The Age of Narcissus

March 3rd, 2015

Narcissus was a foolish youth. Foolish, and beautiful.

When I was doing “A” Level Latin at school – many moons ago – I remember reading parts of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” including the story of Narcissus and poor little Echo, who followed him around. Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a forest pool. So deeply in love was he that he eventually fell in, drowning in his own beauty.

Narcissus only had eyes for himself, not the lovestruck Echo. (Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1903, Walker Gallery, Liverpool).

Narcissus only had eyes for himself, not the lovestruck Echo. (Painting by John William Waterhouse, 1903, Walker Gallery, Liverpool).

Nowadays, it seems we are all gazing at ourselves in admiration, thanks to technology and the many and varied constructs of social media. Aren’t I handsome? Aren’t I sexy? Look at me. Me, me! Here I am waking up in the morning (Instagram photo of sleepy-looking young man in bed – bare-chested of course). Here I am at work (cute pose, high heels, tight dress). Of course, social media has ramped up the “I’m in love with myself” mentality tremendously. And the embrace of this “me” culture is not restricted to the young ones, who are doing it just for fun and for their online friends (who, of course, chime in with comments like “Looking gorgeous, girl!” and lots of heart emoticons. Politicians (who have no qualms about being self-serving) love the new “me” culture, too. And it seems to apply to men and women equally. It’s gender neutral.

These were some of the young (at the time) men Carly Simon MIGHT have been referring to in her 1972 song "You're So Vain."

These were some of the young (at the time) men Carly Simon MIGHT have been referring to in her 1972 song “You’re So Vain.” (l-r) Kris Kristofferson, Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty and Cat Stevens. Many others might have qualified…

But is this a new concept, I wonder? Has this fascination with oneself always been around, under the surface? In 1972, singer Carly Simon had quite a hit with the soft-rock song “You’re So Vain.” The lyrics were delightfully cutting, with the chorus: “You’re so vain You probably think this song is about you.” The line that always made me chuckle was: “You had one eye on the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte..” The song was allegedly about rock singer Mick Jagger, although Ms. Simon denied this, saying it was really about men in general – a sort of composite Vain Man. In fact, Ms. Simon actually referred to the Latin poet Ovid several times in one song; those listening out for a clue as to who the vain person was in real life heard “David” and thought of some possible Davids. She was, of course, referring to the story of Narcissus, but that seems to have gone over their heads.

US President  Barack Obama (R) and British Prime Minister David Cameron pose for a picture with Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt (C) next to US First Lady Michelle Obama (R) during the memorial service of South African former president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium (Soccer City) in Johannesburg on December 10, 2013.   AFP PHOTO / ROBERTO SCHMIDTROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

US President Barack Obama (R) and British Prime Minister David Cameron pose for a picture with Denmark’s Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt (C) next to US First Lady Michelle Obama (R) during the memorial service of South African former president Nelson Mandela at the FNB Stadium (Soccer City) in Johannesburg on December 10, 2013. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Then there is the “selfie” obsession, which arose out of the proliferation of mobile phones. Even President Obama is not immune. The rather attractive Danish Prime Minister took a selfie of him and British Prime Minister David Cameron at Nelson Mandela’s memorial in South Africa, of all places. I found it inappropriate, and so did Mrs. Obama, one suspects. I once tried taking a selfie, and resolved not to bother again. Ever. I looked as if I had seen a duppie. My eyes were popping out. It seemed a pointless exercise. I felt embarrassed with myself, and quickly deleted it.

The woman who is famous for being famous, Kim Kardashian, is of course the Queen of Selfies. She has even published a book of them, called “Selfish.” It was probably a bestseller. In an interview, Ms. Kardashian claims that her very first selfie was at age four. Yes, she started young.

And now, worst of all, we have the “selfie sticks” so that better angles and distance can be created. You can place yourself in a landscape, a backdrop of your choosing, immortalized. You can take a selfie of yourself in front of a priceless work of art, or perhaps with some hapless “celebrity” in the background, who doesn’t know you from Adam. Some public places have banned them. Tourists in St. Kilda – a seaside spot near Melbourne, Australia – are using their selfie sticks for a different purpose. They are harassing a small colony of penguins, pushing the sticks down into their burrows and taking flash photographs. I’m sure penguins really don’t want to be Instagrammed, but they are selfie stick victims. (A few weeks ago, everyone’s favorite U.S. President used a selfie stick in a video to promote his healthcare program. I told you, politicians love this stuff. It’s so cool).

Vanity is, of course, not only about what you look like. It goes a little deeper. It is about conceit and self-satisfaction. It’s a character trait. Vain people think they are important in the scheme of things. In fact, vanity used to simply mean futility – as in “in vain.” But modern-day expressions of vanity are never futile. It’s vanity with a purpose.

In 2015, the narcissistic obsession is mainly about our fascination with images. Social media thrives on images. Even when you are giving a PowerPoint presentation, you should ideally have more images than words. It has more impact. Let your audience gaze at gorgeous photos, while you drone on in the background filling in the information and hope they are listening. A social media message that includes an image will get more “shares” and “likes” than one without. We all love images, photo-shopped or not. And many of the images that fill our computer screen are indeed enhanced in some way. But do we care? Probably not.

Back in the groovy 1960s, there was a very popular musical about the hippy counter-culture called “Hair.” It caused quite a stir at the time (it even included a nude scene). The most popular song from the musical was “The Age of Aquarius,” in which the happy hippies welcomed in a “New Age.” 

Well, folks. This is the dawning of the Age of Narcissus.

I blame Kim Kardashian.


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12 Responses to “The Age of Narcissus”

  1. Emma has her finger on the pulse on this one. Timely and relevant article.

  2. EmmaLewis says:

    Thanks so much, Marcia! I appreciate your comment.

  3. Anthony Deer says:

    Mankind has always been in-love with himself IMO, social media and KK has only brought it out in unimaginable proportions.

    If some persons post a photo or something on social media and its not liked within a short time, they start tagging individuals in order to get the likes flowing.

    Wonderful article.

  4. Dennis Jones says:

    If it’s about vanity, then that’s been around a long time indeed: pick your historical source and you’ll find it there. Self-portraits are not new, but now they they do not depend on one being an artist. Since the advent of the camera, it has been an interesting study to take images of the photographer; this was made easier with the development of timing devices and tripods, etc, so that the subject/taker had time to reposition him/herself in the picture.

    The mobile camera and digital imagery have made possible the true self-portrait and the immediate satisfaction of seeing the results. There’s nothing odd about wanting to see oneself at an event, when the options were to have pictures of everyone other than yourself (as you took the picture), or another person taking the picture. You are at the top of Everest, and you take the shot from there, so that friends can be told you were there. It has a different significance to show the image of yourself on that summit. One of the differences is about ‘truth’. (Assuming no Photoshop trick.) I can easily show an image of a place or event, but it is different when I am in the picture: the story can gain credibility. Of course, some take that to absurb limits by positioning themselves in distasteful proximity to say a disaster. But, the point is the same.

    I think it’s limited to see it as mainly about vanity. I have thousands of pictures of places I have been and events I witnessed, but few pictures of me anywhere. I was THE photographer, and had THE camera. Then, I was the best picture taker, even when others had cameras. Then I was the one who was less bothered about being in the picture because I was so used to being behind the lens. Now, I take several types of pictures, at events, and sometimes I put the camera to point at my face and see something of myself in my own narrative. That’s not vanity, but more about placing oneself in context.

    Not everyone wants to take pictures of themselves in front of mirrors, or showing off their clothes, or whatever. But, when one is far from friends, etc, that’s not so different from when the friends gathered in the room and posed for each other, for fun, or other reasons.

    I also wouldn’t dismiss how people feel about being able to record events. We no longer have to try hard to recall everything and rely on our memories. We can be lazier or more accurate, by having the pictures to go with the recollections, in whatever form they take.

    The Kardashians are a different kettle of fish, however.

  5. S Harrison says:

    very informative

  6. EmmaLewis says:

    Thank you very much!

  7. EmmaLewis says:

    Yes, Dennis! I agree, vanity has been around for a long time. Good point about the self portraits, too. In fact, our son painted a self-portrait when he was at school! I am just wondering… Is there a subtle difference between a “selfie” and someone else taking a photo of you at an event? Both would show that you “were there” and that it’s true and provable that you were there.

    I am the same as you – I am always behind the lens of the camera taking pictures of others. I am happy with that!

    So your point is… It is not necessarily mere vanity. It is a record and it is showing that you are at a special event. And I was not just talking about selfies or special occasions. I did not say that “everyone” wants to pose in various outfits in front of mirrors etc. Perhaps I am being a little hard on the self-admirers but I do indeed believe that this is a not very admirable aspect of our global, “instant” (as you pointed out) online culture. Which I confess I am a part of! :-)

    Indeed, the Kardashians are in a class of their own. They make millions out of turning the camera on themselves!

    Thanks for your comments as always…

  8. EmmaLewis says:

    Thank you, Anthony. I am glad you enjoyed reading my article. Yes, as the story of Narcissus illustrates, this is nothing new. But now the technological tools available to us make it so much easier and more sophisticated. And yes – we invite more and more people (even people we have never met!) to admire (“like”) us. We are concerned if we are not “feeling the love.” So it is taken to another level!

  9. cakecake says:

    It seems that people who don’t indulge in selfies are the odd one’s out. But, I guess you get used to seeing your face all the time.

  10. EmmaLewis says:

    Yes! Perhaps the non-selfie people are unusual. I am not very keen on looking at my face all the time!

  11. Oswald says:

    Great read. Why is there no share button to share on social media? Really? in 2015.

  12. EmmaLewis says:

    Thank you, Oswald. You know, I don’t know why – I will ask about this.