Narcissism and “the Point of View”
Narcissism, as I’ve said before in The Chrysalis, is the human condition — the all-too-human condition. It is the inevitable problem of creatures, such as ourselves, that become reflexively self-aware — that is to say, which develop an ego-consciousness. It is the chief spiritual problem, for long before it was called “narcissism” it was also called “idolatry”. Idolatry is, fundamentally, not about the making of images, but of confusing the images with the reality that the images only represent. The images (or symbols) cease to be transparent. They become opaque. A “bubble of perception” develops (called by William Blake the “Ulro”. The illusion of the real becomes confused with the real, which is Plato’s Cave Allegory. This comes about as a result of the confusion between the so-called “false self” and the “true self”. The false self, called “ego-nature”, is only the shadow of the real, but is misconstrued as being the real. It is only the self-image. This is called “delusion”.
“The culture of narcissism”, highlighted by Christopher Lasch in his book by that title, is the problem of what we call “the System”. Narcissism has become structural and systemic. But the fact that we seem to be waking up to narcissism as a social and spiritual problem — and as being a systemic problem — is an encouraging sign in itself.
A culture of competitive egoism (or acquisitive individualism) necessarily encourages narcissistic behaviours as an adaptive strategy. It is a learned behaviour. It is, in that sense, not an individual moral failing but a systemic problem, grounded in an underlying social philosophy that specifies certain social relations which encourage narcissistic attitudes and responses. Narcissism is the human folly.
But this narcissism has now become pathological, owing largely to what Jean Gebser calls an “increase in technological feasibility inversely proportionate to man’s sense of responsibility”. In the past, human narcissism (grasping) was constrained by law, religion, moral codes (the Ten Commandments) and by the limited means for its expression. Most of these constraints have been removed (“death of God”, etc). And in any case, most religions have become utter failures because the aim was not just to inhibit or constrain human narcissism, but to transform it into an authentic self-realisation.
Most clinical definitions of narcissism that I’ve come across get it entirely wrong (largely thanks to the clinician’s own narcissism). Narcissism is a perverted form of self-realisation, and not the antithesis of altruism or “selflessness”, with which it is usually (and wrongly) contrasted. Within narcissism is an authentic impulse to self-realisation. The problem is owing to a faulty understanding of “self”, which has been confused with the self-image and the ego-consciousness. In terms of Iain McGilchrist’s neurodynamic approach (in The Master and his Emissary) narcissism is the result of the isolation of the identity exclusively in the second attention — in the left-hemispheric brain functions. The “Emissary”, the ego-consciousness, is the narcissist. Moreover, it is what I’ve called, in earlier posts in The Chrysalis, the “point-of-view-line-of-thought” approach to the world. And this is the structure of consciousness that Jean Gebser calls “the perspectival” or “mental-rational”. It is also true that most religions, as they now exist, have been captured by the “Emissary”, and have become narcissistic constructs themselves.
Also, what David Loy calls, in “The Suffering System“, the “Wego” (the cult, the sect, the gang, the tribe, the hyper-partisan, the nationalistic) is just as much a narcissistic construction as the Ego.
A flawed and faulty understanding of “human”; a deficient understanding of the “individual”; a corrupt understanding of “self” is no reason to deny the validity of individuation or of self. Some people seem to think that unselfing or self-annihilation is the cure for human narcissism. What that means, though, is the “point-of-view” consciousness and the self-image. If you begin with a faulty understanding of “self”, unselfing is going to do you some serious spiritual damage and psychic injury.
Narcissism and individuation are not the same thing. They are, in many respects, contraries even. Individuation, in the modern sense, begins in the Renaissance with the discovery of perspective, basically the discovery of the third dimension of space which opened up space to consciousness, illuminating the dimension of depth and infinity. But, it had a reciprocal effect of intensifying the eye as the organ of knowing, isolating the viewer in a “point-of-view”, and so intensifying the sense of ego-consciousness or selfhood as well. So perspective perception had the double-effect of opening up space, but also focussing, narrowing, and isolating consciousness into the point-of-view (which becomes the Cartesian “cogito” eventually) in a “pyramid of perception”. And this pyramid of perception becomes the symbol of the Enlightenment (as previously examined at greater length in The Chrysalis).
This is the shape of dialectical reason. And the all-seeing eye at the summit of this pyramid is the perspectivising eye, the cogito of Descartes, the mental-rational consciousness structure as first formulated by the perspective artists of the Renaissance.
Now, in this form of “the pyramid of perception”, consciousness has now become reified. It is trapped in the narrowing “point-of-view”, and in those terms backed into a corner, or what Nietzsche called a “nook-and-corner perspective”. And this narrowing induces anxiety, since, as Gebser points out, the words “angle” and “anxiety” (or Angst) are connected in meaning. So, what started out as a very positive development for human consciousness has, by a process of reversal or enantiodromia, become a trap, the contemporary condition of narcissism.
“Perspective vision and thought confine us within spatial limitations….; it locates and determines the observer as well as the observed. The positive result is a concretion of man and space; the negative result is the restriction of man to a limited segment where he perceives only one sector of reality. Like Petrarch, who separated landscape from land, man separates from the whole only that part which his view or thinking can encompass, and forgets those sectors that lie adjacent, beyond, or even behind. One result is the anthropocentrism that has displaced what we might call the theocentrism previously held. Man, himself a part of the world, endows his sector of awareness with primacy; but he is, of course, only able to perceive a partial view. This sector is given prominence over the circle; the part outweighs the whole. As the whole. As the whole cannot be approached from a perspectival attitude to the world, we merely superimpose the character of wholeness onto the sector, the result being the familiar ‘totality'”. (Jean Geber, The Ever-Present Origin, p. 18)
That’s really a key statement from Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin on the nature of perspective consciousness, or the mental-rational. What we call “the system” has developed over time from the simplest thing imaginable — perspectivism. And yet, also over time, it has now become deficient for the very reasons also given by Gebser in the quote, and has also become perplexed and disoriented by the irruption of time into consciousness — the inclusion of the “fourth dimension”.
If we are becoming more aware of our narcissistic condition and the narcissistic system, it is largely owing to the irruption of time into consciousness, and the anxiety that time brings with its irruption into consciousness. We now realise that our thinking and received logic is not very functional for a world in which time is of the essence. It was designed for the intellectual conquest of space, a space of three-dimensions. Globalism and the irruption of time have discombobulated and perplexed “the point of view” consciousness.
Is there a way beyond the limitations of perspective perception, the “point of view” consciousness (or egoism) and, therewith also, the “culture of narcissism”? Gebser speaks of the incipience of the “aperspectival consciousness” and the aperspectival era associated with the “integral consciousness structure” which he sees also emerging in our time — the holistic and a way out of the consciousness trap we’ve made for ourselves. But in fact this aperspectival consciousness existed as a possibility in the Renaissance, and was largely associated with the Hermetic Philosophy. And it seems likely that, as the Renaissance reached back for its inspirations from the declining days of the Greco-Roman period, the aperspectival will likewise reach back to the Renaissance to effectuate the path not taken then, and more or less articulated in the Hermetic Philosophy, particulary that of Nicholas of Cusa. “All that is old is made new again”, as the old saying goes.
Aperspectival consciousness, which is not ego-centric or anthropocentric, will perhaps satisfy our need for “a universal way of looking at things”, as Gebser calls it, without narrow sectoralisation or isolation, which has become the problem of the perspectivising point-of-view consciousness structure. And it seems that big strides are being made towards this even now, uneven, and in turbulent troughs and crests though they might be presently, or what is called “the chaotic transition”.
And with that, also, will come a new and very different understanding of “human”, “individual” and “self”, for like everything else in the Modern Era, these were too narrowly conceived and understood, conditioned as they were by the structure and nature of perspective consciousness itself. This is the real nature and work of the “creative destruction” that is going on behind the events and appearances of the day — the rough transition from the perspectival to the aperspectival.