Sunday, January 15, 2017

I'll Be Your Mirror

I just finished reading an interesting little book by the essayist Kristin Dombek, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016).  Dombek explores the current fascination with narcissism, which we're told is spreading through American society and thence to the world like a radioactive virus.  (And of course, it's going to take over the White House in less than a week: "narcissist" is a Homeric epithet for Donald Trump in the alarmist discourse about him.  Which doesn't mean he's not an awful person, only that narcissism is the least of the things wrong with him, especially since narcissism is virtually a prerequisite for seeking the presidency.)

There's a lot of quotable and useful information in The Selfishness of Others.  Probably the overarching theme is awareness that what people evidently fear and denounce is other people's narcissism, not one's own.  Dombek begins by discussing The Bad Boyfriend/Girlfriend, the Demon Lover who takes our devotion and then tosses it aside, who is analyzed, identified, and excoriated in innumerable books, TV, and websites.  I wondered as I read if Dombek would draw the conclusion that I thought begged to be drawn from the phenomenon, and to my relief and satisfaction, she did:
Maybe we do so [i.e., "exaggerate the ease with which we can get accurate, non-pseudo, empathy in ordinary cases"] especially when we believe (because all our conventional narratives of romance and friendship and mental health and intimacy tell us so) that someone should be for us the most familiar person in the world.  The irony is that the kind of empathy that many women who believe themselves to be hooked up with narcissists describe themselves as having (calling themselves in contrast to their narcissist an "empath," a "clairvoyant," a highly sensitive person) then gets in the way of their understanding the narc at all [106-7].
This is good, but I don't think Dombek goes quite far enough.  If someone is really an "empath" or "clairvoyant" [!], then why doesn't she recognize that a prospective lover is a narcissist before getting involved with him?  (This is one of those times when a genuine gender-neutral third-person pronoun would be handy; it is certainly not only heterosexual women who encounter Demon Lovers.)  Why doesn't her clairvoyance reveal that the prospective soulmate in fact has no soul, but is an empty shell pretending to be a person?  As Dombek indicates in her tongue-in-cheek proposed "entry for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders" at the very end of the book, such people are themselves suspect of believing "that he or she is 'special' and uniquely unselfish and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other people with low-selfishness scores" (137).  It seems to me that such people are at least as likely as their "narcissists" to have a personhood deficit, which they think an ideal lover (or mother-substitute?) will make good.

I'm not casting the first stone here; I recognized myself, especially my younger self, in Dombek's discussion.  I was also reminded of the way that many people, including many gay men, demand that other people recognize their inner beauty but feel entitled to lovers with a surfeit of outer beauty.  I have some minor disagreements with Dombek, such as her embrace of the unproven and dubious claims for "mirror neurons," but on the whole The Selfishness of Others is an exemplary critique of a current pop-psychological fad, and fun to read besides.