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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

I

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.”

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.

II

Narcissism holds the key to the consciousness movement and to the moral climate of contemporary society, as Hougan, Wolfe, and Schur in various ways suggest. Unless we are content merely to moralize under the cover of psychiatric jargon, however, we need to use this concept more rigorously than it is used in popular social criticism, and with an awareness of its clinical implications.

Narcissism is more than a metaphorical term for self-absorption. In modern psychiatric practice, it has come to be recognized as an important element in the so-called character disorders that have absorbed much of the clinical attention once given to hysteria and obsessional neuroses. Psychoanalysis, a therapy that grew out of experience with these classical neuroses, often finds itself today confronted with a “chaotic and impulse-ridden character,” as Dr. Otto Kernberg observes in his new book. It must deal with patients who “act out” their conflicts instead of repressing or sublimating them. These patients, though often ingratiating and successful, tend to cultivate a protective shallowness in emotional relations. Promiscuous, they avoid close involvements, which might release intense feelings of rage. Their personalities consist largely of defenses against this rage and against feelings of moral deprivation that originate, as many psychoanalysts believe, in the pre-Oedipal stage of psychic development.

Often these patients suffer from hypochondria and complain of a sense of inner emptiness. At the same time they entertain fantasies of omnipotence and a strong belief in their right to exploit others and be gratified. “Archaic,” punitive, and sadistic elements predominate in the superegos of these patients, and they conform to social rules more out of the fear of punishment than from a sense of guilt. What analysts call “primary process” thinking, which relies on magic and symbolism rather than linear causality and has little tolerance of ambiguity or doubt, plays a prominent part in their mental lives.

On the principle that pathology frequently represents a heightened version of normality, the “pathological narcissism” found in character disorders of this type should tell us something about narcissism as a social phenomenon. Kernberg’s study of personality disorders that occupy the “borderline” between neurosis and psychosis, though written for clinicians and making no claims to shed light on social or cultural issues, depicts a type of personality that ought to be immediately recognizable, in a more subdued form, to observers of the contemporary cultural scene: facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it; unappeasably hungry for emotional experiences with which to fill an inner void; terrified of aging and death.

In his effort to explain the psychic origins of this borderline syndrome, Kernberg draws on the theoretical tradition established by Melanie Klein, who found that early feelings of overpowering rage, directed especially against the mother and secondarily against the internalized image of the mother as a ravenous monster, make it impossible for the child to synthesize “good” and “bad” parental images. In his fear of aggression from the bad parents—projections of his own rage—he idealizes the good parents who will come to his rescue.

Internalized images of others, buried in the unconscious mind at an early age, become self-images as well. If later experience fails to qualify or to introduce elements of reality into the child’s archaic fantasies about his parents, he finds it difficult to distinguish between images of self and of the objects of his feelings that are outside the self. These images fuse to form a defense against the bad representations of the self and of objects; while such bad representations become similarly fused in the form (among others) of a harsh, punishing superego. Melanie Klein analyzed a ten-year-old boy who unconsciously thought of his mother as a “vampire” or “horrid bird” and internalized this fear as hypochondria. He was afraid that the bad presences inside him would devour the good ones. The rigid separation of good and bad images of the self and of objects, on the one hand, and the fusion of self and object images on the other, arose from the boy’s inability to tolerate ambivalence or anxiety. Because his anger was so intense, he could not admit that he harbored aggressive feelings toward those he loved. “The fear and guilt relating to his destructive phantasies moulded his whole emotional life.”3

A child who feels so gravely threatened by his own aggressive feelings (projected onto others and then internalized again as inner “monsters”) attempts to compensate himself for his experiences of rage and envy with fantasies of wealth, beauty, and omnipotence. These fantasies, together with the internalized images of the good parents with which he attempts to defend himself, become the core of a “grandiose conception of the self.” A kind of “blind optimism,” according to Kernberg, protects the narcissistic child from the dangers around and within him—and particularly from dependence on others, who are perceived as without exception undependable. “Constant projection of ‘all bad’ self and object images perpetuates a world of dangerous, threatening objects, against which the ‘all good’ self images are used defensively, and megalomanic ideal self images are built up.”

The splitting of images determined by aggressive feelings from images that derive from libidinal impulses makes it impossible for the child to acknowledge his own aggression, to experience guilt or concern for objects invested simultaneously with aggression and libido, or to mourn for lost objects. Depression in narcissistic patients takes the form not of mourning with its admixture of guilt, which Freud described in “Mourning and Melancholia,” but of impotent rage and “feelings of defeat by external forces.”

Because the intrapsychic world of these patients is so thinly populated—consisting only of the “grandiose self,” in Kernberg’s words, “the devalued, shadowy images of self and others, and potential persecutors”—they experience intense feelings of emptiness and inauthenticity. Although the narcissist can function in the everyday world and often charms other people (not least with his “pseudo-insight into his personality”), his devaluation of others, together with his lack of curiosity about them, impoverishes his personal life and reinforces the “subjective experience of emptiness.” Lacking any real intellectual engagement with the world—notwithstanding a frequently inflated estimate of his own intellectual abilities—he has little capacity for sublimation. He therefore depends on others for constant infusions of approval and admiration. At the same time, his fear emotional dependence, together with his manipulative, exploitative approach to personal relations, makes these relations bland, superficial, and deeply unsatisfying.

Chronically bored, restlessly in search of instantaneous intimacy—of emotional titillation without involvement and dependence—he is promiscuous and often pansexual as well, since the fusion of pregenital and Oedipal impulses in the service of aggression encourages polymorphous perversity. The bad images he has internalized also make him chronically uneasy about his health, and hypochondria in turn gives him a special affinity for therapy and for therapeutic groups and movements.

As a psychiatric patient, the narcissist is a prime candidate for interminable analysis. He seeks in analysis a religion or way of life and hopes to find in the therapeutic relationship external support for his fantasies of omnipotence and eternal youth. The strength of his defenses, however, makes him resistant to successful analysis. According to Kernberg, the great argument for making the attempt at all, in the face of the many difficulties presented by narcissistic patients, is the devastating effect of narcissism on the second half of their lives—the certainty of the terrible suffering that lies in store. In a society that dreads old age and death, aging holds a special terror for those who fear dependence and whose self-esteem requires the admiration usually reserved for youth, beauty, celebrity, or charm. The usual defenses against the ravages of age—identification with ethical or artistic values beyond one’s immediate interests, intellectual curiosity, the consoling emotional warmth derived from happy relationships in the past—can do nothing for the narcissist. Unable to derive whatever comfort comes from identification with historical continuity, he finds it impossible, on the contrary,

to accept the fact that a younger generation now possesses many of the previously cherished gratifications of beauty, wealth, power and, particularly, creativity. To be able to enjoy life in a process involving a growing identification with other people’s happiness and achievements is tragically beyond the capacity of narcissistic personalities.4

The point of this résumé of recent theories of narcissism is not to provide a psychological interpretation of the consciousness movement or to psychoanalyze its leaders as if they represented so many case studies in pathology. I wish to argue just the reverse, that the awareness movement embodies experiences and perceptions that have become increasingly common, and that its appeal lies precisely in its capacity to address experiences that many people share. The only reason to raise the question of pathological narcissism is to shed light on the narcissism that now seems to pervade “normal” everyday life.

Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure. In Freud’s time, hysteria and obsessional neurosis carried to extremes the personality traits associated with the capitalist order at an earlier stage in its development—acquisitiveness, fanatical devotion to work, and a fierce repression of sexuality. In our time, the “preschizophrenic,” “borderline,” or personality disorders have attracted increasing attention, along with schizophrenia itself; and this development seems to signify an underlying change in the organization of personality, from what has been called inner-direction to narcissism.

The determinants of this shift are social, not psychological: the increasingly dangerous and warlike character of the social environment, the fragility of friendship and family ties, the social emphasis on the consumption rather than the production of commodities, the rise of the mass media with their cult of glamor and celebrity, the disruption of the sense of historical continuity. Social changes, however, manifest themselves also at the psychological level. New social forms require new forms of personality, new modes of socialization, new ways of organizing experience.

The concept of narcissism provides us not with a ready-made psychological determinism but with a way of understanding the psychological impact of recent social changes—assuming that we bear in mind not only its clinical origins but the continuum between pathology and normality. It provides us, in other words, with a tolerably accurate portrait of the “liberated” personality of our time: of his charm, his pseudo-awareness of his own condition, his promiscuous pansexuality, his fascination with oral sex, his fear of the castrating mother (Mrs. Portnoy), his hypochondria, his protective shallowness, his avoidance of dependence, his inability to mourn, his dread of old age and death.

It might be asked what is gained by labeling as narcissism aspects of behavior with which we are already familiar as part of the current cultural scene. What is gained is the ability to see them as part of a recurrent pattern, on which personality in our society is typically organized; and thus to advance beyond cultural criticism to a theory (or the beginnings of a theory) of contemporary society.

It is not merely that narcissism appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with a dangerous world, and that the prevailing social conditions therefore tend to bring out narcissistic traits that are present, in varying degrees, in everyone. These conditions have also transformed the family, which in turn shapes the underlying structure of personality. A society that fears it has no future is not likely to give much attention to the needs of the next generation, and the ever-present sense of historical discontinuity, the blight of our society, falls with particularly devastating effect on the family.

Whereas parents formerly sought to live vicariously through their offspring, now they tend to resent them as intrusions and to envy their youth. Formerly the young sought to escape the smothering embrace of the older generation, but for the last several decades they have been more likely to complain of emotional neglect. The modern parent’s attempt to make children feel loved and wanted does not conceal an underlying coolness—the remoteness of those who have little to pass on to the next generation and who in any case give priority to their own right to self-fulfillment. The combination of emotional detachment with attempts to convince a child of his favored position in the family is a good prescription for a narcissistic personality structure.

Through the intermediary of the family, social patterns reproduce themselves in personality. Social arrangements live on in the individual, buried in the mind below the level of consciousness, even after they have become objectively undesirable and unnecessary—as many of our present arrangements are now widely acknowledged to have become. The perception of the world as a dangerous and forbidding place, though it originates in a realistic awareness of the insecurity of contemporary social life, receives reinforcement from the narcissistic projection of aggressive impulses outward. The belief that society has no future, while it rests on a certain realism about the dangers ahead, also incorporates a narcissistic inability to identify with posterity or to feel oneself part of a historical stream.

The weakening of social ties, which originates in the prevailing state of social warfare, at the same time reflects a narcissistic defense against dependence. A warlike society tends to produce men and women who are at heart antisocial. It should therefore not surprise us to find that the narcissist, although he conforms to social norms for fear of external retribution, often thinks of himself as an outlaw and sees others in the same way, “as basically dishonest and unreliable, or only reliable because of external pressures.” “The value systems of narcissistic personalities are generally corruptible,” writes Kernberg, “in contrast to the rigid morality of the obsessive personality.”

The ethic of self-preservation and psychic survival is rooted, then, not merely in objective conditions of economic warfare, rising rates of crime, and social chaos, but in the subjective experience of emptiness and isolation. It reflects the conviction—as much a projection of inner anxieties as a perception of the way things are—that envy and exploitation dominate even the most intimate relations. The cult of personal relations, which becomes increasingly intense as the hope of political solutions recedes, conceals a thoroughgoing disenchantment with personal relations, just as the cult of sensuality implies a repudiation of sensuality in all but its most primitive forms. The ideology of personal growth, superficially optimistic about the power of positive thinking, radiates pessimism. It is the world view of the resigned.

  1. 1

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

  2. 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).

  3. 3

    Melanie Klein, “The Oedipus Complex in the Light of Early Anxieties” (1945), in her Contributions to Psychoanalysis (McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 346. See also Melanie Klein, “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms” (1946), in Joan Riviere, ed., Developments in Psychoanalysis (Hogarth Press, 1952); Paula Heimann, “A Contribution to the Re-evaluation of the Oedipus Complex: The Early Stages,” in Melanie Klein et al., eds., New Directions in Psychoanalysis (Basic Books, 1955); H.G. Van der Waals, “Problems of Narcissism,” Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, v. 29 (1965); and H. Kohut, “Forms and Transformations of Narcissism,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, v. 14 (1966). On psychoanalysis as a way of life, see Gilbert J. Rose, “Some Misuses of Analysis as a Way of Life: Analysis Interminable and Interminable ‘Analysts,’ ” International Review of Psychoanalysis, v. 1 (1974).

  4. 4

    Kernberg, p. 312.

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