Wrestling with Narcissism, Wrestling with Love
All goes onward and outward…and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed, and luckier.
- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
In his searing, prophetic 1979 book, “The Culture of Narcissism,” Christopher Lasch—that historian and professor of extraordinary, authentically radical political paradox—launches a critique of late capitalistic culture, government, and bureaucracy that we have still yet to go beyond. His vision of America—solipsistic and image-obsessed; full of grandiose, fragile superegos and benevolently tyrannical managers—is one in which all aspects of our culture, media, and institutions have become suffused with narcissism (a term he ingeniously surrounds rather than defines), as allied with the slyly vicious therapeutic-consumerism of late capitalism. It is a world in which we are liberated from the past—from the repressive nuclear family, patriarchal rule, the cult of domesticity, the subordination of women, the prior elitism of education, even from the necessity of tradition itself—only to be delivered into the coddling hands of markets, professionals, experts, alienated labor, bland universal education, peoples courts, the welfare state. Ultimately, to what he terms, “the war of all against all.”
The center of this damning insight is the emergence of the therapeutic culture. Familial and cultural traditions are systematically dismantled while the old family roles are given to psychologists, experts, juvenile courts, and set to standards of parenting and childcare which create and sustain an unending anxiety. Taken out of the context of the psychoanalyst’s office, the therapeutic mindset under capitalism (along with all governmental, scientific, and medical institutions) takes instead the example of the world of advertising. That is: in a world in which uprooted and disenfranchised people everywhere look for culture, meaning, and communal experience, our institutions do not pretend to serve these original needs, but instead to create entirely new ones. Thus, the original needs are never met—we are still empty of spiritual and communal experience—but the latest anxiety, some worry about our status or appearance or virtue, though recently invented, has at least been momentarily assuaged. Welcome to the trap.
What has struck me, more than anything, about Lasch’s indictment of our world, is not just what narcissism is, nor how it invades our lives, but what it isn’t. Put more precisely: narcissism is the opposite of real love.
Think of how we are encouraged to hate ourselves, judge ourselves, compare our flaws to other’s qualities. In Lasch’s view, the narcissistic personality does not seek in the world a zone for play or understanding or edification, but instead a mirror, a reflection of the grandiose self-image which has arisen to fight against an immature superego. The narcissist is not one who has grown up without a governing superego—in fact, the narcissist grows up without a relationship to any legitimate authority at all, and so has no external ally with which to identify their own repression, to control their own impulse to indulge. The result is a harsh, punitive inner self. The self inevitably responds to this inner shame with grandiose fantasies, infantile dependence on outside validation, and wild swings in mood and self-esteem.
But the therapeutic way out can very quickly be a trap—self-love, self-care, self-improvement, these terms are offered up as solutions to the emptiness inside. We are taught that the answer to our problems is the mental health we would have had, if only our society had not programmed us to be unhealthy. “Self-fulfillment” and “self-actualization” have, in modern times, become totems by which we measure our happiness, our success, resting on our ability to conquer anxiety and depression. Our entire lives—from childhood to the old age and final death we are all so anxiously afraid of—are mediated by normative schedules of development which claim to help and regulate our health but cause despondency and immobilizing anxiety across the board. Yet the moment that newest anxiety is felt? Well, there is an answer, in the form of more therapy, more prescriptions, more self-help gurus, more self-improvement seminars. A whole apparatus of professionals ready to relieve us of the burdens of taking care of each other, our children, our old ones, our dead and dying. Like capitalism itself, the therapeutic industries require infinite growth—require infinite mental anguish and anxiety, to sustain themselves.
This leads me to the insight that narcissism is, in fact, the opposite of love. And this is where it becomes so difficult to discuss. Because love, in our sentimental, pseudo-liberal culture, has become so bereft of deep, humanist dimensions or political urgency, pried away from the deadly serious religious intimations of powerful, universal love and neutered by the frankly evil conventions of advertising and consumerism. The modern injunction to love ourselves is empty of all substance. So, too, is the call for justice for the oppressed as it comes from the professional classes who run our world. In the current context, self-love and self-care are nothing more than a command to satisfy our own emotional needs. And the call for justice from those who profit from injustice is nothing more than inverted fear of those below.
What is radical love but the refutation of solipsism? If I love myself—truly, deeply love myself, then I love myself not for my difference or my separation or my specialty. I love myself exactly the way I love another, and precisely because there is no difference between us which love cannot contain. The same goes for the call for justice, freedom. I demand justice for another, precisely I demand justice for myself, and vice-versa. I understand that I cannot be free unless you are free, and precisely because we are part of the same stuff, composed of the same human currency, I am not truly free until all people everywhere are free. James Baldwin said this most beautifully when he said it all depends on us discovering why we ever needed a master and a slave to begin with. This is the spiritual insight which ought to blast aside the shallow, sybaritic credos of the consumerized world, and it is all the more powerful because it does not belong to any one person, and is not even my own insight, in the end.
This was exactly why so many people were disturbed, in light of the protests sweeping the country, of the extraordinary demand for justice, because, of course, the old bourgeoise narcissism arose again to feed off of the groundswell of true solidarity. The way corporations and corporate media leapt to attention, decrying racism and promising support for the cause. The way feeds lit up with the rich and famous in an outpouring of self-abjection and atonement for privilege. The way we were suddenly so quickly encouraged to suspect each other of hidden motives and prejudices, to feel alone our shame for our perceived complicity in the unfairness of our society. These were tantalizing traps—the old narcissism. Their intention was precisely to redirect people’s righteous anger and togetherness, to subordinate it again to alienation and isolation and shame. The professional class rolled out its patented hysteria of performative apologies, self-flagellation, and omnidirectional scolding—all in the name of Black Power and anti-racism. But what was so despicable about the parade was what it masked: namely, a deeper, less conspicuous racism of its own, one mired in fear. Afraid of the looming ascendancy of non-white masses, the managerial class imbibed of their own narcissism and patronizingly declared themselves the new leaders of the right side of history, with the self-appointed power to judge the good from the bad.
But nowhere in all this rhetoric was the word love. Nowhere was the exhortation to white people of all classes and types to think about what it would mean to fully love their black brothers and sisters.
See, the promise always almost possible in the story of this country, the legacy of its horrors, has never been a promise for which we must destroy or forget our history, or our guilt, or our hate. The promise, as it has been understood by all our great prophets, from Whitman to Baldwin to Lasch to Angelou, is a promise of learning to love, in all its difficulty. Isn’t it certain at this point that to those who rule us, the most threatening idea of all is the idea that we could learn to love the Other, so completely, so thoroughly, that they are the Other no longer?
True, this boy does not have the answers. Nor do I always have the love—so often I'm just alone and stark-white in the fear at the face of death, which is the same fear as the fear of love, which is the same fear as the fear of commitment, the same as the fear of self-sacrifice, the fear that there is something greater than myself. We all have this and we feel this so painfully, together, alone.
At the risk of sounding my own need for atonement, I have of course not done all I could for my brothers and sisters of all kinds. Part of writing this is, I suppose, summoning the courage to try again. But there are two things which give me hope. The first is a radical promise at the heart of the protest—at the heart of the calls for justice, for the abolishing of the police state—which represents something real. At its heart is the call for the return of the community. To give the choice of life back to the people who live it. Whatever comes of the push to abolish the police, which is already subject to a thousand disagreements over its substance, what we have for the first time in so long is a collective willingness to imagine the self-government of the community. The thousand complications which arise from this possibility are not to be shunned, they are to be embraced. This is the promise of the neighborhood, the district, the town, the city, the polis—the ancient promise that we may one day really provide for ourselves and each other.
The second is a response to narcissism itself. Because the modern world of bloated institutions and poor education and those therapeutic, consumerist industries, are a perversion of the original therapy. A betrayal of the original myth at the center of the original model of therapy. And the return of the old myth—as a reinstatement of historical continuity, a prerequisite for the reinstatement of the future—is what is so desperately needed. It is the eternal story of enlightenment. The Bodhisattva achieves Nirvana, extinguishes Desire, Hostility, and Delusion, yet, returning to the world, discovers that this world is already Nirvana. That is the true goal of therapy. And it is the true goal of love. Those who find God discover they were divine all along—and now, immersed in the world of things and people, resolve to remain until every other being is saved as well.
So…what? In some sense, the call must become a call for a world of visions. Our society’s transformation depends on a transformation of consciousness, not simply of structure. It depends on the resolution of individual responsibility on and collective solidarity. On the willingness to love something greater than we love ourselves. And it is our duty to fill the world with our poetry and our stories and our history—our only reserves against the slow cancellation of the future. In short? It depends on learning how to die again, so we might really live.