A Study in the Suicide of Selfhood: The Death of Saint Narcissus

Paul Murphy


In the poem The Death of Saint Narcissus, three primary archetypal figures may be identified. The first is Saint Sebastian, the early Christian martyred by the soldiers of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. According to Alban Butler's Lives of the Saints, Sebastian was an officer in the Emperor's select Praetorian Guard, an elite body of troops used as a personal bodyguard for the Emperor.1 Upon Diocletian's discovery of Sebastian's Christianity Sebastian was ordered to be executed by a group of archers. Sebastian was riddled with the archer's arrows, but survived the ordeal. He was then re-captured by Diocletian's soldiers and was then bludgeoned to death by them. The figure of Saint Sebastian evolved into a primary homo-erotic symbol, and he was then tainted with the hint of sado-masochism which surrounded his subsequent death and martyrdom. Sebastian's conversion to Christianity and his subsequent martyrdom have been transmuted into both a homo-erotic parable, and a sado-masochistic ritual. Saint Sebastian was a favourite subject for the artists of the Italian Quattrocento, for they were able to disguise an overtly homo-erotic subject within the confines of church patronage. Saint Sebastian is also depicted by Albrecht Durer (see plate 1). In Durer's etching Sebastian's lower torso and legs are twisted in the manner of Christ. Like Christ, Sebastian is said to have descended into Hell for three days, to punish those who persecute Christians, before ascending to heaven.

The second archetype for the poem is Saint Narcissus, Bishop of Jerusalem in the Second Century after Christ. Again, according to Butler's Lives of the Saints, Saint Narcissus was accused of committing an unspecified, but 'detestable crime', which might be conjectured to be homosexuality, though it may possibly have been the crime of Simony, this is that he was a follower of the magician and heretic Simon Magus.2 He seems to have been unable to disprove the slander, and made it an excuse to escape Jerusalem and spend time in a solitary retreat. His three accusors took oaths and imprecations to justify their accusations. One wished to be plagued by blindness, another by leprosy, the third that he might perish by fire. Accordingly, the first lost his sight, the second was struck down by leprosy, the third burnt to death in an accidental fire. Saint Narcissus returned after a certain period, his innocence completely vindicated, and continued to serve his diocese.

The third archetype from which the poem evolved in the mythological figure of Narcissus, the youth who fell in love with himself. This story may be traced back to Ovid's Metamorphoses.3 In the story the prophet Tiresias declares that Narcissus shall live to be old only if he does not come to know himself. Ovid desribes the metamorphoses of Narcissus and the nymph Echo. Echo is punished by the goddess Juno for the crime of deceit, and thereby loses her power of speech, so that she can only reflect back what she hears twice. Echo is a disembodied voice, and she can do nothing but endure the meaninglessness of her own communication. Narcissus, however, sits by a pool of water and eventually becomes convinced that what she gazes at is a separate entity. As Narcissus gazes into the water, he merges with his own reflection, and he is then transformed into a flower - a white and gold Narcissus.

T.S.Eliot's fascination with the early Christian Patriarchs may be seen as another articulation of his concern with the obligations of a prophet, and his eventual martyrdom. These themes were eventually to be brought together in the play Murder in the Cathedral, which deals with the martyrdom and apotheosis of Thomas Beckett. Not included among the Collected Poems, The Death of Saint Narcissus is a species of erotica. It is placed awkwardly among The Poems Written in Early Youth, and The Waste Land Manuscript, but it resides uneasily in both volumes. It perhaps marks a creative hiatus, a fundamentally transitional poem in two senses: it marks a watershed in T.S.Eliot's life and in his poetic growth.

The poem The Death of Saint Narcissus discusses the life, transfiguration amd death of a saint, but it also deals with the themes of narcissism, sexual violence, sexual perversity and sado-masochism. There is a narratorial presence in the poem, and this invisible character asks us to participate in this adolescent rite of spring. The narrator seems to suggest that we are the invited participants, the vicarious, the tempted, 'Come under the shadow of this gray rock-/Come in under the shadow of this gray rock'. The reader is thus bundled into the poem, and must regard the temptation and entreaties offered by the narrator as a temptation to accompany the persona of Saint Narcissus towards death. Indeed we must experience in intimate detail his grotesque destruction. The reader is implicated as a voyeur, and thus stands poised to watch this pornographic slide show of erotica and sado-masochistic love. Thus, the narrator offers the reader the possibility of participating in the poem, and if the reader takes this offer then he or she must be a surrogate, suffering the humiliation and ecstasy of Saint Narcissus. The narratorial presence sniggeringly indicates that the reader might be allowed to rewrite and reformulate the poem. Each reading of the poem seems to be a reformulation of it. Saint Narcissus is a fabulous artificer, driven towards a grotesque and minutely imagined death, by forces which are unspeakable, taboo and repressed.

Saint Narcissus possesses the Protean ability of the artist to mimetically adopt different forms and types of being. He is hurled through each disguise, so that he becomes perpetually disembodied. There is a fundamental gap, rent or tear in the fabric of Saint Narcissus's being. Each persona which he adopts heals this absence temporarily, before it is torn open once again. Saint Narcissus is firstly aware 'that he had been a tree', then 'that he had been a fish', then a young girl attacked by an old man, and finally a dancer before God, struck down and swaying with the arrows. The tempting voice of the narrator asks the reader to join Saint Narcissus, for, like him, we too seem to be assailed by language and its proliferation of meaning. The narrator is seated within the poem, he is the orchestrator who directs the action, but he remains invisible to us, and we to him.

Saint Narcissus imagines that absolute subjectivity can transform the bits and pieces of identity into a whole. However, Saint Narcissus's identity is divided because it is entirely subjective. If the reader becomes too absorbed then he or she might become transformed into a mere, passive reflector, engulfed by the trembling images cast upon the screen. Jacques Lacan's account of the mirror stage is particularly important in regard to the metamorphosis of Saint Narcissus. The suicide of selfhood which Narcissus undergoes is related to the transformation which occurs in the mirror stage. The discovery of the image of the self in the mirror pre-figures the journey towards adulthood, where such infantile narcissism is thrown off. Jacques Lacan speaks of:

...the transformation that takes place in the subject when he assumes an image...4.

When the subject is confronted with his mirror image in early youth a profound and overwhelming transformation takes place. This poem details the death of Saint Narcissus when he is confronted with his mirror image. The narcissist, it seems, has halted at a particularly early stage of growth. The growth of the individual is here in some way related to evolution where the narcissistic stage mimics a stage in the ascent of man. Jacques Lacan seems to confirm this when he says: 'What I have called paranoic knowledge is shown, therefore to correspond in its more or less archaic form to certain critical moments that mark the history of man's mental genesis, each representing a stage in objectifying identification.5 Each of the case studies depicted in Circe's Palace, On a Portrait, The Death of Saint Narcissus, The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock and The Portrait of a Lady, may be seen to correspond to these critical moments and to objectify in their meanings the evolutionary impulse which is outlined in Freud's account of the Oedipus complex. The self-love of Saint Narcissus is a stage in the growth of the individual - this stage mimics a stage in the growth of mankind. Saint Narcissus's homosexuality can also be linked to Freud's analysis of the case of Judge Daniel Paul Schreber, which was mentioned in the discussion of Eliot's early poem Circe's Palace, together with Freud's feeling that paranoia was caused by an underlying fear of homosexuality. In Chapter Six of Ecrits, On a Question Preliminary to any Possible Treatment of Psychosis, Jacques Lacan says:

Homosexuality, supposedly a determinant of paranoiac psychosis, is really a symptom articulated in its process.6

In the light of this, Saint Narcissus's masochism may therefore be an articulation of paranoiac knowledge: Saint Narcissus combines both fear and knowledge in his journey towards death, and cannot see that there is a difference between them.

In describing the death instinct (denoted by Freud as thanatos), Jacques Lacan also describes the awful metamorphis of Saint Narcissus:

It is in effect as a desire for death that he affirms himself for others; if he identifies himself with the other, it is by fixing him solidly in the metamorphosis of his essential image, and no being is ever evoked by him except among the shadows of death.7

Saint Narcissus, then, is a ghoul or a vampire, feeding off the succeeding figures which he evokes and which he becomes. He feels their essential otherness, but wishes to consume them, as he is consumed at the end of the poem by the arrows. But it is also the reader who seems to be consumed by Saint Narcissus, as he is driven through sado-masochistic love towards death. Saint Narcissus is so infatuated with his own body that he believes that masturbation and the taste of semen offer the greatest possible sexual fulfillment, 'Knowing at the end the taste of his own whiteness/The horror of his own smoothness'.

Saint Narcissus is a figure who is literally outside of life, 'Struck down by such knowledge/He could not live men's ways'. The knowledge that Saint Narcissus feels he knows may be sexual, for in the Old Testament 'knowledge' connotes sexual intimacy. Emile Durkheim indicates in his work Suicide: a Study in Sociology that it was the waning of religious certainty and the rise of scepticism and doubt over religious matters that was responsible for the growth of suicide in nineteenth-century Western Europe, especially among the Protestant peoples of Northern Europe,

First, we see why as a rule suicide increases with knowledge. Knowledge does not determine this progress. It is innocent nothing is more unjust than to accuse it, and the example of the Jews proves this conclusively. But these two facts result simultaneously from a single general state which they translate into different forms. Man seeks to learn and kills himself because of the loss of cohesion in his religious society; he does not kill himself because of his learning.8

Saint Narcissus is in search of such knowledge, but the knowledge which he seeks is fearful, terrible and paranoiac. He cannot obey the ways of men, but must follow a different path, a path which leads toward something unspeakable and repressed, detestable and unsocial. Being outside of life, Saint Narcissus represents the artist who stands at the junction of illusion and reality. The artist's world may be a self-conscious creation, a place where fantasy and illusion play. In the last decade of the nineteenth-century, during the fin de siecle, the term Decadence found a widespread usage, and came to connote an artistic decadence, as well as a moral one. The classic French work of Decadence is Huysmans' novel A Rebours, in which the hero des Esseintes builds around himself a completely artificial universe, which is perversely opposed to everything which is considered normal, natural and good. Saint Narcissus is like des Esseintes, he is unable to follow the way which is considered normal, natural and good. Saint Narcissus is like des Esseintes, he is unable to follow the way which is considered normal, and deliberately pursues sexual, moral and artistic perversity. The aesthetics of the decadent artwork involve a concern with the formal aspects of the work, a concern with self-conscious display and ornate attachments.

The Death of Saint Narcissus is a baroque poem, it labours with the substance of aesthetics to arrange the concealment of personality in a void and insubstantial mimicry, where the mimicry paradoxically reveals the innermost workings and darkest recesses of personality, the desire for self-overcoming, for mastery over others, and for death,

Then he had been a young girl

Caught in the woods by a drunken old man

Knowing at the end the taste of his own whiteness

The horror of his own smoothness,

And he felt drunken and old.

In sado-masochism the desire for mastery over oneself and others is paramount. Jacques Lacan has this to say about the sado-masochistic drive:

Freud articulated in the most categorical way that at the outset of the sado-masochistic drive, pain has nothing to do with it. It is a question of Herrschaft, of Bewaltigung, violence done to what? - to something that is so unspeakable that Freud arrives at the conclusion, and at the same time recoils from it, that its first model, in accordance with everything I have told you, is to be found in a violence that the subject commits, with a view to mastery, upon himself.9

There is, it seems, a direct correlation between sado-masochism and narcissism, the former desiring mastery and self-mastery, the latter desiring the other which is itself. To attain mastery of himself Saint Narcissus is driven through a series of symbolic transmutations, or metamorphoses. These involve a terrible self-punishment and the mis-directed love of self. Obviously the narcissist can never attain the object of his or her desire: the only fulfillment, as the story of Saint Narcissus indicates, is death. Decadence, in the sense of spiritual death is Saint Narcissus's fulfillment. Eliot shows us that art and decadence are correlatives rather than opposites. The one extrapolates from the other.

1. Alban Butler, Volume 1, Lives of The Saints, (James Duffy, Dublin, 1845), pp.193-195.

2. Alban Butler, Volume 5, Lives of The Saints, (James Duffy, Dublin, 1845), pp.530-532.

3. Ovid, Metamorphoses, (Oxford University Press, 1989), pp.61-66.

4. Jacques Lacan, Ecrits; A Selection; trans. by Alan Sheridan, (Routledge/Tavistock, 1989), pp.2.

5. Lacan, pp.17.

6. Lacan, pp.190.

7. Lacan, pp.105.

8. Emile Durkheim, Suicide: a Study in Sociology, in Durkheim on Religion, trans. by W.F.Pickering, (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), pp.55.

9. Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Aspects of Psycho-Analysis, (Penguin, 1977), pp.183.