Self-Centeredness Isn't Narcissism's Central Problem

Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells the strange myth of Narcissus—the boy who fell in love with himself. After spurning the love of the nymph Echo, whose speech can be only the repetition of what she has heard, the beautiful youth wanders, seeking solitude, and finds himself. However, a seer prophesied that Narcissus would live a long life only “if he does not discover himself.” He fatefully discovers himself as a reflection in a pool, as “a bodiless dream. He thinks that a body, that is only a shadow.” Like Echo, whose unrequited love reduces her to “bones and the sound of her voice” that is echo with no substance, his love is for an echoed shadow that he becomes. “Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain?” Ovid exhorts. “What you search for is nowhere: turning away, what you love is lost! What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it.” Narcissus suffers Echo’s fate, which he himself foretold when he rejected her: “‘May I die before what’s mine is yours.’ She answers, only ‘What’s mine is yours!’”

Narcissism is a hot topic in organizational and developmental psychology, criminology, business practices, and even—or especially—political science.[1] According to the common interpretation, Narcissus’s sin is an overabundance of self. Yet, the myth reveals that narcissism is not fundamentally self-centeredness but self-absence. Self-centeredness is a symptom, not the disease itself. Narcissus cannot feed upon himself; like Echo, he too suffers from unrequited love—for himself. His desire is incurvatio in se ipsum. Yet he finds nothing to consume—“He loves a bodiless dream”—and so he perishes from starvation.[2]

What Ovid presents in mythological form, contemporary observers have been noting about our age as a whole. Christopher Lasch in his 1978 bestseller The Culture of Narcissism diagnoses the unselving of a culture. Lasch’s book contributed to a renewal of interest in narcissism within and outside of psychology and sociology. Drawing on theoretical, psychoanalytic, and clinical literature of the mid-20th century, he notes that therapists observed a shift from the neuroses and hysterias of Freud’s day to personality disorders, such as narcissism, in our own time.[3] “The growing prominence of ‘character disorders’ seems to signify an underlying change in the organization of personality,” he states, “from what has been called inner-direction to narcissism.”[4]

In diagnosing a “culture of narcissism,” Lasch avoids two traps: on the one hand, diluting the pathology of the genuine disorder, and, on the other hand, falling into a moralism that simply rails against contemporary selfishness. Narcissists have slashed their way throughout history. What makes our age distinctive, he argues, is not the novelty of narcissism but the pervasiveness of a diluted, narcissistic-like condition. He calls our attention to what we might call “the narcissistic spectrum”—and almost all of us are on it. The forty years since the publication of Lasch’s book have not ameliorated the situation.

C. S. Lewis’s unjustly neglected rewriting of the myth of Cupid and Psyche, in his novel Till We Have Faces, provides a profound insight into the narcissistic spectrum.[5] By all accounts, this was not his explicit purpose. In a letter in 1957, he identifies one of the main themes of the book as the distortion of natural loves when not purified by charity, a theme he addresses in prose in The Four Loves.[6] Narcissism did not seem to be on his mind much when he wrote Till We Have Faces, which was, in his own assessment, “far and away the best I have written.”[7] Yet the protagonist Orual is an example of precisely the sort of culturally-induced narcissism that defines our current age.

Throughout the book, Orual, eldest daughter of Trom, king of Glome, wrestles with the gods: first, the shapeless, faceless fertility goddess Ungit, but also and more fearfully the god whom her half-sister Psyche marries, the god with the golden voice who pronounces Orual’s doom. She would have no truck with educated atheism, with its mockery of religious belief and divine power. The gods are fearfully, terribly alive to her. She is no unbeliever but instead a believer in full rebellion against the gods who have a different plan than her own.

Orual’s family aligns with classic narcissistic etiology. Orual’s mother dies when the girl is young. Orual’s father resorts to violence or impotent rage when he frequently cannot control his situation or his future. When a daughter, Psyche, is born to him rather than a son, he kills a boy slave who was a favorite and sends another trusted slave to the mines. His murderous rage is greeted by silence in his Pillar Room, and he recoils from the faces around him. “Suddenly the King flung up his hands, stamped, and cried, ‘Faces, faces, faces! What are you all gaping at? It’d make a man mad. Be off! Away! Out of my sight, the whole pack of you!’” (18).

Trom recoils from Orual’s face in particular. Her ugliness is never described, but it is her defining characteristic to those who do not know her well (which includes her father). The King calls her “curd-face” and worse (18). She cannot love him, but she loves the Greek slave who tutors her, a man everyone calls the Fox. His paternal love for her is one of the comforts in her life, but it cannot heal her bitterness against her father. After she kills her first man in combat, she fantasizes about how she could have killed her recently deceased father and how she will kill her old life: “The King’s dead. He’ll never pull my hair again. A straight thrust and then a cut in the leg. That would have killed him. I am the Queen; I’ll kill Orual too” (225). Yet at the very end of her life, she dreams of him: “And instantly all the long years of my queenship shrank up small like a dream. How could I have believed in them? How could I ever have thought I should escape from the King?” (273).

The one bright spot of her life, other than the Fox, is Psyche, whose birth was, Orual says, “the beginning of all my joys” (20). The beautiful, merry, and intelligent Psyche accompanies Orual and the Fox—while Orual’s other sister, Redival, is generally neglected—as he teaches them a kind of Stoic philosophy that includes a demythologization of the gods. Yet this happy time cannot continue; a severe drought descends on Glome, and the priest of Ungit demands the sacrifice of Psyche to the “Shadowbrute,” who is Ungit’s son or perhaps Ungit herself. Psyche is bound to a tree on the holy mountain and left to be the brute’s prey. The rain returns almost immediately.

When Orual goes to bury Psyche, she is astonished to find the chains still fastened to the tree but no bones. Then she sees Psyche, in robust good health, claiming to live in a golden palace with a god who comes to her every night but who will not show his face to her. Orual can see no palace, to Psyche’s horror—except for a brief glimpse of it, a vision of glory that almost immediately disappears. Not knowing what to believe, but unwilling to believe Psyche’s story, she allows herself to be convinced that Psyche is under the sway of either a madman or a beast. At this point, the possessive and self-centered nature of her love for Psyche becomes clearer to the reader, although not to Orual herself. She accuses Psyche of “turning your back on all our love” by preferring her husband to Orual (125). She starts to see “how one can hate those one loves” (127). Psyche replies, “You are indeed teaching about kinds of love I did not know. It is like looking into a deep pit” (165).

Orual returns to the mountain with a desperate plan: either convince Psyche to cast a light on her god-husband’s face, or kill her. Orual accomplishes the former by stabbing her own arm as extortion, knowing that Psyche cannot stand to see her die. Psyche sorrowfully acquiesces to the mad plan. After she shines her hidden light on her divine husband’s face, a “great voice” arises, “no ugly sound; even in its implacable sternness it was golden” (171). And then the terrible refrain of Psyche’s weeping. The whole valley is destroyed in storm and flood.

Only then does Orual see the god, in a dazzling brightness like lightning without motion. “He rejected, denied, answered, and (worst of all) he knew, all I had thought, done or been.” When he spoke, it was without anger: “Now Psyche goes out in exile. Now she must hunger and thirst and tread hard roads . . . You, woman, shall know yourself and your work. You also shall be Psyche” (173-174). Like Narcissus, Orual is condemned to echo the one whose genuine love she rejected.

Upon return to her palace, Orual begins to wear a veil. It empowers her. Now she can be faceless to the outside world, a blank canvas upon which others project their fears and hopes. “I became something very mysterious and awful,” (229) a great unknown. This liquidity gives her power. But the veil also becomes a symbol of her inner emptiness. She hides behind it, “queening,” as she puts it, after the death of the King, burying herself (the old Orual) under tasks and works. Ovid could have instructed her as he did Narcissus: “What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it.” The veil symbolizes how she consumes and evacuates herself with a merciless discipline. She refuses to advert to her grief for Psyche, yet not without conflict. “One part of me made to snatch that sorrow back; it said, ‘Orual dies if she ceases to love Psyche.’ But the other said, ‘Let Orual die. She would never have made a queen’” (211).

The picture that Orual draws of herself is never flattering. And yet, in the closing valediction of the book by Ungit’s priest Arnom, we see a completely different picture. Orual, Queen of Glome, was “the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate and merciful of all the princes known in our parts of the world” (308-309). Indeed, we can piece together these aspects of her from what is left unsaid in her self-portrayal. She is prudent and decisive: when the newborn Psyche is given to a nurse who drinks too much, the teenage Orual quickly rectifies the situation. She has no patience with flatterers and manipulators. She loves only those who are truly virtuous, such as Bardia the soldier and the Fox, and they love her in return. She inspires admiration and loyalty in them.

Ironically, the one virtue for which she genuinely prides herself—her love for Psyche—is precisely her greatest shortcoming. That love is not simply evil either, however. It is the natural affection of storge (examined by Lewis in The Four Loves) that turns demonic when untethered from a transcendent orientation. Lewis writes that Orual demonstrates “human affection in its natural condition, true, tender, suffering, but in the long run tyrannically possessive and ready to turn to hatred when the beloved ceases to be its possession.”[8] Like Narcissus, who drew near his own image in the pool in order “to quench his thirst” and instead “a different thirst created,” Orual’s attempt to feed herself on others merely leaves her hungrier.

She is compelled to write a book, “letting Orual wake and speak, digging her almost out of a grave, out of the walled well,” because she wishes to defend herself against the gods. “It burned me from within. It quickened; I was with book, as a woman is with child” (247). The book accuses the gods of punishing humans for not knowing what mere mortals cannot ever know, on account of the gods’ capriciousness.

But to hint and hover, to draw near to us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another; what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman’s buff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places? (249).

She is, she protests, given “no answer” to her questions (250, 253).

Yet answers begin to come quickly after she finishes her book. Bardia dies, from age and from a kind of exhaustion. When Orual goes to meet his widow, truth cannot be evaded: the Queen’s love for Bardia was shot through with selfishness. As Bardia’s wife mercilessly names it, for the Queen, “the loving and the devouring are all one . . . You’re full fed. Gorged with other men’s lives, women’s too: Bardia’s, mine, the Fox’s, your sister’s—both your sisters’” (265). Despite her rage, Orual realizes “it was all true . . . I  had rejoiced when there was a press of work, had heaped up needless work to keep him late at the palace, plied him with questions for the mere pleasure of hearing his voice. Anything to put off the moment when he would go and leave me to my emptiness” (266). She realizes that her kind of love was not truly love at all: “Did I hate him, then? Indeed, I believe so. A love like that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love” (266). The deformation of this love destroys it from the inside: “My love for Bardia (not Bardia himself) had become to me a sickening thing . . . It stank; a gnawing greed for one to whom I could give nothing, of whom I craved all” (267).

The death of that love is the destruction of her last bulwark against the gods, leaving her helpless and fully aware of her inner emptiness—the last preparation before the final surgery of the gods. “But when the craving went, nearly all that I called myself went with it. It was as if my whole soul had become one tooth and now that tooth was drawn. I was a gap. And now I thought I had come to the very bottom and that the gods could tell me no worse” (267). Like Narcissus, she had thought a body what was only a shadow.

She comes to see that everything she hates about the gods is found inside herself. In a dream of her father, he makes her dig down beneath the Pillar Room—down below the trappings of queenship into her very self—in order to look at herself in his mirror.[9] “Who is Ungit?” he demands. “I am Ungit,” she wails. Rather than be Ungit, she would even prefer to drown herself in the river that she herself had dredged as one of her many public works, but she is stopped by her second encounter with the god of the golden voice. He commands her not to proceed: “You cannot escape Ungit by going to the deadlands, for she is there also. Die before you die. There is no chance after” (279).

In the climactic final vision, Orual is given her day in court, pressing her case against the gods. She has her book, in which she has painstakingly laid out her case against them. But what she finds herself reading is something different, something small—both in size and in pettiness. She finds herself repeating:

The girl was mine. What right had you to steal her away into your dreadful heights? You’ll say I was jealous. Jealous of Psyche? Not while she was mine . . . There’s no room for you and us in the same world. You’re a tree in whose shadow we can’t thrive. We want to be our own. I was my own and Psyche was mine and no one else had any right to her (290-292).

Around and around, “for the book was a small one. Now I knew that I had been reading it over and over—perhaps a dozen times . . . And the voice I read it in was strange to my ears. There was given to me a certainty that this, at last, was my real voice” (292).

“Enough,” the judge interrupts her. “Are you answered?”

“Yes,” says she (292-293).

She is answered not in another divine locution (she has already received two, and neither satisfied her), but in hearing her own voice, seemingly for the first time. She is answered by tearing the veil from her face and gazing at herself: a death before her death, as the god demanded, a death to her empty self (Ovid: “nothing of you is in it!”). Her answer is her own face, seen for the first time. “The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered” (294). She sees for the first time why she could get no answer from the gods until she had truly heard herself: “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?” (294).

Yet what follows her confession of her true ugliness, which has nothing to do with her actual face but rather with her shriveled self, is not divine retribution but rather mercy. Once again, the love of the Fox comes to console her in her vision. She cries to him, “I’ve battened on the lives of men. It’s true. Isn’t it true?” In his forgiveness, she sees that Psyche has walked through various trials set for her, but without being touched. They were trials that she, Orual, truly suffered while Psyche remained unscathed: “Another bore nearly all the anguish” (300).

In this way, Orual learns that her ugliness is not the truth of her but a distortion of the true Orual that her loyal friends have always seen and loved, the steadfast Queen Orual whom Arnom praises as the wisest and best leader of her people. In humility, Orual cries out to Psyche in her vision, “I never wished you well, never had one selfless thought of you.” In response, “she bent over me to lift me up. Then, when I would not rise, she said, ‘But Maia, dear Maia, you must stand up. I have not given you the casket. You know I went a long journey to fetch the beauty that will make Ungit beautiful” (305-306).

So it appears that the beloved of the gods is not only the beautiful and wise Psyche, but also the tormented and ugly Orual. In the divine plan, the hideous older half-sister suffers in order to aid the beautiful maiden, but the beautiful maiden also goes through the greatest trials in order to purify Orual. The god, it appears, is willing to sacrifice his beloved in order to be united to the one who hates him. “What’s mine is yours!” Psyche and the god proclaim to Orual, but this time not in vengeance; in Lewis’s new myth, just retribution gives way to undeserved love.

And thus Orual becomes her true self, a process that requires her whole lifetime and occurs only through a searching honesty prompted by despair. After finishing her original book, she returns to it. “I know so much more than I did about the woman who wrote it,” she confesses. “What began the change was the very writing itself” (253). The process of putting her memories on paper uncovered memories she thought she had forgotten and prompted an unbidden self-examination. “The change which the writing wrought in me . . . was only a beginning—only to prepare me for the gods’ surgery. They used my own pen to probe my wound” (253-254). Her writing was the experienced task of sifting the grain to which Psyche was set but which she, Orual, actually performed: “It was a labour of sifting and sorting, separating motive from motive and both from pretext” (256).

This labor is completed by her confession, hearing her own voice narrate not what she thought her story was but its inner truth: not the complaint of the woman unjustly punished by the gods, but the whine of the jealous, shrunken mortal curved in upon herself. “When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words” (294).

Yet that painful confrontation with her own interior babble is the necessary last step in the gods’ surgery, lancing her wound and releasing the “poison” recorded in her book (300). It opens her up to true reconciliation and reciprocal forgiveness, first with the Fox and then with Psyche and lastly with the god of the golden voice, who declares to her once more, “You also are Psyche” (308). She dies writing the final paragraph of her book:

I ended my first book with the words no answer. I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice? Only words, words; to be led out to battle against other words. Long did I hate you, long did I fear you. I might— (308)

The god who would not reveal his face even to Psyche is now bareface before her, because she is now able to be such before him.

The narrative of Orual’s journey from facelessness to identity—having a face that she can expose to the god—profoundly speaks to those of us living in a culture of narcissism. The eventual shedding of her entire false face—symbolized, ironically, by the veil that hides rather than reveals—within the merciful embrace of divine love is both a deep diagnostic as well as a signpost to the way out.

We do not find our faces in activity—Orual’s “queening”—or in status or even in our human loves. These things are good in themselves, yet, as Lewis warns, our bent desires can poison them all. More importantly, they are not ultimate but at best penultimate. They do not provide the answer to the existential question: “Who am I?” A person thrown into these pursuits does not construct a face out of them. They become, instead, a veil diverting attention from the inner “shadow of reflected form,” and the person becomes a blank slate. The narcissist reworks the existential into the utilitarian: “Whom do you want me to be?”

Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar observes that “man is, in himself, something indefinite.”[10] Even before sin corrupts us, we oscillate in a polarity between universal and particular. Are we nothing more than an individual of the species homo sapiens? What possible answer can there be to that existential question beyond the ultimately fruitless “queening” of our spasmodic activity and consumption? On our own resources, we resort to attempting to write something eternal on the shifting sands of time.[11]

After Orual thoroughly drinks the bitterness of this draught, she can choose either death or the god-prescribed “death before death.” Walking through the death of her shadow-self leads her unexpectedly to a new life, embodied in her new face. Balthasar calls this the attainment of theological personhood, which is the attunement of our selves to the divine Person of Christ. “Thus, in the very discipleship in which the Christian ‘loses his soul,’ he can attain his true identity.”[12] This is the lesson of Paul: Christ “expropriated him in order to personalize him.”[13] The case of Paul underscores that “man is not what he thinks himself to be but what God appoints him to be.”[14] When the center of gravity shifts outside of our selves to the Incarnate Son, then we can hear our true name, encompassed in that of Christ’s: “You also are Psyche.” Balthasar reminds us that this divine exchange goes down to the futility of our existential state. “The only time Jesus wrote, he wrote on drifting dust.”[15]

Lewis grasped this marvelous exchange at a mystical level. As a culture of narcissism began to crystallize around him, he recalled to its memory the words of the Father to the Incarnate Son, made ours through the mystery of divine filiation: “What’s mine is yours!

[1] W. Keith Campbell and Joshua D. Miller, “Introduction,” in The Handbook of Narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Theoretical Approaches, Empirical Findings, and Treatments, ed. W. Keith Campbell and Joshua D. Miller (Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2011), xi-xii, here xi.

[2] I explore the related phenomenon of anorexia in “The Starved Body: Anorexia and the Fracture within the Self,” Humanum Review 2018 (4).

[3] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1978), 41-50. Other observers place the shift as a post-World-War-II problem; cf. Norman S. Litowitz and Kenneth M. Newman, “Borderline Personality and the Theater of the Absurd,” Archives of General Psychology, vol. 16, no. 3 (1967), 268-80, here 270.

[4] Ibid., 42.

[5] C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces: A Novel of Cupid and Psyche (NY: Mariner Books, 1984).

[6] C. S. Lewis to Clyde S. Kilby, Feb. 10, 1957, reproduced in Nathan Comfort Starr, C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces: Introduction and Commentary, Religious Dimensions in Literature (NY: Seabury Press, 1968), 11-12. See also C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1960).

[7] The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Vol. 3,p. 1181 (to Anne Scott, August 26, 1960).

[8] C. S. Lewis, letter to Kilby, in Introduction, 12.

[9] Lewis almost certainly did not intend the comparison, but this scene provides an interesting comparison and contrast with Jacques Lacan’s postulation of the “mirror stage” in the formation of the ego (delivered in 1949, seven years before the publication of TWHF).

[10] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theology of History, Communio Books (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1994), 73.

[11] Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Life Out of Death: Reflections on the Paschal Mystery, trans. Martina Stockl (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 16.

[12] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama, vol. 3: The Dramatis Personae: The Person in Christ, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 162.

[13] Balthasar, Theo-Drama 3, 247, emphasis in the original.

[14] Balthasar, Theo-Drama 3, 267.

[15] Balthasar, Life Out of Death, 49.

Featured Image: Follower of Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, Narcissus, c. 1500; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Angela Franks

Angela Franks is Professor of Theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston and a Church Life Journal Life and Dignity Writing Fellow. Her specialties include the theology of the body, the new evangelization, and the thought of Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Read more by Angela Franks