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Reflecting Narcissus

A Queer Aesthetic

2000
Author:

Steven Bruhm

Reflecting Narcissus

Places this mythological figure at the center of homoerotic creativity and desire.

Extending the horizons of queer, feminist, and psychoanalytic theory, this book challenges the twentieth century’s predominant understanding of narcissism-and the predominantly narcissistic qualities of male same-sex desire-as allegedly solipsistic, immature, sterile, antisocial, and apolitical. Bruhm argues that Narcissus has, instead, served to trouble the very cultural and gendered norms that define him.

Narcissism is a hot topic of critical analysis, and this book is sure to keep the temperature rising.

Ann Pellegrini, Barnard College

The figure of Narcissus, literally falling for himself, has profoundly influenced Western philosophy and literary theory: he signifies transcendental idealism and its nemesis, vanity; he underlies autoeroticism and misogyny; he has a crucial place in poststructuralist French thought. Yet, for all this, Narcissus is rarely if ever seen in his primary attitude—as a man erotically desiring another man.

In Reflecting Narcissus, Steven Bruhm traces the complex uses of Narcissus in cultural and aesthetic formulations from the eighteenth century to the present and returns Narcissus’s essential homoeroticism to a central place in this history. Extending the horizons of queer, feminist, and psychoanalytic theory, this book challenges the twentieth century’s predominant understanding of narcissism—and the predominantly narcissistic qualities of male same-sex desire—as allegedly solipsistic, immature, sterile, antisocial, and apolitical. Bruhm argues that Narcissus has, instead, served to trouble the very cultural and gendered norms that define him.

While aesthetic theories since Romanticism and before have exploited the desiring gaze of Narcissus, they simultaneously deny his homoeroticism. And yet, Bruhm argues, these aesthetics depend on the very queerness they silence, instilling a vague—and consequential-discomfort about a homosexual Narcissus in discourses from Neoplatonism and psychoanalysis to that of queer cultural production itself. Our culture, Bruhm contends, mutes the narcissistic eros that it paradoxically depends on for the work of introspection. He unravels this problem in texts from Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray to Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, from Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer to Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, from Schlegel’s sonnets to pornography and the gothic, from Decadence to French feminism, from Symbolism to psychoanalysis.

This book reveals how Narcissus, while generating representations of creative masculinity, destabilizes them at the same time—offering us an exciting new purchase on phallocentric identity, its art, and its politics.

Reflecting Narcissus

Steven Bruhm is associate professor of English at Mount St. Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Reflecting Narcissus

Narcissism is a hot topic of critical analysis, and this book is sure to keep the temperature rising.

Ann Pellegrini, Barnard College

An important intervention in a wide range of current debates about self, sexuality, and society, Reflecting Narcissus shows Bruhm's intellectual agility and self confidence throughout.

Michael Moon, Johns Hopkins University

For men who find self-involvement the most satisfying relationship, Reflecting Narcissus provides excellent companionship. It takes the cultural high road (i.e. Gide, Freud, Wilde).

Flaunt

Reflecting Narcissus is a valuable book that will be interesting and instructive to a wide range of readers.

Canadian Literature

Enough about you; let’s talk about ME. Narcissus gets undeservedly dissed, Steven Bruhm insists in this new marriage of psychoanalytic theory and literary criticism, and along with him, queer people whose perversion from convention has been diagnosed as the product of ‘narcissistic personality’ disorder. Bruhm demonstrates careful scholarship, performs provocative readings, and renders a useful genealogy of the tropes of Narcissus and narcissism. Narcissus-c’est moi!

Lambda Book Report

Although Reflecting Narcissus is very much an academic study, Bruhm writes with wit and verve. An admirable study.

Gay and Lesbian Review

Reflecting Narcissus

CONTENTS

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Reflecting Narcissus

1. No Exit: Romantic Male Narcissism
2. Reverse of the Mirror: Symbolism and Sexology
3. Sons and Lovers, Birds and Johns
4. Queer Queer Vladimir
5. The Gothic in a Culture of Narcissism

Conclusion: Rejecting Narcissus
Notes
Works Cited

Index