There is no question that “narcissism” is the theme of “Only You,” especially since the word is prominently featured in the punch line of the chorus. When we were finalizing the recording I was advised that I should not use such a technical, clinical term in a song. I sympathize with that view and agree that as a general rule, on purely artistic grounds, one should avoid using words in a song which end in “ism.” I have yet to hear a song which utilizes the word “uniformitarianism” and celebrates the assumption that our earth has been shaped by continuous uniform processes operating over long periods of time. That would not likely be Top 40 material.
But I think a case can be made in defense of the lyrics to “Only You.” I chose to use “narcissism,” not just because of its precise clinical psychological meaning applicable to a certain percentage of the population, but also because of its broader meaning which may have some application to each one of us. The word also has a rich ancient connotation related to the Greek myth of Narcissus which many of you are familiar with.
According to the myth Narcissus was an attractive young man who mesmerized all the girls, but never reciprocated their offers of love. A beautiful nymph named Echo (who had been condemned by the goddess Hera to only repeat what other people said) fell for him. When she invited him into her outstretched arms he rejected her declaring: “Not so. I will die before I give you power over me.” His inability to give love moved one of the maidens he had spurned to pray to the gods: “May he who loves not others love himself.” The goddess Nemesis (which means righteous anger) heard the prayer and answered it.
As Narcissus bent over a clear pool for a drink and saw there his own reflection…he fell in love with it. “Now I know,” he cried, “what others have suffered from me, for I burn with love of my own self—and yet how can I reach that loveliness I see mirrored in the water? But I cannot leave it. Only death can set me free.” And so it happened. He pined away, leaning perpetually over the pool, fixed in one long gaze. Echo was near him, but she could do nothing… *
Finally when Narcissus was dying he called to his own image in the water “Farewell—farewell” and all Echo could do was repeat his last words.
As you can see the myth of Narcissus opens up a rich vein of reflection regarding the genesis and inadequacy of excessive self-love. Modern psychology has gone beyond the quaint but symbolically rich confines of mythological narrative to identify with scientific rigor a very specific syndrome with specific symptoms labeled Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) which is described in the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM). This psychiatric condition has been summarized as “a pattern of traits and behaviors which signify infatuation and obsession with one’s self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one’s gratification, dominance and ambition.”
Because NPD affects only around 0.7 – 1.0% of the general population, those of us who think we are not in that category may take refuge in labeling—sometimes scornfully–those other people who clearly have succumbed to the infection. But I would maintain that the spiritual sickness of selfieness extends beyond the boundaries of the DSM definition. Perhaps all of us at one time or another have been afflicted with a self-preoccupation that keeps us from loving others. The attraction of our image in the pool is too strong sometimes for us to be willing to give others power over us in a relationship of trust. Our never ending quest for autonomy and self-fulfillment may keep us trapped by the water’s edge, pursuing self-interest at the expense of everything else that really matters.
Perhaps more awareness of the meaning of the word narcissism, both in its technical psychological sense and its broader spiritual meaning may be a good thing for our selfie haunted culture. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that I chose to use that word in my silly little song. But then again I am a recovering narcissist with a default setting of self-justification. Take me with a grain of salt. Send us your comments.
Until next time,
*Edith Hamilton, Mythology (Little, Brown & Company, 1942)