“I love myself…I love you.
I love you…I love myself.”
You have probably seen this image – the illustration to a short story by Kristen Roupenian’s entitled “Cat Person,” which was published in December 2017 in The New Yorker and went viral online. A young and fresh-looking feminine face, lips closed, is “under attack” of mature male lips, open and charging ahead. The story plunged itself right in the middle of the “me too” movement. Now Roupenian has published a collection of short stories, which significantly depart from the sordid realism of “Cat Person.” You Know You Want It is a captivating collection with some of the stories very rich in symbolism steeped in the aesthetics of horror stories with a good dose of the supernatural.
The story called “The Mirror, the Bucket, and the Old Thigh Bone” stood out for me. It tells the story of a princess who rejects all her suitors, which deeply worries and exasperates her father, the king. One night the princess hears a knock on the door to her rooms. When she opens it, she sees a stranger “with the most captivating and warm face,” who speaks to her in a melodious voice. The princess spends a happy night talking and snuggling with him on her bed. In the morning, the king’s advisor reveals that he had played a trick on her. The stranger was nothing but a contraption made of a cracked mirror, a bucket and an old thigh bone:
“You see, said the royal advisor. When you looked in your lover’s face, you were looking at your own face reflected in this cracked mirror. When you heard his voice, you heard only your own voice echoing back to you from this dented bucket. And when you embraced him, you felt your own hands caress your back, though you held nothing but this old thigh bone.”
The princess feels ashamed at being exposed like this and decides to marry one of the suitors. Her husband falls in love with her in the course of the marriage but she does not reciprocate his feelings. Instead, she appears to be depressed and nothing can relieve her unrelenting happiness. Her husband, now the king, is concerned, so he asks her about the source of her sadness. She tells him about the trick played upon her by the advisor and confesses her love for the stranger:
“The night I spent with it in my bed was the only night I have ever been happy. And even knowing what it is, I ache for it, I yearn for it, I love it still. What can this mean but that I am spoiled, and selfish, and arrogant, and that I am capable of loving nothing but a distorted reflection of my own twisted heart?”
The husband tries to win her heart through deception, by dressing in a black cloak, pretending to look like the apparition, but all of that is in vain. It is only when he brings her a figure constructed from a cracked mirror, a mouldy bucket and a smelly old bone that the queen experiences a state of bliss again. She abandons all her duties as queen, wife and mother and spends hours in her bed “naked among the bedclothes, nuzzling the mirror, murmuring into the bucket, and cradling the old thigh bone in her arms.”
Years pass and she slowly turns into a ghastly monster “with matted hair and corpse-white skin and huge, unseeing eyes.” When the husband tries to intervene, she slits his throat with a piece of glass. She goes on to ascend the throne with the cloaked “figure” beside her as the new king. After many years, when she dies, they are buried together, according to her wishes. Subsequently, the kingdom falls into disarray while “deep beneath the earth, the tin bucket echoed with the sound of gnawing maggots, and the mirror reflected a dance of grim decay.”
In the book Soul: Treatment and Recovery: The Selected Works of Murray Stein, there is a chapter dedicated to the myth of Narcissus, which seems to have been an obvious inspiration for Roupenian’s “fairy tale.” Stein argues that Narcissus is not so much self-absorbed as “soul-absorbed;” for he longs for and is in love with his own soul. The external reality holds less fascination for him than the internal world of reflection and imagination. As a result, he neglects his physical body and dies. Stein comments:
“…to each subject his soul image is of such surpassing fascination and beauty that this warning must be dramatized in a story of death or in mockery of navel-gazing.”
For Freud, narcissism consisted in withdrawing of libido from the outside world and directing it onto the ego. Stein warns, however, that if we accept this definition, narcissism and introversion would be quite similar, since an introvert directs his or her libido towards the subject and away from the object. Thought that turns inwards becomes mythological rather than based on external empirical data and “hard facts.”. Freud was very suspicious of introverts, whom he perceived as stuck in a primitive, childish stage of development. Stein retorts that perhaps the nymph Echo symbolizes the traps of extreme extroversion, since she seems to lack any form of inner life but simply repeats, echoes the sounds of the external world.
It is easy to condemn the queen from Roupenian’s story for her narcissism. Yet while reading I was also feeling a lot of compassion towards her. She is trapped in a society where everybody is expected to play specific, rigidly-defined roles. Longing for the soul is not tolerated. Another crucial aspect mentioned by Stein is the difference between the feminine and the masculine experience of relationships. Stein refers here to an early psychoanalyst Else Voigtländer, who in her work distinguishes the sexual experience of men and women. The masculine experience, she claims, is object-oriented and “seeks to overcome the subject-object abyss” in order to be one with his beloved. The feminine experience, in contrast, “is lived out in quite another way, in itself, …, in its own interior, and therein the woman lives and moves, swimming as it were, in her proper element” (here quoted after Stein). In the archetypally feminine experience of sexual love the libido is turned inwards, as if, Stein comments, brilliantly, “the love of the object and the object’s reciprocated love would form a pathway of self-love.”