Narcissism and coquetry: an aesthetic alliance
The ‘Narquette’ of this chapter title, is a figure who now needs introduction. Because we would struggle to discuss this figure without the use of a gendered pronoun we shall assign the Narquette a feminine linguistic identity (in short, the Narquette becomes a she). However, as will become clear in due course, the he-ness or the she-ness of the Narquette is not quite the point, for what this figure attempts to formalise is mode of sociability in which such considerations can – however momentarily – be actively disregarded.
The Narquette’s obvious historical ancestor is the coquette; a figure defined by her flirtatiousness. The coquette receives her authoritative sociological treatment in Georg Simmel’s essay of 1909 ‘Flirtation’ which can be read as the companion piece to his development of a sociology of sociability undertaken the following year (‘The Sociology of Sociability’, 1910). Simmel’s presentation of the coquette proves an attractive supplement to the dynamic and communicative account of narcissism that we are in pursuit of in this book. The Narquette, then, emerges from a parallel reading of Simmel’s coquette and Freud’s (female) narcissist. Immediately, however, before we can even commence with our introductions, and despite my early indication that the Narquette will take us away from a preoccupation with gender, we are distracted by an obvious shift: whilst it was a beautiful young boy who arrested our attention in the Narcissus myth, it seems that the constellations of narcissism in this work keep returning us to ‘the woman question’. What are we to make of this?
Our starting point has to be the fact that the narcissist is for Freud ‘the purest and truest’ female type (1914a, 88).4 For some, this statement is sufficiently problematic to justify a dismissal of the psychoanalytic account of feminine psychology writ large, and a diagnosis of Freud’s vision of sexual difference as myopic and masculinist. It is true that Freud’s presentation of ‘feminine narcissism’ cannot be disentangled from the same charge that has sustained feminist debates with psychoanalysis since the time of Freud’s writing, namely the assumption of ‘female lack’. However, it is not at all apparent that psychoanalysis’ early feminisation of narcissism equates to a denigration of the feminine as such. As we saw in our discussion above, the claim to special dispensation that Freud identifies as characteristic of the female type, functions in a compensatory manner (in that privileges are recompense for guiltless suffering). We can revisit the passage in Freud’s 1914 paper that provides the context for this position:
Complete object-love of the attachment type is, properly speaking, characteristic of the male. It displays the marked sexual overvaluation which is doubtless derived from the child’s original narcissism and thus corresponds to a transference of that narcissism to the sexual object. This sexual overvaluation is the origin of the peculiar state of being in love, a state suggestive of a neurotic compulsion, which is thus traceable to an impoverishment of the ego as regards libido in favour of the love-object. A different course is followed in the type of female most frequently met with, which is probably the purest and truest one. With the onset of puberty the maturing of the female sexual organs, which up till then have been in a condition of latency, seems to bring about an intensification of the original narcissism, and this is unfavourable to the development of a true object-choice with its accompanying sexual overvaluation. Women, especially if they grow up with good looks, develop a certain self-contentment which compensates them for the social restrictions that are imposed upon them in their choice of object. Strictly speaking, it is only themselves that such women love with an intensity comparable to that of the man’s love for them. Nor does their need lie in the direction of loving, but of being loved; and the man who fulfils this condition is the one who finds favour with them. (88-89, my emphasis)
A woman in love is in love only with herself – Narcissus pure and true – whereas the complete object-love of the male brings to mind Echo’s diminished self that results from a marked sexual overvaluation of Narcissus. In Freud’s picture, then, Narcissus is feminised, and Echo masculinised. But rather than conclude that this wilful genderbending simply reflects Freud’s mirroring of the prevailing ideological assumptions surrounding the position of the sexes in early twentieth – century Vienna, we can look more closely to the text to see what else might be going on. In fact, in this section of his ‘On Narcissism’ paper I think we can see Freud grappling with the modes of dualistic thinking that underpin basic presentations of gender in ways that continue to be productive to our contemporary thinking on the subject. To begin with, the juxtaposition of the biological facticity of puberty and the constructionist notion of ‘social restrictions’ keeps faith with the principle of overdetermination in the account of the development of the sexed subject. Likewise, Freud wants to insist that there are ‘fundamental differences’ between male and female types of object-choice, and he wants to insist that such differences are ‘of course not universal’; he wants to allow these differences – the complete object-love of the male, and the self-love of the female – to stand as representative, and he wants to pull back from concluding that ‘human beings are divided into two sharply differentiated groups’ (88). Notwithstanding the firmly drawn lines between the sexes, Freud gives greater weight to what is common in everyone – ‘we are postulating a primary narcissism in everyone’ – than the individual ‘preference’ or ‘fashion’ for a type of object-choice. In fact, when taken as pure types, it is not at all clear who comes off worse, the feminised Narcissus with her heightened self-regard, or the masculinised Echo and his self-disregard consequent on his overvaluation of his object-choice. In extremis neither figure is obviously attractive as a model in how to love.
Accepting that ideal types are better heuristic devices than they are representations of reality, there is a further point not to lose sight of as we consider the proposition that Freud’s theory of narcissism inevitably maligns the feminine. I have stressed throughout that a psychoanalytic appreciation of the structure of narcissism is one that recognises the dialectical positioning of fantasies of self-sufficiency (e. g. narcissistic omnipotence), and fantasies of self-dissolution through merging (e. g. the ‘oceanic feeling’ of oneness). Narcissus’ grandiosity and Echo’s diminishment are likewise held in tension with each other; Echo’s silent withdrawal can only exist as the mythic corollary to Narcissus’ self-involvement. Strictly speaking, which is to say structurally speaking, there is nothing ‘oppositional’ in these presentations: the impoverished ego and the inflated ego are both responses to the relational challenges of recognition. A problem certainly arises, however, if this dialectic is gendered in oppositional terms, with one term given a negative weight for the cultural sphere. As Stephanie Engel noted, in response to ‘the culture of narcissism’ debates considered in Chapter 4, when the dialectic of narcissism is distorted and its characteristically masculine pole (the radically autonomous ego) safeguarded from critique, then the term itself mutates to associate ‘decline, regression and perversity with femininity’ (78). Engel maintains that this is of a piece with the values of ‘competitive capitalism’ which privilege ‘separation and individuation over identification and attachment, anaclitic over narcissistic love, super-ego over ego-ideal, oedipal over pre-oedipal conflict, and castration fear (fear of the father) over fear of the desire for regressive merger (fear of the mother)’ (95). Thus, narcissism per se is not the problem but rather its one-sided presentation. The challenge becomes one of re-reading the second terms in these various pairings – e. g. identification rather than separation – in order to reconsider their cultural value. Whilst this has not been of concern exclusively to late twentieth-century feminisms, re-evaluating the ethical import of narcissistic identification has certainly been pivotal to feminist rethinking on questions of autonomy, morality, and political recognition in the last thirty years. But rather than chart the work that has been undertaken in this vein, I am more interested in establishing the question of whether the values of impersonality and detachment that the so-called culture of narcissism was said to corrode can be refound in an ostensibly ‘feminine’ mode of narcissism.
To begin to explore this terrain we can consider the contribution of a first generation psychoanalytic writer who was duly motivated to reconfigure the desire to recover a primary state of narcissism. Lou Andreas – Salome, writing on the topic almost in parallel with Freud, explains narcissism’s paradox as turning ‘on the one hand to self-assertion and on the other toward abandonment in the primal boundless state’ (1962 , 11). As indicated by the title of her paper, ‘The Dual Orientation of Narcissism’, Salome warns against the collapse of the concept into egoistic self-love:
It is somewhat to the discredit of the godfather of our term, Narcissus, hero of the mirror, if its use brings to the fore only the erotism of selfenjoyment. Bear in mind that the Narcissus of legend gazed, not at a man-made mirror, but at the mirror of Nature. Perhaps it was not just himself that he beheld in the mirror, but himself as if he were still All: would he not otherwise have fled from the image, instead of lingering before it? And does not melancholy dwell next to enchantment upon his face? Only the poet can make a whole picture of this unity of joy and sorrow, departure from self and absorption in self, devotion and self-assertion. (8-9)
I would suggest that what is identified here as the poetic capacity required to make whole narcissism’s dual orientation is, in fact, written into the mythic scene itself. When we imagine Narcissus, captivated, leaning into his reflection and then withdrawing from it only to return and repeat the gesture again and again, we do so with a sense of the poetic rhythm that Salome is concerned to foreground. We should keep in mind this rhythmic oscillation as we go on to consider the ways in which the Narquette can be recast as the embodiment of an aesthetic social principle. Salome’s vision of narcissism is an expansive and, ultimately, non-conflictual one, putting it at odds with a Freudian account.5 However, her claim that to overlook narcissism’s ‘persistent feeling of identification with the totality’ would be to overlook its foundational force in the development of ethics and of artistic creativity, is noteworthy for its anticipation of subsequent attempts to foreground narcissism’s productive dimensions (5). This is evident in the quotation above where the signs of melancholic enchantment that are detected on Narcissus’ face are clearly not commensurate with the physiognomy of a vainglorious figure entirely alienated from the truth of his suffering. In fact, it could be suggested that Narcissus suffers precisely because he approaches the source of his suffering – which is conterminous with the object of his desire – only to fail in his attempt to fully grasp it. Critically, as it is rendered here, this close approach to integration does not then abandon Narcissus to a state of ignorance or paralysis. The generative capacities that are enfolded in the drive to return to the state of primary narcissism propel further movement and even a quest for knowledge. This is framed by Salome in terms of ‘the union of narcissism and objectivity’. As she explains it: ‘in truth, our narcissism is nothing other than that mysterious knowledge rooted in the emotional life, which posits the ultimate in subjectivity as the keystone of our objective experience’ (15). That the subject-object distinction is confounded for Narcissus – as it is for us all – is critical to his experience of himself in the world. She continues: ‘There is no ascetic discipline, no strict observance, no final rejection of reality that does not hark back to its narcissistic accomplice, the very one who taught us the alluring audacious proclamation: "Disregard the world, it is naught!"’ (21, my emphasis). Reminding us of Freud’s insistence that ‘the highest and the lowest are always closest to each other in the sphere of sexuality’ (Freud, 1905: 161-162), Salome stresses that narcissism accompanies even those goals that look like they entail a turning away from the self. As we saw in Chapter 2 with the case of ‘Little Hans’, the Freudian foundations for Salome’s logic can be seen in the sexual research projects of childhood; the child’s narcissistic libidinal investments motivate his sexual theorisations and hence propel his baby steps into the world of intellectual research. To put it plainly, the psychoanalytic provocation is that impersonal knowledge cannot be divorced from self-involvement.
The French psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, whose appreciation of narcissism echoes, some fifty years later, certain elements of Salome’s paper, remarks in a similar vein:
I am not sure if we ever completely rid ourselves of all traces of infantile megalomania. But perhaps this would be undesirable. I believe that scientific work combines an approach to reality (be it psychic or external) and a narcissistic cathexis of this same approach. ‘Show me the way and I shall move the world.’ This famous aphorism clearly illustrates that at the heart of all our activities, even those of a ‘secondary’ nature, there is to be found – transformed but always irreducible – our dream of omnipotence which ‘presses ever forward unsubdued’. (371)
Chasseguet-Smirgel is evoking here the language from ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ in which Freud disabuses his reader of the consoling belief in the existence of an internal instinct to self-perfection. Such an instinct, in sanctioning a teleological conception of human progress, would disavow the extent to which the desire to repeat a primary experience of satisfaction presses ever forward (1920a, 42). In keeping with Salome’s notion of the ‘narcissistic accomplice’, then, we are reminded that in the fields of intellectual achievement and ethical sublimation, forward movements are always indebted to the pull of the repetition and the return.
Beyond the compelling case for narcissism advanced in her ‘Dual Orientation’ paper, there is a further reason why Salome is instructive to our figuration of the Narquette. As noted previously, Freud identifies the narcissist as the purest female type. The reason why such women hold ‘the greatest fascination for men’, Freud tells us, lies in their ‘inaccessibility’:
For it seems very evident that another person’s narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcissism and are in search of object-love. The charm of a child lies to a great extent in his narcissism, his self-contentment and inaccessibility, just as does the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey. Indeed, even great criminals and humorists, as they are represented in literature, compel our interest by the narcissistic consistency with which they manage to keep away from their ego anything that would diminish it. It is as if we envied them for maintaining a blissful state of mind – an unassailable libidinal position which we ourselves have since abandoned. (1914a, 89)
In their discussion of Freud’s friendship with ‘Lou’, Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester suggest that we can read this passage as Freud’s praise for the female narcissist ‘which has Lou as its original’ (2005, 260). They direct us to an entry in Salome’s journal from 1913 which recalls an exchange with Freud where he describes his attempt to cultivate the affections of a trespassing cat that had entered through an open window in his home and assumed a regular place on his sofa. After his initial resistance to the intruder – tied to his suspicion that his precious antique objects might be damaged – Lou writes in her journal that:
Freud’s heart melted and he ordered milk for it. From then on the cat claimed its rights daily to take a place on the sofa, inspect the antiques, and get its bowl of milk. However, despite Freud’s increasing affection and admiration, the cat paid him not a bit of attention and coldly turned its green eyes with their slanting pupils toward him as toward any other object. When for an instant he wanted more of the cat than its egoistic-narcissistic purring, he had to put his foot down from his comfortable chaise and court its attention with the ingenious enticement of his shoe-toe. Finally, after this unequal relationship had lasted a long time without change, one day he found the cat feverish and gasping on the sofa. And although it was most painstakingly treated with hot fomentations and other remedies, it succumbed to pneumonia, leaving naught of itself behind but a symbolic picture of all the peaceful and playful charm of true egoism. (1987 , 89)
Unconcerned to subject Freud’s story to great psychoanalytic scrutiny, this brief journal entry nonetheless clearly foreshadows the portrait of a positive feminine narcissism that Freud would go on to depict in his 1914 paper. That the cat would turn its eyes towards Freud as toward any other object comprises its narcissistic charm (i. e. ‘the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us’). It would be a considerable oversight to regard ‘charm’ as epiphenomenal, or mere social frivolity here. For Freud, ‘charm’ suggests the tactful manoeuvres of polite sociability, as well as the tact required in the psychoanalytic clinic. But, more interestingly, charm is placed in connection with a supposedly un-socialised class including children, cats and wild animals. That those who ‘seem not to concern themselves with us’ nonetheless practise a form of seduction upon our ‘civilised’ minds, demonstrates how a-cultural insignia are always culturally cathected. Hence ‘charm’ is indeed le mot juste because it exemplifies the double structure of narcissism that we have considered throughout: There is a direct relation between the charm of the cat, say, and the efficacy of its illusion of self-sufficiency; it seems that the cat’s assertion of his singularity is the prerequisite for inducting it into a form of sociability, and ensuring the continuing provision of its environment of care (its place on the sofa and its bowl of milk). Narcissism’s activity, then – its active seduction – is also its sociable, communicative and, ultimately, desirable quality.
We might surmise that Freud’s admiration for Salome’s character suggests that feminine narcissism can be appreciated without condescension; but perhaps more importantly, it suggests that feminine narcissism must also be appreciated without mastery. As is noted in Salome’s journal entry, Freud’s attraction to the cat’s ‘playful charm’ subjects him to a pleasurably ‘unequal relationship’. As Appignanesi and Forrester suggest, in sharing his story with ‘Lou’ ‘it is almost as if Freud is asking her to reflect on her similarity to the cat and asking her what she, Lou, so like the cat in her narcissistic feline distance and self-containment, wants from him’ (259). The question that Freud is imagined to be asking of Salome allows his ultimate (and infamous) question to resound: ‘Was will das Weib?’ [what does woman want?].
Freud’s particular investment in his intimate friend permits a further comment on the general condition of his frustration with female psychology. His designation of the sexual life of the adult woman as a ‘dark continent’ – impervious to his enlightenment – attests to the fact that a question can only persist if something continues to be withheld. It is well documented that the question of female psychology became a point of increasing consternation for Freud as he sought to recognise an active element in his conception of femininity, and to acknowledge the importance of the pre-Oedipal life of the infant (including the little girl’s profound attachment to the Mother).6 Although it didn’t exactly solve the riddle for him, Freud is clearly pointing towards an ‘active’ component of feminine psychology when he recognises the ‘great attraction’ that the narcissist holds for those ‘in search of object-love’. By demonstrating the ways in which feminine ‘charm’ acts upon another, Freud’s admiration for the narcissistic creature troubles the very alignment of femininity with passivity and masculinity with activity. That the embodiment of a feminine narcissism with its self-satisfying completion attains man’s (envious) admiration suggests a phallic prowess resident in the figure whose very ‘femininity’ is supposedly defined by her castration (woman = always already castrated). Hence it begins to look like there may be something rather ‘masculine’ about feminine narcissism. Salome’s work on femininity, creativity and ethics never desists from its placement of narcissism as the grounds for woman’s ‘fullness’ and her capacity for voluptuous feeling with the ‘total unity’. Woman maintains that which man – man as objectively) – is obliged to renounce. As Sarah Kofman recounts, ‘what is attractive in woman is that she has managed to preserve what man has lost, that original narcissism for which he is eternally nostalgic’ (1985, 52).7 In keeping with the account of narcissism advanced in this book, however, we would need to stress that what woman is preserving – and, in preserving, perhaps also mastering – is the illusion of fullness. We know that no-one can successfully refuse castration (not even the psychotic), and we also know that every narcissist – and every act of narcissism – is, to a greater or lesser extent, accompanied by a sanctioning environment.
So, how does the figure of the coquette fit into this picture of an active feminine charm, and how exactly does she represent the relation between narcissism and sociability that we are in pursuit of here? Because the coquette is not so firmly established in the cultural imagination, we can begin with a dictionary definition:
Coquette, n. A woman (more or less young), who uses arts to gain the admiration and affection of men, merely for the gratification of vanity or from a desire of conquest, and without any intention of responding to the feelings aroused; a woman who habitually trifles with the affections of men; a flirt. (Oxford English Dictionary)
As Freud said of the female narcissist, ‘strictly speaking, it is only themselves that such women love’ (1914a, 89). This brief definition gives us a rudimentary sense of a woman whose choice of object serves her vanity and self-interest. Clearly, we will need to go elsewhere to find a more developed evaluation of coquetry. In his essay on ‘Flirtation’ of 1909, Georg Simmel offers just such an appraisal. The instrumental conception of the flirt evoked in the above definition – flirtation as an entirely ends-oriented behaviour – would have to be modified according to Simmel’s definition: although he allows that the flirt may be indifferent to her object, just as is Freud’s female narcissist, Simmel recasts this indifference in terms of a formal aesthetic that is in keeping with good sociability. If, as Simmel argues, ‘flirtation completely relinquishes the role of an instrument or a mere provisional entity and assumes that of an ultimate value’ then it does so in much the same way as ‘Kant’s claim about the nature of art – that it is purposiveness without purpose’ (1984 , 144-145).
Of upmost importance to Simmel’s appreciation of the aesthetic- psychological landscape of flirtation is its dialectical expression:
[… ] the distinctiveness of the flirt lies in the fact that she awakens delight and desire by means of a unique antithesis and synthesis: through the alternation or simultaneity of accommodation and denial; by a symbolic, allusive assent and dissent, acting ‘as if from a remote distance’; or, platonically expressed, through placing having and not-having in a state of polar tension even as she seems to make them felt concurrently. (134)
It will be noted that we are once more in the realm of illusion and semblance as the coquette effects her magic by holding ‘having’ and ‘not – having’ at opposite poles and making them felt concurrently (we shall return to this point below). More critically, the coquette’s vacillation between accommodation and denial – between ‘consent and refusal’; concession and withdrawal – founds the ‘playful rhythm’ of flirtation by refusing to settle on a note of resolve (135). The mode of sociability that the flirt embodies, Simmel goes on to state, ‘qualifies as a thoroughly general, formal mode of conduct that does not exclude any content’ (151).
This privileging of form over content is further developed in Simmel’s essay on ‘The Sociology of Sociability’ published the year following his ‘Flirtation’ essay. Here, concerned with the formulation of an ethic of sociability, Simmel contends that a ‘residue of pure sociability’ exists in all human association which remains untainted by the ‘ulterior interests’ of personality (1949 , 254). He explains that what is experienced as the pleasure of sociability – when ‘the most purely and deeply personal qualities [are] excluded (256)’ – is the ‘free-moving play’ of form (258). The coquette is once more exemplary:
The coquette brings her attractiveness to its climax by letting the man hang on the verge of getting what he wants without letting it become too serious for herself; her conduct swings between yes and no, without stopping at one or the other. She thus playfully shows the simple and pure form of erotic decision and can bring its polar opposites together in a quite integrated behavior, since the decisive and fateful content, which would bring it to one of the two decisions, by definition does not enter into coquetry. And this freedom from all the weight of firm content and residual reality gives coquetry that character of vacillation, of distance, of the ideal, which allows one to speak with some right of the ‘art’ [… ] of coquetry. (258)
Simmel’s proposal is that flirtation is not motivated by the ulterior interests of personality, or what we might today call the politics of identity. The coquette, because she is freed from ‘all the weight of firm content’, achieves the necessary suspension of private self-interest that Simmel deems requisite to the ‘special sociological structure’ of sociability. Her playful gift of indecision ensures the pendulum’s continued swing between the yes and the no. Conclusiveness kills flirtation, as does too much ego. It is by now apparent that if, in search of a representative of an aesthetic social principle, we are to put forward the Narquette as an amalgam of the coquette and the female narcissist, we need, once again, to have moved beyond a blinkered formulation of narcissism as unfettered egoism.