The Narcissus Theme from Fin de Siècle to Psychoanalysis : Crisis of the Modern Self

Abstract: This dissertation is an intertextual-thematological investigation of the Narcissus theme at the turn of the century 1900. It focuses primarily on French-, German-, and English-language decadent and Symbolist literature from the 1890s and early 1900s, as well as on early sexology and psychoanalysis. The general claim of the dissertation is that the common denominator for the turn-of-the-century interest in Narcissus is the sense of a destabilized foundation of selfhood, expounded here as a crisis of the modern self.The first chapter explores Narcissus as a poetic symbol, primarily within the context of French Symbolism. Young Symbolist writers such as André Gide and Camille Mauclair develop Narcissus as a symbol of pure self-referentality which performs a poetic reconciliation of the contingency of individual and finite existence with an absolute ideality. This chapter further explores the way in which Narcissus was used a polemical figure by opponents of Symbolism, such as Saint-Georges de Bouhélier, and how the symbol was developed to investigate the articulation between contingent and foundational aspects of selfhood by the mature Paul Valéry.The second chapter focuses on decadent narrative representations of the theme in works by Oscar Wilde, Leopold Andrian and others. These treatments employ the generic contours of a Bildungsroman, but depict the process of Bildung as a failure where the self-knowledge projected as its goal is unattainable. They thereby thematize the inability of the young male subject to find a steady foundation for his sense of selfhood in a modern world marked by irony and disbelief.The third chapter focuses on the conceptualization of the Narcissus theme as narcissism. It begins by tracing the genesis of the concept particularly in the works of Havelock Ellis, Isidor Sadger, Otto Rank and Sigmund Freud. The investigation then focuses on the role narcissism comes to play in Freud’s theory and argues that it ties selfhood and subjectivity to biological causation, but that it also allows Freud to suggest a path of psychologically informed Bildung, leading to self-knowledge and subjective autonomy.

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