ΑρχικήΨηφιακή ΒιβλιοθήκηΆρθραΆρθρα (Αγγλικά)Parsons, Michael - "Good and Bad Narcissism in the Aias of Sophocles"

Parsons, Michael - "Good and Bad Narcissism in the Aias of Sophocles"

Good and Bad Narcissism in the Aias of Sophocles

Michael Parsons: Athens, October 4th-7th 2006

Narcissism is one of the most discussed and written about concepts in psychoanalysis. Since Freud (1914) linked psychosis to the withdrawal of libido from external reality in favour of a narcissistic cathexis of the ego, narcissism has tended to be seen as pathological by definition. Freud in fact described psychoses as ‘narcissistic neuroses’. Elsewhere, however, he clearly sees ego-libido as a necessary counterpart to object-libido, with a continuous to-and-fro movement between investment in the ego and investment in external objects. Narcissism only becomes pathological when there is a failure of this to-and-fro movement. Healthy object-choice depends on healthy narcissism.

Sophocles’ tragedy Aias reveals narcissism in both its aspects, as the basis of psychotic breakdown and as a foundation of normal psychic life. Alongside a reading of the play from this viewpoint, I shall set some clinical examples from my work as a psychoanalyst.

Aias is divided into two parts by the suicide of the hero. What happens after his death appears somewhat disconnected from what came before. Some scholars have thought the play lacks unity, while others, notably Kitto (1956, chapter 6), defend Sophocles against the charge of not knowing his job as a playwright. Trachiniae is another of Sophocles’ plays that seems fractured by the death of the central character. As with Trachiniae (Parsons, 2000:115-127), so also with Aias a pyscho­analytic perspective reveals the work’s powerful psycho­logical and dramatic coherence.

The play is set in the Greek camp at Troy after the death of Achilles. Achilles’ armour has been awarded to Odysseus and Aias, who considers himself the greatest hero after Achilles, feels unbearably humiliated by this. He has tried to murder Odysseus and those who awarded him the armour. In order to protect them, Athene has sent Aias mad. Believing that the sheep and cattle of the Greeks are Odysseus and the other generals, he has attacked the animals, torturing and killing them. At the beginning of the play he appears in this deluded state, surrounded by dead animals and triumphing in his supposed revenge. He recovers from his madness, is overcome with horror at what he has done and commits suicide, despite the pleas of his wife Tecmessa. Menelaus and Agamemnon appear, outraged at his attempt to murder them, and the second half of the play amounts to a debate in which they forbid Aias’ body to be buried, while Odysseus, up till now the arch‑enemy of Aias, shows an unexpected generosity of spirit and persuades them to allow Aias the ritual honours due to him.

For a long way into the play, Aias’ madness is ascribed only to external causes. Athene needed to prevent him murdering the other Greek generals and making him insane is how she did it. This is a Sophoclean equivalent of biological psychiatry. No connection is made between Aias’ psychosis and his inner mental life or character structure. The goddess has simply altered his brain chemistry. In the first half of the play the only hint of another viewpoint lies in one remark by Aias’ wife Tecmessa. When Aias has recovered from his delusion she says that, now being sane again, he has to suffer the pain of realising that he himself has been the cause of his own disaster (258ff.). On the surface this refers simply to Aias’ discovery that he is the one who slaughtered the sheep and cattle that he now sees around him. But Tecmessa’s words may also suggest that at some level Aias does bear responsibility for his madness.

When Aias realises what he has done he is horrified and says the only thing to do is to kill himself. His overwhelming feeling is of shame at the disgrace to his reputation. He seems to feel no guilt about the murders he was trying to commit and no concern at the damage his vengefulness has caused. He thinks only of the indignity and mockery he will suffer, especially by comparison with his father’s fame. For a Homeric hero, concern with his honour and glory was the normal state of mind. The worst thing possible was to have his reputation diminished in the eyes of his peers. Shame, in the sense of having the image he presents to the world damaged, is what he avoids at all costs. An inner ideal, which he tries to live up to regardless of what the world thinks, is not part of the Homeric hero’s make‑up. Aias shows no concern for the disaster that his suicide will bring upon his wife and child; but this seems at first not so much a personal harshness towards them as the consequence of a standard social attitude.

Later in the play this will appear in a new light. But first there is Aias’ suicide. Here Sophocles gives the audience a remarkable bit of psychiatric realism. Aias, full of shame and hopeless about his future, leaves the stage contemplating suicide (595). He re‑enters apparently in a very different state of mind (646ff.). His hopelessness has gone, he does have concern for his wife and son, he can think about the future, and instead of using his sword to kill himself he is going to bury it. He goes off on his own to do so, while the Chorus sing of their delight at his recovery. A messenger arrives with instructions from the prophet Calchas that Aias must not go out alone but be looked after for the rest of the day by his brother Teukros (749-84). But Aias has already left his tent. He appears alone by the sea shore and the audience sees him fix his sword in the ground and kill himself by falling on it. This reversal has baffle­d commentators. But anyone who has worked in a psychiatric hospital knows that the time of greatest risk for suicide is not when a patient is most depressed. At that point mental and physical lethargy make any activity, even suicidal activity, difficult. The most dangerous time is when recovery has begun and the patient is capable of some initiative. If suicidal thoughts recur the patient is now capable of acting on them. This is what seems to happen with Aias. Calchas knew, and after the body has been discovered the Chorus say how heedless they were not to have gone on keeping watch over Aias (908-914), just like psychiatrists or nurses realising too late that they should not have allowed the patient home for the weekend.

A crucial new aspect of Aias’ character is now revealed. The messenger who reports the words of Calchas says that the prophet also gave an explanation for Athene’s treatment of Aias. When Aias left home for the Trojan War, his father advised him always in battle to seek the help of the gods. Aias replied that even a worthless man could win with the gods on his side. He would seek his own triumphs without help from the gods. When Athene did stand by Aias on the battlefield to encourage him he dismissed her, telling her to go and look after the other Greeks. He did not need her.

In the light of this we look back over what has happened with fresh eyes. The behaviour of Aias now appears not simply to exemplify the standard attitudes of the epic hero, but to show the disturbance of his particular character. It always made sense that it should be Athene who drove Aias mad and thwarted his murderous attack because, of all the gods and goddesses, she is the most concerned to protect the Greeks from harm. But now her involvement has a deeper meaning. It is not that Athene is taking personal revenge for Aias’ insult to her on the battlefield. We might expect that in Euripides, but not in Sophocles. What is revealed is that Aias’ psychosis is the consequence of a grandiose omni­potence which denies the dependence on relationships with others that is part of the human condition. To Greek sensibilities his dismissive rejection of the goddess would be grotesque behaviour. It demonstrates how far the narcissistic attempt to see himself as totally self-sufficient has put him out of touch with humanity. The audience might think back, at this point, to the Kommos (348-427), the long lyric exchange between Aias and the chorus in which, having recovered his sanity, he curses the ridicule and indignity that he will now be subject to. Aias unconsciously reveals how dependent he really is on other people’s opinion of him. His image of himself was shattered when the armour of Achilles was awarded to someone else, and it is psycho­logically accurate that Athene, representing the dependent relationship that he deluded himself he did not need, should be responsible for his breakdown.

Aias makes clear that he intends to commit suicide because he cannot live with the shame he has brought on himself (430-480). Tecmessa responds (485-524) by asking Aias to consider the effect of his suicide on herself, their son Eurysakes, and on Aias’ parents. She would be enslaved, Eurysakes would have no family to bring him up and protect him, and Aias’ father and mother would live out their old age in misery. Tecmessa evokes vividly her own future suffering, but her plea is the more touching because she also cares about her son and her parents-in-law. So far Aias has shown no guilt or concern, either at what he has done or what he was trying to do, but only shame at the failure of his murderous project. Tecmessa wants Aias to discover an imaginative capacity to put himself in another person’s position—her own, their son’s, his parents’—and to think what it will be like for them if he does what he is planning. But when the chorus support Tecmessa and ask Aias to agree with her, he replies that his approval of her depends on her obedience to him. He seems not to have heard a word she has said. No dialogue with him is possible. Tecmessa keeps trying, and tells Aias that killing himself would be a betrayal of her and their son, only to be told she is becoming tedious (589). To her final heartfelt entreaty that he should relent, Aias replies that she is a fool if she thinks she can change him (594-5). He does manage to think of Eurysakes to the extent of asking that his brother Teukros should take care of him, and there is, in fact, one moment when he is touched by compassion for what his wife and child will suffer when he is gone. But he rejects the emotion. Pity takes the sharp edge off his spirit, he says, and makes his speech ‘womanish’ (650-53). His sense of masculinity depends on his self‑contained omnipotence, and the experience of caring about someone else is a threat to it. In his final speech before killing himself he feels again a momentary pity, this time for his parents. He imagines what it will be like for them to hear the news of his suicide. Immediately, however, he has to stifle his ‘idle weeping’ and ‘get on with the business quickly’ (852-3). He seems afraid that he might change his mind, and makes himself rigidly unfeeling so as to push away any such possiblity. Aias’ overpowering desire to possess the armour of Achilles may symbolise his need to maintain a rigid character armouring that will protect him against human encounters which he is not able, at an emotional level, to deal with.

Let us compare Aias with the following case history.

Jacques was a social worker training as a counsellor. He found the experience disturbing, but he hated to acknowledge how out of his depth he felt, and how much he needed his supervisor’s help. He was referred to me for psychotherapy and came once weekly for about a year.

Jacques came from a well-to-do professional family. He had a sister two years younger. A pattern developed of his sister being the ‘naughty’ child, while he was the ‘good’ one, the family diplomat who smoothed out difficulties. He told me this with pride, but seemed uneasily aware that it might also be something to be concerned about.

He began school aged five. At first things went well, but then his classmates turned against him. He claimed not to know why, but it seemed they were reacting against his boasting and bossing them around. From then on he was miserable. Either he would be the leader of a gang, or else rejected and bullied. The issue seemed to be about humiliation: would he be the humiliated one, or the one to humiliate others?

In his teens the family emigrated. He said this was difficult because in their new country the family had a lower social position. They were less well-off and had to live in a crowded flat. He found it unbearable that his classmates at his new school were more advanced than he was and that many of them came from wealthier families.

In his social work training he was held up for a year because he failed an exam. He was astonished that this meant he could not go forward, and said the regulations were not clear. He realised this was not believable, but still insisted that it was true. I wondered if he had needed to think he was so special that such a humiliating rule could not possibly apply to him. He understood my thought, but only intellectually. In seminars he felt shamed when other students could answer questions that he could not. He grew withdrawn and isolated, and became part of a group of ‘problem’ students. He took a year out of the course and went travelling. During this time he formed a relationship with Melissa, a woman from another country. She went back with him and they lived together while he completed his training. Melissa did not like the country he lived in, and they came to London for him to do the counselling course which I mentioned. When he was referred to me he had about a year of this course left, and their daughter Lisa, who was born in London, was one year old.

Both at work and with Melissa and Lisa he was dominated by a desire to be the centre of attention. When he was not admired as he wished he became depressed and anxious, to the extent of fearing a breakdown.

At work he took on multiple projects. When his tutors, instead of praising him, told him to slow down and take his time, he could not think about this but got angry because they did not appreciate him. He was full of anxiety about being humiliated in seminars. When he once had to speak next after a woman who had presented a case particularly well, he could hardly get a word out and thought he was going to have a panic attack. He nearly did not take one important exam because he could not bear the idea of failing it. He was regularly late in writing notes and letters. When he was reprimanded he was angry at the lack of sympathy for his difficulties. He could not think of the clients’ and the institution’s needs, or consider that he did have a problem that needed to be looked at.

It was painful to listen to his contempt for his wife and their baby. He constantly complained about Melissa’s differences from himself. She did not care as much as he did what other people thought. She did not pay attention to how she dressed, while for him clothes were very important. The idea that Melissa might have wishes and needs of her own seemed meaningless to him. It was likewise unbearable to him that Lisa had needs, and he could only perceive his daughter as a nuisance. When Melissa got up in the night to attend to her, Jacques was angry at being left alone. When Melissa was trying to get Lisa off the breast, then Jacques would get up and feed the baby himself because it stopped the intimacy between her and Melissa. He thought this made him feel like a father. But if he had to look after Lisa while Melissa was out of the house, he was annoyed at having to spend time with the child. Once when Melissa and Lisa were away together for a week, he was shocked to find he could not cope on his own. He had looked forward to being rid of them, but in fact he became miserable and passive, unable to do anything but gaze at the television.

Although his grandiosity and contempt for Melissa and Lisa felt dreadful, the poignant thing was that he was aware there was something terribly wrong. He knew he was cut off from other people. He recognised in some of his clients an emotional flatness and shallowness that he could be aware of in himself. There were times when he really did want to be a father to Lisa. The therapeutic relationship between us was complicated. He was willing to consider my interpretations and sometimes I felt he had a real wish to look at himself. At other times he felt falsely compliant and mostly concerned to make me like him. Sometimes he felt threatened and humiliated by my professional position and my ability to understand him, and he would become hostile and suspicious. He felt abandoned by me between his once weekly sessions (he could not bring himself to come more often), and we could link this to the abandonment he felt, by his mother when his sister was born, and by Melissa when Lisa was born. He could recognise his feelings of helplessness and his fear of discovering he was not the brilliant person he imagined. But if he stayed with such feelings for any length of time he was afraid of becoming seriously depressed. Then he would retreat into telling me how much better off he would be without Melissa and Lisa, or into thinking I was deliberately humiliating him. I thought there was not just a risk of depression, but also of a paranoid breakdown.

At the end of his year’s therapy he returned home with Melissa and Lisa. He seemed more aware of his narcissistic grandiosity and of the terror against which it defended him. Beyond that, nothing seemed to have changed very much. I put him in touch with a colleague in the city he was going to, but I was not optimistic that he would continue with therapy.

Aias and Jacques are both totally self-absorbed characters, considering everything that happens around them in the light of their own needs and their own images of themselves. The point of resemblance that I want to emphasise is not simply how narcissistic they are capable of being, but that they are not capable of being anything else. Sophocles’ dramatic portrayal, and the case history I have just given, both show characters that are imprisoned in a narciss­istic state of mind. Athena’s offer of help implies that Aias might have need of her strength. He cannot be grateful and accept, because the idea that somebody else, even a goddess, could do something that he cannot, is unbearable to him. When his wife begs him to consider things from her point of view and imagine the disaster his suicide would be for her, the idea means nothing to him. He cannot think of the effect he has on other people: all he can see is the effect they have on him. It is the same with Jacques. His colleagues and teachers cannot be seen as friendly and helpful. They can only be perceived as threats to his inflated picture of himself. At home, he cannot recognise that a wife and small daughter do have needs and that it might be rewarding for him to respond to these as a husband and father. His only feeling is of fury at being displaced himself from centre stage.

It is the imprison­ment of Aias and Jacques in their narcissistic states of mind that is so damaging. Self-absorption is not pathological in itself. In fact it plays a necessary role in psychic development. In a well-known article about dreaming, Bertram Lewin (1955) drew a comparison between the nature of the psychoanalytic setting and the mind’s activity during sleep. Censorship and resistance, for example, play a large part in clinical work, and in sleep they are the psychic mechanisms behind dreaming. Lewin observed that analysts’ interest in dreaming has centred on comparing dream-formation with symptom-formation. Although this link has been clinically very fruitful, he thought something had been lost.

The study of the patient as a quasi-sleeper or quasi-dreamer was completely subordinated to the therapeutic and theoretical study of his symptoms… The patient on the couch was prima facie a neurotic person and only incidentally a dreamer (p.169).

He goes on to comment that ‘the narcissism of sleep … coincides with narcissism on the couch’ (pp.171-2), because in each case there is a withdrawal of cathexis from external reality. Lewin is not using ‘narcissism’ here as a symptomatic description of pathology. It is a meta­psycho­logical description of a self-absorbed state of mind, whose withdrawal from external reality is necessary for a certain kind of psychic work: dreaming on the one hand, analytic work on the other. These are both avenues of access to the unconscious, and they both illustrate the need at certain times for narcissistic withdrawal into the self, and the need to be able to come out of it again.

Herein lies the continuity of Sophocles’ Aias. After the hero’s death the play is peopled with characters, Teukros, Menelaus and Agamemnon, who played no part in the first half. Odysseus only appeared briefly in the opening scene but now becomes dominant. It is not obvious what psychological connection there is between the two halves of the play. The second part, however, demonstrates the nature of the psychic development which Aias’ imprisonment in his narcissism made it impossible for him to achieve. When this is understood the emotional coherence of the tragedy becomes clear.

Agamemnon and Menelaus react to the story of Aias’ madness and death with the same rigid vindictiveness and arrogance that Aias himself displayed. All they can see is a slight against their kingship and a threat to their positions of command. Menelaus forbids the burial of Aias’ body, saying that because Aias would not obey him while he was alive it is a pleasure for him to rule Aias in his death. When Teukros tells Menelaus that to dishonour the dead is disrespect to the gods, Menelaus says that his personal enemies are an exception. Respect for the gods does not apply where they are concerned (1129ff.). This placing of his own self-importance above the gods exactly mirrors the attitude of Aias towards Athena. Agamemnon mocks Teukros, the brother of Aias, for his lowly origins in an speech that is full of brittle anxiety about the threat that Aias’ valour posed to Agamemnon’s pride of place.

Then Odysseus enters, and Sophocles takes the audience by surprise. Odysseus was the object of Aias’ greatest hatred, but instead of continuing the vitriolic diatribe of Menelaus and Agamemnon he tells them they are wrong and that Aias should have an honourable burial. There follows a passage of steichomythia between Agamemnon and Odysseus (1346ff.) which is an emotional turning point. Agamemnon is amazed at Odysseus’ attitude and asks him if he did not hate Aias. Odysseus replies that indeed he did. But Aias also had greatness and nobility. He should be recognised as the bravest of all the Greeks after Achilles. Agamenon asks if Odysseus can feel pity for a corpse that he hates. Agamemnon evidently cannot distinguish between the body and the person. Odysseus replies: ‘His greatness weighs more than my hate with me’. This line (1357) is the heart of the play. Odysseus’ ability  to place the qualities and needs of another person ahead of his own feelings shows the emotional growth that Aias could not achieve. Aias desperately wanted the armour of Achilles, but his breakdown reveals that for him the armour was only an external means to shore up his narcissistic defences. For Odysseus, on the other hand, the award of Achilles’ armour symbolically represents an internal structure of strength and security, which lets him respond to the world around him with generosity and openness.

Agamemnon then says that if he agrees to Aias’ burial it will make him appear a coward. The self-involvement of this statement underlines the contrast between the two psychic positions. Odysseus says that he wants burial for Aias because he recognises that he too will one day have the same need. Sophocles has already signposted this capacity in Odysseus for identification even with an enemy. The play starts with Odysseus telling Athena of his hatred for Aias, and recounting Aias’ attack on the Greek leaders which turned into his mad onslaught on the animals. Athena explains that this was her doing and reveals Aias in his madness, torturing a ram which he triumphantly tells Athena is Odysseus. At first Odysseus can only react with terrified alienation (74ff.), just as Jacques could not appreciate the humanity of his wife and daughter, and as Aias cannot respond to Tecmessa’s need for recognition. But Odysseus does have an emotional availablity which allows his response to shift to this:

I am all pity for his wretchedness,

enemy though he is, and for the evil

doom that he is yoked to. Seeing his state,

I also see my own, for all of us

live only as dim shapes and shadows (121-4).

This capacity for identification with a universal humanity recalls Theseus’ statement to the blind, polluted, exiled Oedipus:

I am a man too, and I know the difference between us lies only in the fortune of the morrow (Oedipus at Colonus 567-8).

Odysseus has been able to achieve the developmental step that Aias could not and so, even faced with the extremities of madness and suicide, he can identify with, and care for, a man he hated.

Back now in the consulting-room, here are two patients who each had the same thought, a thought that one could call narcissistic. But the results of these two identical thoughts were very different, illustrating further the difference between narcissism as a symptom in which a person may be imprisoned, and narcissism as a state of mind with the potential for productive development.

The first is a man who had broken up with his girlfriend, Penny, and was beginning to recognise that he had not treated her very considerately. He had let her think the relationship might work out, when he knew that really he wanted to end it. When he did end it he did so abruptly, while they were abroad together and she was out of contact with her own friends. He was talking of his ‘weakness’ in not being able to make a clean break when he should have done. I said there might also be some cruelty in his behaviour, belonging to a pattern of wanting women to suffer, which was linked to his relationship with his mother. He found this very difficult but in the next session he commented that I had not seemed horrified or disgusted. I seemed to think the way he had behaved could be accepted and thought about. Then he said ‘But suppose it were Penny here, not me. There’s plenty she needs to look at in herself, and you would be doing the same thing with her. The reason you are accepting how I treated her is not because you are taking my side against her. You’re doing something different from that’. Without fully understanding what it was, he was interested in what I was doing that could belong both to her and to himself.

The second patient was a woman with very little capacity for symbolic thought. She avoided fantasy at all costs, in case what she was imagining turned out not to be true. This would fill her with shame and humiliation. Her life was dominated by fear of getting things wrong or being tricked. She would ask me questions about myself and when, instead of answering them, I tried to understand what might lie behind them, she thought I wanted to trap her into making mistakes about me. This woman often tried to get me to say she was the most complicated, or most difficult, or most extreme in whatever way I cared to say, patient that I had ever had. This was not just a perverse kind of competitiveness. The point was that my entire being should be totally and uniquely involved with her. I might give her the whole of my attention, and try my utmost to understand and look after her, but if I were doing the same thing for another person, that made it of no value to her.

The thought is the same: ‘What if my analyst were doing the same thing with somebody else?’. For the second patient the idea is unbearable and she has to try and make sure that it cannot be true. The first patient, however, can accept it and be interested in it. He can step outside the wish for a unique relationship, and recognise that my doing the same for other people may illuminate his relation­ship with me. She cannot give up her preoccupation with herself, and the narcissism is a symptom. He can do so, and narcissism is a state of mind that he can make use of for development.

The important question is whether someone is able to allow a new object to enter their self-absorbed state so as to enlarge it, or whether a new object can only be seen as a threat to the self-absorption. Jacques could not bear the arrival of his baby, but even before that, his wife’s demands for a two-person relationship were already a threat to his narcissistic self-absorption. Both the other two patients valued their two-person relationship with the analyst. For the woman, however, sharing her importance to me with another person could only mean that she had no importance to me after all. When the man, by contrast, thought of my having the same relationship to his girl­friend as to him, that did not obliterate my relation­ship to him, but gave him new thoughts about what it might mean.

Some people, like Aias, Jacques and the woman who insisted her relationship with me must exclude the world, cannot relinquish the narcissistic state of mind. They have to protect their self-absorption at all costs against the threatening presence of the Other, and their narcissism becomes a prison. Self-absorption leads to a creative engagement with the world on condition that a person can step out of it, like Odysseus and the man who wondered about my seeing his girlfriend. But it remains necessary as a base to return to. A flexible, mobile capacity is needed to shift in and out of the narcissistic state of mind, giving it up to engage with the outside world, refinding it again to dream, free-associate and reflect on experience.


FREUD, S. (1914). On narcissism: an introduction. Standard Edition, 14:73-102.

KITTO, H.D.F. (1956). Form and Meaning in Drama. London: Methuen.

PARSONS, M. (2000). The Dove that Returns, The Dove that Vanishes: Paradox and Creativity in Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge.

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