I’m looking at myself in the mirror.
I sway my head from side to side and track my lazy eye. I see the iris move, as if through the window of a magic eight ball, until it settles:
“Reply hazy, try again”
“Better not tell you now”
“Outlook not so good”
I frown. Deep lines crevice my forehead and the outer corners of my eyes. I frown more deeply. Jutting out my chin to make it look a little stronger, closing my right eye to see myself monocular, I end up looking like an aged admiral. I hear cannon fire and battle cries, the splintering of timber and the smells of brine and blood. I open my eye again. “Weird”, I think.
I begin to contort my face more extremely. I puff out my cheeks and feel them stretch, holding it until it’s painful, and then I let go. I squint, jut out my lower jaw, and scowl. My lip stretches down until my teeth stand up like a row of lichen stained tombstones in a gummy ridge. “Ugly”, I think.
I look at myself in the mirror a lot. I take a lot of selfies too: ones where my makeup is immaculate and my eyes steady, others (not shared) where I’m contorted and hideous. I scroll through them often. I look at my old videos on youtube as well, watching a younger me stare intently down the webcam. What is it that he’s trying to tell me? And what is it that I’m looking for?
The sweltering branches of the hot take tree already groan with an infernal harvest of speculations about ‘selfie culture’; some of them classist, many of them surprisingly belligerent, and almost all of them misogynistic. I don’t want or need to add to that clamour. I only make reference to them to point out the one word they all invariably have in common: ‘narcissism’.
THE RISE OF THE SELFIE AND DIGITAL NARCISISSM
SELFIE OBSESSION: ARE WE THE MOST NARCISSISTIC GENERATION EVER?
ME! ME! ME! ARE WE LIVING THROUGH A NARCISSISM EPIDEMIC?
But does narcissism mean what we think it means, and where do I come into all this, flicking through the dozens of Jonathans on my phone? I’d like to turn to Edward Edinger, who discusses the myth of Narcissus quite compellingly in Ego and Archetype. Narcissism, Edinger argues, is the complete opposite of what we commonly assume it to be – not an overabundance of self-love, but a total deficit.
“Narcissus represents the alienated ego that cannot love, that is, cannot give interest and libido to life – because it is not yet related to itself. To fall in love with the reflected image of oneself can only mean that one does not possess oneself. Narcissus yearns to unite with himself just because he is alienated from his own being”
(Edward Edinger, Ego and Archetype, Shambhala 1992)
And so there I am, staring into the mirror. And so there I am, in a hundred different photographs. And so there I am, stranded in my childhood home in 2008, urgently barking a Mountain Goats song down the barrel. I’m there, but I’m not here. Like Narcissus, I’ve been alienated from my own being. What I’m searching for is a Self that I have lost. All I can hope to do is spot glimmers of it in these places, like diamond dust in the sandstorm of a media onslaught of images: the perfect man, the perfect woman, the perfect home. There is no strong anchor in a culture of planned obsolescence. There is no Self in the maws of the Market that has been forced, clumsily, onto heaven’s throne.
I won’t place the blame for my own fractured sense of self entirely at the feet of consumer capitalism. It’s more complicated than that: developmental factors, genes, and that third thing, the prism of the soul, through which all other things must pass. But those many images of myself aren’t evidence for an obsessive self-love; they’re the evidence of a theft.
They also just might be tiny little treasure-map fragments that hint at something complete. They’re not the solution to my problem – I’m going to recover my identity, my sense of self, and my purpose through introspection, through the love of friends and family, and through belief. But these images, these tiny fragments of soul, are like lifesavers bobbing in the sea.
They tell me that I exist.