Michael S. Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His most recent books are “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters” and “Memory, Trauma and History: Essays on Living With the Past.”
Narcissists. You know the kind. People who may seem really into you one moment and then act as if they don’t know you at all. People who are hypersensitive to any potential disrespect when it comes to themselves but haven’t a clue about the feelings of others. In today’s popular culture fueled by social media, everybody seems to know somebody who can be labeled a narcissist — whether it’s the bad boyfriend, the unfeeling killer or the pretentious artiste. In “The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism,” cultural journalist Kristin Dombek begins by saying that “we know the new selfishness when we see it,” and apparently we are seeing a lot of it these days. In today’s “narcisphere,” she argues, groups that feel injured find it expedient to label those they hold responsible as narcissists. “Narcissism is the favorite diagnosis,” she writes, “for political leaders in whatever party opposes one’s own.”
So maybe we don’t know the kind after all. Maybe we just deploy the label narcissist to feel superior amid our confusion about how others are behaving. Dombek writes breezily and well about the history of the idea of narcissism, leaning heavily on Elizabeth Lunbeck’s excellent “The Americanization of Narcissism.” In the psychoanalytic tradition, narcissism was a normal stage of development — but you were supposed to grow out of it. Sigmund Freud thought narcissism was linked to a strand of femininity that turned inward, lovingly cultivating one’s own beauty instead of turning toward others unlike oneself. Later writers in this field, especially Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut, investigated disorders of self-regard that persisted much later in life, and Kohut developed therapies that led from narcissism to relationship building and empathy.
For the psychoanalysts, the typical narcissist was a woman who wouldn’t return male affection, while in today’s self-help industry, it’s the bad boyfriend who exudes only indifference. Dombek notes wisely that historically, “the gender of the archetypal narcissist shifts according to who’s got the power of diagnosis,” and that this power conveys a sense of moral superiority on the person who gets to do the labeling.
Bloggers and pundits blame social media for creating a generation of people who need to be followed or liked, while business leaders who care only for profit are labeled corporate narcissists. Sexual narcs are good in bed, but only to shore up their own selves, while spiritual narcissists seek a connection to the universe only to compensate for their own emptiness. Dombek displays a healthy skepticism about most of the theorists (and all the pop diagnosticians) she discusses. The exception is cultural theorist and literary critic René Girard, who brilliantly investigated the role of imitation in the formation of our selves and our desires. Girard argued that we become who we are only by imitating others — we are made of each other, as Dombek puts it. We develop as individuals by copying what others do, who they are, and we grow up to be people who expect those we like to imitate us. But there is a dark side to this intermingling of selves through imitation. Our desires are constituted not only by empathic imitation but also by violent rivalry. “Just because we’re made of sharing,” Dombek tells us, “doesn’t mean our understanding of others . . . leads us to care about them or treat them well.”
In the early 1990s, neuroscientists discovered that in primates, the same neurons lighted up when the animals watched others perform an action as lighted up when the primates did the same thing themselves. Deep in our primitive brains are mirror neurons wired to respond to and imitate others. Some writers have concluded from this discovery that we have profound biological sources of empathy, but Girard and Dombek remind the reader that these neurons are also the sources of competition and conflict. “On just the other side of the comfort of fellow feeling,” she writes, “is war.”
Dombek’s study of our fascination with the new selfishness leads her to spend lots of time with self-help books and websites that deal with matters like how to love someone who can’t love you back and how to seduce as many partners as possible. She punctuates her survey of thinkers and pop culture with asides about her boyfriend, waiting for subways and living in Brooklyn. These digressions, for me, were mostly of marginal interest, not saying enough about either the writer or her concerns. She is sharp when seeing through puffed-up social scientists who know how to find what they are looking for (and publicize it), but she agonizes about her own choice of subject: “Any book you write is its own asylum, but a book about narcissism is like the padded cell inside the asylum.” Really? This is a short book, but maybe she should have taken more breaks.
Labeling others as narcissistic may merely be an expression of our frustration that they don’t really get us. “The selfishness of others is the feeling of your dependence revealed, as their gaze turns away,” Dombek writes. If they don’t understand us, she perceptively points out, we label them narcissists to show they are incapable of trying. She knows that our embrace of the idea of narcissism is a symptom of other things going on in our culture, but I don’t think she’s figured out why we are so enamored of the new selfishness right now. She probably started her book before Trump began to dominate politics and the media, when self-centered teenagers and bad boyfriends seemed the most important (and amusing) examples of narcissism. Alas, while writing this book in her padded cell, she has been overtaken by a very perilous turn in the history of American narcissism.
Has our overuse of the concept of narcissism made us more vulnerable to the wounded megalomania of a Trump? What’s the connection between the contemporary politics of resentment and the new selfishness? Today’s American attraction to an ultra-irritable would-be strongman is more important than our perennial griping about selfishness in young people and our exes. Maybe Dombek will turn to such issues in her next essay. Meanwhile, there’s a very real and very dangerous narcissist on the loose.
tHE sELFISHNESS OF OTHERS
An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism
By Kristin Dombek
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 150 pp. $13 paper.