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…


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