by Kleitia Vaso

Everything starts from the” I”. Every attempt at discovery from the exploration of art,the categorization of science,to the interpretation of minor and slightly ridiculous sub-fields like astrology and physiognomy, lead back to the self. Certainly, such broad fields may seem light-years away from the concept of self-analysis but I believe that, ultimately, everything really is an attempt to understand the self.

The good, the bad and the ugly are always separated by a very thin line, however, and while this thin line is easier to see in relation to others, one might miss it regarding oneself. Having been accused of narcissism before, but also knowing that narcissism wears many different guises – some loud and some silent – I’m often on guard when aware of an excessive interest in my own self and, consequently, perceptive when others exhibit what I deem an exaggerated love of themselves.

The current obsession with selfies, for instance, is entirely unappealing to me; more than self-love, it seems to be an obsession with keeping the image of oneself under control. If a person takes constant photos of himself/herself from a thoroughly studied, flattering angle, the aim is the lack of surprise in the outcome; the photo offered to others represents a curated image that the person wants others to see rather than a genuine love of one’s own face and body. In this form, narcissism excludes the aspect of self-exploration; for how would anyone get to learn more about the self if he/she controls every aspect of image-making?

The dangerous side of vanity is especially troubling when, as a woman, you face those tragic figures who, as a result of being repeatedly complimented on one particular strong point, gradually and unaware become caricatures of themselves. To be fair and balanced, I will offer two examples that cover the different stages of womanhood: one is young girls, who focus all their efforts on looking sexy before they even know what sex really is and what it entails. They constantly pose without really absorbing anything from their surroundings and, most unfortunately, without even enjoying themselves. The other example is older women, who unwilling to adjust the type of power and appeal to their age, smile coquettishly and act like overly-ripe Lolitas.

These cases scare me because the gradual and casual slip into caricature territory can happen to all of us. I often shudder when I think of the literary version of the aging Narcissus, Gustav von Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, who, after falling in love with a younger version of Narcissus, Tadzio, dyes his hair and puts on make-up, thus, in the end, turning into a clownish and tragic figure. The most disturbing aspect of this story is Aschenbach’s revulsion at the beginning of the story, when he sees a similarly made-up figure maniacally talking to a group of young people. Yet, on the positive side, he perhaps experiences the most powerful love at this point in his life.

Yet, a good dose of narcissism results necessary in the exploration of the self. If one lacks a healthy interest in the workings of one’s own mind and emotions, then interest in others seems improbable. But, self-exploration may be achieved only when there is a certain lack of control over a situation and outcome and the selfie phenomenon certainly excludes that uncertainty. Thus, I’ll accept a slightly greater than normal dose of self-love over a total absence of interest in oneself and the surrounding world any day.

While thinking about the fine line dividing the love that drives self-discovery and the fatal immersion into one’s own image without return, I strangely thought of a distant acquaintance who seems to lack a definite personality. Judging by others’ treatment of her, namely forgetting her presence in the room, her own lack of vitality, and even declarations claiming that she does not mind her lack of influence on her children, I was suddenly glad of my female relatives, my closest friends having such strong, even overwhelming personalities at times. “Explore or expire,” said J. one day and I live by those words.

by Kleitia Vaso