, by looking at the young friend, he can pretend to be a Narcissus looking at his own image. The illusion is already unmasked, before it is actually presented. A very "self-knowing" structure.

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