Is Our Society Becoming More Narcissistic and Is That a Bad Thing?

Lee Siegel is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. He’s a senior editor at the New Republic and writes the blog On Culture over at TNR

A few weeks ago he wrote an essay in the NYTBR about the late poet and critic Paul Zweig. I don’t know much about Zweig, but I picked up on a few of Siegel’s sentences that are interesting:

Zweig registered, with creative joy, his psychic constrictions just before self-obsession became an all-pervasive cultural style. He wasn’t just one of the pioneers of contemporary memoir. He was one of its ideal practitioners…

The self-enclosure that he analyzed and navigated by — and to which Lasch unfairly sentenced him — has become a part of our lives in countless ways. "Self-love" is no longer a heresy, and narcissism is no longer a subversive position.

Is narcissism "in"? Maybe. Self-improvement/self-help stuff are selling like hotcakes. Some fraction of the 30 million bloggers out there feel like their lives are interesting enough to talk about. I spoke to an entrepreneur friend a few weeks ago who wants to write a novel about a guy who grapples with feeling like "he’s a chosen one" to do something great and special in the world.

The other day I spoke to a woman over 50 who said this is indeed generational: younger people are now told to embrace their individualism, embrace their potential to single-handedly do great things, to "have passions" (she argued that even the word "passion" is narcissistic, because it means you think you have more than a simple "interest"). I’m wary of generational arguments — old people like to pine about the good old days and young people like to think everything is up to their generation — but I appreciate her point.

A more narcissistic society is not a wholly bad thing. While some cultural critics bemoan an age where everyone is so inward looking to the detriment of her neighbors, to her community, and to humanity, I see it differently. A community of blank faces does not constitute a community. Rather, a community is composed of diverse individuals who share something in common (which may very well be their differences). But subjugate individuality to the community — or to a nation, or a corporation — and we lose texture, and the community collapses.

People first need to take care of themselves (economically, spiritually, physically) before they can help others. If this requires a dose of narcissism, then fine. Self-delusion after all is important for happiness and self-confidence (perhaps even a bit more than normal) is important for resilience and success.

Obviously we don’t want too narcissistic a society, but my point here is to complicate a matter that’s  often written off as yet sign of the moral rot of 21st century society…

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