Twinsome Devils and the Narcissus Complex

Mark Simpson paints a portrait of a clonosexual world of Dorians

(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2008, collected in Metrosexy)

Most ads these days aren’t worth a first glance. But earlier this year D&G Time launched a heavily-rotated global campaign directed by Hype Williams that was definitely worth a second. If you looked hard enough, you could see right into the mirrored heart of the 21st Century – a ‘new’ century that is now nearly a decade old. Not since the Levis ‘male striptease’ ads of the 1980s has there been a commercial that summed up – and summoned up – an era.

First time, you see an attractive young man and woman in tasty D&G evening wear checking their D&G watches anxiously, hurrying across different sides of the sexy night-time Metropolis to hook up with one another, to the urgent, techno sounds of Stylophonics’ ‘R U Experienced? (‘Dance music for people who want to listen to tomorrow’s music today!’), finally they arrive breathless at their meeting place. But rather than rushing into each other’s arms, they ignore one another and instead clinch and kiss a same-sex partner that turns up at the last minute.

So those naughty people at D&G flirt with shocking, or at least surprising homosexuality again, coolly wrong-footing our heterosexist assumptions – or ramming gayness down our throats. Either way, this seems to be the ad that most people saw. In other words, most people watched it only once.

Watching it again, paying attention this time, you realise that the ‘same-sexuality’ of D&G Time goes much deeper – and is much more shocking. So much so you can understand why people wanted to see just reassuring homosexuality – even homophobes. Second time, you notice that the same-sex couples are in fact… the same. Twins. Clones. Mirror images. These latter-day Echo and Narcissus are, like many if not most of us these days, on a hot date with themselves. Or at least, a hot, idealised D&G version of themselves. No wonder they’re in such a hurry.

What’s more, D&G Time – and this is looking more and more like the D&G Century – has the effrontery not only to ram down your throat what consumer and celebrity culture today is all about, but of course for reasons of decency usually goes out of its way to deny and disguise, it also does it in such a way that feels and looks entirely natural, entirely appropriate. The lack of shame about rotating around yourself is perhaps the most eye-catching thing of all. Only the Italians could get away with it.

What, then, is D&G Time? What is the era, the epoch it heralds and meters and so accurately, so tastefully accessorizes? Well, a cloned, digital world in which the driving force, the coiled spring at the heart of the jewelled mechanism, is not heterosexual reproduction, or even homosexual coupling, but rather, narcissistic perfection. Narcissistic perfection achieved through fashion, consumption, cosmetics, technology, surgery and really good lighting. A utopian-dystopian, twinsome future in which men and women date themselves instead of each other that has already arrived. Dance music for people who want to listen to tomorrow’s music today.

It’s a measure of how far and how quickly we’ve come that only a few years ago this ad would have been regarded as ‘sick’ by almost everyone, not just a few homophobe holdouts.  But the brazen auto-strumpetry of D&G Time broadcasts that narcissism is no longer a pathological condition – it’s the contemporary condition. That’s to say, it’s no more pathological today than desire itself — since narcissism and desire are much the same thing, particularly since we’re now surrounded by such shiny, pretty accessories as D&G jewellery.

The triumph of metrosexuality has seen to that. Contrary to what you may have heard, metrosexuality is not about ‘feminized’ males – or even about straight men ‘acting gay’. To talk in such terms is merely to reveal yourself as a hopeless nostalgic. As the ‘father’ of metrosexuality, I can tell you that metrosexuality isn’t about men becoming women, or becoming gay – it’s about men becoming everything. To themselves. In much the same way that women have been for some time.

In the early Noughties I defined the metrosexual as someone who ‘might be officially gay, straight, or even bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial as he has taken himself as his own love-object and pleasure as his sexual preference.’ The metrosexual announced the beginning of the end of ‘sexuality’, the 19th Century pseudo-science that claimed that your personality and psychology and taste in home furnishings was dictated by whether or not your bed-partner’s genitalia were the same shape as yours.

As we approach the Teenies (what else should we call what comes after the Noughties?) this process, with a flush of hormones, has been speeded up. D&G Time is neither homo, hetero, bi – or even metro. It’s simply same-sexuality. Clonosexual. In D&G Time, all genitalia are the same shape: fashion-shaped. In place of the Oedipal military-industrial complex of the 20th Century we have… the all-consuming Narcissus Complex of the 21st.

We live, you can hardly failed to have noticed, in an age of Dorians, male and female, admiring themselves in webcams, phone cams, digicams, online profiles and the two-way mirrors of the global Big Brother House. There may or may not be a portrait in the attic, but if there is you can be sure that it’s been Photoshopped. Back in the 20th Century – which seems much, much longer than just a decade ago – I thought that the definition of a transsexual was someone who behaved as if they were being photographed 24 hours a day. Now, of course, this is how everyone under the age of 25 behaves. Because they are.

As the young Quentin Crisp, a reality TV winner long before there was such a thing as reality TV, or even TV, responded prophetically to his starchy father’s angry accusation: Do you intend to spend the rest of your life admiring yourself in the mirror??

‘If I possibly can.’

Whatever you or I may think of narcissism – and Gore Vidal famously described a narcissist as ‘someone better looking than you’ – it’s far, far too late for an opinion. After a century of very bad press indeed, narcissism now holds the (nicely turned) whip-handle over the culture. Even politics, always the last to know, has noticed: in the UK the ‘Nasty’ Tory Party is now led by a nice, dashing, moisturised young man who wants very much to be liked, while the American Democratic Party earlier this year chose a gym-going, preening youthful male over a tougher, older, more experienced female candidate in large part because he was much prettier than her and reflected back, in his charmingly, deliberately vague way, a more flattering image of themselves.

Now that we’re pretty much over the 20th Century we can see that at the end of the 19th Century Dorian’s Dad, Oscar Wilde, the ‘first celebrity’, wasn’t punished for his homosexuality so much as his narcissism. Wilde the aesthete may have been gaoled for sex with males, shortly after the word ‘homosexual’ was coined, becoming its most famous exemplar, but it was the ‘gross indecency’ of his vanity that had sentenced him in the minds of many Victorians, long before his trial.

‘Have you ever adored a young man madly?’ he was asked in the witness box. Wilde parried, quite truthfully: ‘I have never given adoration to anyone but myself.’ You could have heard a cologne-soaked silk handkerchief drop. A line that would have worked perfectly in a comedy of manners in a West End theatre fell ominously flat in the courtroom. No wonder he was given four years hard labour – a fitting punishment for idle self-contemplation in Victorian England. An England that persisted, of course, for much of the 20th Century.

For that other Nineteenth Century celebrity, Sigmund Freud, narcissism was a necessary and healthy part of childhood, but one that must be abandoned to reach full adulthood (remember that?). This explained, he wrote, the fascination that ‘children, humorists, criminals, and anyone who holds on to his/her self-contentment and inaccessibility’ represent for us (Wilde was of course all three). He could also have added ‘women’ to that list, since women were expected to hold onto their narcissism – and use it to attract men. Heterosexuality was based on this Victorian division of sexual labour – as this division broke down in the latter part of the 20th Century heterosexuality was, as we now know, eventually itself phased out. (The very innovations which have helped free women from domestic drudgery, such as the pill, washing machines, microwaves, Hoovers, and feminism – in that order – have also freed men from… women.)

For Freud the universal Oedipus Complex was the principle way in which boys became men. Today by contrast the universal Narcissus Complex is the way in which boys become… prettier boys. Vanity, thy name is Man. Both Narcissus – who was, it needs to be said, a chap – and Oedipus were warned by Tiresias the blind transsexual seer (and like Quentin, a reality TV contestant avant le lettre) that they would live a long life so long as they didn’t know themselves. As poor old Oedipus found out when he consulted him, Tiresias’ prophecies although always accurate weren’t exactly helpful. Narcissus doesn’t know at first that the handsome image he glimpses in the pool and falls in love with is himself (in other words Narcissus isn’t very narcissistic). It’s only when he twigs and ‘knows himself’ that he dies of despair, knowing that he can never possess himself.

The original Narcissus myth has been misrepresented for much of the last hundred years as a cautionary tale about the pathology of male beauty. In fact, it was a warning to beautiful youths to be more generous with their looks – to both sexes. Sodom & Gomorrah in reverse.

Narcissus is not doomed by his own beauty but by his thoughtless spurning of various suitors, male and female. His selfishness. One cruelly rejected youth prays to Nemesis that Narcissus should know what it is to love without hope. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, assents and arranges for Narcissus to be punished for being so hoity-toity by ensnaring him with his own looks.

It’s a lesson that seems to have been instinctively learned by today’s tarty youths. Success and fame is now something for the heroically narcissistic and exhibitionistic, those who makes themselves constantly available for our love, on TV, at the cinema, on billboards and in glossy magazines. Or emerging glistening and glamorous from the roof of a red double-decker bus at the Beijing Olympics to the strains of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, showing a wildly cheering world their latest cosmetic surgery.

Today, narcissism is not abandoned, of course, but cultivated. It’s an industry. The industry. No wonder Oscar Wilde has been so rehabilitated to the point where he and Freddie Mercury are to all intents and purposes the same person. Today, children, humorists, criminals and footballers are not merely envied, they are emulated. We are encouraged – nay, compelled – to mistake them/recognise them for our own idealised reflection. (This is no doubt the point at which I should quote smoke-and-mirror-phase Jacques Lacan, but as far as I can tell, Lacan’s only real achievement was to turn lucid Freudianism into self-regarding Gallic metaphysics.)

The calculated childishness and fickleness of consumerism makes narcissism not only possible but necessary – since it is the very basis of our global economy. This is why 21st Century narcissism is not a form of contentment but rather of endless desiring. The Narcissus Complex is the romance of the endless perfectibility of ourselves proffered by the smoked High Street changing-room mirrors of a mediated world – the irresistible lure of a hyperreal, twinsome version of ourselves. What the entire history of human culture turns out to have been working towards.

Before his own doom, Wilde wrote a prose poem called ‘The Disciple’ which played with the story in a typically Wildean inverted fashion. Some Oreads grieving for Narcissus come across the pool and ask it to tell them about Narcissus’ famed beauty. The pool replies that it has no idea how beautiful Narcissus was. The Oreads are baffled: ‘Who should know better than you?’

‘But I loved Narcissus because,’ replied the pool, ‘as he lay on my banks and looked own on me, in the mirror of his eyes I saw my own beauty mirrored.’

As Wilde wrote in the Preface to his masterpiece, the Narcissus novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which has proved as eerily timeless as Dorian’s looks: ‘It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.’

D&G, however, have mirrored both.

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5 thoughts on “Twinsome Devils and the Narcissus Complex

  1. As ever, Paul, you have all the best references. Apparently there’s some debate as to whether the aesthete poet ‘Bunthorne’ in that G&S operetta was satirising Oscar or not.

    What’s not open to question however is that it was very prophetic.

    I have to confess a shameful ignorance of Congreve’s Semele. Now that you’ve kindly drawn my attention to it, I notice that it was inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses – from whence the most popular version of the Narcissus myth comes.

    http://www.juilliard.edu/update/journal/149journal_story.asp

  2. Mark, the following seems highly appropriate:

    Juno [apart.] Thus shaped like Ino.
    With Ease I shall deceive her,
    And in this Mirrour she shall see
    Herself as much transform’d as me.
    Do I some Goddess see!
    Or is it Semele?
    Seme. Dear Sister, speak,
    Whence this Astonishment?
    Juno. Your Charms improving
    To Divine Perfection,
    Shew you were late admitted
    Amongst Celestial Beauties.
    Has Jove consented?
    And are you made Immortal?
    Seme. Ah no, I still am Mortal;
    Nor am I sensible
    Of any Change or new Perfection.
    Juno [giving her the Glass.] Behold in this Mirrour
    Whence comes my Surprize;
    Such Lustre and Terror
    Unite in your Eyes,
    That mine cannot fix on a Radiance so bright;
    ‘Tis unsafe for the Sense, and too slipp’ry for sight.
    Seme. [looking in the Glass.]
    O Ecstacy of Happiness!
    Celestial Graces
    I discover in each Feature!
    Myself I shall adore,
    If I persist in gazing;
    No Object sure before
    Was ever half so pleasing.
    How did that Glance become me!
    But take this flatt’ring Mirror from me.
    Yet once again let me view me.
    Ah charming all o’er!
    [Offering the Glass, withdraws her hand again.
    Here—hold, I’ll have one Look more.
    Tho’ that Look I were sure would undo me.

    Congreve, Semele (1704)

  3. “but it was the ‘gross indecency’ of his vanity that had sentenced him in the minds of many Victorians, long before his trial.”

    In a fate unprecedented
    Single I must live and die
    And will have to be contented
    With a tulip or lil-I

    -W.S. Gilbert, Patience (1881)

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