To celebrate and promote the launch of his new novel Monique Orphan Stephen Palmer is currently doing a blog tour, and has kindly dropped by here on his travels around the blogosphere. Stephen recently recorded an episode of Chronscast, and amongst other things we got onto the topic of narcissism. An ancient personality trait – or pathological condition, one might say – informed and explained by myth, it’s a phenomenon rich with meaning and which warrants continual exploration.
I’m on record as being a fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. I especially like his notion of writing what he called, “adult novels with young characters.” The themes of Pullman’s masterpiece are of course broad, profound and universal: this, I like. So when I came to consider writing a second steampunk trilogy after my Factory Girl trio, I wondered what the main philosophical theme should be. In the end, for Conjuror Girl, I chose selfishness, or, as I’ve referred to it in my non-fiction writing, narcissism.
Narcissism has different meanings in different circumstances. In psychiatry it has a particular, specialised meaning. The great humanist author and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm by contrast used the term to describe how people filter the real world through their own perceptions: their desires, their prejudices, their beliefs, their language. This leads them into using faulty or inaccurate perceptive notions. Fromm used narcissism to mean: the narcissistic orientation is that in which a person experiences as real only that which exists within themself, while phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous. In my own thinking I’ve used the term in a still broader sense, applying it to the human condition.
This, then, is my theme, couched in terms of selfishness, but with reference to Narcissus. But we are all born narcissistic. Because we are conscious individuals, we do not use instinct as do animals. Instead, over years and decades, we accumulate a mental model of the world, with which we interact every second of our lives. This model however is least accurate when young, and has the property of narcissism because that self-centred characteristic is required in order to build a mental model, and because infants especially do not realise at first that the world outside their minds is independent. Their theory of mind – that other people may have different ideas and beliefs to their own – comes later in
The extraordinary fact then – the tragedy, indeed – is that we human beings cannot help but be narcissistic in our young lives, and usually into our adult lives. It’s a fact of life. But we do have the opportunity of overcoming it in order to have a fruitful, equitable and just relationship with the world and the people in it. This process however is very difficult. We are all prone to deceiving ourselves in order to keep our beliefs and desires. This then, in essence, is the kind of perceptive, social and cultural selfishness I’m talking about – our propensity to believe our own beliefs regardless of the real world, and then to act upon those beliefs. In my view, if you dig deep enough, narcissism is at the bottom of all
aspects of inhumanity, because it negates reality – the world out there really is independent of us! – and because narcissists lack empathy, which is the foundation of consciousness.
You only have to look at America up to their most recent election to see the true danger of a narcissist. It is generally accepted that Donald Trump has a particularly intense narcissistic personality disorder, or, as I put it when I wrote about him, he is intensely narcissistic. As president, he could not accept that the world was independent of him. He acted as though his associates and colleagues were aspects of himself, given purpose by presidential order – avatars of himself. He spoke as though stating something meant his words were automatically true. I do not believe he has a concept of lying, because such a
concept implies the liar understands that others can believe or disbelieve. Trump could not grasp that others might disbelieve his words. He believed them, therefore everybody else did.
This intensity of narcissism in a leader is extremely dangerous. Alas, the particulars of narcissism – wanting to reach out to make the world more like the narcissist’s imaginary version of it – mean that all narcissistic individuals hunger for power, for control, for domination. Hence Napoleon, Thatcher, Stalin, Hitler, (false equivalence, perhaps? – Dan) and countless other people perched at the top of male hierarchies. It’s not a pretty picture. In The Conjuror Girl trilogy I wanted to explore this theme through the eyes of Monique, a young girl with a talent. This talent – Reification, which allows Reifiers to make real the contents of their minds – is of course a metaphor for narcissism. In Monique’s case however, she has the option of overcoming her narcissism, but only with the help of her true friends.
So there is hope. Connection, empathy, seeing yourself through the eyes of others – these are all methods of overcoming narcissism. And does Monique success in this task? You’ll have to read the books to find out.
Stephen is stopping by several blog outposts during his tour. You can read more of his blog posts at the following places and times. Monique Orphan is out now.