Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

‘The Life of I’: Narcissism and (of course) you

“Paranoia is the self-cure for insignificance … the paranoiac is at the centre of a world which has no centre … to be hated makes him feel real: he has made his presence felt. To be unforgiveable is to be unforgettable. (Emphases mine.) Australian social philosopher Anne Manne shrewdly begins The Life of I: the new culture of narcissism with this epigraph from the writings of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips. Don’t you just love it? The quote is arresting and makes one want to read further because it refers to issues anyone in the consumerist world struggles with. Let’s go through some of the words I italicised.

We all want a self-cure. The human race is in a lot of pain. No one wants to be insignificant; we live in a society where addiction and selfish behaviour are woven into the consumerist fabric of daily living. Social media and technology puts us at the centre of our worlds; we carry more instant access to the world than we could possibly ever keep up with in our hip pockets or handbags, usually in the form of a smartphone.

Unforgiveness and unforgettable: Anyone (that’s most people reading this) who’s been through any kind of spiritual or therapeutic process or intervention was attempting to break decades of self-centred patterns to do with lack of forgiveness and anger. We all want to forgive and be forgiven (I know, it is so freeing), to love and be loved. There is a part of us that wants to be unforgettable, even if it only through our children. We want to leave something of us when we pass on. The double-bind: to be truly unforgettable is to disregard self and be of service to others, no? Isn’t this desire paradoxically self-focused … narcissistic? So we are all narcissists.

Kicking off with this conundrum, Manne explores this globalised culture of narcissism. She starts with thriller-like case studies of infamous examples of narcissism, such as the mass murderer Anders Breivik and the sociopath Lance Armstrong. Referring extensively to DSM-5 and contemporary psychoanalytic thought, Manne looks at their lives, and others, and uses that to explore the very pervasive malaise of self-preoccupation in our culture – that’s you and me.

The writer looks at the parental and societal influences that may have created Breivik — a man who complained at the end of his massacre about a bleeding finger and asked for a Band-Aid. It was informative and shocking to see how much Armstrong was willingly part of a ghoulish blood transfusion and doping industry. In her analyses of narcissists and the perennial nature/nurture conundrum, one is reminded too uncomfortably of how similar we all are in the relatively new culture of self-absorption.

Often in her book I am reminded of Gerrie Nel’s refrain as he cross-examined Oscar Pistorius: “It’s all about Oscar, isn’t it?” I always felt this goad was unfair because the accusation has universal application. It’s all about me; the life of I.

The book makes it clear that the idea of communal living, sharing and striving for the common good is a silly bit of idealist nostalgia. We buy for ourselves to feel good about ourselves, even if it is gifts for others. It’s all about us. Companies loudly proclaim their “aid” to various causes to up their market share. The underlying challenge in The Life of I is as follows. To what extent do our societal and existential limitations, our sense of self-preservation in the form of civil constraint, disguised often as “morality”, make us any different to the cases she discusses? Manne looks at high-profile people’s personality disorders that are disturbing reminders of too many people we know in the office (dear God save us from looking in the mirror). As she outlines, men like Breivik and Armstrong “suffer” from: “a grandiose sense of self-importance”; preoccupation with fantasies to do with, inter alia, power, self-aggrandisement and success; and a ruthless sense of entitlement. They often have an utter lack of empathy for others. In short, a typical motorist on the road in rush hour Johannesburg.

There is some jokiness to the motorist remark I just made. A joke triggers laughter. It is the mouth gasping for oxygen, a primal instinct that shows we are safe – ha ha ha – when we thought there was harm. Our teeth are sheathed in the smile (the opposite of a snarl).

But there is a lot of grave harm being done. Manne’s study of what our consumerist lifestyles are doing to us, to our souls (if such a precious word can still be used) and the planet portrays far more damage than what we can imagine.

We see this universal harm, the “tragedy of the commons” in part two of the book, “Narcissism and Society”. For example, in her discussion of the 2008 global crash, the author takes a close look at that devout worshipper of selfishness, Ayn Rand and her philosophy of “Objectivism” — glossed over as “ethical egotism”. She also looks at Rand’s chief arse-licker Alan Greenspan and his role in the financial crisis. This theme of universal self-harm is explored further in chapters on our systematic destruction of our environment, particularly examples in Australia, happening right now. This should cause alarm. But it no longer does as we have heard the threats of global warming and other sad tales of looming destruction so often that few listen anymore — just like Narcissus ignoring Echo in the Greek myth. We don’t listen because, as Manne avers, we are so attached to our self-preoccupied “asshole effect” lifestyles that the loud bells warning of the tragedy of the commons — which now includes everything that sustains us on this planet — is white noise.

In her closing remarks Manne makes a telling but somewhat erroneous reference to the Narcissus myth. “Will we, like Narcissus, go on gazing at the lily pond, enchanted and intoxicated by all that we see there, all those things of the good consumer life, which reflect us back so much larger and more dazzling than we really are, all the way to disaster?”

Not quite, Mz Manne. The “things of the [delusory] good consumer life” are not what we are, even though we often gaze into them. For example, tapping on an app to buy a product that is delivered to your door by DHL in a few days does not make me that metonymic “purchase now!” image on the smartphone screen shining in my hand. So long as I don’t want that to be me. Nor is “me” the product I rip out the DHL wrapping a few days later that could be – for instance – a handbag stitched together by some malnourished mother of six somewhere in China or Dubai, whose fingerprints and unheard story have long been erased from the polished sheen of the product. Oh, my narcissistic culture would have me be that grasping, gannet-like creature, that consumer. But we need to go back to the original myth.

What did Narcissus gaze into? He gazed into a lovely pond breathed into being by water, earth and air. The things that give us life: that is who we are. Not some soulless wireless device. Problem is, we are forgetting that. Narcissus ignored the nymph Echo, who could not speak unless it was to reply. This was her curse, but perhaps our blessing. She will always have the last word. In the story, Echo, in her sadness because of her cruel rejection by Narcissus, slowly withers away and becomes the Earth, or part of the Earth. And she will still have her last say even as we continue ignoring Her. May Her reply always be to remind us of what we are, and of the wonder that brought us into being in the first place. This is the oft-forgotten role of artists and poets (we no longer seem to have trustworthy seers and visionaries).

My sentiments too sugary for you … amid the white noise? As Manne asks at the end of The Life of I: “Is it possible … our longing and our hunger may end up centering on caritas … altruism, generosity and care for each other and purposes larger than the self?”

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