Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Narcissism and Spirituality in Flannery O'Connor's Stories

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Narcissism and Spirituality in Flannery O'Connor's Stories

Article excerpt

Virtually any short story by Flannery O'Connor could serve as a poignant case study of narcissism. While narcissism in the guises of ambition and hubris is an ancient literary theme, O'Connor's protagonists vividly exemplify a syndrome of covert and hypervigilant narcissism that has been well characterized in the literature. Her work also strongly implies that narcissism and spirituality (particularly Christianity) are antithetical, and two of her stories-"The Enduring Chill" and "The Lame Shall Enter First"-are analyzed with respect to this belief. The characters of Asbury and Sheppard exhibit classic narcissistic signs and symptoms as delineated by Kohut and Kernberg. The complex relationship of narcissism to evil, spirituality, and contemporary culture is explored, and it is argued that narcissism has a prominent spiritual dimension that raises questions about the role of values in psychotherapy.

INTRODUCTION

For millennia what we now call narcissism was central to the Western literary tradition. Writers have long explored its moral dimension and anticipated modern psychiatric theory in seeing narcissism as both a problematic syndrome and an unavoidable aspect of normal humanity. Overweening pride is the heart of a founding myth of Western civilization-Lucifer's fall from grace-and hubris was a preoccupation of the ancients. Dante, Shakespeare, and Cervantes reveled in depicting human presumption. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Samuel Johnson penned his famous poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes," and Austen and Dickens unleashed their satires of the pretensions of mankind. By comparison, over the past century, which saw unprecedented clinical interest in the vagaries of narcissism, humility lost some of its popular luster and literature largely moved on to other concerns. Among major modern fiction writers, Flannery O'Connor stands out as a striking exception to this trend. Her oeuvre of short fiction is unparalleled inasmuch as nearly every story in her two major collections-A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything that Rises Must Converge-contains narcissism as a salient theme. While her religiosity has been explored exhaustively, clinical dimensions of her characters have been little noted in the medical literature.

Narcissism in O'Connor's oeuvre is remarkable not only for its ubiquity, but also for its characteristic features. We will argue that O'Connor's narcissists are of particular interest to psychiatry inasmuch as they exemplify the "covert" or "hypervigilant" type that has been increasingly identified in recent clinical thought. In fact, it is notable that while O'Connor wrote her stories in the 1950s and 1960s, her characterization anticipates many later clinical insights, including those of Heinz Kohut and, to a lesser degree, Otto Kernberg. O'Connor's narcissistic creations also cannot be considered apart from her focus on spirituality, and specifically Christianity (and most precisely, Catholicism). It may not be coincidental that recent decades have seen both an escalating interest in narcissistic disorders (and perhaps an increasing prevalence of the same) and a rising acceptance of the relevance of spirituality to psychotherapy, as well as medical care in general. We will contend that the narcissistic quandary-the relation of the self to that which transcends it-is uniquely susceptible to overlapping clinical, moral, and spiritual perspectives. In this regard, O'Connor's diverse depiction of human perversity facilitates consideration of the nature of evil. While O'Connor's treatment of these issues is controversial at times, her work is a fertile context for their examination.

It is not our goal to review the considerable clinical history of narcissism. Briefly, and as is well known, the views of Kohut and Kernberg have been most influential within recent decades. They use distinct approaches to try to account for the narcissist's self-inflation, lack of empathy, and intense need for admiration. …

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