From the Devil’s Notebook, Entry 1
I’ve been corresponding, lately, with a noted author and philosopher (whose name I will not reveal for the time being) about contemporary social issues. I will also not post his own responses at length because of potential copyright or similar issues. Perhaps in future this may be possible. I will, however, summarise and precis his views in order to provide some context for my own responses, which might be taken in the spirit of “notes found in a bathtub” or from a notebook.
I will be entitling this correspondence, when posted, in the form of “notes from the Devil’s Notebook” only because some people — the Anders Breiviks of the world and other assorted reactionaries — already consider me a devil incarnate, worthy only to be rubbed out. It appears that when the neo-conservative reactionaries David Frum and Richard Perle published their imbecilic and idiotic book An End to Evil, they likely had me in mind as well. So… I will helpfully assume their stupid reactionary utopian fantasy and… bedevil them.
Some background and context is in order before beginning. The exchange arouse from an attempt to discover the possible connections between hypocrisy, “the culture of narcissism”, and “the culture of lying” as implicated in the decadence of the Modern Era. My philosopher friend is not at all persuaded, at this time, that there is a connection. I am convinced otherwise and he is intrigued by my insistence that there is a connection between narcissism, hypocrisy, and decadence and the problem of integrity. His principle interest is the philosophy of ethics. Mine is to reground ethics in the integrity of speaking and listening — the dialogical act (not just “free speech”).
With that brief backgrounder, let’s have a peek into the Devil’s notebook….
This entry (which is verbatim) was made in response to B’s (as I will call him) question put to me about the connection between hypocrisy, narcissism, and loss of integrity (or decadence, which is the same thing):
B: Narcissism (N) has a number of senses, some essential for a healthy ego, others a form of pathology (Freud). Is it not worth identifying them for your purposes of cultural critique?
My take is that narcissism is the fundamental human (Nietzsche might say the “all-too-human”) condition. It only has different aspects. What we today refer to by names such as “ego-centrism,” “logo-centrism,” “ideo-centrism,” “ethno-centrism,” or “anthropocentrism” are only aspects of narcissism. These might be considered to form “the widening gyre” of W.B. Yeats’ ominous poem The Second Coming, but they are still aspects of narcissism — the falcon who grows distant and estranged from the Falconer is only another theme on the Prodigal Son, in some ways. We need to reconsider the myth of Narcissus and Echo, for I believe the reason we haven’t properly framed the problem of narcissism is because… well, it was defined by narcissists, too.
The Nietzschean “transhuman” is one who has overcome himself, ie, his own narcissism. (“Transhuman” is my preferred translation of the German term übermensch).
For one thing, narcissism does not strike me as being pathological “self-love.” It could just as well be self-hate. The key is that Narcissus did not know that the image in the reflecting pool was his own. How could it be self-love then? He believed the projection/image had an independent and an objective character and reality independent of him, reinforced by the fateful role of the nymph Echo. He was trapped in a closed feedback loop, investing his entire life’s energy into the image until it consumed him completely. That’s the problem of idolatry. Nietzsche once equally referred to that as man’s “flowing out into a God”. The principle is the same. In the end, Narcissus emptied himself into that image, and wasted away and perished– exhausting his own life’s energy. That seems, also, an apt characterisation of nihilism, too. The *fascinum* (Latin for the binding power or enchantment) is what held him. No need, I suspect, to draw attention to the relation between this word fascinum and fascination… and fascism. The binding power.
I once read an essay by Dr. David Ehrenfeld from Tikkun Magazine called “The Coming Collapse of the Age of Technology“. (I am in essential agreement with it in some ways, but that’s another matter). There was one passage that caught my attention, because it is a very good description of our present “culture of narcissism”.
“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.”
Now, let’s compare all this with the Psalmist who defined idolatry (Psalm 115):
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:
They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not:
They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.
The key line is the last, and this makes idolatry and narcissism interchangeable in those terms. This became, for me, an “open sesame” for understanding many of our present problems. In Hinduism, the key is the principle “thou art that” — tat tvam asi. This is the liberating insight — “the truth that sets free” — that Narcissus did not attain, even though Echo knew.
Still, I do not consider narcissism, per se, a moral failing. It’s the inevitable challenge of creatures become reflexively self-aware, yet not knowing who or what this “self” is and from whence it arises (Buddhism has delved most deeply into this issue). That uncertainty about the self tends to induce anxiety and paranoia, particularly in times of rapid change.
Finally, (before I leave off this already all-too-lengthy response), there is an issue in the interpretation of the myth of Narcissus and Echo that often frustrates me when I read these. We have to distinguish between the narrative and the meta-narrative. The mythical perception and consciousness that originally conceived the myth was already a consciousness loosening away from or “transcending” the charmed circle of the mythical mode of perception. The image in the reflecting pool is known to the meta-narrator as being an image or idol, not so to Narcissus, so is already beginning to separate it’s own identity from the gods and the matrix of mythical awareness. “Echo” is this meta-narrator. She sees the problem but can do nothing about it. In a sense Narcissus is past man still within or captured by the mythical matrix, while Echo represents an incipient, yet unknown and unrealised future. The myth of Narcissus represents the malaise of the mythical mind in its own time, while Echo is that theme of frustrated futility that so often characterises Greek myth (Tantallus, Silenus and Midas, Sysiphus, etc).
Echo, who sees but cannot say except to repeat, is the precursor to Plato. Isn’t that the meaning of Plato’s Cave? But it is Plato, like Alexander the Great, who undoes the Gordian knot of the mythical mind now trapped in narcissistic thrall by radically separating logos from mythos. Like his pre-primordial androgyne, he inflicts a radical incision in the matrix of Being — he segregates one from the other. And with this segregation of logos from mythos (and the Gospel of John’s re-interpretation of the Logos for the Greeks) we have now two structures of consciousness with their own modality of perception co-existent as future and past within one “present” — the mental-rational structure and the mythical structure (after Jean Gebser’s history) — the geometrical and the poetic, just as earlier the mythical radically separated itself from the magical structure (ie, “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” is the equivalent of Plato’s contempt for the poets and mythographers). That too was an act of segregation or incision.
So, with that act of segregation, we should now have a basis for interpreting the contrary pole or dynamic — integration and integrity.
Ages can be hypocritical, not just individuals, because two conflicting “times out of joint” — past and future — make conflicting claims on our loyalties and faith. I find the old English poet John Donne fascinating in that respect, for he was a man who consciously felt crucified between the Age of Reason and the Age of Faith, who lived both, but was lucid enough to know it. We are likewise in such a transition, today… one underway since the First World War announced the end of the Modern Era (and its premisses) and the incipience of the Planetary Era (and its different demands and requirements) in which many traditions, many histories, many “truths” must be coordinated within one universal history. A true universal history (which is attainable) would represent a successful concordance of the many — a new integration and, thus, a new integrity of the whole, or what the speech-thinker Rosenstock-Huessy described (in his first essay in Speech and Reality) as “synchronising antagonistic distemporaries”. That’s the meaning of integrity.
I’ve already said too much. I apologise for my wordiness. It may have been possible to be more brief (?).
I’m still going through your book…. but very slowly, as I need to reflect on much. Hypocrisy is, to me, a sickness of the soul more than a moral failing. It’s less a moral failing than a problem of morale, something intimately connected with “the malaise of modernity” (Charles Taylor’s term which is now being used quite a bit in the press to describe the condition of the UK “broken society”).