Chapter from HELENE, Living Novel
By David Arthur Walters
I am that I am, I-am-I, I am Me-Me, My Idol, My Self-Replicating I-Doll. I love Me before all that all may love Me, the All-One, before all others, and preferably only Me Alone, or else. I am the Subject of subjects, the Point of Existence, the I-god, and I, unlike the object-god, am located at the Centre of the universe and everywhere at once because I am the Centre and the Surround. I am the Sun about which My All revolves, and the Brightest Star in My Heavens, the Light in every eye, the One that outshines the others and blots them out at high noon. I am the Morning and the Evening Star, the Sun that rises and sets on the world yet stands still. And I am The One and the only Daughter of My Father within, with whom I am One, He who provides Me with heat and light, and My Mother is My Immaculate Space, the Womb where everything conceived is all about Me. My Life is a Praise-Seeking, Popularity Contest that I must and always will win in the end for My Will shall be done in My Heaven and on My Earth. My World is Video Game roundly applauding My Every Move. Life and liberty without Me has no merit, wherefore My Life is the Pursuit of My Self on My Stage, the Pursuit of My Eternal Life, Absolute Liberty, and Unadulterated Attention. No Wrath can be greater than Mine when I am scorned, or when another is compared favorably with Me, for I am a Jealous I. Behold My Gold Star on My Trailer! Bow down before ye enter or ye shall surely hit thy head! The World is My Mirror and My Mirror is My stage, wherefore rate My Shows well or feel My Rage. What others think of Me defines them, so let them think well of Me, and if My Critics don’t comply with My Truth, that I am the Most Beautiful of them all, then let them be damned to hell, for I really don’t care about anyone who does not serve My Purpose. I take everything personally because everything is Mine and the really Big Shew is all about Me. Behold! The world stage is My Space, My I-Space, My Face Book, My Superficial Super Face and Farce. My Persona, My Personal Project, projects Me. My Mask effortlessly amplifies My Glorious Being so the whole world may wonder at the Mystery of Me, the Very I who am I, the Nothing from which Being flies. Behold! I am I. (The IAMI Chronicles)
“Helene is right,” declared Paul’s old friend, Dr. Sagwell, after hearing Paul out over martinis at the Di Lido on South Beach. The doctor, down from New York on vacation, was a third-generation Freudian analyst with a lucrative West End practice. “You’re the narcissist, and not she as you have described her, at least not in the classical sense. She is, apparently, an histrionic personality.”
“Yes, a somewhat hysterical drama queen. It’s too bad she’s away – I wish I could meet the light of your life.”
“That she is. She has taught me a great deal about myself and the possibility of unconditional love. As for drama, I think women were created to make scenes. They seem to live on their emotions. Aren’t they all hysterical?” Paul posed a rhetorical question, twirling the olive on the toothpick in his martini.
“Many are, when provoked. Women typically have little choice but to act out their frustration dramatically when confronted by dominant male power; that is, to put on a show instead of actually castrating a man.”
“Ouch! After I read about a woman who had done just that, and then drove away with her husband’s penis in the glove compartment, I was afraid to go to sleep when my first wife was awake. She once grabbed a knife and came at me when I got drunk – I had torn a door off its frame. When things were going well between us, she said she thought of using the opportunity to cut me in my sleep, and I feared I might lose my tool, although that might have done me some good considering what I did with it after the divorce.”
“I don’t blame you for fearing her, for one should not tear down doors nowadays. Cheroot? It’s Cuban.” Dr. Sagwell extracted two cigars from the front pocket his cream-colored blazer, and offered Paul one.
“No, thanks, I quit smoking, or rather smoking quit me, but thank you.”
“You are very welcome. You know you don’t have to inhale.”
“I must inhale.”
“All right, then, if you must not, but I am going to smoke, if you don’t mind.” Dr. Sagwell put one cigar back in his pocket, and lit the other.
“Mmm, smells good. You know Fidel banned smoking in public.”
“No! What got in to him?”
“He’s a control freak, of course. They say he and Chavez are lovers, and that Fidel posed in a red dress for him. Anyway, I always figured it was better to bash things than people. Things are worthless, really.” Paul put the olive at the end of the toothpick in his mouth, laid the toothpick in the ashtray, and grimaced slightly. The memory of his first wife pained him – history is a big mistake, he thought.
“You were behaving hysterically when you ripped the door down, somewhat like the woman who smashes glasses when she gets upset. Better not to bash anything or anybody, Paul, you know that. It’s better to be kind to people and not to frighten them. Anyway, times have changed, and the physical symptoms of the war between the sexes along with them.”
“If there were really a war between the sexes, we wouldn’t be here. What we have are battles.”
“Well put,” Dr. Sagwell declared, and took a long pull on his cigar – Paul noticed that it was about eight-inches long, counting the ash, and perversely imagined that his Freudian friend, who regularly conducted “psychological research” in Upper West Side gay bars, was sucking on a brown cock. “I mean to say that men don’t have the upper hand they once had,” Dr. Sagwell resumed after blowing three perfect smoke rings. “Hysteria is no longer a term of diagnostic nomenclature. It was once used to refer to the conversion of psychological conflicts into such physical symptoms as paralysis of a limb, sleepwalking, and the like. Now it’s a pejorative term for the excessive emotional venting of so-called feminine frustration. Liberal males are often referred to as hysterics, cowards who would defend themselves with neurotic government regulation.”
“So the stereotypically hysterical women had a hysterectomy, and hysteria is no longer in the manual,” Paul said smilingly, rather pleased by his rephrasing of the doctor’s academic manner of speaking.
“Yes, Paul, the wandering-womb disorder has been converted into HPD.”
“HPD? Oh my goddess!” Paul’s eye was caught by the bikini-clad bathing beauty passing them by on her way to the pool.
“Histrionic personality disorder – a disorder often confused with narcissism. The histrionic person is a sort of drama queen.”
“Please elaborate, Doc,” Paul requested as he gazed at the beauty’s undulating hips. Her nicely rounded, Sun-browned buns seemed to make a complete circle in her wake as she placed one high-heeled sandal directly before the other, making her way forward with head held high. She had that curious expression on her face, not quite deadpan, but rather zombie-like, or more like a vampire. She must be a model, he speculated to himself. Paris Hilton’s lithe, nude body suddenly came to mind – she’s the only live wire among them, he reflected, envisioning her naughty smile.
“Your Helene wishes to be the center of the world,” Dr. Sagwell nodded benignly. “She craves approval and admiration, and, consequently, is obsessed with keeping up appearances, especially her own. The obsessive-compulsive disorder often appears with HPD. Indeed, OCD appears as her compulsion to play the same part over and over again.”
”She’s a clean bug – everything must be spotless. Dirt calls out to her from behind refrigerators and from inside air-conditioning ducts. She says that what I call cleaning is not really cleaning, just pushing the dirt around. She strives to keep herself clean and attractive at all times, even when she is cleaning out ducts. She’s like the movie star depicted trekking through a dense jungle, clean as Ivory soap, fully made up and with hair set. She reminds people of Jean Harlow.”
“They said Harlow had more beauty than brains.”
“Not a bad thing to say about a woman if she has lots of brains. Helene’s very intelligent, that’s for sure. However, she just does not have her brains cleanly organized, even though for her cleanliness and order is everything. She does look like Harlow sometimes; especially in white surrounded by white, which I think is her favorite color. She uses several gallons of bleach every month.”
“Aha, she would like Russian Suprematism,” Dr. Sagwell, a collector of modern art, denoted. “Malevich’s white square on a white background. White is not a color, you know, it’s all colors in equal proportion, the death of all colors, purity.”
“I know. She’s no square. She’s curvaceous, like the petal of the white Narcissus.”
“And that is the shape of Moby Dick, the great white whale that pulled Ahab to his doom, just as Persephone was pulled to Hades when she plucked the narcotic flower.”
“Ahab is gone for good, but Jonah rose again,” Paul took the cue, “just as Persephone rises every season to fertilize the earth. Helene’s a beauty; at least she is my star. I think the name means beautiful, the shining beauty, or something like that. Helene’s the one who moved a thousand ships to war.”
“As a matter of fact, the histrionic person is naturally more attractive than others. She may be quite successful in show business or some other showy type of work – they can be great salesmen, entrepreneurs, and might even preside over large companies. Unfortunately, speaking of lithe bodies, the histrionic person’s excessive concern with her appearance may take the form of anorexia.”
“What kind of friends would the typical histrionic woman have?” Paul wondered what category he was in.
“Well, let’s see…. The histrionic woman often tends to associate with friends whose uncomely appearance accentuates her beauty; she is personally insulted if they are compared favorably with her. Not that you are ugly, Paul, but you are a bit of a slob.”
“Just the usual white trash that blows down to Florida for the winter,” Paul said, nodding towards the bleary-eyed and disheveled panhandler stumbling along the boardwalk and yelling curses intermittently. “So the wandering womb has wandered afar, perhaps to take up a professional acting or sales career.”
“Indeed, and in that career she careens from role to role, wandering far and wide. Beware, she can be extraordinarily seductive.”
“But she rejects sexual advances.”
“Then she has something in common with Narcissus. Perhaps the mirror no longer flatters her. How old did you say she was? She might need more confidence in her body as she ages, or rather in her lovemaking ability. Still, she keeps you on the hook, eh?”
“Tell me more about the histrionic personality.”
“The descriptions are redundant,” Dr. Sagwell declared after taking another pull on his cigar, “but I’ll go on pedantically if you please. The histrionic is flighty, emotionally shifty and shallow, and tends to panic. Easily bored, she cannot sit still, she is impatient and demands novelty at all times. She does not have the patience to follow procedures for long, to concentrate on mathematics, for example, or, for that matter, to hold a regular job for long, for the master-servant relationship does not suit her grandiose notion of herself.”
“I think you’ve got her pegged. Funny, I really get a kick out of her. She is somebody, an eccentric.”
“So are you, my friend. Since she craves approval, she cannot stand the slightest criticism, flies into a rage over the slightest slight. And she tends to blame others for anything that goes wrong – and a lot does go wrong, for her protagonist role requires crisis after crisis, one tragic scene after another. That is very exciting of course.”
“She drinks plenty of wine.”
“Ah, I would like to share a few glasses of fine wine with her – I’m sure the experience would be enormously entertaining.”
“Her wine has gotten cheaper and cheaper, so I think it’s the alcohol she’s after,” Paul stated.
“Aren’t we all? But then there’s the culture.”
“She will only drink out of the right kind of glass.”
“Good. A histrionic person may use alcohol or prescriptions drugs to bolster her sense of power, her self-esteem – illegal drugs will not do since they are contrary to the authority she complies with for its approval.”
“Yes, that’s my Helene, all right. She said anyone who smokes a joint or toots a line of coke can’t be a friend of hers, although she says she tried coke once and liked it so that would be her drug of choice if she did drugs other than the prescribed pills she pops.”
“If she is as you have described her, she matches the general definition of the histrionic personality. We’ve all got a bit of that in us. It’s all the rage today, the culmination of modern individualism.”
“She cannot help the way she is. She is only manic in public – she says she is terribly depressed when alone.”
“She is deeply wounded and battle scarred. Be careful, Paul, for the deeper a relationship with a excessively histrionic person, the more pathological it can be. But I think you can handle it as a narcissist.”
“How rude! I daresay I am not a narcissist!” Paul haughtily emphasized, feigning indignation although he felt only slightly insulted.
“Ah, there you go, my friend, with your own histrionics.”
“So what’s the prognosis, doc?”
“Not good. The social trend, with its self-esteem movement, feel-good religions, the therapeutic faith of the self-help cult, fosters and bolsters the histrionic disorder associated with narcissism or extreme ego-centrism.”
“Yeah, but people can change. Otherwise you wouldn’t be in business.”
“This is a hard case to crack, Paul. It’s nearly impossible to get them into psychotherapy unless they believe it’s their own idea and that it will boost their self-esteem. Unfortunately, self-esteem for its own sake does not improve performance. If someone actually believes the world revolves around them, why should they change?”
“I knew a dancer once, the most arrogant and vain person I’d ever met, totally caught up with himself in the mirrors, always upstaging the rest of the company on stage. Man, what a show off! On Christmas Eve, his girlfriend came around to the studio, asked him to close his eyes because she had a present for him. He did, and she pulled a ball peen hammer out of her purse and smashed him three times in the face, breaking his jaw and giving him a concussion. She was sentenced to five years in prison, and it took him a long time to heal, with jaw wired shut and all. After that, he was the nicest sort of fellow around, a humble, sympathetic fellow, always ready to help out.”
“What in the world did he do to her?”
“She was a Born Again. He took her to a Dianetics meeting, where she said she was brain-fucked by Satan himself.”
“Hmm, that is most fascinating – thanks for telling me that story.”
“So maybe a big shock will cure histrionic people. I would not want to see Helene hurt – she’s been beaten down by the rich bastards she married – but when she gets depressed, she is easier to get along with. ”
“Maybe she is easier to dominate when she is down, so you prefer that? To beat hysterical women to humble them, or even to give them a good slap as in the old movies, is no longer Kosher – scientific shock therapy is seeing a comeback, however, because it really works.”
“What about group therapy? She loves groups.”
“Group therapy provides an audience and aggravates the tendency to put on a show.”
“What about drugs? Her M.D. gave her a prescription for Zoloft but she wouldn’t get it filled.”
“Maybe there is nothing wrong with her, maybe she’s just under-medicated!” Dr. Sagwell exclaimed with mock exasperation. “As I said, it is unlikely for someone with the histrionic personality disorder to submit to therapy in the first place, and drugs that purport to alter the personality are rejected out of hand. Anti-anxiety drugs are acceptable, anything that elevates the feeling of power. Again, a few drinks might do the trick. Would you like another martini?”
“Three martini’s a crowd,” retorted Paul.
“I’ll have another,” Dr. Sagwell said and flagged a waiter. “Your South Beach portions are much too small. Cognitive behavioral therapy might do your friend some good. One histrionic analysand of mine, a man, practiced focusing on mathematics and symbolic logic, and that helped. Art therapy is useful if disciplined, but then again that can reinforce the obsessive-compulsive habits. We are dealing with deeply ingrained characteristics here, with so-called bad habits. I would recommend several years of deep psychoanalysis.”
“I’ll bet you would.”
“I regret she is out of town. I would be charmed to meet her, I’m sure.”
“She is extraordinarily charming. You should see what happens when she grandly enters a ballroom and walks across the floor. Before she heads for an exit, she has in fact become the center of that little world. It is amazing how the power gravitates toward her – every potentate in the place head towards her for an audience.”
“Then she might make good use of her habits, make peace with her eccentricity and become a successful star, or the head of her own company, but even then the interrupting bouts of depression will not go away, for her heady flights will cause her balloon to burst with the slightest prick. Perhaps you could hold her down, as you are in love with her, and make mad passionate love to her.”
“I used to think of that. I was afraid that I would not perform well for her, that I would come before I came, and she would laugh at me, put me down. But she has put me off so many times that I have grown cold on the idea. Sometimes I think she is a lesbian.”
“She probably thinks you are gay by now. You both might prove otherwise. Believe me, she is bringing you out of your narcissism, Paul. She does not get the attention she does without knowing something about people. She has social skills. She knows you are a narcissist. Her social perspicacity recognizes your retreat into writing as an art for the sake of art for what it is, a preoccupation with yourself. Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?”
“Never, but sometimes I get horny when I am writing, and have to take a Vaseline break.”
“There you go, and with a modern convenience – Dali would be proud of you. You once wrote that what one writes about really does not matter, that no matter what the subject matter is, the art produced is a self-portrait.”
“Yes, but of course the art may do more to conceal the self than to reveal it – in any event, may it be finely done. Besides, who really wants to know himself, as the Delphic oracle advised? I am thinking of writing a story about a portrait painted so true to the self that its subject takes his own life in horror.”
“Ah, shades of Dorian Gray, the beautiful youth with a rotting soul. But I recall that he murdered the artist who painted his portrait – stabbed him in the neck several times, I believe, and lost no sleep over it. And his remorse over the actress Sibyl Vane’s suicide was merely momentary, for the hedonistic narcissist lacks empathy – he must distract himself from his self with his art of living, which might include committing every sin known to man and piling up treasures from the four corners of the earth.”
“But no matter how pretty his portrait, it is bound to express his cruelty in one way or another, to reveal the awful secret of his soul,” Paul added, impressed as always by his friend’s literacy. “Yes, the picture changed after it was painted, I recall, and revealed cruelty around the mouth, and then dripped blood, did it not? Alas, I forgot that my story had already been authored.”
“It is a prehistoric story. You might write it another way.”
“I don’t think of myself as a writer. Writers are a lot of scribbling scratchers. I am Paul Bowman, the greatest author the world will ever or never know. Authors are augmenters, founders, fathers, impregnators.”
“My, oh my – so writers are just scribbling scratchers, and authors are self-moved creators. Paul, just admit it – you are a narcissist through and through. You don’t care about your subject matter or substance, or humankind for that matter, but only for the illusive unity you see in your reflections, in the illusory unity of your individualism. Helene saw right through you, and perhaps it’s the style of your vanity that she understands and admires…. Oh, dear, please do not grimace like that, my friend. I mean no offense.”
“I appreciate your analyses, but this one is too close to home. I don’t like being analyzed by a friend when the portrait drawn is that of a selfish bastard.”
“I did not call you a bastard. If an author is a founding father etymologically speaking, at least you are your own father. Still the truth should be told to one who loves the truth. You have often said that every great author loves the truth.”
“That depends on what it corresponds with. I prefer my truth to be consistently coherent with the high regard creative critics have for authoritative authors.” Paul was yet again amused by his phrasing as the vodka loosened his tongue, and he thought he might author an experimental novel in a drunken state, or author an illustrious epic while stoned on opium if he could get his hands on a cache of the lustrous green waxy paste. “I’ll have another one too, with two olives, please,” he announced to the waiter, who had tardily arrived.
“Ruthless Tamerlane loved the truth – however it could only be told by the elders of a special tribe – anyone else was beheaded for its telling.”
“Ha! They should have told him not to go north, like Napoleon did after him. I must say that his towers of skulls were certainly truth in advertising. Truth sets the soul free inasmuch as it kills the beauteous form celebrated by Oscar Wilde, who said Form was the beginning and the essence of everything, and set Beauty ahead of Truth and Morality. I remember that it was the truth about Love – that it needs illusion – that killed Sibyl Vane; for when she gave up acting to love Dorian Gray, he found her simple love revolting, and he callously spurned her. It was her dramatic portrayals of heroines that he loved, and not her substance, although her physique, like his, was most beautiful to behold. In any case I am insulted that you would side with Helene’s perspective, that I am somehow immoral, and your implication that I am perverse like Oscar Wilde and his self-portrait, Dorian Gray; that I am, in a word, a narcissist. What is your motive, anyway? Was Freud right in his pessimism? Your diagnosis seems sadistic to me.” Paul’s face was turning crimson; he felt like assaulting his old friend – the alcohol was taking its toll. There was some truth in the doctor’s friendly analysis, enough to twinge his conscience – Wilde said the conscience makes egotists of us all.”
“There, there, I meant no insult. Still, you might be right about my motive, for there is a god and a devil in each of us.”
“Dualism is the more logical explanation of holy ambiguity, as the Zoroastrians knew very well,” Paul could not help noting. “Theodicy is casuistry compounded, the most absurd excuse for hypocrisy ever conceived to justify the Vanity of vanities.”
“Freud, as your Intellectual Excellency must know, placed love’s headquarters in the ego, and thus libido explains not only the id but everything, with the pleasure principle. Freud’s concept of narcissism held that the motivating power of libido or love-energy was withdrawn from objects and placed in the self. The narcissist is psychologically immature: he is an adult baby. Of course the narcissism of the child is necessary for its development as an integrated individual, and the adult is never rid of narcissism – indeed, our culture cultivates it in everyone, and having fun or pleasure, the pursuit of happiness, is the sole aim of life nowadays. But the pleasure principle failed to account for the will to destruction, so Freud posited a death instinct or destructive principle. I apologize for giving you offense, but such is human nature, and it is our nature to overlook faults in our friends, Paul, and even to love them for their faults, for what is the category of one by itself but nothing notable in itself?” Dr. Sagwell calmly put down his cigar and clasped his hands together in a church-steeple, a habit formed during the conduct of his séances.”
“Okay, that’s really a mouthful. But the sadist in you may not destroy my ego, leaving me with hardly a stick of the raft over troubled waters to cling to. The ego is a fiction – the ego does not otherwise exist, nor does the superego and id. You may enjoy that familial trinity if you will….”
“Why familial?” Dr. Sagwell interjected curiously.
“Chant the name of the id or mother, the superego or father, and the ego or son, amen. But never mind that. I hit the bottom of Being long ago. I, sir, settle for Nothing. Nothing is good enough for me. In fact, Nothing is perfect. Just think about it if you can: Nothing is permanent and non-denomination. Yes, I have faith in Nothing, not in Being. The rest is Art, so put your pleasure in the capital Ego if you wish, but I shan’t. Note well that my Nothing is capitalized.” Paul was wounded: he was quite the skeptic, more than capable of making bad of good and good of bad, but he could not stand nor make good of negative criticism himself, and, when his touchy ego was touched, he withdrew into his sacred Nothing to lick his wounds with vacuous ignorance.
Dr. Sagwell frowned with patronizing concern for his friend. “If only you could see yourself.”
“My self is, is, it is nothing! And that’s good enough for me.”
“Perhaps we should change the subject to something more trivial.” Dr. Sagwell was not about to change the subject – he was enjoying the mental calisthenics, and he believed the exercise would do his friend some good. “You have a beautiful mind, Paul, and, as always, I want to take advantage of it. For me, you are therapeutic. Anyway, there is nothing immoral about narcissism, although it is not appreciated when taken to the extreme. After all, narcissism is the norm: Every one is fascinated by his own self, and each secretly harbors the notion that he is the best person in the world, well-deserving of its acclaim from time to time.”
“But I don’t think I am a narcissist! My god does not say, ‘Thou shalt love Thyself alone.’ I do not love my self alone. I have a great deal of empathy for people, at least in the abstract – I seldom give beggars a quarter, but I am sorry for them. I certainly hate seeing people suffer, except in fiction, and I switch channels when they are hurting on the news.”
“Paul, again, I speak of the classical sense of narcissism. And I mean no offense, so please rest easy. We need fuzzy logic for fuzzy terms. These labels have fuzzy edges, and we all have our share of the elusive definitions, no matter how abnormal our bit parts make us seem to be. Think of it this way: a histrionic personality is an extroverted narcissist rather than an introverted one.”
“By classical narcissism, don’t you mean the Freudian sense?” quizzed Paul, after taking a deep breath and relaxing back into his chair.
“No, I mean the mythical sense of Narcissus, the beautiful son of the nymph, Liriope.”
“Liriope – what a lyrical name. Narcissus was the fruit of her rape, eh?”
“That is the gossip. Ovid simply said she declared the mighty river-god, Cephissus, to be the father of the child, conceived on the banks of the river that goes by that name.”
“You are certainly are well-versed,” observed Paul.
“Ah, my boy, you are well versed yourself. Would you like to hear a sonnet from Millay? South Beach brings it to mind – it is so lovely hear.”
“Yes! Please recite one!” Dr. Sagwell had introduced Paul to Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry many years prior; now he gathered himself together, took a deep breath, and recited:
When Man is gone and only gods remain
To stride the world, their mighty bodies hung
With golden shields, and golden curls outflung
Above their childish foreheads; when the plain
Round skull of Man is lifted and again
Abandoned by the ebbing wave, among
The sand and pebbles of the beach, - what tongue
Will tell the marvel of the human brain?
Heavy with music once this windy shell,
Heavy with knowledge of the clustered stars;
The one-time tenant of this draughty hall
Himself, in learned pamphlet, did foretell,
After some aeons of study jarred by wars,
This toothy gourd, this head emptied of all.
“Thank you Doc, that is truly lovely. You amaze me. What an amazing memory you have for lines, and a well-rounded education, too. I know you studied acting at the university – maybe you should have taken up the stage.”
“I did not like the limelight – I’m too much of a narcissist. It takes one to know one, my friend, and I am one myself, as I tried to warn you many years ago, when I got out of advertising and found my dear self in psychoanalysis, but you did not know what I meant. I don’t need to tell you that we must do our best to acquire and maintain a well-rounded education, based on our historical cultural foundations, of course, and to do that we must remember these things well. Ovid’s Metamorphoses, by the way, is a work of great beauty and substance, a happy conjunction that the poet, incidentally, noted his Narcissus lacked.”
“Ovid’s version of the Narcissus myth upheld the correspondence theory of truth, the notion that truths affirmed must be verified objectively to be true. Narcissus was beautiful, but the beauty he loved was not his own substance or self but merely his reflection in the pool. He loved form over substance, the insubstantial form he could not embrace in itself, for its abstract beauty was destroyed by his slightest touch – his delusion could not stand reality, hence the blind seer had told his mother at the outset that her child could not survive the recognition of his self, and would live long only if he failed to recognize himself.”
“What is the self?” Paul asked, a bit tipsily. “Is it a myth? Does it exist at all, in the sense of substance? And what is substance without form, or matter without something material in hand, except nothing? Is not the self a vain concept, and otherwise than that, nothing at all? How can it be experienced, except by reflection, flying ahead of every fleet-footed thought that would recognize or apprehend it?”
“Paul, it’s a good thing these martinis are small, because I can see we have a ways to go to get to the bottom of things.” Dr. Sagwell sighed. “The self is a myth, but that does not mean there is nothing to it – otherwise I would be out of business!” he laughed. There is a great deal of truth in the myth,” he reflected, “although we might not know precisely what that is, given the ambivalence and ambiguity of our nature – every affirmation is upheld by a denial.”
“So the truth is what we say it is? Was Narcissus the only one who believed he was beautiful?”
“Everyone believed he was truly beautiful, especially his most trusted friends. But his beauty was sacred, untouchable, and when admirers wanted carnal knowledge of his bisexual beauty, when they reached out to him, he vanished into the woods, and then he found his reflection in the pool when he stopped to drink of it. He did not know that he was in love with his own reflection. He would willingly have died to unite with it, but that unison would have destroyed his body and its reflection. And in the end it was his fate to die as foretold, for when he touched the pool and his image was distorted, he realized he loved his own shade, had been deceived by his own reflection, but his image returned to order, and he was doomed to be consumed by his passion.”
“From nothing he came and to nothing he went.”
“Precisely, Paul, and I find that quite comforting.”
“But how can you, as a Jew?”
“As a Jew I have a choice, and I choose no afterlife. And by temperament I am more of an orthodox Buddhist than a Jew.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
“Sigmund Freud was keen on the classics,” Paul catered to the doctor’s profession.
“But it was Anna,” Dr. Sagwell reflected, referring to Freud’s daughter, who had mentored him briefly, “who got me keenly interested in Narcissus.”
“She introduced you to Marilyn Monroe?”
The good doctor, disturbed by the sudden mention of the star’s name, fumbled with his cigar, shook his head negatively and said, “I regret that I mentioned that to you. Please never write about it. I would rather let all that rest in peace, her death being a black day for psychiatry. But since you mentioned her, it occurs to me that your friend Helene has certain characteristics in common with her. I hope I have a chance to meet her some day. You said she is in New York? What is she doing there?”
“She went up to see if she could obtain funds from her children’s trust.”
“So they are well off, but what about her fortune?”
“Yes, according to the trust provisions, they are both prospective multimillionaires, but their father had made no definite provisions for Helene. She sacrificed her alimony when she married her second husband, whom she believed to be wealthier than he.”
“But of course. What about him?”
“He turned out to be con man, and he in turn, indicted after pulling off an Enron swindle, left her high-and-dry in a Texas hospital near the President’s ranch, beaten to a black-and-blue pulp. She returned to their Ft. Lauderdale mansion and got a retraining order, but the estate was seized by the court. She was ordered off the premises, and landed in South Beach.”
“Fascinating!” exclaimed Dr. Sagwell. “And I presume she seems undaunted?”
“How did you know? Seems is the word. She acts the part of the stoic noblewoman. She suffers terribly when alone, but she holds her head up high in public. Her social life seems to be one grand accident, of which she is the leading lady. She does her level best to make a go of it alone. I am proud of her, but want her to make a living at socializing because it is too much of a farce as it is, so many of the cast are phonies, really.”
“Has she any professional acting experience?”
“Well, no, but when she is bragging about the great reception she receives everywhere she goes, even at the scenes of her automobile accidents, I humor her and suggest that she take a screen test and few acting lessons as well, so she will become not only famous but rich as well.”
“And her response?”
“She agrees. My facetiousness goes over her head. To admit otherwise, or to suggest that she is a frustrated hysteric, would knock her off the high horse she likes to ride. ”
“I don’t think so. She would patch herself up and get back on. She knows she is histrionic, just as she knows you are a Narcissus,” Dr. Sagwell declared.
“All right, I am confused. What’s the big difference, anyway?”
“Unlike the histrionic personality, who needs an admiring audience, Narcissus did not need anyone at all. Indeed, he rejected his lovers, withdrew from society and loved himself alone.”
“But is not that the case with us all? For whom do we really love when we love another but our own self, and what else is life but that love?”
“My point is that the mythological Narcissus did not need other people to supply him with admiration. He was born beautiful, he was virtually the god of beauty, much admired and desired by the loveliest members of both sexes, but he would not love any one of them. Indeed, he could not stand his many admirers, or rather none of them were as beautiful as he was, and he wanted and must have the best to himself, namely himself, so he withdrew from them and pined away over what no subject can have in itself, his own self as an object, for the only way one can know and love oneself is through others, wherefore he withered up and died for the lack of a self. On the other hand, the egotistical people commonly called narcissists cannot bear to be by themselves. They cannot live alone, although they usually wind up alone because people cannot bear their vanity. Although they seem to love themselves, they are driven by self-contempt to seek the praise of others. And keep this in mind, that….”
Paul was no longer listening. He had eaten only four olives all day, was woozy from the vodka, felt like vomiting, and he suddenly leaned over and did so, which attracted attention and disgust all around, for South Beach may be famed for its hedonism, but it is no puking Oktoberfest beer hall, especially not on the Di Lido Hotel’s beach patio.
“Paul, what’s the matter?” Dr. Sagwell was concerned, reached over and put his hand on Paul’s shoulder.
“Oh, I was hungry and I feel sick, I’ve got to, I’ve got to….” Paul tried to get up but slumped back in his chair, then leaned forward again.
“No, no, don’t try to get up, relax, breath deeply, don’t worry, it’s all right. We’ll get some food in you pretty soon.”
“Oh, oh, I’m sorry, oh God, it’s the blackness, got to get to the bathroom, please….”
Dr. Sagwell went to Paul’s side, gently pressed him back in his chair, and helped him put his feet in another chair.
“Paul, listen to me, you’re going to be all right but you’ve got to take it easy for a few minutes.”
“The blackness, it’s the blackness, the uh….”
Paul went limp. Dr. Sagwell stood over him and raised Paul’s eyelids wide with his thumbs and did not like what he saw. He took his cell phone from his beach bag and dialed 911.
Photo Credit: Betty Davis & George Brent in Dark Victory (1939)