CriticaLink | Spivak: Echo | Reading Guide for Pages 17-20

I started to think specifically about Narcissus. . .

Spivak's jumping-off place for this essay is Christopher Lasch's 1983 book The Culture of Narcissim, a popular sociological study that criticizes the centrality of self-interest in American culture in the late 70s and early 80s. Spivak does not remain with this text very long--in pointing out both the imprecision and misogyny of Lasch's analogy that links young upwardly mobile professionals (the "yuppies") to prostitutes, she opens the question of why the concept of narcissism is so often applied to women, even though the mythological figure from which it gets its name is male. The first paragraph offers a glimpse of how Spivak conceptualized this essay, moving from a particular use of a concept in a particular text (Lasch's idea of narcissism) to an exploration of the historical development of the concept in the work of Sigmund Freud.

Moving directly to a quotation from Freud's 1914 "On Narcissism: An Introduction," Spivak points out the limitations and racist implications of Freud's model of narcissism when it is applied to non-European cultures to show that these cultures have failed to "develop" in "normal" ways. She gives a range of examples, from the nineteenth-century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, who views art as having developed from primitive forms in Asia to mature forms in Western Europe, to the Indo-Caribbean writer V. S. Naipaul, who in his early work concurs with Indian analysis Sudhir Kakar about the psychological underdevelopment of Indians.

Psychoanalysis cannot be universalized, Spivak argues. Unlike Marxism, which deals with a phenomenon--capitalism--that actually has a world-wide reach, the models of the human psyche proposed by psychoanalysis are too culture-bound to be extended to non-Western contexts. Nevertheless, Spivak expresses an attraction to Freud, a "flawed hero," and wishes that the cultural and historical milieu in which he worked had not presented him with such strictures on his thinking.

Through her work with the late Indian philosopher Bimal Krishna Matilal, Spivak finds a way to think of Freudian psychoanalysis as presenting a model of an ethical dilemma: what the analyst "knows" can, in theory, provide the patient with relief from suffering, but this knowledge cannot fully function without an exact knowledge of the patient's suffering, which is impossible to acquire. Similar models of moral dilemmas can be found in the epic narratives of the Indian tradition, such as the Mahabharata, and provide occasions for reflecting on practical applications of ethics. These moments of doubt, in which knowledge enters into crisis, are called aporia, a term that occurs frequently in the work ofJacques Derrida and the critical practice of deconstruction.

From Matilal, Spivak also learns of bhrantapratarakavakya, a situation in which a person aiming to lie actually tells the truth--a case of unintended truth. This idea becomes useful for her in analysing both Ovid's authorial presence in the text of "Echo and Narcissus" (he did not intend to write a text presenting the position of the colonized subaltern) and the particular power of Echo's situation (Echo, as a character, does not consciously transform her punishment into a "reward" that through the exemplary situation it creates is empowering for others).