The Narcissistic Epidemic: Oedipus, Tennessee Williams and Orson Wells

We are living through a long and dramatic narcissistic epidemic. There is ample evidence of that. Look it up. Narcissism, that disease of admiring oneself and of viewing the world through the need to be admired, has been increasing considerably as generation after generation lives enthralled in the possibilities of technology and freedom. Freud, of whom I spoke here, thought we all suffered from some sort of narcissism and a lot of it could be traced to the Oedipus Complex. This concept, to which Freud believed much of our neurosis was related to, was recognized by the Austrian in Sophocles’ OEDIPUS REX – maybe you know it. Sophocles tells us the story of prince Oedipus of Thebes. When he was born, an oracle told King Laius and Queen Jocasta that the baby would end up killing his father and marrying his mother. Terrified by this prospect, the King and the Queen sent the baby away, ordering a shepherd to kill him. Oedipus, however, was saved and grew up and returned to Thebes. Ignorant of whom he was, he ended up killing his father and taking his place as king, marrying his mother in the process. When he found out what he had done, he took out his eyes and wandered around the world as a beggar.

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Freud recognized in this story something he saw in many of his patients as well: this burning desire to love our mother and overcome or father. This is so intense in our psyche that it becomes very scary for most of us, which also led to powerful resistance to Freud’s theories when he described them and through the years. Still, there are a lot of interesting characteristics and possibilities that can be understood under the shroud of the Oedipus Complex – not only developed by Freud but also by his successors. Actually, when we think about the story, Oedipus wasn’t guilty of any particular sin in the first place. His decisions, if we see it through his eyes, were not wrong – he didn’t know what he was doing. The ones who made the most cruel and sinful and conscious decision that led to the whole tragedy were his parents when they tried to have him killed. All he did was to survive and try to overcome his abandonment – and as he did that, as he tried to make himself important and overcome the sins of his parents, he doomed himself and all around him. That, in a nutshell, could be seen as the root of narcissism: that need to be important in the face of unloving and abandoning parents.

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We could see this phenomenon in many stories all around. For example, in Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer-winning CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF. In this excellent play, and subsequent excellent movies, the secret intimate core of the story comes from the fact (SPOILER ALERT) that the all-imposing figure of Big Daddy lost his loving father as a kid – which led him to build everything on his own and thrive by his own sweat and guts. Big Daddy is as the Sun, with everything revolving around him – and even though he hates mendacity, what he really wants is to be loved – even as he is unable to love others. Richard Brook’s movie is one of my favorite movies of all time – Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Burl Ives as Big Daddy and an underestimated Judith Anderson as Big Mamma carry this great work and move me every time. But is also an essay on narcissism and the Oedipus Complex, showing the difficulties of loving and being loved. In that incredible scene in the basement at the end, we can see Ives and Newman supreme in their art and we can also see the center of all evils in the lost love of father and son. Brick, Newman’s character, is immersed in self-loathing and disgust, the face of guilt that echoes the guilt of Oedipus himself. On the other hand, Maggie the Cat, Taylor’s character, is almost the only adult in the room, almost more a mother than a loving wife – herself abandoned and unloved.

Another movie that leans on this subject is Orson Wells’ CITIZEN KANE, deemed by many the best movie ever made. The movie describes the life of Charles Foster Kane and the way he built himself to be one of the richest men alive (based on the likes of magnate William Randolph Hearst, who tried to kill the movie when he saw it). Wells himself perceived the origins of this man’s narcissism and we can see in the last scene how his lost love for his parents was the engine and the tragedy of Charles F. Kane.

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On the other side, movies like REBECCA, PSYCHO or SUNSET BOULEVARD show how loving one’s mother can also lead to doom.

I cannot end this week’s post, off course, without making some parallels to real life. We see in some of our leaders, many of whom were gathered this week in the G7 meeting, the same woes that plague these oedipal characters. We can see in particular the so-called Leader of the Free World trying to feed his greedy and hellish black-hole of importance with fantasies of bending China to its knees, of nuking hurricanes, of wishing immigrants out of existence, of being the King of Israel, the Chosen One and the Second Coming of God. We could even pity him, but as King Oedipus brought the plague to Thebes and destroyed the ones around him, so the King of Towers is also able to doom us all and lead us to despair.

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I’m sorry he wasn’t loved by his parents. But he needs to let us love ours. And our children. Children are not free when they can do what they want. They are free when they know we care.  See you around the next campfire, my friends.

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