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On the emptiness of narcissism


The website of n+1 has an excerpt from a new book by one of its most compelling regular writers, Kristin Dombek. The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism examines how narcissism evolved from a clinical diagnosis to a ubiquitous cultural phenomenon, and asks whether narcissism really is more prevalent in the age of the internet than before, as is widely believed. In the excerpt, she suggests that narcissists are really empty people pretending to be full. Here’s a snippet:

It might take you a while to realize that the narcissist is not merely selfish, but doesn’t actually have a self. When you do, it will seem spooky, how good she has been at performing something you thought was care. Now you see that she is like a puppet, a clown, an animate corpse, anything that looks human but isn’t. For the narcissist, life is only a stage, writes Alexander Lowen, the author of Narcissism: Denial of the True Self, quoted on the Wikipedia page about narcissism, and “when the curtain falls upon an act, it is finished and forgotten. The emptiness of such a life is beyond imagination.” You might empathize: how horrible to live this way, having to imitate self-ness all the time. You can think of it that way, compassionately— intimacy issues, attachment styles, some childhood trauma beyond their control—or you can decide that your compassion is another sign you’ve been tricked: that because the narcissist has a priori no empathy, yours is just applause to her, and she is not just fake, but evil.

If you work for a narcissist, or are the child of one, or are in love with one, what should you do? Some mental health professionals think that you can love a narcissist, in a way, but that you just have to treat him or her like a six-year-old and expect nothing from that person. Some do think that narcissists can change. Deciding between these two theories can haunt you forever. And on the internet, the change theory is a minority opinion; just about everyone advises that if a narcissist begins to entangle you, you should run. As one blogger put it: “What does one do when encountering a narcissist for the first time? The simple answer: grab your running shoes and start your first 5K right there in the middle of the cocktail party!”

Image via n+1.


The thesis of Richard Sennett’s The Fall Of Public Man is that narcissism is an outcome of the decline in participation in polis. In his book the related to the statement expressed Kristin Dombek’s exceprt

Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you.

but draws the opposite conclusion.

The focus on making others understand how sincerely ‘warm’ you and ‘full of self’ you are is the root of narcissism. That focus is inherently selfish becuse it is only about the percevied authenticity of your self by others. It does not matter if it is genuine, or as the exceprt referes to narcissists, the procuct of imitation.

This is bad for society because once you’ve convinced someone else, there is nothing left to share because people aren’t interacting, they’re just emanating.

I read this expcept as celebration of a vice as a virtue.

I’m interested in your thoughts.