On narcissim: the mirror and the self

People from Tiger Woods to the Obamas are routinely denounced for their narcissism. But what does the word really mean and are there good as well as bad types of self-love?

A rounded image: but modern culture is solipsistic, fixed on looking inward at our own preoccupations. Photo: Fleur van Dodewaard, part of the ‘Sun Set Series’ (2011)
Sylvia Plath said that writers are “the most narcissistic people”: whatever the truth of that statement, one can assume at least that her use of the term was correct. Freud bequeathed the modern era a tangled concept in narcissism, and literary culture has shown itself as apt as any other to misappropriate it. Yet it is the fashion to see people increasingly as one of two types – a narcissist, or the victim of one – so perhaps it is worth asking precisely what is meant by the word, which has come to encapsulate a cultural malaise.
 
Alongside the struggle in the modern era to define and enshrine narcissism as a psychiatric condition, the term has been appropriated as a shorthand for the general idea of self-obsession. This is a diverse concept with a large vocabulary of its own, but that vocabulary is increasingly abandoned in favour of a word whose ill-defined connotations of mental illness give it a strange force. What we think narcissism is, and how much of what we see seems to answer to it, depends in reality on the moral status we accord the self: the very forcefulness of “narcissism” lies in the fact that it illuminates the person saying it as much as the person against whom it is said. And indeed narcissism, classically, is a business of echo and reflection that can give rise to a narrative of maddening circularity, of repetition and counter-repetition, in which self and other struggle to separate and define themselves.
 
 
Surface intention: Obama allows himself to be used as a channel for reflecting on the American story.
Photo: Pete Souza/The White House/Polaris/eyevine
 
“Narcissism describes a culturally induced kind of subjectivity,” writes the psychoanalyst Sergio Benvenuto, “a new way in which modern subjects secularise ideals, sex objects and knowledge, a culture in which people believe less and less in psychoanalysis.” A narcissistic culture, in other words, will pillory what it calls narcissists and disown certain cultural products as narcissistic in order to avoid self-revelation and obstruct the pursuit of personal truth.
 
In US politics, where “narcissism” has come to signify the very elision of power and personality that has been fundamental to the nation’s ascendant culture of self, the effect is of a hall of mirrors: “The authors blame John Edwards’s narcissism for his downfall and describe Bill Clinton as a ‘narcissist on an epic scale’,” a book reviewer recently wrote in the New York Times. “Do a Google search on ‘Tiger Woods’ and ‘narcissist’ and you get tens of thousands of references . . . Rush Limbaugh calls President Obama a narcissist, it seems, every 24 hours.” Mitt Romney, himself a known narcissist, also favours this analysis of Obama, and avidly posts evidence for it on his website. The book Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited by Sam Vaknin is often cited in support of these diagnoses. Unfortunately it appears that Mr Vaknin, too, is a narcissist.
 
Narcissism, in the case of Obama and other political leaders, is a catch-all term for nearly every quality a person might require in order to become, for instance, president of the United States: ambition, determination, vision, self-belief. But Obama, in the eyes of his critics, also qualifies as another kind of narcissist. “Perhaps not surprisingly for a man whose principal accomplishment before becoming president was to write two autobiographies,” writes one journalist, “Obama has seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time talking about himself. And it’s not just Obama, but the first lady, too.”
 
Michelle Obama’s narcissism is illustrated thus, in a long quotation from a talk she gave to students at the University of Mumbai: 
 
I didn’t grow up with a lot of money. I mean, my parents – I had two parents. I was lucky to have two parents, and they always had a job, but we didn’t have a lot of money. But it was because of working hard, and studying, and learning how to write and read. And then I got a chance to go to college. And then college opened up the world to me. I started seeing all these things that I could be or do – and I never even imagined being the first lady of the United States. But because I had an education, when the time came to do this, I was ready. So just remember there is nothing that you guys can’t do. You know, you have everything it takes to be successful and smart and to raise a family, right? What do you say?
 
The writer continues: “The poor students in Mumbai might have had something to say, but the first lady never let them say a word. Instead, she continued on with her monologue before permitting a question. She then answered that question by referring to her favourite subject: herself and Barack Obama.”
 
This second narcissist, who spends all his time “talking about himself”, is in a way a more complex figure, and one that is harder to isolate, particularly in a culture (America) where fame and autobiography are so intertwined. As in Michelle Obama’s telling of it, fame (or power, or success) is the happy ending in the American story of life; that story is usually a narrative of ascent. Generally speaking, the Obamas have been lauded for talking about themselves – they have demonstrated an impeccable grasp of autobiographical form. They have in many ways revived and reshaped it by salting the ascent with just enough reality (or “honesty”) to make the American story seem true again. It’s a delicate illusion to manage, and one that is threatened by the notion that the autobiographer isn’t advancing the common story of life after all but is simply talking about his “favourite subject”, himself.
 
George J Marlin, the author of Narcissist Nation: Reflections of a Blue-State Conservative (“reflections” seems to be an unintended pun), claims that Obama “uses the ‘I’ word more than all the presidents have used it collectively in the 200-and-some-odd years of our nation”. The conservative, it seems, more readily than the democrat, sees autobiography as a form of bad manners (“the ‘I’ word”); and indeed, one reading of the myth of Narcissus itself is as a story of unmannerliness and its consequences.
 
Christopher Lasch, in his celebrated book The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1979), wrote: “The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own certainties on others but to find a meaning in life.” The guilt of the “old” narcissist might constitute nothing more than this conservative aversion to self-disclosure. The old narcissist processed his self-obsession by inflicting his certainties in a way that nonetheless left his “self” concealed: the “new” narcissist, by contrast, presents an agonised face to the world; his “self” is confessed and given over to others, leaving him free to ignore the social contract and do as he likes.
 
Malignant Self-Love is written in the “survivor” mode of American letters, the author having survived both his own confessed narcissism and that of his parents and gone on to found Narcissus Publications, an outlet for his own works. Yet Vaknin’s definition of narcissism is accurate enough: the narcissistic personality “is rigid to the point of being unable to change in reaction to changing circumstances . . . Such a person takes behavioural, emotional and cognitive cues exclusively from others. His inner world is, so to speak, vacated. His True Self is dilapidated and dysfunctional. Instead he has a tyrannical and delusional False Self. Such a person is incapable of loving and of living. He cannot love others because he cannot love himself. He loves his reflection, his surrogate self. And he is incapable of living because life is a struggle towards, a striving, a drive at something. In other words: life is change. He who cannot change cannot live. The narcissist is an actor in a monodrama, yet forced to remain behind the scenes. The scenes take centre stage, instead. The narcissist does not cater at all to his own needs. Contrary to his reputation, the narcissist does not ‘love’ himself in any true sense of the word.” 
 
What is compelling here is the notion that the narcissist’s “inner world is, so to speak, vacated”. D W Winnicott’s interjection of the maternal figure into the theory of primary narcissism attributes that vacated inner world to an initial absence of recognition: “The mother gazes at the baby in her arms, and the baby gazes at his mother’s face and finds himself therein . . . provided that the mother is really looking at the unique, small, helpless being and not projecting her own expectations, fears and plans for the child. In that case, the child would find not himself in his mother’s face, but rather the mother’s own projections. This child would remain without a mirror, and for the rest of his life would be seeking this mirror in vain.”
 
The widespread notion of a “healthy” degree of narcissism, according to this definition, is not quite the essential dose of vanity or self-regard we’re so often told to allow ourselves; perhaps, rather, there is an extent to which a person needs to be another person’s projection, their construction, an inner space that is and ought to remain vacated in order for the social dynamic to function.
 
“Liberated from the superstitions of the past”, Christopher Lasch continues, the new narcissist “doubts even the reality of his own existence. Superficially relaxed and tolerant . . . his sexual attitudes are permissive rather than puritanical, even though his emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace. Fiercely competitive in his demand for approval and acclaim, he distrusts competition because he associates it unconsciously with an unbridled urge to destroy. He extols co-operation and teamwork while harbouring deeply antisocial impulses. He praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself. Acquisitive in the sense that his cravings have no limits, he does not accumulate goods and provisions against the future, but demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.”
 
Lasch’s “new” narcissist isn’t so new any longer: he has become a parent. It might be said that social media such as Twitter and Facebook – those shrines to the self – are among the new narcissist’s offspring, and they are often seized on as evidence of our own “culture of narcissism”. The notion of networking as a façade for “antisocial impulses” is compelling, but in fact the most striking thing about the representation of self in these forums is its triviality. This may be one consequence of parental over-approval, the outpourings of a generation whose parents abstained from criticising them and instead hung on their every word and deed. The belief that you are very important, in other words, could be genuine – of course the world wants to know what you had for lunch.
 
Talking about your “favourite subject”, in this context, is not just permissible but mandatory: displaying the culturally approved degree of self-love is a sign of narcissistic “health”. In its “healthy” guise, narcissism bears no relation to Vaknin’s vacated inner space, for the defining characteristic of contemporary “healthy” narcissism is banality. The psychoanalytic literature concurs in finding mental activity in itself to be narcissistic: thinking is an act of libidinal appropriation, in which the self removes its attention from the object. The “I” word, in fact, is as dirty as it ever was, when caught in the act of pursuing its own truth. Instead, the duty of the contemporary “I” is to confess itself in public, to dismiss itself by surrendering to an agreed social narrative as rigid in its permissiveness as it once was in its conservatism. According to that narrative, if you’re not your own “favourite subject”, there is something wrong with you. “Health” requires it, and thinking is unhealthy. Hence what looks like a series of consequences – that in a culture of relentless disclosure we have become obsessed with rights of privacy – is in fact a set of concurrently held and contradictory beliefs. Self-disclosure is one thing; selfexamination quite another.
 
When Tracey Emin’s Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 went up in smoke in the 2004 Momart warehouse fire, there was unseemly jubilation in the right-wing press: Tracey’s tent represented the cardinal sin of “confessional” art. Emin is an artist who is often called narcissistic, and there are many ways in which she – and more specifically, the tent – illustrates the contemporary misappropriation of the term. The problem with confessional art, in the eyes of its critics, is that it conflates the trivial and the serious; the more the self is trivialised, the more abhorrent to culture this conflation will seem. In other words, the tent was shocking not because it disclosed what was private and personal, but because it was called “art”. More than that, its disclosures were not “healthy”. And finally, the tent was not tragic. This was very annoying, and made its incineration seem like a piece of poetic justice. Had the tent been self-loathing, it might have fitted in to the narrative of ascent: a girl regrets her chequered past and goes on to become a famous artist, selling her work for vast sums. But like Louise Bourgeois, Emin reprised feminine skills of needlework in order to represent a subjection in which self-discipline and self-care survived; a female art signifying not tragedy, but dignity. The tent is a piece of storytelling – it is commemorative, for keeping. A “confession”, on the other hand, is something to be thrown away in the hope of absolution. The “confessional” work, strictly speaking, is an admission of abnormality made out of the desire to become normal.
 
Emin has had great play in and on the contemporary obsession with narcissism, outwitting it at every turn. Her exertions demonstrate how hard it has become to serve the autobiographical impulse and raise the question of why the “I” word is such a locus of contradiction. Paradoxically, in a climate of unfettered disclosure, the artist is abhorred for examining herself. 
 
Recently I participated in a literary event at which a number of memoirists read from their work. It was striking how many of them assured the audience that “this is not about me”. It seemed that the only legitimate excuse for writing autobiography was to present it as a kind of war report – I was there, I witnessed it, but this is not about me. And there was nothing shamefaced about it: what these writers were saying, in fact, was that their work was “serious”, that although it looked like autobiography (triviality) it was actually diligent documentary (art). Tracey Emin’s statement is the reverse: “This is all about me.” What Emin has understood, as the Obamas have understood, is the notion of autobiographical occasion, whereby the self is not merely declarative but representative; is, in other words, the best example of what it is trying to say.
 
There are places in the social narrative where the form has to become autobiographical in order to advance itself; history passes to the individual for a while, as when a black man becomes president of the United States of America, or a working-class woman becomes one of the most powerful artists of her era. The story of how this came to be is not the story of one exceptional person: rather, that person is able to express and illustrate change through their own being. Self-portraiture was the best way for Rembrandt to describe the ascent of the self and the new relationship with worldliness and death it betokened. At the other end of history, Emin’s tent documents not just the changed status of the female body, but the contemporary problem of “the personal” itself, a representation she has pushed to the limit by making it co-extensive with “Tracey Emin”.
 
To return to Sylvia Plath . . . Literary culture has a far less comfortable relationship with self-analysis and self-portraiture than the visual arts, which is the mark of its conservatism. The openly self-analysing writer will be pilloried for talking about his or her “favourite subject”, for bad manners in using the “I” word. The literary reverence for the idea of “imagination”, as well as for history and for tales of “otherness”, is perhaps another iteration of what Virginia Woolf observed to be the culturally sanctioned “important” (male) subjects for the novel. The more “other” a text, the less it can be believed to be narcissistic; if the personal is trivial, the impersonal is “important”. 
 
Freud described narcissism as a tactic, a libidinal position, as Sergio Benvenuto puts it, “taken, for example, when a human being is in physical pain. Classical neurotic suffering drags narcissism along, because being neurotic in Freudian terms means not knowing what one desires. This uncertainty, or puzzling state of gaping desire, hauls along narcissistic constellations.”
 
A writer may indeed be someone driven by “classical neurotic suffering”, but, to quote Benvenuto again, “The symptom of narcissism is fascination . . . for Freud, our narcissistic love for ourselves is never natural, or primary.” Personal truth – the self-portrait – is in fact the opposite of narcissistic. Rather, the narcissistic artist is tactically seductive and charming, and imagination can be one such tactic. Writers may be narcissists, dragging along evolving literary constructions, but the central preoccupation of the narcissist is the avoidance of self-exposure while garnering attention and praise.
 
Whether or not “narcissism” is misunderstood and misused, its usage is puritanical: it is intended to inflict shame. Often the so-called narcissist’s self-exposure – the very thing that makes him vulnerable – has already been rewarded, if only by the attention of his critics; hence their anger. The accusation becomes an echo chamber, as in Ovid’s telling of the myth, where Narcissus and Echo can only say, “Who are you?” to one another, in a conversation that can never progress. This reflexive relationship leads both parties into upset and madness: Echo runs away, and Narcissus, driven by thirst, goes to the waters wherein his mother was once trapped and seduced, and where he was conceived. He becomes fixated with this source of self, on whose surface his own image floats: he doesn’t recognise the image and mistakes it for a being that might reciprocate. Yet he is thrilled at last to feel something, to feel love. When he tries to approach the image, it disappears. When he retreats, it comes back again.
 
It’s a pretty concept, and one that does indeed describe the struggle of creativity. The eventual result of this impasse is transformation. What is human in Narcissus dies and distils itself: his self-absorption bears fruit and is bequeathed to the world, becoming a flower that grows at the water’s edge, where he himself began.
 
Rachel Cusk’s most recent book is “Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation” (Faber & Faber, £8.99)