The Luxury of Narcissism
Shrinkwrapped notes that "The obvious first question to address is what is the connection between increased narcissism and the fall of civilization. After all, some of our most overt narcissists reside at the pinnacle of our society. We celebrate celebrity, fill our Senate with preening peacocks, pay six figure incomes to "star" university professors, and have no difficulty cheering for our favorite football players as they do their end zone dance; so, again, what is the connection?"
My first thought, was that unless psychological development has an end point, or "telos," then there is no way to distinguish normal from abnormal development. But the Left actively undermines all hierarchies, including the developmental hierarchy that distinguishes immaturity from maturity. However, through a misunderstanding of Freud, they slipped in a reverse hierarchy back in the 1960's, to the effect that, the more uncivilized you are, the more "authentic" and noble you are. Conversely, if you are a normal, decent person, then you are likely a hypocrite, and there is nothing lower to a leftist. Better an authentic sociopath like Che Guevara, Yasser Arafat, or Mumia Abu-Jamal, than a wretched hypocrite.
One of Marx's predictions was that in capitalistic societies people would naturally become alienated and join the glorious revolution. When this didn't happen, Marxists had to come up with an explanation for why the bourgeoisie seemed so contemptibly content. Major leftist intellectuals like Herbert Marcuse and N.O. Brown developed a bastardized version of Freudianism to argue that people only imagined they were happy, but that they were actually living "inauthentic," repressed lives. In order to be "real," they had to express themselves in an uninhibited and unrepressed manner. Thus followed the idealization of the primitive in all its many forms.
This is why entertainers, leftist intellectuals, and the upper classes always play at "downward mobility"--anti-establishment attitudes, veneration of the instincts, body mutilation, profanity as a sign of authenticity and passion, etc. For them the results aren't so devastating, but for people on the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum--urban blacks, for example--the results are catastrophic. For example, with the dearth mature and stable fathers, boys are given no model of mature manhood to strive for. In fact, by spontaneously expressing sexual or violent impulses, they are already at the apex of the leftist developmental model, which is what the old model started with: a narcissistic baby with unlimited desires on one end and no responsibility on the other end.
I sometimes wonder how much the increase in narcissism may be attributable to the fantastic increase in wealth and prosperity in the West over the past 100 years, leading to previously undreamt of levels of affluence, leisure and comfort for the average person. In other words, before 100 years ago (and even 40 or 50 years ago), people were too busy working, subsisting, and dealing with pain, illness and early death to be particularly self-absorbed. Perhaps there was so much more awareness of the frailty of life that it didn’t occur to most people to exalt something as ephemeral as the individual self.
In a way, the transcendence of religion came more naturally in the past, as there was no reason to elevate our brief sojourn in this vale of tears to the ultimate experience. Until the early 20th century, the average person could expect to be in intense and excruciating pain at some point in his life, and perhaps often in life, because there were no powerful analgesics that were widely available. Very few diseases could actually be cured well into the 20th century.
In his book The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, Francis Fukuyama attempted to analyze the reasons for the dramatic breakdown of social order that began in the 1960’s, not just in the U.S., but in every industrialized Western nation: skyrocketing crime and illegitimacy, erosion of traditional family structures, excessive individualism (in the negative sense of the word, meaning heightened narcissistic preoccupation and self-indulgence, abetted by the weakening of any structures that would restrain or channel the self within traditional bounds or toward some transcendent goal).
Clearly, the extraordinary increases in crime, illegitimacy, and antisocial behavior had nothing to do with poverty, as they began their exponential rise in 1963, during a period of full employment and general prosperity, and when poverty rates began falling dramatically. Consider how much less affluent the United States was in 1945, compared to just twenty years later. Many things people already took for granted by 1965 scarcely existed in 1945: residential air-conditioning, supermarkets, fast food, freezers, dishwashers, ranch style homes, tape recorders and long playing records, let alone the mass mediocrity of television. Only 46% of homes had telephones, and more than 25 million farm dwellers had no electricity. Only a third of adults had cars. Very few traveled by air. Obviously there was no birth control which, by itself, prevented sexuality from becoming too far removed from traditional channels.
Fukuyama considers several explanations for the “great disruption” of the second half of the twentieth century, and one of them has always intrigued me. He begins with the question of why, since culture usually evolves quite slowly, would it undergo a sudden mutation in the 1960’s? He concludes by noting that the change was not as sudden as it appeared, but that it merely took that long for ideas that had been percolating at the upper reaches of society to trickle down to the masses.
It was actually in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that ideas that would come to full fruition in the 1960’s were first discussed among elites, artists and academics, for example, the notion that there were no rational grounds supporting norms of behavior, and that all such restrictions were arbitrary. “Nietzsche’s aphorism, ‘There are no facts, only interpretations,’ became the watchword for later generations of relativists under the banner of deconstruction and postmodernism.” Likewise, behaviorists argued that there was no such thing as human nature (much less "fallen" mankind), that the mind is an infinitely malleable “tabula rasa,” and that human beings could therefore be endlessly shaped by social policy, creating the perfect society. At the same time, antisocial behavior was excused, since people were simply a result of their conditioning.
By the “roaring twenties,” all of the important countercultural ideas and values that would later dominate the post 1960’s world were in play among the well-to-do. However, their inevitable spread through the rest of the population was delayed, first by the Great Depression of the 1930’s, then by World War II and the Korean War. Therefore, until the mid 1950’s, people of necessity had to “concentrate more on economic survival and domesticity than on self-expression and self-gratification, which most, in any event, could not afford.” Of course, mental illness has always existed; it's just that we have so many more ways to express it. I think of someone like Madonna, who, in Freud's day, would have been just a typical hysteric. She's just as sick today, but has the “freedom” to express her sickness by making titillating videos and selling books with naked photos of herself.
So part of the answer to the question, Why are people so much more narcissistic today?, may simply be, because they can be. One of the profound changes that accompanied modernity was that every man became "his own priest." Perhaps the the hallmark of postmodernity will be every man his own god.