Narcissistic horror: Jacques Derrida

THE ABOVE TITLE is the result of my attempt to translate from French into English the late philosopher Jacques Derrida’s affliction, whereby he could not bear, and therefore forbade, the publication of pictures of his face.

I have Googled my rendition of Derrida’s words in English, but have not found any mention of it. However, I think that this literal translation of l‘horreur narcissique is accurate enough. I do welcome other suggestions, though…

1. DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER…

One reason, which is perfectly rational and illustrates the philosopher’s depth of thought, for this forbiddance of the publication of his image is that the presence of the photo of an author on a book cover perpetuates the automatic association of the author with the work.

It does not allow the work’s message to stand independently from the person who wrote it.

A follow-up point that Derrida makes is that the picture of the author, present on the book cover (typically of him or her writing something and looking hard at work) seems very unnatural and consequently comical and ridiculous. So be it.

2. L’HORREUR NARCISSIQUE, ANXIETY, FRIGHT: ‘I CAN’T STAND THE IMAGE OF MY OWN FACE’

But Jacques Derrida’s plea for his face not to appear anywhere runs deeper than his disdain for typical book covers. He was plagued with what he called l’horreur narcissique. This term encompasses many emotions, ranging from anxiety concerning the immobile duplication of one’s face (which echoes death) and fright (being afraid of one’s appearance) to disgust (feeling repulsed by one’s image)‘I can’t stand the image of my own face’ Derrida declared in an interview.

3. THE PARADOX: INFATUATION VS. DISGUST

There is a paradoxical, almost oxymoronic feel about the words Derrida uses. Upon hearing the term narcissism, the tale of Narcissus and Echo is obviously the first to come to mind. Narcissus’ infatuation with his looks leads to his death, as he is unable to tear himself away from his reflection, which he finds so irresistible. Beauty is a key feature of this story.

Derrida’s juxtaposition of the two words narcissism and horror maintains many of Narcissus’ traits, but excludes the element of beauty. With narcissistic horror, there is an equal amount of concern with the self, but this concern is coupled with an urge to look away from one’s reflection and suppress the existence of anything, such as photos or videos, that could produce anything similar.

4. BEWARE OF THE SELFIE…

Now let’s think about how Derrida’s grievance (albeit simplified to the scale of our daily lives) affects us, from time to time.

For example, when you turn your smartphone camera on to take a picture of a monument, but it opens in ‘selfie mode’ and you find yourself staring at your scrunched up face on the phone’s screen. This is the element of fright.

Or, when you catch a glimpse of the reflection of your exhausted face in a car window – when coming home from a big night out, for example – and see the unhealthy fatigue cloaking it. This is the feeling of disgust with one’s image.

L’HORREUR NARCISSIQUE – yes, it sounds much better in French – does not, thank goodness, affect most humans as strongly as it did Derrida, but we are not exempt from it giving us a jab once in a while.

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