The Banality of Narcissism
The class war over cultural diagnosis.
Especially now, since there seems to be an elitist rush to ridicule, beat up on, and shoot all the remaining fish in the barrel of positive thinking. There's a certain snobbery here, no? An idea that self-help is too popular with the masses who didn't go to Ivy League schools. Beginning with Barbara Ehrenreich's recently published Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.
In the book, Ehrenreich makes the important point that the fixation on positive thinking as a way to prevent and even cure disease can lead to a malign tendency to blame oneself for getting sick, and she also offers a valuable warning against forsaking medical science for New Age mysticism.
She also rejects the pink baubles of breast-cancer-survivor culture and its "pink sticky sentiment," as she puts it. But I was struck by a tone of disdain for those who went for all the pink baubles. Shouldn't people in dire straits be given some absolution for the lesser aesthetic sensibilities of the comforts they seek and find, however embarrassingly pink?
Then there's "The War on Unhappiness," the lead story in this month's Harper's, in which the author tells us that positive psychology evokes "Nuremberg" to him and, in words that could have come from a Cotton Mather sermon, "the concupiscence and the stain" of Adam and Eve. (I could be reading the wrong Bible, but if I remember my Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve were not expelled from the Garden for "staining" it (ick) with their concupiscence—God didn't mind them gettin' it on—but because they allowed Lucifer to tempt them to violate a ban that had provoked their curiosity, not their lust. This is a kind of basic error.) Still, here we have positive psychology associated with Hitler and Satan by the Party of Narcissism.
It was then it began to dawn on me that what was going on was not just a conceptual war but a kind of aesthetic class war as well. Ehrenreich seemed to be looking down on the kinds of consolation sought out by those with less refined sensibilities, those who lacked her fierce intellectual honesty. Same with the Harper's story, which, after deriding the positive-thinking psychologists for enabling the sin of concupiscence, ends with a turgid quote from Nietzsche, which I'd have to say is a egotist's move, one that says, "I'm better educated in the humanities than you smiley-faced happiness shrinks. Nobody can trump the sophistication of my tragic sense of life. Like Freud and Nietzsche, I'm really self-aware compared with the grinning simpletons of the lower intellectual orders."
One hesitates to call him a narcissist, but there's no low self-esteem there.
In almost every attack on the self help movement one can detect a subtext of "I wouldn't fall for such pap. I went to an Ivy League school. I'm fabulously complex. Not like the poor souls in the flyover who have to cling to their guns, their god, and their simple-minded positive thinking."
The one contemporary instance in which I think "narcissism" has not been brought to bear when it deserves to be is in the Tea Party and conservative talk radio's fetishization of "American exceptionalism." This is the belief, the virtually religious creed, that America is better than any nation that has ever existed in history, because our Constitution was given to us by God. A bit of narcissism there, I'd say. I like Obama's answer when he was asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism and he said, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
But perhaps the best exemplar of the resurgence of the PON and the utter emptiness of the narcissism metaphor, the most concentrated, state-of-the-art compendium of the banality of narcissism, the article that convinced me it was time to take a stand against the PON tide, was that long, sedulous, and credulous two-page cover story in the ordinarily acute Financial Times weekend "Arts & Leisure" section over Labor Day.
I say "ordinarily acute" Financial Times (witness their review of my Shakespeare book; OK, call me a narcissist but one with low self esteem, too), because this naive essay seemed to be presenting narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a new revelation to the world, a fantastically exciting new scientific way of explaining human behavior. Talk about being late to the party.
But in the comprehensiveness of its awe and wonder at the explanatory power of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders calls it, the article should serve as a warning to cultural critics about the shaky foundation for their societal metaphors.
Now, I know there are intelligent people who believe in the heuristic utility of NPD, but the pretensions of the DSM to science are sketchy at best, when its real-world usage has more to do with rationalizing billing codes of shrink services. In addition, I believe there are philosophical problems with the definition the DSM gives to such "personality disorders."
A personality disorder, it says, is "[a]n enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual's culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment."
Note the deference given to "the expectation of the individual's culture." Thus an abolitionist in the pre-Civil War South would have a "personality disorder." And if he thought he could play a role in changing that culture he would be considered a "narcissist" suffering from the key word in the DSM's definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder: "grandiosity." Someone like John Brown for instance, not an idealist obsessed with ending the murderous crime of enslavement but according to the "experts" who wrote the DSM definition of NPD, a sick man who would have been better off if he'd had our sophisticated modern shrinks to work on him. Grandiosity: Melville, too. Couldn't it have been a white tuna rather than a white whale? Much healthier! Less grandiose!
Consider the history of NPD. The easily impressed author of the FT article tells us NPD was "first diagnosed by the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut in 1968." The acceptance of a psychoanalytically derived diagnosis at this late date after so much of Freudian theory has been discredited or found to rest on fabrications (if you haven't read Frederick Crews' "Talking Back to Prozac," do yourself a favor) is just the first warning sign of the author's notion of expertise.
The article delivers pronouncements from unnamed "experts," as in: "Today, experts believe disproportionate numbers of pathological narcissists are at work in the most influential reaches of society." Who are these "experts"? Are we really supposed to believe all experts—neuroscientists, say—buy into this antiquated conjectural fabrication? How do we decide who are the "pathological" and who the nonpathological narcissists? Sam Vaknin, the one "expert" most prominently featured, is an ex-criminal securities fraudster now flogging a pop-psych book on narcissism (for which he blames his crime, of course, which will be comforting to those he defrauded) and who tells us that "narcissists gravitate toward professions where they can control people and elicit adulation."
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.