History and Human Narcissism

With this post, I want to return briefly to the issue of the karmic law and the human condition — a condition which I’ve broadly generalised as being chronically narcissistic. If “man is the sick animal”, as Nietzsche diagnosed the human condition, it is because of narcissism.

At some time or another, you probably have heard the dictum: “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are”. That also is a description of narcissism — (also, in its various formally identified forms as “logocentrism”, “egocentrism”,”ethnocentrism”, “ideocentrism” or — more broadly — “anthropocentrism”). These all amount to the same insight: “we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are” — individually and collectively (ego and wego). This has also been called lately, “projection”, and it is very closely connected with the karmic law of action and reaction.

Former readers of The Dark Age Blog may recall that I once quoted a passage from David Ehrenfeld’s important essay “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology” as being a very concise description of “the culture of narcissism” (after the book by Christopher Lasch on the subject). Here is that important quote again,

“One of the most serious challenges to our prevailing system is our catastrophic loss of ability to use self-criticism and feedback to correct our actions when they place us in danger or give bad results. We seem unable to look objectively at our own failures and to adjust the behavior that caused them.”

This is a very good description of extreme narcissism. It is also a very good description of the breakdown of reason and learning in a more general contraction (or collapse) of consciousness, which is the foundation for learning and for reason to begin with. (This characterisation of our times is also implicated in what we mean in describing our time as “post-Enlightenment”). Or, we can say that the breakdown of reason (into rationalisation, for example) and learning is the effect of a gradual contraction of the horizons of our being, until we become much like shut-ins within our own skulls, as in the analogy of Plato’s Cave. This is fully described in the myth of Narcissus and Echo, which is the paradigm for the meaning of “narcissism”. And ( as you may recall from TDAB also)  the word “narcissism” is only what we might call by a “politically correct” term for that which was known earlier as “idolatry”. Narcissism and idolatry are the same. The term “narcissism” has only been sanitized, apropos our secular age, in order to purify and refine it of any taint of crude theological or religious precedent, and to ground it in Greek rationalism instead.

Narcissus and Echo

That “we don’t see things as they are, but as we are” (which describes projection just as we find also in the myth of Narcissus) applies also to events and to history. When Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy observes that history is our own autobiography, he is speaking not of history as being merely “the facts of the matter”, but as the narrative of our own self-understanding (or self-misunderstanding) and self-becoming, both our personal history (our ego history) and our collective history (our “wego” history). History changes as our capacities and adequacies (or what is called “human nature”) changes. The past is not frozen. We change that past continuously, as the history of History (i.e. “metahistory”) itself demonstrates.

“Reason or the ratio of all we have already known, is not the same that it shall be when we know more” (Blake, There is NO Natural Religion, b.II.).

I would invite you to compare and contrast the statement “we do not see things as they are, but as we are” with the quote from Ehrenfeld, and then you may see the real problem of human narcissism and the latter-day culture of narcissism as Christopher Lasch described it. The real problem is, then, that although “we do not see things [or events, the preferrable meaning] as they are, but as we are”, we really don’t realise this projection occurring. Narcissus stared fascinated into his own image in the pool of water. Only, he didn’t know the image there was his own reflection and projection. If he had known (which knowledge the nymph Echo attempted vainly to bring him to, for she represents “feedback” even by her name) the spell would have been broken and he would have lived. But, –as the myth gives — he never came to himself. He perished from his fascination.

And, as I pointed out in The Dark Age Blog, the word “fascinate” is connected with the Latin word “fascinum” (a magic spell or binding spell) and, fromm that, to the word “fascism”. This is what a very worried Ehrenfeld is describing, actually, in his quote above — our inability to perceive the very self-destructive character of our own contemporary actions, even when they appear in projection. This is the karmic law, in effect. “Bad karma” is a vulgar term for what is only ignorance of the projections as being ultimately sourced in the self-nature.

What we call “history” is often also only narcissistic projection or mirroring, since “history” (the grand narrative) always seems to justify “us” (the wego), even as “the end of history”. We come to see ourselves as history’s very purpose, end, and meaning.  But every dead civilisation has  thought and felt exactly the same way about itself (otherwise, it would have changed before it perished). So, what Ehrenfeld is describing above is also a description of civilisational decadence as the consequence of narcissism.  And the question therefore becomes: can human beings change course in time in order to avert that fate or must they conclude the logic of their actions to the bitter end? (It is the very same question Jean Gebser asks in his Preface to his book The Ever-Present Origin).  It is the same meaning as we find in the New Testament: “The sins of the Fathers shall be visited down to the third and fourth generations”.

The irony of the situation is, that once we come to recognise the truth value in the dictum “we don’t see things as they are, but as we are”, then we begin the process of self-remembering, which is breaking the narcissistic fascinum. This “self-remembering” is described in the parable of the Prodigal Son when it is said, “he came to himself” finally. If we don’t remember ourselves in time, however, we will follow the logic of our own action to its ultimate self-destructive conclusion (as did Nazi Germany and Italian fascism), but which Ehrenfeld terms “collapse of the Age of Technology”. (Ehrenfeld, however, uses “age of technology” as a synonym for “age of reason”).

This is the karmic law. What people call “bad karma” is only another term for this kind of “catastrophic” self-destruction that Ehrenfeld describes. And yet this self-destruction, in the fascist period, was called “national awakening”! The real awakening, however, is coming to know the karmic law as it is encapsulated in this truth: we don’t see events as they are, but only as we are. This alone is the beginning of awakening.

“Purify your eyes and see the pure world”, asked Rumi. “Cleanse the doors of perception”, demanded William Blake. These are both pleas to awaken from the real narcissistic sickness. And the beginning of that awakening is to know, intimately, that the world is a karmic projection, and that our ordinary, socialised mode of perception is not truthful. We do not perceive things and events as they are, but simply as we are. For that reason, the karmic law of action and reaction, when we are functioning properly in tune with it, is a cybernetic process of learning. Your own experience is your only true guide to your true self, and not as that experience is conditioned and massaged by the seductions of propaganda or by perception management. This is the core meaning of the principle that “you create the reality you know”. If your experience and circumstances are unsatisfactory (what Buddhism calls “dukkha“) then you must examine the roots of your experience as they are to be found in yourself, for they emerge from one’s own presuppositions, assumptions, perceptions, and beliefs which shape and condition our experience of reality.

And you may find that they are not even “yours” to begin with, but the false formulations of what the Elizabethan poet John Donne called “the inmate soul” (in his poem An Anatomy of the World, to which we’ll return anon).

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2 responses to “History and Human Narcissism”

  1. tony says :

    “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are”.

    Which goes hand in hand with a quote from Chuang Tzu I remember first reading on TDAB. “Heaven, earth and I were born at the same time, all Life and I are one”

    Reality is our construction formed by the reactions to our actions. We are gazing in the mirror is the most appropriate metaphor

    • Scott Preston says :

      I rushed this post. I just amended some of the typos and grammatical errors, but otherwise didn’t add anything new. I also don’t think I’ve gotten quite the gist of what I want to say about this. “History” is like a movie we watch projected against a screen. But we are also its screenwriter, its cast of players, its cameraman, its casting agent, and its director. It’s somewhat similar to what Marshall McLuhan pointed out about television. The television screen is just a random assemblage of pixels and points which requires the active imagination and the role of a formative and constructive perception to organise into an image or pattern — to give it form (like pointilist painting which seemed, oddly enough, to anticipate television by half a century or more).

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