• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Narcissist Society

Decadence: Radical Nostalgia, Narcissism, and Decline in the Seventies

by Jim Hougan
William Morrow, 251 pp., $7.95

Growing (Up) at Thirty-Seven

by Jerry Rubin
M. Evans & Co., 208 pp., $7.95

Three Journeys: An Automythology

by Paul Zweig
Basic Books, 182 pp., $8.95

The Awareness Trap: Self-Absorption Instead of Social Change

by Edwin Schur
Quadrangle, 213 pp., $7.95

Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism

by Otto F. Kernberg MD
Jason Aronson, 361 pp., $15.00


It is no secret that Americans have lost faith in politics. The retreat to purely personal satisfactions—such as they are—is one of the main themes of the Seventies. A growing despair of changing society—even of understanding it—has generated on the one hand a revival of old-time religion, on the other a cult of expanded consciousness, health, and personal “growth.”

Having no hope of improving their lives in any of the ways that matter, people have convinced themselves that what matters is psychic self-improvement: getting in touch with their feelings, eating health food, taking lessons in ballet or belly dancing, immersing themselves in the wisdom of the East, jogging, learning how to “relate,” overcoming the “fear of pleasure.” Harmless in themselves, these pursuits, elevated to a program and wrapped in the rhetoric of “authenticity” and “awareness,” signify a retreat from the political turmoil of the recent past. Indeed Americans seem to wish to forget not only the Sixties, the riots, the New Left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon presidency, but their entire collective past, even in the antiseptic form of the Bicentennial.

To live for the moment is the prevailing passion—to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity. We are fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.

Bertrand Russell long ago predicted that the assumption of parental responsibilities by the state would encourage “a certain triviality in all personal relations” and “make it far more difficult to take an interest in anything after one’s own death.” It is this erosion of the concern for posterity that distinguishes the spiritual crisis of the Seventies from earlier outbreaks of millenarian religion, to which it bears a superficial resemblance. Many commentators have seized on this resemblance as a means of characterizing the contemporary “cultural revolution,” ignoring the features that distinguish it from the religions of the past. A few years ago Leslie Fiedler proclaimed a “New Age of Faith.” In a recent issue of New York, Tom Wolfe interprets the new “narcissism” as a “third great awakening,” an outbreak of orgiastic, ecstatic religiosity. Jim Hougan compares it to the millennialism of the waning Middle Ages. “The anxieties of the Middle Ages are not much different from those of the present,” he writes in Decadence, a book that seems to present itself simultaneously as a critique and a celebration of decadence. Then as now, according to Hougan, social upheaval gave rise to “millenarian sects.”

Both Hougan and Wolfe inadvertently provide evidence, however, that undermines a religious interpretation of the “consciousness movement.” Hougan notes that survival has become the “catchword of the Seventies” and “collective narcissism” the dominant disposition. Since “the society” has no future, it makes sense to live only for the moment, to fix our eyes on our own “private performance,” to become connoisseurs of our own decadence, to cultivate a “transcendental self-attention.” These are hardly the characteristics historically associated with millenarian outbreaks. Sixteenth-century Anabaptists awaited the apocalypse not with transcendental self-attention but with ill-concealed impatience for the golden age it was expected to inaugurate.

Nor were they indifferent to the past. Ancient popular traditions of the “sleeping king”—the leader who will return to his people and restore a lost golden age—informed the millenarian movements of this period. The Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine, anonymous author of the Book of a Hundred Chapters, declared that “the Germans once held the whole world in their hands and they will do so again, and with more power than ever.” He predicted that the resurrected Frederick II, “Emperor of the Last Days,” would reinstate the primitive German religion, move the capital of Christendom from Rome to Trier, abolish private property, and level distinctions between rich and poor.

Such traditions, often associated with national resistance to foreign conquest, have flourished at many times and in many forms, including the Christian vision of the Last Judgment. Their egalitarian and pseudo-historical content suggests that even the most radically other-worldly religions of the past expressed a hope of social justice and a sense of continuity with earlier generations. It is the absence of these things that characterizes the survivalism of the Seventies. In order to explain the peculiar features of contemporary religiosity, Tom Wolfe notes that “most people, historically, have not lived their lives as if thinking, ‘I have only one life to live.’ Instead they have lived as if they are living their ancestors’ lives and their offspring’s lives….” These observations are very much to the point, but they call into question his interpretation of the new narcissism as a third great awakening.

The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious. People today hunger not for personal salvation, let alone for the restoration of an earlier golden age, but for the feeling—even if it is only a momentary illusion—of personal well-being, health, and psychic security. Therapy is the modern successor to religion; but this does not imply that the “triumph of the therapeutic” constitutes a new religion in its own right.1 Therapy constitutes instead an antireligion, not always to be sure because it adheres to rational explanation or scientific methods of healing, as its practitioners would have us believe, but because modern society “has no future” and therefore gives no thought to anything beyond its immediate needs.

Even when they speak of the need for “meaning” and “love,” therapists define love and meaning simply as the fulfillment of the patient’s emotional requirements. It hardly occurs to them—nor is there any reason why it should, given the nature of the therapeutic enterprise—to encourage the subject to subordinate his needs and interests to those of others, to someone or some cause or tradition outside himself. Love as self-sacrifice or self-abasement, “meaning” as submission to a higher loyalty—these sublimations strike the therapeutic sensibility as intolerably oppressive, offensive to common sense and injurious to personal health and well-being. To “liberate” humanity from such outmoded ideas of love and duty has become the mission of the post-Freudian therapies and particularly of their converts and popularizers, for whom mental health means the overthrow of “inhibitions” and the nonstop celebration of the self.

Jerry Rubin, never one to shrink from publicity, conducts such a celebration in his coyly titled memoir Growing (Up) at Thirty-Seven. Having a few years ago reached the dreaded age of thirty, the former Yippie leader found himself without a following. Forced, he says, to confront his private fears and anxieties, he moved from New York to San Francisco, where he shopped voraciously, on an apparently inexhaustible income, in the spiritual supermarkets of the West Coast. “In five years, from 1971 to 1975, I directly experienced est, gestalt therapy, bioenergetics, rolfing, massage, jogging, health foods, tai chi, Esalen, hypnotism, modern dance, meditation, Silva Mind Control, Arica, acupuncture, sex therapy, Reichian therapy, and More House—a smorgasbord course in New Consciousness.” His book has the quality of a testimonial, of a series of endorsements for health products and therapeutic regimens of every kind. After years of neglecting his body, he gave himself “permission to be healthy” and quickly lost thirty pounds. Health foods, jogging, yoga, sauna baths, chiropractors, and acupuncturists have made him feel, at thirty-seven, “like twenty-five.”

Spiritual progress proved equally gratifying and painless. He shed his protective armor, his sexism, his “addiction to love,” and learned “to love myself enough so that I do not need another to make me happy.” He came to understand that his revolutionary politics concealed a “puritan conditioning,” which occasionally made him uneasy about his celebrity and its material rewards. No strenuous psychic exertions seem to have been required to convince Rubin that “it’s O.K. to enjoy the rewards of life that money brings.”

He learned to put sex “in its proper place” and to enjoy it without investing it with “symbolic” meaning. Under the influence of a succession of psychic healers, he raged against his parents and the righteous, punitive “judge” within himself, eventually learning to “forgive” his parents and his superego. He cut his hair, shaved his beard, and “liked what I saw.” Now “I entered rooms and no one knew who I was, because I didn’t fit their image of me. I was thirty-five but I looked twenty-three.”

Rubin sees his “journey into myself” as part of the “consciousness movement” of the Seventies. Yet this “massive self-examination” seems to have produced few indications of self-understanding, personal or collective. In Rubin’s case, self-awareness rarely rises above liberationist clichés. He discusses the “female in me,” the need for a more tolerant view of homosexuality, and the need to “come to terms” with his parents, as if these commonplaces represented hard-won insights into the human condition.

As a skillful manipulator of the common coin, a self-confessed “media freak” and propagandist, Rubin assumes that all ideas, character traits, and cultural patterns derive from propaganda and “conditioning.” Apologizing for his heterosexuality, he writes, “Men do not turn me on, because I was propagandized as a child to think that homosexuality is sick.” In therapy, he attempted to reverse “the negative programming of childhood.” By convincing himself that a collective deconditioning will provide the basis for social and political change, he has built a rickety bridge between his political activities in the Sixties and his current preoccupation with his own body and “feelings.”

Paul Zweig’s book records a similar quest, with the difference that Zweig, a poet instead of a propagandist, provides a glimpse into the pain that gives rise to the search for psychic peace. Zweig speaks persuasively of his growing “conviction, amounting to a faith, that my life was organized around a core of blandness which shed anonymity upon everything I touched”; of “the emotional hibernation which lasted until I was almost thirty”; of the “inner dryness” that drove him, in 1974, to test himself against the Sahara Desert; of the persisting “suspicion of personal emptiness which all my talking and my anxious attempts at charm surround and decorate, but don’t penetrate or even come close to.”

The central section of his “automythology” recounts, obliquely but with a desperate intensity, ten years spent as an exile in Paris in the Fifties and Sixties. During this period Zweig became a communist, took part in the agitation against the Algerian War, and eventually discovered communism’s “antidote: the inner life.” Although Zweig says that the war “gradually became an environment pervading every aspect” of his existence, external events play only a shadowy part in his narrative. They have the quality of hallucination, a vague background of “terror and vulnerability.” At the height of the violent protest against the Algerian war, “he recalled a phrase he had once read in a book about the inner feeling of schizophrenia. The patient, with the pungency of an oracle, had said: ‘La terre bouge, elle ne m’inspire aucune confiance.”’ The same feeling, Zweig says, overwhelmed him in the Sahara: “The earth moves about, I can have no confidence in it.”

  1. 1

    See Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud (Harper & Row, 1966).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print