THE ERA OF THE NARCISSIST
by Aaron Kheriaty
Of all the astonishing features of the medieval cathedrals, one feature must stand out as particularly surprising to the modern mind: We have no idea who designed and built them. In a fashion quite foreign to contemporary practice, the architects and builders did not bother to sign their names on the cornerstones. The anonymity of the great souls responsible surely seems strange to our age. Why build the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres if you can’t take credit for it? No lasting fame? No immortalized human glory? We are, if not scandalized, at the very least perplexed by the humility of these forgotten artists who labored in obscurity. Do and disappear? This is not how we roll in the America of the twenty-first century.
The artistic and cultural norm of the anonymous artist or craftsman began to change during the so-called Enlightenment. Witness Jean-Jacques Rousseau’sConfessions, a book he dedicated “to me, with the admiration I owe myself.” The book opens with these lines: “I have entered upon a performance which is without example, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself.” Rousseau deliberately chose his title as a response to Augustine’s work by the same name. In contrast to Rousseau’s vain self-aggrandizement, Augustine gives all glory to God, as in his opening quotation from the Book of Psalms: “Great thou art, and greatly to be praised.” One has to add, however, that even if we admire Augustine’s humility, Rousseau’s language strikes us as more familiar. “To me, with the admiration I owe myself” is a dedication that would look right at home today on a Facebook or MySpace page.
In the eighteenth century, Rousseau’s narcissism, although fashionable among the philosophes, was still something of an anomaly in the wider culture. Indeed, if you believe the statistics in the book under review, such self-conscious narcissism remained an anomaly until roughly forty years ago. Not so today, argue authors Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell. The Narcissism Epidemic opens with this claim: “We didn’t have to look very hard to find it. It was everywhere.” Indeed. As the reader sifts through the evidence the authors have gathered, it becomes apparent that this is a book that could have written itself. And yet this is the first popular book on the topic since Christopher Lasch’s 1979 bestseller, The Culture of Narcissism (a book still very much worth reading, in spite of its somewhat anachronistic theoretical framework, which draws heavily on Freudian psychoanalysis). We should be grateful to Twenge and Campbell for bringing us up to date, carefully collecting and collating the evidence at hand.
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