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 man who is too interested in how they look, are entitled, admire themselves too much, lack empathy, and have an excessive need for admiration.
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 who wrote The 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 has been played by those who came before them. 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. 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.
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 critique of Lasch is not towards isolated behaviors that aim to better oneself, but the belief that the combination of multiple autophile behaviors will be an adequate substitute for traditional communities and social contracts that asked the individual to direct their libidinal energy outwards, away from the ego. When this was done in the past, it grounded people and gave them a sense of humility. Today’s self-centered society believes that it is the community that owes them something. And unwittingly, the modern narcissist worships new forms of religion. In the modern world, as Harari points out, it is not so much the cult leaders or religious leaders that are worshipped, but the technologists in Silicon Valley that are promising the next big breakthrough that will be the cure of all cures.
In the end, people must worship something. The self is a poor candidate, since too much self-love can lead to megalomania and delusional ideas – Secondary Narcissism. Self-love does not perform the function of a drug, it does not give people a sense of security. So when people turn their attention on something else to worship, or perhaps someone else, they are in a way, protecting themselves from psychological harm. They are blocking energy from flowing towards the self, they are standing in the way of their own narcissism.
The unfortunate truth is that human beings cannot choose to worship nothing and have a healthy sense of self. At least that is the suggestion behind Freud’s theory of narcissism. And the problem that no choice of worship is without its problems. In the culture of the therapeutic, the problem is propagated as more people become convinced that the cure to their problems is self-understanding, they debilitate themselves.
Psychology makes the claim that you should understand yourself, or in ancient philosophy speak, “know thyself” – yet no psychologist has not admitted to the complexity of the self, its dynamism, and elusiveness. This is a clear double-blind. And it is pernicious not when people who can genuinely benefit from therapy receive it, but when it convinces everyone that they are in need of therapy.
The History of Madness
One of the features of this new world that we occupy is that each individual is somehow broken. If they are not being as “effective” as they can be, or capable of “relating to others” well enough, or buying into social fictions willingly, then they are “sick.” The reality is that they are not docile enough to be considered normal.
In the West there are many therapists who handle these problems professionally. And they take a fat fee for their services. In other parts of the world, therapy isn’t even an idea that people entertain. But slowly, thanks to globalization, all nations are beginning to embrace therapy. You would think that the countries that have the most therapists would have the highest percentage of psychologically “healthy” people, but no. These “civilized” parts of the world recommends that everyone solve their emotional and spiritual problems with drugs. The U.S is ranked number 6 worldwide in terms of opioid abuse.
How to resolve this paradox?
An answer can be found in reading The Myth of Mental Illness, the first point Szasz makes is that psychological diseases keep changing over time. Szasz recalled that not long ago, there were less than 20 psychological illnesses – then, during his lifetime there were hundreds. It is not that change itself is indicative of foul play – without change, there is no evolution or advancement, but the point is that we have not really discovered new illnesses, as much as we have re-categorized old behaviors. The role of the therapist is essentially to socialize the individual into the normal functions of society.
What is more pathological? That a person goes through moments in their lives where they are sad, or that they cannot stand to live a moment in which they are not sad.
In Madness of Civilization, Foucault details the history of madness.
There was a time when the mad were mobile, where they interacted with society, and people heard them speak. There was a time when it was those who knew too much that went mad – Don Quixote went mad because of too much reading, so his priest burnt a selection of his books to cure him. There was a time when to be mad meant to be unproductive, thus the vagabonds, the idle, and the youth who had squandered the family fortune were labelled as mad. There was a time when the remedies to curing the mad was in throwing cold water at them. But confinement was the most popular tool.
Madness was recognized as non-reason, or the negation of reason – that is, non-being – insofar as it is cut off from external stimuli. In fact, doctors prescribed travel and ocean waves to restore movement, and thus the correct flow of thoughts in the mind. To cure madness, by language, for example, was to follow the madman in their illusion, or to force them to come out of their condition out of necessity (the need to work and survive).
Eventually, the mad were no longer allowed to be mobile and were locked up in prisons to make sure they were productive and not just a drag on society, they were forced to work. Ironically, this had the effect of displacing “normal” people in society from jobs, and then those people were labelled as “mad” and the cycle continued.
Then in the 19th century, it was only the unproductive mad people that were considered “mad” – this marked the beginning of the asylum.
They were forced to work so that they did not violate one of God’s commandments. The work was a way to fix their soul, and consequently, absolve them of guilt. But that was not the only rationale – there was an idea, that work was a way to cure man from his suffering. When man escapes the law of labor that nature imposes on him, he seeks into a world of anti-nature, and artifice, and his madness becomes only one manifestation of such a world. In describing how he succeeded, by industrious activity in being cured, Bernadin de-Saint Pierre said:
It was to Jean-Jacques Rousseau that I owed my return to health. I had read, in his immortal writings, among other natural truths, that man is made to work, not to meditate. Until that time I had exercised my soul and rested my body; I changed my ways; I exercised my body and rested my soul. I gave up most books; I turned my eyes to the works of nature, which addressed all my senses in a language that neither time nor nations can corrupt. p.104Madness and Civilization Foucault
The next stage, psychiatry, is when the analyst takes the role of the priest. The patient, or the madman, confesses to them their sins. In a sense, the madman is like a child while the analyst/therapist is the adult. Merely by virtue of rationality vs non-rationality, the therapist had the upper hand and did not need to use any physical force.
That was Foucault’s contention against Freud, that one did not need to archive mountains of data on a patient to analyze them. it was sufficient to merely be the rational person in the room, and in that sense, you could hold up a mirror to the madman or the patient, and they would be able to see the errors in their thinking for themselves. This is in contrast to Jung, who preferred not to maintain this hierarchical relationship.
There are two points that are important. One, the very definition of madness is dubious, not only because it keeps changing with time to reclassify old modes of behavior, but because there are political and financial incentives to convince people that they are dysfunctional. Second, the therapist has merely filled the void that was previously occupied by the priest.
Plagued by anxiety, depression, vague discontents, a sense of inner emptiness, the “psychological man” of the twentieth century seeks neither individual self-aggrandizement nor spiritual transcendence but peace of mind, under conditions that increasingly militate against it. Therapists, not priests or popular preachers of self-help or models of success like the captains of industry, become his principal allies in the struggle for composure; he turns to them in the hope of achieving the modern equivalent of salvation, “mental health.”The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch
People are more likely today to turn to therapy if they want to solve their romantic or marriage problems, their sense of anxiety about the world, or how to construct meaning in their lives. Whereas the answer used to be to submit oneself to a cause that is far greater than they are, the psychotherapist suggests that the answer can only be found in the individual himself.
But when confronted with this realization, the individual is perplexed, because on the one hand, he is told to be self-sufficient, and on the other hand, he is told that his “self” is neither to be trusted, nor is it real. In plain language, the therapist wants to sell him the idea that he can only find salvation in a fragmented and illusory self, that is completely isolated from the rest of history (the double-blind).
That is why the conservative psychoanalyst, Carl Jung, got something right when he opted to preserve tradition in some way, and offered his patients a more fulfilling answer that connected them with their ancestry. Instead of thing of the self as fragmented, the Self was, in fact, connected deeply with the past. And archetypal symbols that exist in the unconscious of each person were proof of this continuous identity.
Deconstruction of Meaning
Even when therapists speak of the need for “meaning” and “love,” they define love and meaning simply as the fulfillment of the patient’s emotional requirements. It hardly occurs to them—nor is there any reason why it should, given the nature of the therapeutic enterprise—to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to those of others, to someone or some cause or tradition outside himself.The Culture of Narcissism, Lasch
In fact, that is what Alfred Adler tried to do with individual psychology. He disregarded the unconscious. He eliminated the cop-out that one’s behavior is determined by hidden forces that are much more powerful than his conscious desires, whether good or bad. The problem was not that the individual has been repressing his past, but that he was avoiding what he had to do in the present.
The Deconstruction of the Deconstruction
For Girard, what Freud sees as narcissistic is simply coquettish behavior. In other words, Girard agree with Freud’s observation, but disagreed with his interpretation. For example, when a beautiful woman displays a lack of attention to others, and cares too much about her own looks, she is signaling to the others, “I value myself” and this signals to others that she is worthy of being valued – according to Girard. Whereas Freud thought this was a sign of secondary narcissism.
So, Girard’s mimetic theory, which says simply that human desires are completely dominated by emulating the desires of others, would contradict the theory of Lasch or Freud about the root of narcissism itself, but it accomplishes the same end goal. Girard’s conclusion is that mimetic desire is the root of all evil, indeed, it is the devil himself. And to avoid the dangers of mimetic desire, we must carefully choose our mimetic models.
The root of narcissism according to Freud, and Lasch, who is influenced by Freud, is that individuals develop Secondary Narcissism. Since the individual does not direct their libidinal energy towards a greater cause or a religion and have been disappointed by others who have not reciprocated their libidinal energy, they retreat into the self, and since this self is by nature unconsolidated, variable, and elusive – the individual is forced to use myriad methods of enforcing their self-esteem, through therapy or therapeutic substitutes. A Rieff explained in The Triumph of the Therapeutic – by doing so, psychological man (the man who has accepted Freud’s mission of refusing the imposition of culture norms and becomes a self-analyst) becomes alienated from his life tasks and the real problems of living.
Whether or not you choose to believe Freud or Lasch or Girard or Jung or Adler, what is unquestionably true is some level of self-delusion on the part of the individual. We either delude ourselves into believing that what we value are our authentic desires, if Girard is right, or we delude ourselves with false motivations (Oedipal Complex, Narcissism of others) if Freud is right, or we delude ourselves with avoiding necessary action if Adler is right, or we delude ourselves into thinking that we are isolated from our past, or we do not have darker impulses (a shadow), if Jung is right.
Each thinker is convinced that a delusion is taking place. And the individual is not only assaulted by an endless array of options to choose from, but an endless number of deconstructions to choose from (as a result of the endless options).
Perhaps the age of narcissism coincides with the age of “nothing is what it seems.” When it becomes impossible to trust one’s perceptions of the world, it becomes safer to trust only one’s own reality. At least that must be real. The modern fascination with meditation and Stoicism cannot be because they are ancient, but because they are logical antidotes to an illusory and unpredictable reality.