“Echo and Narcissus” by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)


Our previous blog post entitled “Narcissism Then and Now” featured the famous painting by Caravaggio of Narcissus, the character from Greek mythology who, having fallen in love with himself, lay paralyzed until the day of his death gazing at his reflection in a pool of water. Above is another painting of Narcissus done in 1903 by John William Waterhouse, an English painter who was part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement in art. This work broadens the coverage of the myth by including the nymph, Echo, who is gazing with longing on the self-preoccupied Narcissus.

In spite of Echo’s beauty, her undying love of Narcissus and her dedication to his well-being, Narcissus has chosen to avoid the entanglement of loving someone other than himself. Instead the basis of his relationship with Echo is her echo. Since she was cursed by the goddess Hera to only repeat what other people say, Narcissus only hears from her the repetition of his own words. Her only function for him is to reinforce what he says and thereby mirror who he is.

This is a classic feature of narcissism which shows up in individuals today who are afflicted with the condition, like Donald Trump. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, historian and biographer, Michael D’Antonio, has written a well-balanced, fair and revealing biography of Trump originally published under the title Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success and recently republished as The Truth About Trump. In addition to detailing story after story of Trump’s obsessive self-promotion and quest for money, power and publicity, D’Antonio reports that “Trump begins each day with a sheaf of paper detailing where and how often his name has been mentioned in the global press.” D’Antonio goes on to note that “[t]he reports are typically too numerous for him to actually read, but the weight of the pages gives his sensitive ego a measure of his importance on any given day.”* Trump lives to hear his Echo.

The tendency of narcissists is to fail to recognize that other people have intrinsic worth and value independent of them. The primary value of others derives from the role they play in reaffirming one’s own sense of self-worth. This devaluation of the other can be spooky. In an interview with Michael D’Antonio Trump made the chilling confession that “[f]or the most part, you can’t respect people because most people aren’t worthy of respect.”** Wow! Did he really say that? Maybe we ought to give that comment some thought and attention. Maybe we should be praying for the healing of those who we know are trapped in this spiritually fruitless and potentially dangerous syndrome. Say a prayer for Donald and don’t forget, as the song, “Only You” reminds us, only YOU can save the world from narcissism.

Until next time,


*     D’Antonio, Never Enough, pp. 13 – 14.
**   D’Antonio, Never Enough, p. 326.


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1 Comment

  1. RB says:

    A few comments about “Only You.”

    “Only” can mean none else but, in a possibly good sense (the heroic lone ranger with a matchless knack for achieving justice), or in a dangerous, bad sense as with tyrant dictators or persons undermined and rendered dysfunctional by narcissism; or it can mean at least this one must, and must do so individually along with an indefinite number, many, others. In the book of Esther, it certainly appeared that only Esther was placed in a position to save the Jews from the plot of Haman. But others had important roles, and, Mordecai was certain in advising Esther and her concern for her own safety: “if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance WILL RISE for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. WHO KNOWS? PERHAPS you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” In other words, certainly NOT “only” Esther, but PERHAPS Esther is the one now to act. Despite this contrast, and despite the danger, Esther decided to be the one and acted: “…I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

    “You” can mean the beloved OTHER, unique and sole object of love beyond oneself. Courtly love partakes of the higher quality of ideal love uniquely for one other, and the soaring music of beautiful love songs suggests this higher, ideal love. I remembered the soaring tenor melody of the classic “Only You” from some younger stage of life, and specified what was only vague my memory: actually it was the fall of 1955, when I was a high school junior at TMI that this beautiful, simple two stanza song by the African-American group, the Platters, rose to #5 on the hit romantic song charts. “Only you can make all the world seem right/ Only you can make the darkness bright/ Only you can thrill me like you do/ And fill by heart with love for only you. // Only you can make all this change in me/ For its true, you are my destiny/ When you hold my hand I understand the magic that you do/ You’re my dream come true, my one and only you.” (repeat last stanza once, with echo ending “One and only you.”

    Or, “you” means the self, and the self “only” — with the good and bad possibilities mentioned above.

    The Platters song has “you” unambiguously the precious, beloved, one and only other. The Doug McNeel song has “you” always referring to the self, sometimes ironically in the dysfunctional narcissistic sense, and sometimes in a rousing call for each individual “you” to be a “responsible self” before God — a theological phrase used by H. Richard Niebuhr in his book, The Responsible Self. Both songs have in common a main purpose of altruistic world-blessing good. It is easy and pleasant to follow the changes in meaning in the McNeel song from sincere challenge to ironic shaming of the narcissist.

    Of course God is always in the picture of human relationships — it is not totally, “only” up to all the “yous” to conquer the evils of selfishness. But we all are strongly called to be responsible to God in this.

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