The Spectator

The Banality of Narcissism

The class war over cultural diagnosis.

The great schism in American culture, the most deeply rooted civil war, is not the rift between the two major political parties but a battle at the center of our other two-party system, the two parties of societal self-diagnosis: the Party of Narcissism (PON) and the Party of Low Self-Esteem (PLSE).

The PON attributes all ills—personal, political, and cultural—to (a very vaguely defined) “narcissism” and its consequences, which include materialism, celebrity worship, and the rise of the memoir. The PLSE attributes all ills—personal, political, and cultural—to “low self-esteem” and its consequences: materialism, celebrity worship, and the rise of the memoir.

There are problems with both “parties,” unfortunately. Using “narcissism” as an all-purpose explainer of personal and cultural ills has become a sophisticated-sounding substitute for saying something meaningful. The word has become almost as banal as “the banality of evil”—using it requires no actual thought. And the low self-esteem explanation—or, more often, exculpation—for misdeeds and misfortunes has become a near-parody of itself, as most New Age “spiritual” guides such as The Secret and its new sequel, The Power, argue for virtually unlimited (and unearned) self-esteem.

Almost every cultural essay you read these days originates in one or the other worldview. We, as individuals, as a culture, as a nation, as a species, think too much of ourselves (PON) or too little (PLSE). The tide of battle between the PON and PLSE washes endlessly back and forth, but what prompts these observations was the appearance, on Labor Day weekend, in the usually sophisticated Financial Times, ofa breathless two-page tribute to the explanatory power of “narcissistic personality disorder”—a rubric from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that has been around for decades—as if it were a remarkable new discovery about human nature.

The FT story did at least have the virtue of making apparent to me the problem that neither party has been able to solve, the crucial “goldilocks question”—how much self-esteem is too much, how much is not enough, and how much is just the right amount.

And who will tell us? If only there were an objective standard that would make esteem levels as easy to measure as blood pressure. Perhaps it’s a ratio, whereby O.W. (Objective Worth, whatever that is) is divided by SSW (Subjective Sense of Worth) and a percentage (like body mass!) is established for every individual so that he or she can make an informed decision about whether to seek professional help.

What’s more, in the combat of cultural diagnoses, these competing constructs are often poorly defined, even by supposed “scientists.” The report from a York University study I saw posted on Facebook about Facebook claimed: “Facebook provides an ideal setting for narcissists to monitor what they look like and how many friends they have. People who constantly check Facebook may be lacking in self-esteem …”

So, wait. Narcissists lack self-esteem? I thought they had too much self-esteem. And people with low self-esteem are really narcissists because they get spurious self-esteem according to the number of “friends” they have? Even researchers can’t keep these terms straight.

I’ve tried to follow the yin-yang shifts of this schism over the decades. Of course, it’s a dialectic that has persisted for centuries of American history, ever since Cotton Mather called for rooting out pride (aka self-esteem) from the most pious Puritan minds by means of rigorous introspection, only to be followed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who almost deified the spiritual nobility of the self and the esteem in which it should be held. But the battle has sharpened in recent years to the point of cultural civil war.

For instance, I recall reading Christopher Lasch’s scathing critique of what he called “the culture of narcissism” in an early-’80s book of the same title. Lasch’s book was, I believe, a reaction to the self-esteem boosting mania described in Tom Wolfe’s “Me Decade” portrait of the ‘70s, and I remember thinking how smart Lasch was. Yes, narcissism, I thought—that’s the problem! It boosted my self-esteem that I was able to realize the utter justness of this diagnosis.

Then, in the middle of the ‘80s, I read a remarkably persuasive critique of Lasch’s thesis that changed my thinking completely. It was a somewhat overlooked essay by the late philosopher Robert Solomon, also the author of the much admired study of The Passions. In the essay, sadly not available on Google, Solomon portrayed Lasch as indulging in a puritanical witch hunt against the benevolent human desire to lead a more, rather than less, gratified life; to be admired rather than scorned; to develop one’s own personality, however idiosyncratic and inappropriately flashy it might seem to the sourpuss Lasch. Solomon painted Lasch as a modern Cotton Mather preaching stultifying dullness rather than individual self-fulfillment and condemning just about any path in life other than becoming a stern, narcissist-hating social critic. In other words, Solomon argued, what’s so bad about wanting to enrich one’s own experience, enjoy life, and have a good time? Solomon’s essay made me think of Twelfth Night, with Lasch as the puritanical Malvolio counterpoised to the inebriated but life-affirming Sir Toby Belch, who cries out against Malvolio’s strictures, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” 

Solomon also offered an interesting defense of the “narcissist’s” introspection: It’s not all pathological self-absorption. At least some of it could be looked upon as cultivating a thoughtful interior life. Shortly after I read Solomon, I read Harvard philosopher Elaine Scarry’s wonderfully revelatory and daring riff in The Body in Pain about materialism, often demonized by the anti-narcissists as a way of showing off one’s special self-worth. One could frown at the values espoused in Madonna’s “Material Girl” for instance, but one could also recognize that diamonds can be valued for their beauty as well as their cash value.

Scarry contends that gazing at beautiful works of art or the intricacies of lace, that sort of thing, is an appreciation of the potential of the material world to confront us with the glory of consciousness. The love of material things should not be automatically demonized or disdained as mere “materialism” by the PON. 

But then in the ‘90s, I began to see that, taken too far, the anti-anti-narcissist position could put you in the camp of the cult of self-esteem, somewhere on the road to accepting Tony Robbins as your higher power. This was the era of school systems instituting self-esteem-boosting programs for their students. The theory was that dysfunctional later development was derived from an early lack of self-esteem. This decade also saw new wave of self-help and self-fulfillment preachers and preachments. Oprah!

The embarrassments of the New Age positive-thinking gospel made me glad that, in some respects, I was already an anti-anti-anti-narcissist: I’d begun writing about New Age folly in the ‘80s, including attacks on phenomena such as the cult of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and the way her “five stages” of grieving turned death into an uplifting final exercise in self-esteem. I also knocked the way the cancer cure clinics of Tijuana, Mexico, had adopted New Age rhetoric to market their age-old quackery. I had become wary of the PLSE but not quite ready to return to the puritanical strictures of the PON.

Especially now, since there seems to be an elitist rush to ridicule, beat up on, and shoot all the remaining fish in the barrel of positive thinking. There’s a certain snobbery here, no? An idea that self-help is too popular with the masses who didn’t go to Ivy League schools. Beginning with Barbara Ehrenreich’s recently published Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America.

In the book, Ehrenreich makes the important point that the fixation on positive thinking as a way to prevent and even cure disease can lead to a malign tendency to blame oneself for getting sick, and she also offers a valuable warning against forsaking medical science for New Age mysticism.

She also rejects the pink baubles of breast-cancer-survivor culture and its “pink sticky sentiment,” as she puts it. But I was struck by a tone of disdain for those who went for all the pink baubles. Shouldn’t people in dire straits be given some absolution for the lesser aesthetic sensibilities of the comforts they seek and find, however embarrassingly pink?

Then there’s “The War on Unhappiness,” the lead story in this month’s Harper’s, in which the author tells us that positive psychology evokes “Nuremberg” to him and, in words that could have come from a Cotton Mather sermon, “the concupiscence and the stain” of Adam and Eve. (I could be reading the wrong Bible, but if I remember my Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve were not expelled from the Garden for “staining” it (ick) with their concupiscence—God didn’t mind them gettin’ it on—but because they allowed Lucifer to tempt them to violate a ban that had provoked their curiosity, not their lust. This is a kind of basic error.) Still, here we have positive psychology associated with Hitler and Satan by the Party of Narcissism.

It was then it began to dawn on me that what was going on was not just a conceptual war but a kind of aesthetic class war as well. Ehrenreich seemed to be looking down on the kinds of consolation sought out by those with less refined sensibilities, those who lacked her fierce intellectual honesty. Same with the Harper’s story, which, after deriding the positive-thinking psychologists for enabling the sin of concupiscence, ends with a turgid quote from Nietzsche, which I’d have to say is a egotist’s move, one that says, “I’m better educated in the humanities than you smiley-faced happiness shrinks. Nobody can trump the sophistication of my tragic sense of life. Like Freud and Nietzsche, I’m really self-aware compared with the grinning simpletons of the lower intellectual orders.” 

One hesitates to call him a narcissist, but there’s no low self-esteem there.

In almost every attack on the self help movement one can detect a subtext of “I wouldn’t fall for such pap. I went to an Ivy League school. I’m fabulously complex. Not like the poor souls in the flyover who have to cling to their guns, their god, and their simple-minded positive thinking.”

The one contemporary instance in which I think “narcissism” has not been brought to bear when it deserves to be is in the Tea Party and conservative talk radio’s fetishization of “American exceptionalism.” This is the belief, the virtually religious creed, that America is better than any nation that has ever existed in history, because our Constitution was given to us by God. A bit of narcissism there, I’d say. I like Obama’s answer when he was asked whether he believed in American exceptionalism and he said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.”

But perhaps the best exemplar of the resurgence of the PON and the utter emptiness of the narcissism metaphor, the most concentrated, state-of-the-art compendium of the banality of narcissism, the article that convinced me it was time to take a stand against the PON tide, was that long, sedulous, and credulous two-page cover story in the ordinarily acute Financial Times weekend “Arts & Leisure” section over Labor Day.

I say “ordinarily acute” Financial Times (witness their review of my Shakespeare book; OK, call me a narcissist but one with low self esteem, too), because this naive essay seemed to be presenting narcissism and Narcissistic Personality Disorder as a new revelation to the world, a fantastically exciting new scientific way of explaining human behavior. Talk about being late to the party.

But in the comprehensiveness of its awe and wonder at the explanatory power of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, as the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders calls it, the article should serve as a warning to cultural critics about the shaky foundation for their societal metaphors.

Now, I know there are intelligent people who believe in the heuristic utility of NPD, but the pretensions of the DSM to science are sketchy at best, when its real-world usage has more to do with rationalizing billing codes of shrink services. In addition, I believe there are philosophical problems with the definition the DSM gives to such “personality disorders.”

A personality disorder, it says, is “[a]n enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates markedly from the expectation of the individual’s culture, is pervasive and inflexible, has an onset in adolescence or early adulthood, is stable over time, and leads to distress or impairment.”

Note the deference given to “the expectation of the individual’s culture.” Thus an abolitionist in the pre-Civil War South would have a “personality disorder.” And if he thought he could play a role in changing that culture he would be considered a “narcissist” suffering from the key word in the DSM’s definition of Narcissistic Personality Disorder: “grandiosity.” Someone like John Brown for instance, not an idealist obsessed with ending the murderous crime of enslavement but according to the “experts” who wrote the DSM definition of NPD, a sick man who would have been better off if he’d had our sophisticated modern shrinks to work on him. Grandiosity: Melville, too. Couldn’t it have been a white tuna rather than a white whale? Much healthier! Less grandiose!

Consider the history of NPD. The easily impressed author of the FT article tells us NPD was “first diagnosed by the psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut in 1968.” The acceptance of a psychoanalytically derived diagnosis at this late date after so much of Freudian theory has been discredited or found to rest on fabrications (if you haven’t read Frederick Crews’ “Talking Back to Prozac,” do yourself a favor) is just the first warning sign of the author’s notion of expertise.

The article delivers pronouncements from unnamed “experts,” as in: “Today, experts believe disproportionate numbers of pathological narcissists are at work in the most influential reaches of society.” Who are these “experts”? Are we really supposed to believe all experts—neuroscientists, say—buy into this antiquated conjectural fabrication? How do we decide who are the “pathological” and who the nonpathological narcissists? Sam Vaknin, the one “expert” most prominently featured, is an ex-criminal securities fraudster now flogging a pop-psych book on narcissism (for which he blames his crime, of course, which will be comforting to those he defrauded) and who tells us that “narcissists gravitate toward professions where they can control people and elicit adulation.”

Well, duh. Was Winston Churchill a “pathological narcissist” for thinking he and the RAF could hold off Hitler alone in 1940? Was FDR a narcissist when he said, “We have nothing to fear …” If cinema didn’t have narcissists, some of them probably pathological, we’d have no movies, certainly not masterpieces like The Godfather or Chinatown. Good thing this narcissism disease hasn’t migrated from directors to great actors and actresses, who we know are spared the ravages of narcissism, right?

But the most shameful thing about the sedulous credulousness of this story is the way it buys into the use of Narcissistic Personality Disorder as science to exculpate murderers. Thus we get the story of poor Brian Blackwell, who murdered his mother and father with a claw hammer in Merseyside but only did it because of his narcissism, so it’s totally understandable. “His lawyers argued that he had NPD, pointing to his fantasy lifestyle (Blackwell claimed to be a professional tennis player).” This farrago of nonsense got him off with a lighter sentence.

So next time you pick up a claw hammer with intent to kill your loved ones, make sure you’ve previously boasted of beating Roger Federer in three straight sets. 

But our FT writer swallows this crap whole and goes on to lay some more experts on us: “Experts believe that NPD patients are dysfunctional and immature, and that to compensate for this inner, sick child the narcissist invents a fiction.” Voila! The deadly tennis fantasy.

But, wait. “Inner sick child” seems as if it comes from the rhetoric of the Party of Low Self-Esteem. Do we have here a Unified Field Theory of PON and PLSE emerging? LSE causes narcissism. But, then, our FT guide tells us no one knows whether it’s caused by “an excess of love in infancy” or by childhood abuse. Or both.

It is only several thousand words later that we learn that nobody knows what narcissism is or “where it comes from,” whether it’s organic, psychogenic, genetic or just made up by a bunch of shrinks who want to medicalize every aspect of human character. But it’s really, really scary. And guess what, ladies? It—and its claw hammer!—are coming for you!

Although “experts say” narcissism is more prevalent in men, these days, “with gender models changing, there is no known reason why women won’t succumb to this disorder in greater numbers.” (Another bad repercussion of feminism, it is implied. Uppity women = more narcissism.)

Meanwhile, the author shows his deep concern for the “victims” of narcissists by quoting a woman who claims to have been married to one and suffered the ravages of it: “It’s a huge comfort to know it’s NPD,” she tells us. “You realize it’s not you that’s the problem.”

So it’s really a consolatory mechanism, a way of encapsulating in a word what’s wrong with someone you don’t like.

No, it’s not you that’s the problem: It’s NPD itself. A construct that can mean anything, is subjective rather than scientific, and is all too often a consolatory mechanism for essayists looking to diagnose American culture.

So please, people, attack positive thinking all you want, take your cheap shots at the lower orders, shoot your fish in a barrel, vaunt your superior complexity and tragic sense of life, but don’t think you can demonstrate said complexity by throwing around equally vacant psychobabble about narcissism. It just makes you look, well, like a narcissist.

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.