Reflecting Narcissus: A Queer Aesthetic

Reflecting Narcissus: A Queer Aesthetic

Reflecting Narcissus: A Queer Aesthetic

Reflecting Narcissus: A Queer Aesthetic


Steven Bruhm is associate professor of English at Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax, Canada.


In Narcissism and the Novel (1990), Jeffrey Berman argues that the “richness of the “Narcissus” myth is inexhaustible. Narcissus dramatizes not only the cold, self-centred love that proves fatally imprisoning, but fundamental oppositions of human existence: reality/ illusion, presence/absence, subject/object, unity/disunity, involvement/ detachment” (1). a field in which all the binarisms of contemporary culture and theory can be detected, narcissism is for Berman a seemingly endless treasure trove of tropic and theoretical meanings, which he traces in authors from Mary Shelley to Virginia Woolf. But let us stress that this trove is seemingly endless. When Berman gets to Oscar Wilde, the “inexhaustible” implications of the myth are suddenly exhausted by the category of homosexuality. of Richard Ellmann's biography of Wilde, Berman writes:

The biographer implicitly dismisses any attempt to trace back the tragedies
of Wilde's adult life to early childhood conflicts. We learn nothing new,
for example, about Wilde's relationship to his parents or the sources of his
homosexuality. Nor does Ellmann analyze Wilde's fatal attraction to people
who preyed upon him. in portraying a heroic Wilde who is more sinned
against than sinning, Ellmann remains silent on the reasons for Wilde's
complicity in his own victimization. (151)

The “reasons for Wilde's complicity in his own victimization” are to be located, naturally, in the psychological link between his narcissism and his homosexuality; by looking to Wilde's parents, argues Berman, we can find those all-important “sources,” that necessary etiology that homosexuality seems to demand. the “cause” of Wilde's homosexuality, he argues, is an overbearing mother who dressed her son in girl's clothes. Lady Wilde's

Treatment of her son went far beyond the bounds of what was culturally
acceptable, and in light of the current research on gender identity “that is,
Robert Stoller's 1968 Sex and Gender”, it is impossible to believe that Oscar
Wilde's female childhood did not play a decisive role in his personality
development…To be dressed as a girl for years, to have one's masculin
ity mocked, to be raised as a replacement for another, to be taught that

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