Culture of Narcissism

(This essay originally appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser, July 2010)

“Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure.” Christopher Lasch

A few weeks before my second novel was to be published in 1980, I got a call from my editor at Simon & Schuster saying that Sales had decided my title wasn’t strong enough and they needed a more seductive replacement. Mackie was the title of my novel and the name of its central character, a charismatic narcissist on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As it happened, I was in the midst of reading Christopher Lasch’s remarkable book The Culture of Narcissism, and therein found the expression “forgotten impulses”, which Sales adored. Thus my novel was published as Forgotten Impulses and garnered the following from The New York Times. “Piercingly real eroticism told in an ear-perfect rendering.” Oh, for such a review today.

For those not familiar with The Culture of Narcissism, I will briefly synopsize this seminal work. Seminal is an appropriate adjective, for The Culture of Narcissism spawned dozens of other works in response to it. Lasch, a historian with a special interest in the history of psychotherapy, theorized that the social developments of the 20th century, particularly World War II and its aftermath, suburbanization, consumerism, the movie industry, and the conquest of our psyches by television, created a perfect storm of conditioning from which emerged a society of narcissists: individuals with no reliable inner sense of self, and thus prone to fixations on celebrities and extreme vulnerability to manipulation by mass media. In the 1960’s, psychotherapists in America began to see more and more of this personality type entering therapy until by the mid-1970’s such persons were the norm rather than the exception. Other eminent traits of this personality type include a fear of commitment, a dread of aging (which Lasch posited as the engine of the youth culture of the 1960’s and 1970’s) and the puzzling contradiction that, despite the absence of an authentic self, these people operate as if they are the center of the universe. Combine this narcissistic personality with the dissolution of multi-generational social continuity (neighborhoods and extended families) that marked the latter stages of industrialization and the coming of the technological state, and we have America today: a cultural wasteland populated with people not merely separated from the natural world, but separated from who and what they actually are, i.e. human beings.

Which brings me to Lebron James, a huge and talented basketball player who recently chose to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers and join forces with two other superstars on the Miami Heat. Larger than life describes what the corporate oligarchy has made of Lebron, so that his decision to switch teams has been declared by numerous sources to be an economic disaster for Cleveland and Ohio and possibly the entire Midwest. The millions of Clevelanders who once worshiped Lebron with fanatical fervor have embarked on an equally fanatical campaign to remove all signs of Lebron’s Cleveland existence; and Spike Lee predicts that when Lebron returns to Cleveland to play against the Cavaliers, the governor will have to call out the National Guard to protect Lebron from the wrath of those he has forsaken.

Because two of my published works involve basketball, several people have asked if I intended to write about “the whole Lebron thing.” I said I didn’t think I would, but now that literally hundreds of sports writers and pundits have branded Lebron a narcissist, I feel compelled to point out that though narcissists may be profoundly self-centered, it is more important to understand them as emotionally fragile and captives of illusion. Narcissists are not, merely because they are narcissists, malicious or inherently evil.

Narcissus, as the myth describes, fell in love with his reflection, and in so doing spurned Echo, a sexy woman ready and willing to give him all she had to give, if you know what I mean. Thus poor Narcissus literally missed out on life as he gazed unto death at his reflection. One may argue that Lebron is certainly not missing out on the Echoes of our culture, that he is living the high life and adroitly wielding power at the top of the steep-sided pyramid that delineates the corporate kingdom ruling and devouring the world. Lebron is, by all the mainstream measures of modern America, one of the most successful people alive. But that assessment assumes Lebron is actually here, in the sense of being true to himself. And having listened to The King (as he is called by his worshipers) speak to the slavering hordes that greeted him upon his arrival in Miami, I conclude he is only sort of here. For he said to that deluded mob, “I chose Miami because this organization is all about family, and that’s what I’m all about.” And I could not have invented a larger falsity than that.

In 1996, long before the advent of Lebron James, I invented and published Ruby & Spear, a Buddhist novel, if you can imagine such a thing, that wondered for a few hundred pages what might happen if a vastly talented black basketball player developed a deep spiritual practice and a profound commitment to family and community before becoming a professional athlete? Would not his playing be imbued with all he had become? And would not the huge and talented Spear of my novel represent the quantum opposite fulfillment of the potentiality of the likes of LeBron James?

Ruby & Spear proved to be my last novelistic adventure with a big New York publisher. Sales (this time at Bantam) killed the book upon publication and fully three weeks before The New York Times declared the book to be pretty good. Hollywood sniffed around the story for a time, but the consensus among agents and studio gatekeepers was that since my black characters were disturbingly atypical and complex, and there was much talk of poetry and art and love and mysticism, and the humor was offbeat and subtle, and the female characters were every bit as strong and important as the male characters, and there was a shocking absence of violence, and the hero was a friggin’ Buddhist with a clairvoyant grandmother…who’d want to see a movie like that?

So today the myriad pundits suggest Lebron acted cruelly when he abandoned Cleveland for Miami. I think he acted predictably. A braver narcissist would have gone to New York, to the really big show. But Lebron, if you’ve ever watched him play, is a classic bully and not particularly brave. More than half of his many shots per game are dunks and few of these are contested. Anyone stupid enough to get in the way of nearly three hundred pounds of Lebron rampaging toward the hoop would surely suffer broken bones in the ensuing collision.

In the game of my youth (those fabled 1960’s and 70’s) Lebron would have been called for traveling every time he went to dunk, or penalized with a charging foul. But Lebron grew up as the game evolved to accommodate his style, which in less dramatic form was perfected by the not-very-talented-but-enormously-huge-and-strong Shaquille O’Neal knocking people over to score. Indeed, this legalized violence has necessitated adding a line in the paint five feet from the hoop, inside of which a player is permitted by the new rules to shove other players out of the way on his way to score. Thus for the likes of little old me, LeBron represents a further devolution of the game into staged bits and circus faire. Yawn.

Friends of mine not keen on sports, roll their eyes when I muse aloud about Lebron. “Why do you care?” they ask. “It’s such a huge waste of time, such a waste of human potential.”

Perhaps. But I was entranced by the spectacle of the overlords of America’s great city states bidding for the services of this inarticulate gladiator, a god to so many in our collapsing culture. The spectacle of billionaires groveling at the feet of this ephemeral colossus seemed a perfect echo of Christopher Lasch’s pronouncement that “Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure.”

Greed upon greed beyond greed. Insatiable hunger, never to be appeased, even should they eat the entire globe. Buddha’s hungry ghosts unleashed upon the carcass of the dying culture. So it goes.

The first hour of Todd’s reading of Ruby & Spear may be heard gratis at UnderThe and is available in its entirety from iTunes. The book itself may be had for pennies via the Interweb.