Age of Delusion: Reflections on Narcissism and Self-Destruction IV
I’m closing in on the last pages of Twenge’s and Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic and some things are becoming clearer.
Although I find the book a little naive about the problem of narcissism — a result of the authors’ over-reliance on preconceived notions, definitions, and assumptions about narcissism — the book does advance our understanding of the problem (some might — and do — object that narcissism is not a problem, but is “healthy”). In some ways the book lacks insight, especially compared to a masterful work on the subject like A.H. Almaas’s The Point of Existence: Transformations of Narcissism in Self-Realization.
Twenge and Campbell do recognise the corrosive effects of narcissism on society and they are correct to do so. Narcissism is the solvent of all authentic social bonds that make such a thing as society possible at all, by its lack of empathy and fellow-feeling, its delusional character, its exploitative attitudes. No healthy commonwealth can long endure the corrosive effects of the pursuit of an exaggerated self-interest and egocentric individualism. At the extremity it reverts to self-destruction.
That is the implicit lesson of the myth of Narcissus and Echo itself. Narcissus was not aware. He was deluded. His very name, connected with words for narcosis, means one-who-is-not-awake. He is immersed in a sea of delusions. His deranged infatuation with the idol in the reflecting pool eventually cost him his life. He lacked insight into the nature of the image in the reflecting pool — his own self-image. His own self-image became a trap for his consciousness and it lured him finally into his destruction.
Compare this state of delusion with the victory of the Buddha over narcissism. When people asked him whether he was a god or an avatar or even a man, the Buddha simply replied “I am awake”. The Buddha’s famous struggle under the Bodhi Tree to achieve emancipation was his conquest of the all-too-human condition of narcissism, which he encountered in the form of the demon Mara, Lord of Illusions. Christians call Mara the “Prince of Lies” (without generally realising it is themselves). Even the three evils of Buddhism – greed, malice, delusion (like the Seven Deadly Sins of Christianity) — are the typical traits of narcissism. And, as discussed earlier, these negative traits have even become institutionalised in our society and are today absurdly even considered “normal”.
Narcissus and the Buddha are the polar terms of our human possibilities for total defeat in narcissistic self-indulgence or a self-overcoming victory over narcissism. In Christian terms, Jesus’ forty day sojourn in the wilderness, when he was tempted by Satan, is the equivalent of the Buddha’s struggle with Mara and with narcissism.
Who or what is Mara? The Buddha called Mara “the architect” — interestingly, the same name used for the Grand System Designer and Perception Manager in the movie The Matrix. It is the voice of social authority. Mara is the Voice in your head that tells you day in and day out who you are and what your world is like, and therefore tells you how you should act and how you must perceive yourself, others, and your reality. It is mesmerism. This Voice (Freud called it Superego, who is the Architect) was put there by society — by your parents, your teachers, your priests, your peers, or the media. The self-image is, in effect, the image of society in the mind, which functions even as the mind, and this is what is called “ego-nature”. It is also called “the false self” or “the foreign installation” (Castaneda). To confuse this with your true individuality is the greatest of all delusions and the very core of narcissism.
Beings, such as ourselves, who attain to “self-reflection” also must struggle with the reflection of self called the “self-concept”, “self-image” and an idealised self. That is why narcissism is the human condition and was previously called “idolatry”, for idolatry is the worship of images mistaken for realities. The problem of self-overcoming, (which is Nietzsche’s “Become what you are!”) is the problem of wresting away our true individuality — traditionally called “the soul” — from the aggrandised self-image or self-concept. “Ideals” are simply idols that have become introjected and are now adored in the mind. The words “ideal” and “idol” are related.
One of the steps in this process is called the attainment of “inner silence” — interrupting the Voice of the mind which is the Architect of Delusions. For that reason, Buddhism is not really a “religion” in the usual sense of this term. It is a procedure for observing the activity of “the foreign installation” and deconstructing it in order to achieve liberation through inner silence or “emptiness” in which the ultimate truth can be revealed and become manifest reality. This is also the goal of the mystical strain of Islam, Sufism, in which this inner silence or emptiness is also called “the pearl of great price”.
Mara, in other words, is the representative of “society” in the mind. Mara is the chief of the Perception Managers. Needless to say, “society” — considered as a network of classes and power relationships — finds such efforts at emancipation to be threatening. A narcissistic civilisation, such as ours is, has developed all kinds of devious and subtle means for ensuring that no one escapes prediction and control, even at the cost of its own longevity, rejuvenation, and necessary transformation. But if the voice is sick, so will the mind be sick. If “man is the sick animal,” as Nietzsche wrote, it is because of narcissism.
Therefore, it is quite pointless and even misleading to compare the present “culture of narcissism” and epidemic with earlier generations deemed to be less narcissistic, as Twenge and Campbell are often tempted to do. It tends to become reactionary when what is required is transformation and transcendence. Their own academic commitments actually prevent them from gaining wider insight into the nature and problem of narcissism. Those academic commitments also prejudiced the original definition of narcissism to begin with, for neither does the academic escape the problem of narcissism that is common to human being more generally.
One can therefore question, legitimately, whether the “empirical” definition of narcissism is at all honest and clean-handed itself. I say it’s not, and that Twenge’s and Campbell’s supposed treatment for the problem of narcissism — which is essentially to listen to the voice of society in your mind — ends in the same tautology and delusion that entrapped Narcissus. Even their suggestion that soldiering is a kind of self-sacrificial cure for narcissism is absurd, and indicates a mentality that has succumbed to a false dualism.
Here’s the issue that makes the epidemic of narcissism presently a systemic problem, and not merely an individual or personal one. Please follow me carefully, for this is where we’ll attempt to connect the dots and see how everything today that is strange, absurd, and aberrant is all historically connected.
Let’s begin by revisiting, once more, Jean Gebser’s diagnosis of the situation of Late Modernity as he perceived it — it’s decadence,
“The current situation manifests on the one hand an egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of possessing everything, while on the other it manifests an equally extreme collectivism that promises the total fulfillment of man’s being. In the latter instance we find the utter abnegation of the individual valued merely as an object in the human aggregate; in the former a hyper-valuation of the individual who, despite his limitations, is permitted everything. This deficient; that is destructive, antithesis divides the world into two warring camps, not just politically and ideologically, but in all areas of human endeavour.
Since these two ideologies are now pressing toward their limits we can assume that neither can prevail in the long run. When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the center or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life giving center finally are severed. It would seem that today the connections are already broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is driven into isolation while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation. These two conditions, isolation and aggregation, are in fact clear indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient.” (p. 3, The Ever-Present Origin).
This severing of all connection to the life-giving centre is the problem of narcissism, generally. Gebser insists that it ends in the inhuman, and he is correct. We don’t have to reflect only on the outcome of fascist “master race” theory or various flavours of chauvinist supremicism to see how Gebser’s words ring true, as that ended in the inhuman. Ethnocentrism is also a form of collective narcissism, as are logocentrism, ideocentrism, or anthropocentrism.
To the question, how did we arrive at this deplorable condition, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy once gave an answer in his essay “Farewell to Descartes“, which I’ve had frequent occasion to cite earlier. The “cogito, ergo sum” (“I think, therefore I am”), seemed to make the cogito — the mentating “I” — the centre of existence. Gebser, however, is more correct in locating the beginning of this “I” or Modern self and identity in the Renaissance discovery of perspective illusionism and in perspectival “point of view” which emphasises the individual perception. Before Mr. Isaac Newton and Mssr. Rene Descartes was Srs. Alberti and Leonardo da Vinci — the true discoverers of three-dimensional space that was used by Copernicus and Galileo as the “ideal space” of their thought experiments. The European Enlightenment was made possible by the Renaissance discovery of perspective illusionism and the intellectual mastery of the third dimension — spatial depth.
Descartes’ formula “I think, therefore I am” (or its flipside, Francis Bacon’s scientia potens est — “knowledge is power”) served its purposes well as long as this thinking — reason — was identified with a universal divine faculty become manifest in man as “Universal Reason”. It was this belief (or assumption) that reason in the human animal was an instance or reflection of a Divine Reason that informed all existence that supported the definition of Man as homo sapiens sapiens. If Man was made in God’s image, it was in the image of the Divine faculty of self-conscious Reason, for God was this “Universal Reason” itself as Master Geometer and Cosmic Architect.
However inadequate this might have been (William Blake mocked it severely as “single vision and Newton’s sleep” — or what we today call “narcissism” — and represented it in the form of his deranged and demented God “Urizen” – the Ancient of Days), it preserved the value of universality. If not the soul, then the reasoning mind was the common, shared universal principle in Man as image and reflection of the Divine Light and Nature. Because of this, the “rational pursuit of self-interest” acquires even a divine sanction and virtue. It is doing and completing God’s design and work for history, for “self” here is still conceived as being in the service of Reason, as its agency.
The problem emerges with Nietzsche’s announcement of the “death of God”, which he began to observe in his own time. Reason, ceasing to be a divine attribute made manifest in man, becomes a mere rationality — an instrumental function of the ego itself. It thus looses its universal character and sanction and becomes, instead, a mere tool or instrument of the self-interested — cunning rather than reason. It is this that Jean Gebser came to call “deficient rationality”. Rather than the self-interest serving the purposes of the divine Reason, Reason, as mere rationality or instrumentality, came to be considered serving the ego and the self-interest. The principle of universality was annihilated and has not recovered (although “integralism” is its presently emerging replacement). Thinking became the means and expression of narrow self-interest rather than the manifestation of a divine faculty operative in Man.
The seeds of our present epidemic of narcissism were laid long ago, then, and academia is a much implicated in this as other social actors. “The culture of lying” (Andrew Cohen), “The B.S. Factor” (Arthur Herzog), “faking it”, “consumerism”, the “infantilisation of society”, alienation, or militarism, neo-liberalism, neo-conservatism, nationalistic chauvinisms, economic reductionism and religious fundamentalism are all only facets and expressions of one thing — narcissism, which is as Gebser described it — alienation from “the life-giving centre”.
And very often it is the case that those who complain loudest about the culture of narcissism and the lack of “moral standards” do so from completely narcissistic motives themselves, and are simply seeking their own advantage.
Having become clear about that, the next step is to identify the correctives to the situation. It may well be that here, also, the only way out is through.