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The Narcissist Society

Friends and lovers provide moments of what might be called happiness, but their presence fails to arrest “the vacant spin of his inner existence.” For six years Zweig lived with a girl named Michèle, also a communist, who “hurled herself against his impassability without success.” A carefully laid scene, intended to capture the quality of their connection, captures also the elusive quality of Zweig’s narrative, the self-mockery intended to charm and to disarm criticism, and the terrible conviction of inauthenticity that lies behind it:

As if to mock the anguish in the room, the gray-lit bulk of Notre Dame floats out of the night at a distance of magic and low-muttering cars. The girl is sitting on the floor next to scattered paintbrushes and a murky wooden palette. The boy, in several pieces, or so he feels, on the bed, is saying in a strangled, theatrical whisper: “Je ne veux pas être un homme.” To make his meaning clearer, which is to say, to lift his anxiety into the intellectual realm, he repeats: “Je ne veux pas ‘être un homme,’ ” hinting at a question of principle which the girl is apparently too obtuse to grasp, because she lets out a moan and begins to cry.

After six years of this, “they got married and divorced within a few bracing weeks.” Zweig’s exile came to an end, and with it, his attempt “to impersonate his existence with the agility of someone who has nothing more to lose.”

The inner void, however, persists: “the experience of inner emptiness, the frightening feeling that at some level of existence I’m nobody, that my identity has collapsed and, deep down, no one’s there.” To “crystallize” this experience and to escape it, Zweig attempts to lose himself for a month in the Sahara. A diary of this trip serves as the opening section of his narrative, which then concludes with an account of his spiritual healing by Swami Muktananda, the guru with whose help Zweig has finally learned to put his “double” to sleep. “Baba”—father—teaches “the futility of mental processes.” Under his instruction, Zweig has experienced “the delirium of release.” Like Rubin, he attributes this “cure,” this feeling of being “healed and buoyant,” to the destruction of his psychic defenses. “No longer trapped in the labor of self-defense,” he has anesthetized that part of himself which is “constructed of mental busyness,…glued together by obsessive thinking and propelled by anxiety.”

The difference between Zweig and Rubin is that Zweig has not lost the capacity to move us, whatever else he may have lost, with the account of a spiritual ordeal whose very vagueness and indeterminacy explain its poignancy. He has written a painfully authentic description of the feeling of inauthenticity. Such writers as Rubin, by contrast, merely echo current therapeutic slogans, which have replaced the political slogans they used to mouth with equal disregard of their content.

It is essential to realize that the “inner revolution of the Seventies,” as Rubin calls it, grew in part out of an awareness that the radicalism of the Sixties had failed to address itself to the quality of personal life or to cultural questions, in the mistaken belief that questions of “personal growth,” in Rubin’s words, could wait “until after the revolution.” To speak of personal growth as something that can be achieved by eating health food, however, falsifies this perception. The problem for the Left—the problem for everyone—is to understand why personal growth and development have become so hard to accomplish; why the fear of growing up and aging—of “becoming a man”—haunts our society; why personal relations have become so brittle and precarious; and why the “inner life” no longer offers any refuge from the dangers around us.

If the left has ignored these problems, it is because the left too often serves as a refuge in its own right from the terrors of the inner life. In a passage explaining his own attraction to communism, Zweig observes that communism “released him…from the failed rooms and broken vases of a merely private life.” As long as political movements exercise a fatal attraction for those who seek to drown the sense of personal failure in collective action—as if collective action somehow precluded rigorous attention to the quality of personal life—political movements will have little to say about the personal dimension of social crisis.

Personal crisis on the scale it has now assumed has become a political issue, yet neither politicians nor personal healers are prepared to deal with the implications of this development. As a result, people veer between unthinking political commitments and a cult of the self, between a wholesale rejection of politics and a rejection of personal life as a bourgeois self-indulgence; the record of these shifts, these instantaneous conversions and false awakenings, constitutes a recurrent theme in twentieth-century cultural history.

As a guide to the ideology of the “consciousness movement,” Edwin Schur’s book is invaluable. He recognizes that the movement appeals to an older tradition of self-help, which it restates in therapeutic terms. He explains why the newer forms of therapy, eager for unearned enlightenment, have rejected psychoanalysis, often on the spurious “radical” grounds that it merely adjusts people to a sick society. 2 In place of the understanding that comes from confronting painful conflicts, the new therapies equate enlightenment with peace of mind. They invite the patient to satisfy his own needs before considering those of others and to reject the “roles” in which others would imprison him. They stress the need to live for the moment. According to Philip Slater, the former Parsonian sociologist who has become one of the spokesmen of the consciousness “revolution,” postponement of gratification amounts to arrogance. “Setting oneself above one’s own bodily responses is an act of snobbery, of satanic pride.”

The Awareness Trap contains so many keen observations and so much good sense—including excellent discussions of the influence of awareness thinking on the women’s movement and of the hollow claims of radical therapy—that one hesitates to find fault with it. Yet the grounds on which Schur condemns the “awareness craze”—that it addresses problems peculiar to the affluent, neglects those of the poor, and converts “social discontent to personal inadequacy”—seem to me highly misleading. Schur thinks it is “criminal” for “white middle-class citizens to become complacently self-preoccupied while their less fortunate fellow Americans struggle and starve.” But the self-preoccupation on which the awareness movement capitalizes arises not from complacency but from desperation; nor is this desperation confined to the middle class. Schur seems to think that the transient, provisional character of personal relations is a problem only for affluent executives always on the move. Are we to believe that things are different among the poor? That working-class marriages are happy and free of conflict? That the ghetto produces stable, loving, and nonmanipulative friendships? Studies of lower-class life have repeatedly shown that poverty has damaging effects on marriage and friendship. The collapse of personal life originates not in the spiritual torments of affluence but in the war of all against all, which is now spreading from the lower class, where it has long raged without interruption, to the rest of society.

Because the new therapies are usually expensive, Schur makes the mistake of supposing that they address problems that concern the rich alone and are inherently trivial and “unreal.” He criticizes the O’Neills for taking “an incredibly ethnocentric view of personal crisis, apparently based on their own middle-class values and experience.” It never occurs to experts in awareness, he complains, “that economic resources might help a person confront a crisis, or avoid it to begin with.” These experts write as if social classes and social conflict did not exist. For this reason, Schur finds it “hard to imagine” that the awareness movement, in spite of attempts to popularize it through inexpensive manuals and free clinics, will ever have much appeal to the poor.

Certainly, it’s conceivable that even a poor person might feel somewhat better as a result of some of the new self-realization techniques. But, at best, such happiness would tend to be short-lived. Seduced into interiorizing their problems, the poor would only be diverted from the more urgent task of advancing their real collective interests.

By setting up an oversimplified opposition between “real” issues and personal issues, Schur forgets that social questions inevitably present themselves also as personal ones. The “real” world is refracted in familial and personal experiences, which color the way in which we perceive “reality.” Experiences of inner emptiness, loneliness, and inauthenticity are by no means unreal or, for that matter, devoid of social content; nor do they arise from exclusively “middle- and upper-class living conditions.” They arise from the warlike conditions that pervade American society, from the dangers and uncertainty that surround us in abundance, and from a loss of confidence in the future. The poor have always had to live for the present, but now a desperate concern for personal survival, sometimes disguised as hedonism, engulfs the middle class as well.

Schur himself notes that “what seems ultimately to emerge out of this very mixed message is an ethic of self-preservation.” But his condemnation of the survival ethic as a “retreat into privatism” misses the point. When personal relations are conducted with no other object than psychic survival, “privatism” no longer provides a haven from a heartless world. On the contrary, private life takes on the very qualities of the anarchic social order from which it is supposed to provide a refuge.

It is the devastation of personal life, not the retreat into privatism, that needs to be criticized and condemned. The trouble with the consciousness movement is not that it addresses trivial or unreal issues but that it provides self-defeating solutions. Arising out of a pervasive dissatisfaction with the quality of personal relations, it advises people not to make too large an investment in love and friendship, to avoid excessive dependence on others, and to live for the moment—the very conditions that created the crisis of personal relations in the first place.

The notion that our social and political problems originate in “privatism” is an illusion. One of the gravest indictments of our society is precisely that it has made deep and lasting friendships, love affairs, and marriages so difficult to achieve. As social life becomes more and more warlike and barbaric, personal relations, which ostensibly provide relief from these conditions, take on the character of combat. Some of the new therapies dignify this combat as “assertiveness” and “fighting fair in love and marriage.” Others celebrate impermanent attachments under such formulas as “open marriage” and “open-ended commitments.” Thus they intensify the disease they pretend to cure. They do this, however, not by diverting attention from social problems to personal ones, from real issues to false issues, but by obscuring the social origins of the suffering that is painfully but falsely experienced as purely personal and private. An account of awareness movements that mistakes this suffering for complacent self-absorption—middle-class self-indulgence—does little to clear up the confusion.

  1. 2

    For a discussion of the relation between the new therapies and psychoanalysis, see Russell Jacoby, Social Amnesia: A Critique of Conformist Psychology from Adler to Laing (Beacon Press, 1975).

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