Narcissism in the World of Art and Literature

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Narcissism is self-love, a trait that all people possess as a survival device given to us by evolution’s variations, and one that is often exaggerated among charismatic Machiavellian (psychopathic) individuals. Narcissism is a major key in our understanding of the deviant mind. Our Concept Art expresses the visual metaphor of narcissism, illustrated by Oscar Wilde’s remarkable novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. I will conclude by arguing that narcissism is responsible for the lack of empathy among psychopaths and their general lack of concern for other people.
Sam Vaknin, an Israeli scientist and writer, wrote a remarkable book, all about narcissism, titled Malignant Self Love, Narcissus Publications (2007). He defines pathological narcissism as “a life-long pattern of traits and behaviors which signify infatuation and obsession with the self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one’s gratification, dominance and ambition.”
Individuals with extreme narcissism require constant adulation and spin everything around their love for themselves. They feel entitled; they lack empathy, they exploit others, and they seek to destroy others who stand in their way. About 75 percent of individuals diagnosed with extreme narcissism are male.
Narcissism tends to expand to encompass material things, deep beliefs, and loved ones. It’s as if one’s identity enlarges to the degree that we add to our possessions. Neural biologist V.S. Ramachandran explains that our self-interests explode as our mirror of the world reflects more and more of us. Even using a pointer in a lecture can extend our personal image to the tip of the pointer. The extension by the distance of the pointer is reflected as neural changes in the sensory-motor areas of the brain cortex. We construct our own image and relate it closely to the world around us. The psychopathic profile may be genetically given, but its expansion or contraction depends on our own manipulation.
We can conclude that the primary trait from which Machiavellian behaviors flow is narcissism, the Pandora portal through which all other personality traits are squeezed. When that cabinet is opened all the related personality traits rattle and tumble out to give sustenance to the primary default of narcissism. This stunning description clearly incorporates the wide sweep and consequences of malignant self-love, a love that is often secretive, erects firm defenses against intrusion or change, and stands in defiance of disconfirming information. On the other hand, narcissists are often interesting individuals, and can in the abstract be friends and colleagues. One wonders, therefore, where the threshold is between charm and manipulation, clever oration, and madness. We need other methods to lead us to explanations.
A Buddhist master told a group of devotees that everything we own and love adds to our self-image, enlarging our ego. As a result, our personal image becomes faulty, obese, and fragile. The master went on to say that the answer to a ballooning self is to divest one’s self of encumbrances and seek Buddha within the meditative self. We wonder if this philosophy could minimize the psychopathy that is fueled by narcissistic motivations?
Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) separated out the duality of man for all to see in his first and only novel of 1891, The Picture of Dorian Gray. The stunning novel was penned long before Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung brought the separations within man to the front row for all to see. Wilde’s genius, found in retrospect, was associated with his personal narcissism, bipolar manic-depressive disorder, and his deep psychopathy. His literary creation was Dorian Gray, also bipolar, probably reflective of the author’s psychopathy—surely an instance of self-analysis that reveals our general condition.
The illustrations I paint are Oscar Wilde and Dorian Gray, brilliantly acted by Ben Barnes.
Dorian was clearly Wilde’s guy, a mirror of himself and millions of other tortured men and women. The novel is a great place to begin our analysis and the lever to get at the mechanisms of the human mind and their impress on the growth and destruction of civilizations.
Dorian was a most beautiful young man who captured the attention of men and the love of women. Lord Henry tells his friend Dorian to live his life to the hilt with no regrets, to give way to every temptation, and realize every fantasy. Basil Hallward, a well-known painter, arranges to put the beauty of Dorian on canvas, which he does, suggesting to Dorian that his true beauty will outlast his reflection on the canvass. Dorian later remembers what he said to Basil on that fateful day.
He had uttered a mad wish that he himself might
remain young, and the portrait grow old; that his own
beauty might be untarnished, and the face on the
canvas bear the burden of his passions and his sin,
that the painted image might be seared with the lines
of suffering and thought, and that he might keep all
the delicate bloom and loveliness of his just conscious
Dorian rushes on with his self-centered and psychopathic existence. Sibyl Vane, a beautiful actress, attracts Dorian who gives her the impression that he loves her. Actually, he is enchanted with her ability to act out false love on the stage. She gives in to Dorian, but having discovered real love, she can no longer

act out an unreal drama on stage. Dorian, no longer entranced, leaves her without a thought because she is “shallow” and “unworthy.” Sibyl, distressed to the bottom of her heart, commits suicide. Dorian muses even before her suicide, “Why should I trouble about Sibyl Vane? She is nothing to me now.”
Later, Dorian’s narcissistic eyes fall on his portrait that Basil Hallward had painted and retreats in shock. When he examines the painting in detail, he sees a seam of cruelty in the mouth. It is like looking in the mirror after he had done some dreadful thing. Almost immediately he understands that his cruelty will forever be etched in the oils of the paint. He hides the portrait behind bars in a locked room of the attic, and looks at it with both obsession and repulsion. Dorian’s life degenerates, yet he holds his beauty. In an act of raging paranoia and revenge for Basil’s insightful painting, he kills his friend. The portrait records his every sin, becoming bloody, worm infested and hideous.
When they [Dorian’s servants] entered, they found
hanging upon the wall a splendid portrait of their
master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder
of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor
was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in
his heart. He was withered, wrinkled, and loathsome
of visage. It was not till they had examined the rings
that they recognized who it was.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is fixed in the literary mind because of the symbolic representation of good and evil in radically different forms – in the person of Dorian, and in a surrogate, a painting of Dorian – the two mirror images of his tortured personality. The novelistic theme is that of psychological projection, a paranoid attribution of evil to someone else. The projection of our attributes is what we all do on a minor scale (see S. Freud and C.G. Jung for classical views). In its extreme we find its manifestation in bipolar reactions, in paranoid delusions, multiple personalities, schizophrenic breaks and tyrannical commanding leaders. Like Dorian, many of us deny the darker and selfish psychopathy roiling about in our unconscious, and attribute our rejected nature to others, or even objects (“It cast a spell on me.”).
The painting of Dorian Gray is symbolic of a growing psychopathy and wanton impulse for self-destruction – a dynamic illustration of a progressive increase in narcissism, loss of morality and the ultimate failing of empathy. The Faustian bargain of eternal beauty, traded in exchange for the soul, is a haunting reminder of our own weaknesses and universal desires. The metaphor is painted as an Art Concept.

Stand Fast

Del Wolf Thiessen, Professor Emeritus, University of Texas at Austin


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