Narcissus spent hours staring at his reflection until he turned into a flower, or so the Greek myth goes. Today, we think of Narcissus as the person who is too interested in how they look, are entitled, admire themselves too much, lack empathy, and have an excessive need for attention from others.
This leads to the irrefutable conclusion that each person is somewhat of a narcissist. Freud wrote a famous paper on the subject, “On Narcissism: An Introduction.”
According to Freud, the ego develops during infancy at the oral stage of the psychosexual development. At this point, the child thinks he is the center of the universe, and for good reason – his mother fulfils every need he has.
But as he gets older, he notices that not everything goes his way, so his self-centeredness recedes. Freud noticed this and concluded that each person has some level of narcissism that is important for normal psychological development. After early childhood, our total self-love begins to decrease, and our love for others takes its place.
There are two types of narcissism, and they relate to libidinal energy. The child’s libidinal energy is directed inside the newly developed ego – this is called ego-libido. During this time, ego-instincts (need for self-preservation) and sex-instincts (need to preserve the species) are inseparable. This self-love is called Primary Narcissism and is what Freud considered necessary for a healthy psyche.
But with time, the ego becomes filled with libidinal energy, which it has been receiving since childhood, so it looks for outside objects to direct all this energy. That is when sex-instincts separate from ego-instincts. So now, the individual’s energy is both directed towards his ego (autoerotism) and towards other objects (or object-libido).
Inevitably, object-love is not reciprocated, and this results in a trauma that prevents more libidinal energy from flowing outward. The individual regresses to a childlike state, where all libidinal energy flows back towards the ego.
Then the individual is consumed in neurotic self-love. This was called Secondary Narcissism by Freud, and it may lead to Paraphrenia (combination of megalomania and paranoid delusions).
When people direct love to others, they diminish the amount of energy available for themselves. If this love is not returned, they will think of the world as unworthy of their love. So they might become self-absorbed, and delusional.
The Culture of Narcissism
If you want to get a good idea of what the human condition is like, you should not turn to psychology, you should turn to art. The great novelists of the past including Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Proust, and Flaubert were used as reliable experts on human psychology, without any personal biases. They faithfully represented what they saw as the nature of man in its rawest form. they did not have a personal bias in advancing a school they created (Freud). In the 1960’s, authors like Tom Wolfe have been celebrated for this reason.
But in our current age, who is telling the human story? One crude source is the virtual world.
In 2020, the revenue from PC and mobile gaming combined was about 114 billion dollars. The highest paid design jobs in the world include video game design. The game GTA 5, which was released in 2013, would go on to net $6 billion and sell over 135 million copies.
What is obvious about the game immediately is its highly materialistic depiction of society, specifically San Andreas (which is a pseudonym for “California”).
The purpose of the game is to build your capital as fast as you can so that you can enjoy all the perks that money can offer, including rare cars, private jets, businesses, shares in businesses, strippers, therapy sessions, and even New Age healing services. Michael, one of the main character’s daughter, dreams of becoming famous on the hit TV show “Fame or Shame” and on the radio, there are amusing shows and commercials that talk about self-improvement, health, spiritual healing, and of course, for comedic effect, the people espousing this advice are erratic and unstable. I use this example because if San Andreas was compared with the modern world’s sensibilities and cultural trends, it would not be outrageously inaccurate. But this cultural development is not recent.
Christopher Lasch was a historian. He wrote A Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations in 1979. Before giving an overview of the book, I will state a truism: Each society is governed by the events that preceded it. And I do not mean “governed” in a trivial way – the most pervasive thoughts, hopes, perspectives, attitudes, values are all included in this definition.
Lasch argues that World War II and the rise of consumer culture that followed it gave rise to a narcissistic personality culture. Previously, the life of an individual was not up to them to choose to do as they please. It was not about “living like there was no tomorrow” but about continuing the role that was played by those who came before him. The individual occupied a point in a long line, not a point in empty space. The modern world has substituted family for modern corporations, and religion for therapy. The individual today no longer depends on lasting personal relationships, a commitment to traditional values, but lives like nothing ever existed before him, and nothing will exist after him.
The Marivaudian being is, according to Poulet, a pastless futureless man, born anew at every instant. The instants are points which organize themselves into a line, but what is important is the instant, not the line. The Marivaudian being has in a sense no history. Nothing follows from what has gone before. He is constantly surprised. He cannot predict his own reaction to events. He is constantly being overtaken by events. A condition of breathlessness and dazzlement surrounds him.Donald Barthelme
This fragile self-concept was a descendant of the “youth culture” in the 1960’s which abhorred aging, and admired fame and celebrity. It is interesting that at the time, the motion picture industry and then the television presented to the world a new “desire” which birthed the worship of celebrity. Half a century later, after shows like American Idol captured global attention, we have morphed into a society where even celebrity has become accessible to all. The child growing up today has multiple ways of becoming famous, without having to experience the world in any significant or meaningful way.
Social media has offered itself as an outlet for everyone to become a celebrity. The cost of all this is personal privacy – a small price to pay for attaining godlike status. Much can be said about the human drive towards status. It is silly to trivialize these modern developments as if they were accidental by products of technological advancement. Human biology tells us about the importance of hierarchies – we are chimps that are constantly sizing each other up. That is why gossip is so prevalent (one theory is that it may have the adaptive quality of weeding out the bad apples.)
And gossip can be important for social mobility. The person who knows about the social valuation of different members of society knows who they should associate with and who they should avoid. And all this maneuvering has direct implications towards the subjective experience of life. Those that occupy lower-status positions feel disenfranchised and abandoned. And that is where Lasch is most relevant. Society is losing its meaning-making mechanisms, its communities that have historically come to the rescue of the disenfranchised individual.
Whereas in the past, the person who was not famous or successful could at least find meaning in going to church or getting married – the modern individual has none of these outlets because they do not believe in continuity. In GTA 5, the writers captured this perfectly when the protagonist’s daughter enters the most popular show in the fictional world, “Fame or Shame” and rather than try to discourage his daughter from pursuing such a vain career path, he helps her chase her dream, at all costs, despite his own feelings of uneasiness with her decision. The implication is that freedom is the highest value, not honor or dignity.
This is not to say that the alternative was better. When in the past, men and women had to belong to conservative organizations that impelled them to give up almost all their personal freedom in exchange for a dignified life as part of a larger community, one cannot help but feel claustrophobic not nostalgic when considering what life must have been like.
But the point is that a tradeoff has been made. There is an ugly side to freedom, and instead of seeing it for what it is, we romanticize it, which perpetuates the problems that result from it. It is the same with any kind of zealot, whether capitalism, technophilism, scientism, fundamentalism or extremism. By associating one value (growth, novelty, progress, tradition, ideology) with the “good” – the zealot is blind to the negative repercussions of their enthusiasm.
The modern individual has been granted enormous freedom in a post-tradition world, but does he know what he has lost?