Echoes of Narcissus
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism
By Kristin Dombek
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016
For a long time I prided myself on having never read a self-help book. I could have given you a run-down of what was wrong with the genre: it was simplistic, in love with cliches and hollow affirmations. It denied tragedy, denied that there could be unsolvable problems, and therefore blamed the victims of these situations for not thinking more positively. It took us away from understanding political conflict, prompting us to see our problems as individual ones rather than as a result of the world around us, a world that could and should be changed. And yet, late at night, in low moments, reaching for someone to talk to, I would wonder if my problem was too much self-esteem or not enough, if I was afraid of intimacy, craved it too much, or both. Whether I read self-help or not, I spoke it, and, more importantly, I imagined that it might be reading me.
The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, Kristen Dombek’s new, strikingly original book, is about this space, about what happens when our need to understand our experiences outstrips our ability to construct stable, narratives that are intellectually sound, when we find ourselves clicking on personality internet quizzes. Rather than critiquing self-help or pop-psychology, pointing out its obvious shortcomings or lack of scientific rigor, she immerses herself in it, accounting for why and how it seems to explain so much and what it might look like to come out the other side, taking seriously the origins of the term in myth and in the psychoanalytical tradition and the ways these stories remain with us.
The particular story she examines is the story of our selfishness, or, as the title suggests, everyone else’s selfishness. The idea that we are living in an age that is uniquely self-absorbed, in which we are particularly unsuited to really see others as anything other than as reflections of ourselves, appears persuasive to many of varied political persuasions. Conservatives see the decline of religion, family and tradition that leave the self as the only measure of value. Progressives track the ways expansive capitalism and consumerism have infused every aspect of our lives, with the most intimate of our actions turning into exercises in self-fashioning at best, and branding at worst.
There are political reasons to resist the narrative as well: feminists have long pointed to how women’s testimony about the truth of their lives has been treated with accusations of narcissism. Near the end of the introduction Dombek recounts a panel at which a male literary scholar sat on with two female memoirists and made the familiar claim about the superiority of the third person writer:
When the writer was talking on about the generosity of the third-person, objective voice, its mature capacity to create empathy, they [the memoirists] tried occasionally to speak . . but the scholar just went on, saying not, “I think this,” but “this is true,” and “this is how things are,” and he did not stop talking, and in the audience, it was harder and harder to breathe.”
And so the study showing that American writers use “I” and “me” 42 percent more than they did in 1960, one of the most cited attempts at hard evidence of the epidemic, dissolves into something else entirely. For what about, as she wonders towards the end of the book, such “self-centered” sentences like “I’m sorry,” “I love you,” “let me help,” and “I wonder”? And what if – as some scientists of narcissism attest – claims to collectivity, a desire to say “we” turns out to be a “vain attache[ment] to presenting and image of collectivity?” “What’s left,” she concludes, “is stories, and a myth that just feels true.”
Dombek works through this maze of claims and counterclaims. She takes as her starting point the idea that, when we see narcissism in our love lives, our popular culture, or our politics, we may be attempting social science or social commentary, but we are more than anything continuing the development of what the story of narcissism originally was: that is, a myth. It’s easy to imagine how poorly this could go in less skilled hands. (“Of course the concept of narcissism is nothing new; it comes from the ancient Greek,” or something like that. ) Dombek writes an unconventional advice column for n+1, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the experience of reading this book is like the experience of finding a great therapist: you want to push back at parts, you are frustrated by the lack of simple answers, but you are mostly thankful to be listening to this smart and compassionate voice.
She begins with an account of herself writing the book, a vivid evocation of the self-doubt and self-regard involved in such a process: “It’s a winter when it’s easy enough to find oneself hunched over one’s computer screen, locked in horrified gaze at the self-adoration of others, and look up to find one’s friends talking on and on about themselves, their words frozen and repeating I, I, I. Listening to them, wondering if they even remember you exist, is like watching Narcissus bent over that still pool in Ovid’s myth, stuck in the inaugural selfie.” From there the chapter heads guide us through the figures frequently indicted under the term: “the bad boyfriend,” “the millennial,” “the murderer,” and “the artist.” (Fortunately for our sanity, there is no chapter entitled the “candidate,” although I suspect Dombek would have a lot of smart things to say about what the go-to narcissistic label can and can’t tell us about the subject of this year’s collective anxiety.)
“The bad boyfriend,” explores the particular online corner of the pop-psych world called the “narcisphere,” a corner of the internet in where late-night searchers scan and diagnose exes for signs of narcissism: “there is nothing you can do, now, that will turn his whole face towards you. The eyes that gazed upon you with such life, lit up by you, are now the dark stone eyes of a fake, made thing or an animal, turning away from you.” Much as we like to believe in mutuality, one of the stories we are left with, one of the myths that feels true is that there are lovers and there are the beloved. Another is that there are some, like us, who give, and others, the others, who take, and then leave. We are left, we are heartbroken, but we gave, we cared, we loved. This is the solace the selfishness of others gives us. It is a variation of another story, a myth which no longer feels quite true, as Dombek goes back to the roots, revisiting Freud’s “On Narcissism,” tracing how the term evolved from a charge leveled against women and gay men to a tool for women to feel the wrongs that have been done against us – the story can be worked to give us the pleasure of moral outrage, if not something resembling real power.
“The millennial” is the closest to a straight debunking, and effectively dismantles the lazy trope of narcissistic youth that’s launched a thousand think-pieces. She interviews a young woman who had the misfortune of appearing on “My Super Sweet Sixteen,” who recounts how the show’s handler’s challenged her claims that the big party was her father’s idea and pushed her to assert she wanted it all to herself. She unpacks attempts to empirically codify an uptick in narcissism, going back to cultural commentators like Tom Wolfe and Christopher Lasch, who diagnosed it in the wake of the 1970s counterculture She traces the rise of social psychology, which placed narcissistic personality disorder in the DSM in 1980 and which uses something called the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to track the rise of self-regard among college students and which often forms the basis of media accounts of self-regarding millennials. It’s a story full of ironies: just as the narcissist changes shape to deceive us, our definitions of narcissism change to fit what we can find and measure, and the tumble of contradictions and questions the headlines leave out: “Behind the paywalls, the questions continue. Are people who test as narcissists more successful in late capitalism, or less? Is narcissism correlated with high self-esteem or crushing emptiness/low self-esteem? Is self-esteem correlated with success? Are rising narcissism scores in the general population correlated with economic prosperity or downturns? Is it right to treat narcissism as a “disease,” albeit a disease spread via culture and tipping point effects? Is it even a thing at all?”
And finally, after a dizzying tour through the darkest places the myth can take us – if a narcissist cannot see the other, is violence ever far behind – we arrive at the source, what Dombek calls, “the one that started it all.” It is easy to imagine the less imaginative think-piece version of this story, one that puts the origin myth at the start. By placing the story near the end, and retelling it in her own enigmatic style (at one point she juxtaposes Echo’s tears to the cries of the left-behind spouse in Gay Talese’s famous account of 1970s wife-swapping), it hits us with the power of revelation. The person drawn to a book like Dombek’s probably did their time in Western Civ 101, and might be able to identify Ovid as the source text, but, she makes us realize, do we really remember much of this story that haunts us? Did we know that Narcissus was born from a rape? (I didn’t) That the pool he visits is so dark and solitary there are no birds? And, centrally, that, far from “falling in love with himself,” he believes that the reflection belongs to someone else? That Tiresias, who prophesied Narcissus’s curse, saw the story as about the perils of self-knowledge? And what of poor Echo, she who has “no game,” as Dombek puts it, pining for someone she has never spoken to?
What is the value of these stories, these myths that feel true, in a world the that looks more and more to neuroscience and the watered-down, click-bait headlines? At their best they are little worlds we can explore – when have I mistaken my own face for that of another? When am I the heartbreaker and when does my heart break? Why do I continue to weep? They are little spaces that open up, the way Dombek’s own form, the essay does. The essay is tricky thing, neither wholeheartedly dedicated to argument or experience but to the inevitably impartial place where they collide. Its fundamental problem – how do we know what we know?- has its variants in all the humanities. It’s slippery ground and it’s why so many defenders of the humanities fall into platitudes about the beauty of the questions. We can’t live without beliefs that are untestable, and so we keep clicking, filling out late-night quizzes, looking at a screen and mistaking it for the world.
Laura Tanenbaum is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, where she teaches literature, composition and creative writing. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin, Narrative Magazine, The New York Times, and other publications. She blogs at The Golden Notebooks.