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?

Article excerpt

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.

"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 Lim-baugh 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. …