Welcome to the Monthly Book.
Each month Ramona Koval chooses a book, provides reading notes and posts a video interview.
The Life of I – Anne Manne
What made the young Norwegian Anders Breivik explode a bomb in central Oslo and then arm himself with weapons, travel to an island gathering of young members of the Norwegian Labour Party and open fire on them, killing 67 people?
Not madness, according to the psychiatrists who evaluated his mental state for the courts. This isolated loner, who had written a 1500-page manifesto, was thinking clearly enough to have planned and carried out this elaborate crime. He even wept when he heard some of his writings read out in court, so moved was he by his own words.
For Anne Manne, the clue to his actions lay in something he did while being arrested on the island as the bodies of his victims lay around him.
“And as the policemen approached him, he held up a finger and he demanded a band-aid because he had a small cut on the finger,” Anne says in our interview about the book. “And I thought that was extraordinarily revealing of the narcissism in this person … It was not long before people quickly picked up [on] his narcissism. For example, they said, “How did you feel when you were killing all those young people?” and he said, “Well, you know, it was terrible for me. War is hell, all those brains and blood spurting out, look how I suffer.” So again there is a focus on the self where there is no other. The other person has disappeared from your line of mindsight.”
In her book The Life of I (MUP) Anne Manne writes about an increase in the proportion of narcissists in our society – people who are completely obsessed with their own feelings, thoughts, views and interests. In its more extreme forms, narcissism can be accompanied by a callous disregard of others. She explains how narcissism is defined and diagnosed and gives us a handy outline of how we might identify a narcissist on our midst:
“They may seem very charming, they may seem lively, and they certainly like attention. So they may be creative performers, if you like. They may be quite sparkling as people and charismatic. However, as time goes on … you begin to realise that you have a use value. You begin to realise that this person is exploitative and extremely entitled.”
And while a narcissist at close hand is something of which to be wary, increased numbers of narcissists in our midst has implications for our wider society. What happens when the values of narcissism are those nurtured and encouraged by a society? What might it mean for the planet when narcissists run the economy and set the wider policy of government?
“People who are more narcissistic are less willing to share the commons. So when given a situation where they have a forest and they’re told they have a certain amount of time they can exploit it, they will use up the resource very quickly. They do very well initially but then very quickly everybody else is suffering, which is a great metaphor, I think, for our inability to tackle [global warming] and our susceptibility to be told a story that it’s not really happening or not to worry about it, or the ways in which the political process has moved away from a willingness to reach, to really take it on.
“And if you move back from that, what we really need to do to tackle that, then you come across the way in which we are all getting embedded in this society where you cannot give up anything, where you cannot put up with a tax hike, because you need to have higher taxes in order to pay for necessary services. [There is] a sense of entitlement, a sense that the good life is bought by material things. And then of course there’s now such very good evidence that materialism doesn’t even lead to happiness, so there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we are looking at the world and ourselves.”
What makes a narcissist and how do current child-rearing approaches encourage narcissistic behaviours? How does our culture of reality television, selfie-taking and celebrity-worship influence our values and the way we live together? Might a culture of unchecked narcissism that values short-term profits above longer-term sacrifices be a fatal flaw on a warming planet?
I’m sure you’ll find much to think about in this month’s Monthly Book!