June 2006


What about me?

By Anne Manne
What about me?
The new narcissism

One day last year, while waiting in line at a local butcher’s shop, something happened. The butcher spotted me. His face changed. He moved someone who was ahead of me in the queue roughly to one side. We had not been on name terms, but now he addressed me respectfully, even a touch reverentially, as Mrs Manne. The butcher had seen me, while channel-surfing, on TV.

My brief appearance, related to a recently published book, was not one that would improve my position in the Hollywood Stock Exchange, where movie stars’ values rise or fall as their bonds are traded in a hotly competitive market. But there was no doubt I had received The Touch. I had been pulled from the scrum – your common or garden meat-procurers – to a new and exalted status. I was Anne Manne, As Seen On TV. I trotted off with my neatly wrapped package, incredulous.

For the book, I had declared that while I had an obligation to do publicity, a line had to be drawn somewhere: I was not going on TV. After the hard work of publicists, though, it seemed rather churlish to refuse. Sometimes we have to do things we really don’t want to do, such as have a root canal filling. So I did, in the end, go on TV. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to be invisible or overlooked. Respected, yes. But being recognised for what one has done, as Clive James says in his essay ‘The Meaning of Recognition’, is very different from the desire for fame or celebrity.

On learning of my difficulty with TV, few are sympathetic. Many regard it as seriously eccentric, and baffling. How could anyone not want to do it? Someone even suggested I go into therapy. I have since discovered others who share my ‘problem’. We could start a self-help group, I suppose. But deep down, I don’t really think there is anything wrong with my discomfort about a certain level of exposure. Then again, if a psychological malaise is partially about being out of step with the current culture …

Maybe I just like observing more than being observed. At the local hairdresser I love catching up on all the gossip. Whose marriage is going bust, who is having a baby, who has a fatal disease and, especially, who is sleeping with whom? There’s a lot to keep up with. There’s Bec’s New Baby, Jen’s Secret Struggle, Teri’s possible anorexia, and what’s happening with Nic after the split with Tom, now that he and Katie have baby Suri, whose eye colour raises serious questions about parentage: whether the baby has been brought to earth by a spacecraft and is actually an alien.

About these intimate matters of celebrity lives we have opinions. Strong opinions. (My opinion is that Katie’s baby is, in fact, an alien.) It’s no good fence-sitting at the hairdressers. We are bonding over all this. Clients, hairdressers, make-up artists, visiting nail-people: we are all buoyed by jointly forming a view on the morality tales of our times. We are savagely, luxuriantly moralistic, and there is more indignation floating in the air than hairspray. But we are also indulgent of favourites (mine is the pint-sized scientologist … Tom, I mean, not Suri). And for every “Oh, did you hear?” there is a moment like that shown on Kath & Kim: Sharon, reading Shane Warne’s autobiography, sighs, “Oh, Warnie!” and shakes her head admiringly over her darling, like the adoring mother smiling at her toddler as he trashes someone else’s living room.

No one loses celebrity status by doing something shameful. On the contrary: it only increases our interest, affection and appetite for details about their lives. When celebrities stuff up, they become people like us. But despite the satisfied clicking of tongues in salons around the world when a star has gorn too far, the really shameful thing in the celebrity culture is when a star ceases to keep our interest. That will see not only a slide from the A-list, but also a fall in their share price on the Hollywood Stock Exchange. Then their PR machine will have to go into overdrive: a New Baby Joy, a Lesbian Love Shock, a Public Tantrum, a stint in rehab, a public tryst in a toilet, a messy relationship break-up. In the celebrity culture, any publicity is good publicity. Notice is the currency. Negative notice is fine. As a psychoanalyst might say, the opposite of love is not hate but indifference. The real terror of the Look-at-me! culture is invisibility.

Shortly after I arrived at university, a friend said that I seemed like a character straight out of a nineteenth-century novel. This was not really true: in many ways I was a typically modern young woman. But in one important respect, he was on to something. We had no television at home until well into my teenage years. Up to then, to absorb the extraordinary, vivid new world of TV, I had to visit the elderly widower next door.

The rest of the time I was reading … nineteenth-century novels. My consciousness, sensibility, sense of self and way of seeing was formed by a radically different view of the world, one embedded in those novels. They gave a sense of an inner life – of a moral narrative full of drama, error and tragedy – lived under the gaze of a loving or vengeful god who had a window into the soul and could see everything. The authorial voice, judging and holding the thread, saw a life lived both from the outside – one’s respect in the community – and, more deeply, from the inside. The nineteenth-century children’s novel Little Women, the feminist psychologist Daphne De Marneffe points out,

accords supreme importance to internal work: to the understanding of one’s feelings and to an increasingly refined knowledge of their intimations of meaning and implications for action. The depth of the human souls is not only presumed; it is treated as what is real.

Although one could become socially invisible by taking a hard decision and living well morally, that life was not invisible to the narrator. It mattered. George Eliot’s famous finale to Middlemarch, on the way the heroine Dorothea lives her life, reads:

the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

The act of reading a novel is a very particular one. It is the connection of the writer’s inner life with that of the reader. It is very different from watching the screen. That, too, carries a strange intimacy; but there’s a world of difference between a close-up shot of a film star’s face and the close-up we have of Dorothea’s inner life. As George Trow said, “Celebrities have an intimate life and a life in the grid of 200 million.” The visual culture has extended and intensified the importance of the presentation of self in everyday life. Self-presentation is increasingly regarded as revealing the ‘true’ self. All this carries with it a reshaping of sensibility. The movement from Eliot’s words to the advertising slogan “Because You’re Worth It!” represents a not entirely unambiguous kind of progress.

The values of the countryside that I grew up with are often thought to be behind the times. Boasting and related sins were considered major offences. Humour was self-deprecating, lighting with unerring, savage precision to prick the self-inflated balloons of the pretentious. Self-promotion was blowing one’s own trumpet, putting oneself forward, being full of oneself. When a particularly heinous bragging offence was committed, someone was declared up themselves: in love with – fucking – themselves. All of which makes me even more fascinated – like a traveller in a foreign country – by the phenomenon of being looked at, including the desire to be As Seen On TV. Even everyday lives are not quite real until we have the video recording: as Christopher Lasch once wrote,

Modern life is so thoroughly mediated by electronic images that we cannot help responding to others as if their actions – and our own – were being recorded and simultaneously transmitted to an unseen audience or stored up for close scrutiny at some later time.

Most Americans watch up to four hours of television per day. There is a TV set in the bedroom of most American children by the time they are in primary school. We are not far behind. More than half of all Australian children have a TV in their bedroom, and they watch only a little less TV than their American counterparts. They spend more time in TV-viewing than any other activity. As children grow up, what is the sensibility, the sense of right and wrong, formed by a predominantly visual culture? What is the sense of self that is shaped by the gaze of others? Why is it so important to be read, seen, noticed and looked at?

The Body Project is Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s fascinating account of the changing sense of self, over a century, in adolescent American girls. Looking at their diaries, she found that in the late nineteenth century, girls scarcely mentioned their bodies. Moral language was reserved for improving character. In a diary of 1892, for example, there is the entry:

Resolved, not to talk about myself or my feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversation and action. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.

A diary entry in 1982 reads:

I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can with the help of my budget and babysitting money, I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got a new haircut, good make-up, new clothes and accessories.

The language of morality, of rebirth and transformation of the self, is a striking theme in all the makeover TV programs, regardless of whether the object to be made over is a house, a garden, a body or a face. The transformation is speedy; the team of renovators move so fast they appear to be on crack. The tone, too, is upbeat, even elated. In Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the exuberant Fab Five, High Priests of the Consumer Culture, discover a straight guy who just doesn’t Get It, someone who has let himself go: a bit hopeless, a bit fat, with a decade-old hairstyle. They descend fast. Their mission of mercy is urgent. They run up the stairs, burst through the door on the Drab One, rifle through his things, gasp over poor colour schemes, decry his personal hygiene. There is a lot of rubbish to get rid of – the sad detritus of a life not lived well – and not a moment to lose. New outfits are flung in front of the bemused Drab One. Meanwhile, the apartment is made over. Fresh paint! New couches! Walls knocked down! Reality – the frustration of being kept waiting – never forces its way in here. This is a world without limits.

At the end, when the beard is shaved off, the hair is freshly cut and the oral hygiene attended to, the curtain is lifted. A new self emerges from the chrysalis. A better self. When the made-over person is unveiled and greeted by an audience of family and friends, there is more applause, weeping and invocation of a deity than at a Billy Graham revival meeting. “Oh, my god!” they say, over and over, as if a purifying ritual has just been performed. A soul has been renovated. And it has only taken an afternoon.

Another way of describing all this preoccupation with the self is narcissism. If the Body Project shows the self-improving impulse run amok, it is narcissism that is increasingly the focus of our sharpest observers. A lot of contemporary comedy concerns the vicissitudes of living or working with a narcissist. Ricky Gervais’s extraordinarily successful The Office was about a narcissistic boss who has Walter Mitty-type fantasies about his motivational genius. Chris Lilley’s comedy debut, We Can Be Heroes, was also about narcissism, where the grandiosity beating in the most unlikely of breasts was exposed as contestants vied to be Australian of the Year.

Jam’ie, a Sydney private-school girl, is Lilley’s most brilliant creation, upon whom the eyes of Middle Australia, one sensed, were riveted with a certain amount of appalled recognition. A “young high achiever”, queen bee, captain of debating, dux of her year and self-professed “hottie”, she is supremely aware of the gaze of others. Everything she says and does has been rehearsed in front of a mirror. Self-centred, with an overweening sense of entitlement, she is a ruthless exploiter of others: they have been put on this planet for her use. Whatever is good for Jam’ie is good. Even altruism is a performance for the admiration of others: doing the 40-Hour Famine each week “keeps me looking hot”. When, a few days before the final of the Australian of the Year, the starving African children that she sponsors are drowned in a flood, her only thought is for herself: “It’s shit, it’s bullshit. I’ve got the finals next week – the Australian of the Year. The girl from Adelaide will win; she’s got fifty kids. I am so not winning.” Jam’ie has a meltdown. She yells at her bewildered mother, trashes a room, and screams obscenities and abuse – “You fucking cunt!” – down the phone at the overseas-aid agency, demanding the immediate provision of more starving African children.

Lilley gets this right, for the leading affect or emotion of the narcissist, especially if some injury to their pride is threatened, is rage. A narcissist seems so confident, so attractive and charismatic, until something is triggered and they subject you to a fleecing, annihilating rage like no other, shredding your character. Empathy, that recognition of another’s pain, is missing. In the end, the narcissist will only see that you have injured them. They are Koestler’s ‘mimophant’, the term he coined for those who have feelings as delicate as mimosa towards the self, but display an elephantine hide of insensitivity towards the feelings of others.

Narcissistic characters, it seems, are increasingly common. “In recent years,” remarks the British psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy, “issues of narcissism have taken centre stage.” They leave a trail of destruction in their wake. There is a growing number of self-help books for dealing with the narcissist boss, co-worker, parent, lover or child. Eleanor Payson’s The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists promises to be a “source of relief, hope and understanding to the countless adults living with the pain and confusion that occurs when dealing with the narcissistic individual”. In Why is it Always About You? The Seven Deadly Sins of Narcissism, Sandy Hotchkiss offers insight into “one of the most prevalent personality disorders of our time”:

Their needs are more important than anyone else’s, and they expect to be accommodated in all things. They can’t seem to see the bigger picture, or to comprehend why they might not always come first. Their expectations have a childlike quality, yet they can be tyrannically outraged or pitifully depressed when thwarted. Often we give in to them because it seems safer not to rock their boat.

All of us have our moments, of course, where we might be self-centred, or vain, or envious, or give way to temper, without having a full-blown narcissistic personality disorder. Without some sense of self and confidence –‘healthy narcissism’, as the psychologists rather piously call it – we would not get out of bed in the morning. Narcissism exists along a continuum: the depressed self-mutilator on the one hand, a Stalin-like psychopath on the other. But I am writing here of an increasingly common syndrome, the everyday malignant narcissist who has their very own cult of personality. In these people, the self has expanded so as to occupy all of consciousness. Whatever is good for the self is good. Prone to magical thinking about the grandeur of their life and achievements, for the malignant narcissist it is all or nothing. Mediocrity is never tolerated: never good, but always great. They possess an exceptional sense of entitlement, of being uniquely special. Often intensely competitive, they have to be superior to those around them. They can only be up if the people around them are down. They are often harshly critical of others, sometimes to the point of self-righteous contempt. But they are also prone to savage envy. Their arrogance means that taking responsibility for a wrong is impossible. The malignant narcissist is the captain on a ship of fools.


Because “the narcissist becomes his own world and believes the whole world is him,” as the psychoanalyst Theodore Rubin puts it, there is an absence of boundaries. The narcissist does not recognise the separateness and reality of another person, and hence tends to be very controlling. They are as enraged if someone does not do what they want as they would be if their arm wouldn’t move. A good, if extreme, example of this quality is Jamie Ramage, the horror husband in Karen Kissane’s recent book Silent Death. From requiring submission to unwanted sex every morning to choosing the clothes his wife Julie wore, he attempted to control every aspect of her life, battering her when her will diverted from his. Having spent their married life insisting that his will be done, it was perhaps unsurprising that when Julie told Jamie she was leaving him, he killed her.

Alexander Lowen says of narcissistic rage:

We can postulate that the insult provoking the reaction must strike a chord. The current provocation may be slight … but the provocation evokes in the person’s unconscious the memory of the earlier insult to which he or she could not respond when it occurred.

But strike a chord with what? The answer is in Freud’s insight that things are not what they seem. A helium balloon can soar up and up, but its flight is fragile. It can be brought to earth by a pinprick. There are few sights more pitiful than a punctured balloon, a shrivelled, withered bladder. A balloon is a dazzlingly colourful rubber skin, but it is an empty vessel. It contains nothing at all.

TS Eliot said that “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” That is the unconscious predicament of the narcissist. To complete Lowen’s quote above, the chord struck is with an old injury: “the insult was to the person’s sense of self … the experience was one of humiliation, of being powerless.” All the boasting, self-display and swaggering is a defence warding off an excruciatingly painful emotion: shame.

We all know the story of Narcissus and how he fell in love with his own reflection, withering away by the lily pond, unable to move into life or relate to others, finally dying. But an excess of self-love is not, in any uncomplicated way, the problem with the narcissist. The narcissist is, in fact, an exceptionally shame-prone individual. The grandiose self-image is held up to defend against a central terror: that they amount to nothing at all. Otto Kernberg found his patients to have an underlying depression: their “self-images reveal a picture of a worthless, poverty-stricken, empty person who feels always left outside, devoured by envy of those who have … happiness and fame.”

Shame is a devastating emotion. It is about being exposed before one is ready; stripped bare, some pitiful flaw exposed to the humiliating gaze of the other. We wish the floor would open up and swallow us. One recent public opinion poll in America showed that public speaking was people’s greatest fear. Ahead of spiders, plane crashes and even death, “we fear the gaze of other people.” But most of us can acknowledge, at least to ourselves, that we feel ashamed of some aspect of ourselves or something we have done. Shame is almost an unbearable feeling, but we can admit it into our consciousness and look at it. We can, through experiencing and acknowledging it, also modulate and defuse it. But at the core of a narcissist is what psychologists call ‘bypassed shame’. Both the strident insistence on one’s own superiority and the screaming vituperative rages – an alternative strategy is a collapse into maudlin self-pity – that occur when a narcissistic injury is experienced happen because shame is a feeling that simply cannot be dealt with.

Being with a narcissist is exhausting. You, the audience, carry the narcissistic line of supply as surely as an oxygen machine brings air. What therapists working with these notoriously difficult patients discover is that while shame-prone individuals boast of their strength, independence and lack of reliance on others, they have grave difficulties in admitting vulnerability. Yet, in order to be helped by therapy, they must become dependent on the therapist and sit, figuratively speaking, at their feet. They must admit to having a problem, and spend a long time looking at the humiliated shadow lurking beneath their grandiose self-image. And that, for the narcissist, is close to impossible. If they do wind up in therapy, a common pattern is a subtle undermining of the therapist by saying how bored they are with all this navel-gazing.

In Why is it Always About You? Sandy Hotchkiss counsels the hopelessness of changing the narcissist. If possible, withdraw. Disengage. If you can’t disengage, don’t expect justice. Don’t arouse their envy and rage, even to the point of understating your own achievements. Handle the fragile balloon of ego with kid gloves, and beware inadvertent pinpricks from your tongue. Don’t retaliate if attacked, or beware the escalation. Lower your expectations. Lower them so far, in fact, that you treat them as if they are a two-year-old. A rage-filled, grotesquely selfish, oversensitive baby.


The narcissist has had to survive a particular childhood. Here the work of Allan Schore, a psychologist and neuroscientist, is particularly illuminating. One of the many startling findings from recent neuroscience is that in one fundamental respect Freud was right: there is an unconscious. As the brain continues forming in the first two years after birth, it is very experience-dependent. It is in the context of relationships with parents that our sense of self and expectations of others are formed. This occurs well before language is anything other than rudimentary, before the brain has a capacity to store and recall explicit verbal memories, before such capacities can help us remember what we felt or how we were treated. Our emotional history is stored unconsciously, giving it an unacknowledged capacity to shape our perceptions and actions.

Schore shows the importance for mental health of what he calls ‘emotional regulation’. It is a point easily illustrated by its absence in those with bipolar disorder, commonly known as manic depression. In the manic state, a person experiences the extraordinary highs of elation and excitement. They seem in a state of omnipotence, believe themselves invincible and take risks that no one in their right mind would engage in: uncontrolled spending sprees, unprotected sex with many partners. They are sometimes so manic that they cannot calm down enough for sleep.

A person deprived of sleep will die. That tells us of the necessity of the other emotional axis, of downward regulation, conservation and withdrawal. Again, the manic-depressive, without medication, will experience this without moderation. Depression is an emotional state far along that continuum of conservation and withdrawal. Coetzee’s brilliant novel The Life and Times of Michael K takes us inside the mind of a depressive. Michael K withdraws from the world, isolates himself, crawls into a hole in the ground, and eats nothing but lizards and insects. He starves to death.

The extremes of bipolar disorder illustrate the two axes of mental health: on the one hand, all the emotional states associated with discovery, excitement and elation; and, on the other, all the negative emotional states that enable withdrawal, contemplation, conservation of energy and sleep. Both are needed for survival. As the self is forming in early childhood, socialisation from our parents does what lithium will do for manic depression: pull us down from, or up from, the extreme highs and lows. We learn to regulate and control our emotions.

This is where the narcissist’s emotional history gets especially interesting. The first year is a time when, all going well, the dominant emotions of Your Majesty the Baby are very positive. By the beginning of the second year, as they learn to walk and move, toddlers feel elated at their newfound power. But pride, as the old adage says, goes before a fall. They fall down, break things, get fingers into light sockets and spill milk all over the floor. For the excited toddler there’s a shouted prohibition every nine minutes, on average. It is very deflating. They are often humiliated and angry. Toddler-hood is also now recognised as the most aggressive period of any in the human life cycle. Toddlers are filled with ambitions; without the skills to realise them they are also filled with shame. Every day they are spinning through the cycles of grandiosity and deflation faster than any manic-depressive. It is hardly surprising, then, that they get rather pissed off at the whole thing and throw, from time to time, an almighty tantrum – nor that they require a lot of empathy, tact and sensitivity in handling. But at this time the toddler is also noted for a new and importantly human quality: sobriety. Although it’s a wilder, bumpier ride than any at Luna Park, slowly they develop the ability to admit flaws in the self; and a related ability, to admit they have capacity to injure others.

It is extremely important that the small child gets help in toning down and pepping up, in being comforted and not excessively shamed. The narcissist has got through the Your-Majesty-the-Baby period nicely. Their problem is dealing with shame. Some have been too harshly shamed: subjected to shame so overwhelming that it cannot be acknowledged. In a mental conjuring trick, they create a perfect self of astonishing grandiosity, who is always adorable, admirable, holding away the unbearable truth that, in reality, they were not seen as worth loving.

Or it may be something much more subtle: a mother or father who basks in the reflected glory of their genius child but responds with hostility, rejection and contempt at evidence of their child’s very real incompetence and dependence. The child may be showered with attention, but it’s the wrong sort of attention. The child has a use value – for puffing up the parent’s pride. In later childhood, things usually continue as they have begun. They are not allowed to be children, but only the Gifted One, trailing behind those sorry legions of pageant or stage mothers displaying, and competing with, their ‘exceptional’ child.

An extreme example of parental narcissism gone wrong occurred in 1996, when Lloyd Dubroff climbed into a light aircraft with his daughter Jessica, aged seven, who was to take the controls and fly across America. She was attempting to break the record for the youngest pilot to undertake the journey. It was all dad’s idea. After seeing another young girl fly cross-country, Dubroff had persuaded Jessica to try it. “I’m the culprit,” Dubroff said. “If she can do this, she can do anything. And it will expand her horizons. She’s going to see the country slide by under her wing at 150 knots ... and she’s going to be able to say, ‘I did that.’”

The plane crashed. All on board died. But even after her child’s death, reality did not impinge on the mother. Encouraging other parents to let their children fly, she said she “wanted all her children to die in a state of joy, although not at age seven”: Jessica had died doing what she loved. This was one way of putting it. The other way is that narcissism killed their daughter. Jessica had been groomed for the role of the ‘special one’, the exceptional child. Home-schooled and precocious, she played several musical instruments and made her own furniture and toys. She was seven going on 25, one observer said. Such children are subjected to a strange conundrum. While most don’t die, they do experience a different kind of death. In so far as they are ‘special’, they are acknowledged and even loved. In so far as they are ordinary children – and fail to meet that goal, as they surely will – they are subjected to intense shaming for being imperfect, vulnerable and dependent. Or, worse, to their parents in these moments they cease to exist.

It is striking that it’s not the positive emotions of excitement and stimulation that have been ignored or belittled. It’s the negative emotions of shame, humiliation, deflation and even depression.

In Queer Eye for the Straight Guy there was a moment that bothered me. It was the image of Carson skipping down a road. Skipping is the gesture of an elated child. But what could be wrong with elation? Or, for that matter, our present love affair with all those upbeat emotions; all that positive energy bouncing around?

An interesting answer came in a provocative piece on Abraham Lincoln in the October 2005 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. The author, Joshua Wolf Shenk, makes a persuasive case that Lincoln’s political achievements – his greatness – came about not despite the fact that he struggled with depression, but because of it. Most biographies, Louis Menand suggests, “tend to be conventionally structured as crisis-and-recovery narratives”, but Shenk does something different. He shows that the profound melancholy that Lincoln struggled with all his life, which we would diagnose nowadays as clinical depression, was the source of his insight and empathy for the suffering inflicted by slavery.

The famous portrait of Lincoln shown in the Atlantic is dark and gloomy: his face gaunt and sombre; his eyes cast down, staring perhaps at some unseen human catastrophe. It is about as far from the ubiquitous shallow smiles in the photos of our contemporary politicians as is possible. When Lincoln won office, he was found not with his hands raised to the heavens in the gesture beloved of sporting heroes and politicians when in front of adoring crowds, but downcast, burdened by the weight of his great responsibility. A young Republican, Charles Nott, said later, “No man in New York appeared that night more simple, more unassuming, more modest, more unpretentious, more conscious of his own defects.”

From Lincoln’s self-doubt came what Shenk calls “his abstract feelings of responsibility”. The long struggle with his noonday demon made him capable of endurance, of risking failure and withstanding resistance, anger and even hatred to choose the unpopular right over the more popular wrong and argue against slavery.

More than that, he saw things more truly than those who were less troubled. “Such keen vision brought Lincoln pain: being able to look troubling reality in the eye also proved a great strength.” Unlike our own era, when Lincoln would likely have been considered unfit for office and possibly committed to a psychiatric institution, or at least medicated with Prozac, other eras have not been so skittish about those who spend much of their lives on the darker side: the Romantics had a sense of the heightened perceptions offered by melancholy. Psychologists, Shenk points out, have begun re-evaluating negative emotions. Not only are there times when conservation and withdrawal are essential for survival: in one of those laboratory tests so beloved by developmental psychologists, it was shown that depressive subjects, not the non-depressed, had a more accurate take on reality. To explain such a paradoxical result, the researchers, Shenk notes, point to “depressive realism”: the “sadder but wiser” effect.

Shenk finishes with a thought that should give us pause:

This is a story not of transformation, but of integration. Lincoln didn’t do great work because he solved the problem of his melancholy; the problem of his melancholy was all the more fuel for the fire of his great work.

Tootling along a freeway one day, I experienced something that, sadly, almost all of us have suffered. I briefly held up a lane, slowing a speeding motorist. He suddenly swerved sharply in front of me and slammed on his brakes. Had not instinct already made me slow my pace, nothing could have prevented me crashing into his rear. I braked so hard I skidded and almost lost control. Satisfied, he sped off, flashing his lights. Retrieving my heart, which had leapt out of my chest and was now thumping somewhere on the dashboard, I registered how close we had been to a serious accident. I had thwarted him for no more than a few seconds. Yet this was sufficient to trigger a rage state so uncontrollable that he was willing to put the lives of people in all the vehicles nearby at risk.

In Freud’s time the central therapeutic problem was hysteria, an illness born of too much repression. In our own time it is narcissism. With narcissism the problem is not inhibition but disinhibition; not too much self-control but too little. Our indulgent love affair with rage, desire, addiction, sex and ambition means there is too little restraint. We lack the kind of tough-minded sobriety that comes with the awareness of our capacity to injure others. There is a weakening of the reality principle acting as a restraint on our desire. This is the disorder of an age where a self-regarding individualism has seen the self triumph as the measure of the good. Just as in Freud’s time, the therapist is struggling with the problems of an individual psyche that reveals, in extremis, the habits of the heart in the larger culture.

The personality flaws of the narcissist, says Hotchkiss, have become surprisingly normal:

What is troubling about our contemporary culture is the extent to which these personality flaws have received a widespread stamp of approval. Narcissism is not just tolerated in our day and age, it is glorified … The hallmarks of cultural narcissism are deeply woven into the fabric of our current society.

Narcissism in celebrities is to be expected, but the most common way in contemporary society that the upper-middle-class narcissist gazes into the lily pond is through work. Work is an uncontested value in our culture. It allows a socially legitimated form of self-centeredness as we pursue our ‘careers’ with the piety of those answering a religious calling. Work is a proxy for the self. We reward it mightily. The workaholic corporate executive who behaves with utter ruthlessness in business and at home, who lives as if his or her family or employees have no human needs, is often admired.

We prolong adolescence, a time of self-centeredness, well into middle age. We are skittish about children, a project that, to be done well, requires investments of time and energy not in the self, but in another human being. We delay their arrival indefinitely, or look around when they do arrive for someone else to take responsibility for rearing them.

Clive James argues it is the recognition for things that are real which is the antidote for the malaise of the celebrity culture. There’s more than an echo of that problem – too much celebration and not enough recognition – in the way we raise children. The self-esteem movement, that well-meaning but misguided project for celebrating children unconditionally to make them ‘feel good about themselves’, has had unexpected consequences. ‘Esteem’ is a synonym for ‘admiration’, which means the self-esteem movement is a movement for self-admiration. Is it wise to foster a nation of elated, self-admiring babies? Inflated and untruthful praise debases the coinage and creates an entitled youngster who feels injured and rage-filled when the applause – the narcissistic supply – is not forthcoming. That is a brittle foundation for adulthood. It means helping children avoid, rather than confront, reality. In fact, we condescend to them when we bestow uncritical admiration. Self-respect worth having is earned, not bestowed unconditionally.

It is love, not admiration, that should be given unconditionally. Uncritical celebration is a subtle corruption of the attentiveness that we rightly say constitutes an essential part of love. Such attentiveness, so missing in the narcissistic parent, requires the effort of truthfulness. Love, says Iris Murdoch, is a work of pity and justice. It is a child seen by the “patient eye of love” that reveals their “objective reality” and “teaches us how real things (real children) can be looked at and loved without being seized and used, without being appropriated into the greedy organism of the self”.

It is not only children who are seized and used, for the cult of the self is undoubtedly connected to the fragility of modern relationships. That carelessness towards other human beings – treating people like disposable commodities with a use-by date – means that if they lose attraction or interfere with our self-fulfilment, they are ruthlessly discarded. In the world of non-binding commitments we can just ‘move on’, rather than do the emotional hard yards of making a relationship work.

Habits of the Heart is a sober work of American sociology by Robert Bellah and his colleagues exploring attitudes to marriage and relationships. The authors did not consciously set out to write a book about narcissism. Yet that is the central theme. When it came to a moral vocabulary for notions like responsibility, their subjects were strangely incoherent:

when they sought a language in which to articulate their reasons for commitments that went beyond the self … confusions were particularly clear when they discussed problems of sacrifice and obligation … They had few ideas of the substantive obligations partners in a relationship might develop.

From Andy Warhol’s remark that everyone will have their ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ to contemporary comedies such as We Can Be Heroes, writers, artists and sociologists have grappled in different ways with what Christopher Lasch called the ‘culture of narcissism’. It is the connecting thread through the Look-at-me! phenomenon. The examples range from the light-hearted to the serious, but they all contribute, piece by piece, to a cultural complicity with something fundamentally flawed. By any historical standards, our society is marked by a radical individualism obsessed with the self. And it is a very particular self. It is a self on display, measured by externals and appearance, in pursuit of success and material prosperity more than care for others, of popularity and notice more than respect.

The problem is not just that the cult of the self interferes with the good. It is that our values have shifted so far in favour of the ethos of narcissism that the pursuit of our self-interest now defines what we consider good. As Bellah concludes, “the only measure of the good is what is good for the self.” And that, as a defining habit of the heart, is profoundly troubling.

By the time I am washed and blow-dried, the hairdresser is making admiring comments on my appearance après haircut. This is better than making disparaging comments but, well, she is over-egging the pudding. There is nothing to wax lyrical about. The reason I came here, after all, is that I am a middle-aged woman with grey hairs appearing. Now I am a middle-aged woman with grey hairs concealed. I stare at my reflection in an unflattering, ruthlessly exposing mirror, observing what the beautiful Cate Blanchett once called breathlessly “the songlines of life”. Songlines be damned. They are signs of age, intimations of mortality, a reminder of a youth that is gone. But my face, minus Botox treatments, is at least capable of expression. My expression is a little rueful. Inwardly, I shrug. My hair looks OK. Good, but not great.

Anne Manne

Anne Manne is the author of Motherhood, the Quarterly Essay ‘Love & Money’ and the memoir So This Is Life. Her most recent book is The Life of I: The new culture of narcissism.

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