Narcissism: a reflection
He’s fragile. He needs affirmation. He exploits intimacy. And he’s in a relationship with me.
‘Me, me, and more me. So much me. And so little.’
Richard Russo, Straight Man
My husband and I spend a lot of time arguing about who’s more of a narcissist, him or me. Clearly it’s him. To be fair, it’s not entirely his fault – after all, we don’t choose what social types to become. Did medieval peasants choose to write memoirs about their traumatic childhoods or try out as reality TV contestants? No, we’re stuck with what history puts on the table: events and necessities beyond our control flood our psychologies with little zeitgeist germs, greasing the machinery of social selfhood. Flashback to early capitalism: the Protestant ethic sucked up happy-go-lucky peasants and churned out industrious wage slaves. Flash forward to digital capitalism, which sucks up helpless little babies and churns out Facebook slaves who labour for the likes and turn the conversation to themselves at every opportunity.
Basically, narcissism is the new herpes. It’s not like you got it on purpose, you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and now everyone’s pointing fingers and trying to pretend they don’t have it, too. Hence the blame game. You’re so self-involved. Can you think of anything but your self? What’s that horrible smell? It’s you.
Obviously no one wants to think of himself as a ‘social type’, let alone a narcissist. It would be injurious to our narcissistic desire for uniqueness. ‘You’re so typical’, I say to my husband, which should be uncontroversial, since who isn’t typical? Trust him to find something to get peeved about in that, too. His entire being feels constantly under siege: he’s a warrior defending valuable territory and I’m the opposing forces marching up the hill.
The irony of coupledom: all the many ways and instances in which the existence of the mate actually stands in the way of you getting the love, sex and emotional sustenance you need that they’re supposed to be providing, and the other person’s feeling that you similarly thwart his/her need-gratification by virtue of having your own separate existence, rather than simply being a convenient delivery-system for love, sex and emotional sustenance, as they had secretly (or not so secretly) hoped.
Yesterday we had a fight about whether I’d been dismissive about him saying his feelings had been hurt by my dismissing his feelings during a previous fight, and whether his being angry at me about it meant that I was obligated to put aside my own feelings on the subject to consider his feelings on the subject, and whether, if I couldn’t do that, I was guilty of dismissing his feelings (once again). He wouldn’t fucking shut up about it. If I get peeved because he’s angry at me about some stupid thing, I’ve hurt his feelings. No, worse – I’m denying his feelings about whatever non-event he has so many feelings about.
His needs, his needs, his needs. I’m being slowly smothered by them. You’d need a spreadsheet to keep track of them. The apartment is crowded with his needs, like an ottoman that’s too big for the living room and you keep stubbing your shins because every time you walk across the room it’s in a slightly different place.
If I try mentioning my needs, he switches the conversation to his needs. Here’s a question. If two people can’t both have feelings at once, then whose come first? It’s a significant problem for modern coupledom: there’s never enough coming first to go around.
Resource distribution is obviously a large and thorny subject, which I invite others to expand upon. Marx had a few things to say about this: in essence, why not redistribute the resources more equitably? My point is that in the coupledom of our time, there’s no such thing as equitable distribution. And the inherently unequal distribution of resources is even more injurious because of our exquisitely tuned antennae for sensing the minutest disparities in love given versus love received. Or attention, or needs-meeting, or whatever.
I suspect you know what I mean: mutuality isn’t exactly in the cards these days. A friend tells me that her new boyfriend’s idea of sex is her watching him masturbate. He doesn’t want to fuck – I guess that would be too interpersonal. I get his point, mutuality can be a bore. There you are, waiting for it to be your turn finally. Which is why porn is so popular, I guess – people getting to have sex without having to navigate the endless hurdles of another person’s needs. Somehow you’re just both in sync. What a pleasant fantasy. Personalities don’t matter – which would surely come as a relief from the endless demands of actually existing relationships, where you can’t get sex unless you conform to the other person’s idea of who you should be. Who you should be for them.
You have to fool them into thinking you’re the person who will answer their needs, or you’re going to end up alone. But what about your needs – if you don’t get them met once in a while, too, you’re going to end up angry all the time, which isn’t exactly tactical, unless you want to end up alone.
If you’re alone, who will pay attention to you then? Then you’ll really be attention-starved! So I pledge to be your attention-delivery system until death do us part. (Or until one of us finds a more reliable source.) Still, there’s never enough coming first to go around, unless you’re some sort of celebrity.
At a dinner party, in conversation with my seatmate, I glance over and notice my husband looks sullen. Later I say, why did you look sullen? He says, ‘I wanted you to pay more attention to me‘. ‘But there were other people there’, I say. Is there enough attention in the world to plug that world-sized hole? ‘You’re always sick’, he said bitterly the last time I had a cold. Later he admitted that he feels personally rejected if I’m sick. I was meant to appreciate his honesty, but did I really want to know this?
But that’s part of the job requirement: knowing everything. Every crevice. Sharing, processing, externalising. ‘Inner life’? What’s that? Are you nuts? Nothing stays in.
My husband thinks that talking about himself a lot makes him a feminist. He heard somewhere that men should talk about their feelings more. I suspect he’s just trying to out-lady me, which isn’t hard, since I’m callous. All this fucking ‘male sensitivity’. Men are becoming so feminised. Some people say it’s because their jobs are disappearing. Have you noticed how their voices are getting all high-pitched and whiny? They bleed – if not from vaginas then from their sensitive souls.
‘Tell it to your Facebook friends’, I say when he complains about me ignoring his feelings. He’s accrued an astronomical number of followers on Facebook for his revealing autobiographical posts. The more he reveals the more they love him. I vow to post more status updates on Facebook, too. Why should he get all the attention?
Attention is to the digital economy what corn was to agribusiness. But attention-procurement isn’t as easy as it sounds, with everyone fighting over every shred. Even the most casual conversation becomes an attention battleground. Obviously you can’t seem too blatantly self-referential or too baldly egotistical; attention-getting subterfuges are necessary. A conversation researcher recorded and analysed a hundred dinner conversations and reported his findings, which sound very much like dinner at our place: my husband trying to shift the conversational focus to himself subtly enough that I won’t catch him in the act and possibly withdraw my attention for good.
The primary tactic, says the expert, is the ‘shift-response’. Suppose I say, ‘I’m really starved’. My husband could say, ‘When was the last time you ate, honey?’ This would be an example of a ‘support-response’, which keeps the focus on me. But my husband, being who he is, is far more likely to respond, ‘Oh, I had a big lunch’ (shift-response), and commence an elaborate description of who he lunched with (Alvin), and what they ate and how narcissistic Alvin is because he kept talking about himself. Let’s say I introduce a new topic: ‘God, I’m so pissed off at my mother.’ Here he has an option. He could say, ‘Why, what’s going on?’ (support-response), though he’s more likely to say – even though his own mother is dead – ‘Yeah, my mother used to do the same thing’ (shift-response), then relate the story (yet again) of the time she threw the plates and how he never got over the emotional terror, then proceed to deliver a lengthy indictment of what a narcissist his mother was, leaving me to get over my annoyance by griping to my mother, the next time we talk, about what a narcissist my husband is.
Did I mention that my husband is writing a memoir about his childhood? No doubt yours is, too, or soon will be, since whose spouse isn’t? Who doesn’t want to be the first person? Lately I’ve noticed that whatever I write seems to be increasingly littered with first-person pronouns, too, for unknown reasons. I suspect it’s one of those zeitgeist things.
The joke’s on me: I married a postmodern professor who scoffed at words like ‘authenticity’. The author was dead, he and all his pomo pals agreed. Now, there he is, strip-mining his childhood for plot points, pulled by some invisible force. Something out there demands that our lives will be posted, confessed, ‘shared’. Everything personal must be expelled. Needless to say, everything you post, confess and share will be quickly monetised by the digital overlords, who’ve figured out how to create vast profit gluts out of what used to be ‘inner life’: a previously uncommodified zone, like the rain forest. Instead of resisting, we ‘share’ how ambivalent or distressed we feel about it all. Because it just feels right to share that.
Essentially, we’ve been turned inside out.
The spouse who’s writing a memoir is the spouse who’s won the attention-garnering competition for the indefinite future, it goes without saying. This is the spouse who can talk about himself nonstop for a reason. Because it’s his ‘project’.
As it happens, I myself had been commissioned to write an essay on narcissism and coupledom. I was feeling stuck until I realised that my own husband was Patient Zero, or could be for the purposes of the essay. I didn’t think he’d mind, because after all, I’d be paying attention to him. Except that he’s jealous of the essay. Even if it’s about him, it takes me away from him. I suspect that deep down he regards me writing anything as a form of bigamy. Every essay is another husband competing for my attention. Even the spouse’s imagination is a betrayal, to someone with a fragile sense of self.
To be honest, I don’t even believe in narcissism. It’s a bullshit term. No one agrees on what it is or what it means. It’s a diagnostic stick to beat other people up with, about not being the right kind of self. There’s some vast anxiety about selfhood lately, about the right way to be a self in relation to other selves. When did this start? I’m not sure. Too much self, too little self – calibrating the proper self-other ratio is the big problem. Notice how often this is expressed as a resource issue, ie, ‘he sucks up all the air in the room’.
(The shrinks are the worst narcissists of all, by the way. All my last shrink wanted to do was talk about herself. Once I brought it up, and boy did she look pissed off.)
Here’s what Mr Narcissism himself (Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, 1979), had to say about the conditions of coupledom four decades or so ago, back when late capitalism was barely even a thing. That we experience each other as undependable. That we cultivate a ‘protective shallowness’ in emotional relations because we fear dependency, yet can’t stand to be alone. That we need others desperately, yet are terrified of emotional dependency, which makes us manipulative and exploitative when it comes to intimacy. That we avoid close involvements because they might release intense feelings of rage, yet we’re dependent on lovers (and friends, if we can manage to acquire and hang onto them) for infusions of approval and to appease our neurotic need for reassurance.
Then Lasch turns around and scolds us for avoiding intimacy. The only good scold is a dead scold, if you ask me.
In order for a society to function, its members must acquire the kind of character which makes them want to act in the ways they have to act as members of that society, someone once said. I think it may have been Erich Fromm, though no one really reads him anymore. He’s a has-been.
So here we are, social characters so transfixed by the image of our own fragility that we managed to elect a billionaire to mitigate the injuries of class. Meet your new leader, America: His Majesty, the baby. Even everyone who loathes him can’t stop watching him, or talking about him, or analysing him. We choose leaders who make themselves legible to us as a collective mirror. The leader’s body signifies the dilemmas of the nation: consciously or unconsciously he acts in ways that make him seem clothed in metaphor. Or Brioni.
The irony about all of us going around pseudo-diagnosing other people’s narcissism is that the diagnosis itself is obviously a symptom of the condition being diagnosed—as though the pronouncement-issuers aren’t victims of the same epidemic of failed self-awareness that’s the very hallmark of the condition? As though it’s possible to stand outside culture and push back heroically against the socio-historical tide and its characterological necessities, and you alone have accomplished it?
‘You’re such a narcissist’, I say, semi-affectionately, to my husband. He gives me an inscrutable look, or tries to. But he doesn’t really have it in him.
Laura Kipnis is the author of Against Love: A Polemic, and Men: Notes from an Ongoing Investigation. Her next book, Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus, will be out in April from HarperCollins. (Order this book from Amazon(UK)).