The banality of narcissism.

Scrutinizing culture.
Sept. 22 2010 4:10 PM

The Banality of Narcissism

The class war over cultural diagnosis.

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Well, duh. Was Winston Churchill a "pathological narcissist" for thinking he and the RAF could hold off Hitler alone in 1940? Was FDR a narcissist when he said, "We have nothing to fear ..." If cinema didn't have narcissists, some of them probably pathological, we'd have no movies, certainly not masterpieces like The Godfather or Chinatown. Good thing this narcissism disease hasn't migrated from directors to great actors and actresses, who we know are spared the ravages of narcissism, right?

But the most shameful thing about the sedulous credulousness of this story is the way it buys into the use of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as science to exculpate murderers. Thus we get the story of poor Brian Blackwell, who murdered his mother and father with a claw hammer in Merseyside but only did it because of his narcissism, so it's totally understandable. "His lawyers argued that he had NPD, pointing to his fantasy lifestyle (Blackwell claimed to be a professional tennis player)." This farrago of nonsense got him off with a lighter sentence.

So next time you pick up a claw hammer with intent to kill your loved ones, make sure you've previously boasted of beating Roger Federer in three straight sets. 

But our FT writer swallows this crap whole and goes on to lay some more experts on us: "Experts believe that NPD patients are dysfunctional and immature, and that to compensate for this inner, sick child the narcissist invents a fiction." Voila! The deadly tennis fantasy.

But, wait. "Inner sick child" seems as if it comes from the rhetoric of the Party of Low Self-Esteem. Do we have here a Unified Field Theory of PON and PLSE emerging? LSE causes narcissism. But, then, our FT guide tells us no one knows whether it's caused by "an excess of love in infancy" or by childhood abuse. Or both.

It is only several thousand words later that we learn that nobody knows what narcissism is or "where it comes from," whether it's organic, psychogenic, genetic or just made up by a bunch of shrinks who want to medicalize every aspect of human character. But it's really, really scary. And guess what, ladies? It—and its claw hammer!—are coming for you!

Although "experts say" narcissism is more prevalent in men, these days, "with gender models changing, there is no known reason why women won't succumb to this disorder in greater numbers." (Another bad repercussion of feminism, it is implied. Uppity women = more narcissism.)

Meanwhile, the author shows his deep concern for the "victims" of narcissists by quoting a woman who claims to have been married to one and suffered the ravages of it: "It's a huge comfort to know it's NPD," she tells us. "You realize it's not you that's the problem."

So it's really a consolatory mechanism, a way of encapsulating in a word what's wrong with someone you don't like.

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No, it's not you that's the problem: It's NPD itself. A construct that can mean anything, is subjective rather than scientific, and is all too often a consolatory mechanism for essayists looking to diagnose American culture.

So please, people, attack positive thinking all you want, take your cheap shots at the lower orders, shoot your fish in a barrel, vaunt your superior complexity and tragic sense of life, but don't think you can demonstrate said complexity by throwing around equally vacant psychobabble about narcissism. It just makes you look, well, like a narcissist.

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