Rites of Passage
There is a very good article in today’s Guardian on “Narcissism and terrorism” by Anne Mann. It appears on the occasion of the publication of her book The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism.
There is quite a bit being published these days on this problem of the “culture of narcissism” which, as you know, was a persistent theme of the old Dark Age Blog and, in more hopeful terms, of The Chrysalis. And, as you also know, I consider narcissism to be the “human condition” — the inevitable spiritual problem that creatures such as we are must grapple with who become self-aware, and who must learn to find the proper place and role for the “I” in the scheme of things. Self-overcoming is really about transcending this narcissistic condition and the circumstances that promote it.
The normalisation of pathological narcissism that is the “culture” of narcissism, was the subject of Christopher Lasch’s 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism. It’s not that what we now call “narcissism” is new in human history. It has been known by other names and terms, including idolatry. It wasn’t that Lasch discovered anything new about the human condition. What he drew attention to by his book is the “normalisation” of a condition — the “new normal”, as it were — that was previously considered anything but “normal”, but as aberrant. Blake knew it as “Single vision & Newtons sleep”. Nietzsche knew it as what he called “nook-and-corner” perspectivism. Jean Gebser knew it as the drift of individualism and collectivism away from the vital centre (or egoism and wego-ism in David Loy’s terms).
It’s the normalisation of this condition — as the “culture” — that is the contemporary problem. Other civilisations were not necessarily less narcissistic. Only, they didn’t consider the condition “normal”. For that reason, they often instituted rites of passage or formal ceremonies of initiation in which the childish “I” was initiated into its proper place in the greater scheme of things. Rites of passage are formal ceremonies of death and resurrection, in terms of the transition from childish egoism to responsible adulthood, from immaturity to maturity.
Our civilisation has no such formal rites of passage, and what it does have in that respect are simply deteriorated or decayed remnants of earlier rites of passage — like getting your first driver’s licence, or graduating from public school, getting the vote, or giving the kid his first gun (really!). We keep the egoic nature in a state of artificial childishness for much longer periods of time than others did or do — we call it the “teens”. It is usually a time of great anxiety, confusion and disorientation, but in other respects this “I” never learns to find its proper place in society or the community except perhaps by trial and error (if at all). The ego-nature remains childish for longer periods of time, and well past the age when it should cease to be childish.
Rites of passage should be experienced as a death and a resurrection. But the “system”, as such, is geared towards keeping human beings in a state of childishness and dependency for longer periods of time because there are economic and political advantages to doing that. It’s ridiculous — even delusional — to calculate maturity on the basis of statistical age alone — 19 or 21 years of age. That is no proof of maturity.
This same delusion afflicted Fukuyama’s thesis about the “end of history”. He described traditional societies, such as those of the North American First Nations, as belonging to the “childhood” of the race, while that of modern civilisation represented the “mature” type of civilisation. That’s just incredible, because the situation is exactly the reverse. Societies which have remained in much the same form for hundreds of generations do not merit the judgement “childlike”. They are actually ancient. It’s the Modern Era, less than 500 years old, that is the childish form, relatively speaking. Mr. Fukuyama’s judgement of what constitutes maturity is completely erroneous and an inversion of the truth, given the widely acknowledged problem of “the culture of narcissism” in so-called “advanced societies”. And yet millions of people believed this nonsense.