Sunday, February 10, 2013

The hollow men

In Book 3 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses we find a version of the story of Narcissus.  Son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope, Narcissus was stunningly handsome but haughty, breaking the hearts of many women by refusing them his attention, including the unfortunate Echo.  In Conon’s Narrations, the unrequited lovers are all males, one of whom commits suicide on Narcissus’ doorstep.  In both, at least one such heartbroken person utters the wish that Narcissus learn the pain he has inflicted on others … a wish Nemesis hears and grants.

So one day, while Narcissus is out hunting, Nemesis leads him to a pool of particular clarity and reflectivity.  Stooping to get himself a drink, Narcissus sees his own reflection and falls desperately in love with himself.  Ovid portrays him as initially deceived into thinking the reflection is of someone else; nevertheless, eventually he learns the truth, yet can’t stop gazing at his mirror image.  Eventually, he either wasted away or committed suicide; not much to choose between the two.

There is another story about Narcissus [writes Pausanias in the second century], less popular indeed than the other, but not without some support. It is said that Narcissus had a twin sister; they were exactly alike in appearance, their hair was the same, they wore similar clothes, and went hunting together. The story goes on that Narcissus fell in love with his sister, and when the girl died, would go to the spring, knowing that it was his reflection that he saw, but in spite of this knowledge finding some relief for his love in imagining that he saw, not his own reflection, but the likeness of his sister.[1]



Over the last thirty years, the words narcissist and narcissism have been cropping up more frequently.  As with other psychological terms, they stand in the usual danger of being turned into “psychobabble” by non-professional use, just as “anal-retentive” gets sloppily applied to people who are detail-oriented or highly disciplined in their personal lives. 

As generally used, narcissistic often describes someone who’s self-centered, vain, conceited or egotistical, and in fact it is closely related to those characteristics.  Typical traits of the narcissist include self-focus in interpersonal exchanges, problems in sustaining satisfying relationships, difficulty with empathy, hypersensitivity to insults both real and imagined, flattery to those who admire them, hatred for those who don’t affirm them, and lack of remorse or gratitude.

We are all the protagonists of our own stories.  But within the category of protagonist lie a lot of different roles, both active and passive, ranging from the hero to the comic relief to the victim.  The narcissist is the hero of his own story; in fact, he’s the only person of interest in the story.  Even when he’s a victim, he’s no ordinary victim but rather a martyr for some great cause.  He recognizes the existence of others so far as they feed his sense of self-worth, and discards them or even reacts abusively when they stop affirming his unique specialness.  

The narcissist will go to almost any length needed to maintain his heroic self-image, bending reality around him as a black hole bends light, arrogating to himself all possible praise and dumping on others all possible blame.  At the worst, the narcissist can be a manipulator and a pathological liar, completely unable to accept responsibility for his own acts — in other words, a sociopath.

Of course, I’m describing the narcissist in full bloom.  People can be narcissistic to greater or lesser degrees; in fact, many mental-health professionals posit a “healthy narcissism” that could be better described as the self-assurance of a properly developed personality.  From the Christian perspective, self-love as such is not improper; indeed, how could we love our neighbors as ourselves if we didn’t love ourselves first?

However, the common complaint that we are becoming an increasingly narcissistic culture isn’t grounded in the idea of a “healthy narcissism”, nor is the scornful term “entitlement society” solely about transfer payments.  True narcissism entails a sense of entitlement to affirmation and special treatment, and reacts badly to denial.  To a narcissist, all criticism is meant to belittle and destroy, never to correct or improve, because the narcissist doesn’t see in himself a need for correction or improvement.

Moreover, both community and family building require a degree of ability to subordinate oneself to the needs of others, to recognize that others have claims which precede or take priority over ours.  The narcissist cannot share the spotlight, let alone relinquish it to someone or something else.  This leaves him unable to sustain a long-term relationship, and prone to fits of rage when his primacy is denied or challenged, seeking revenge in different ways, from social withdrawal, to sadistic verbal abuse, to physical violence at the worst.

Narcissism is on the increase in the West; that much seems to be taken for granted.  However, outside of grumping about it, we hear very few propositions about how to come to grips with it … or even whether to confront it. 

The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, by Drs. Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell (Free Press, 2009), offers some responses, from adopting different parenting strategies to reining in easy credit.  But while a previous book, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations by cultural historian Christopher Lasche (W.W. Norton, 1979), was a best-seller and provided some talking points for a while, The Narcissism Epidemic has so far failed to provoke such a reaction.

And perhaps it’s no big worry.  After all, what could be wrong with a society of superficially charming egotists who lie and manipulate without compunction, who have no sense of self-sacrifice or self-denial?

Perhaps this is what Eliot meant by the world ending with a whimper.


[1] Pausanias, Descriptions of Greece 9:31:8.