There are books that only time gives their rightful due or, if you prefer, serves to reveal all the wisdom they contained. It is not that they went unnoticed or were wrongly interpreted when they first appeared, but rather that all the new additions that constantly flood bookstores and literary supplements didn’t allow us to see the true scope of their arguments.
To explain what we mean, we could mention the works of several authors. First, Guy Debord’s 1960s work characterizing the society of the spectacle was overshadowed by Marcuse’s brilliance when it was originally published, but Debord’s contention has become almost commonplace when we describe how the public sphere works today. Second, we could cite Cass Sunstein’s 2001 Republic.com in which he decried the naïve expectation that the internet could become a global agora in which a planetary and cosmopolitan democracy would become a reality. Finally, there’s Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism—which, happily, was reissued in 2018—in which the author anticipated some of the most relevant determinations of our current collective imaginary.
First, let us point out that the treatment of narcissism presented here is not intended to delve into the ontological-philosophical dimension of the construct that we customarily refer to as the self (or personal identity). That concept was dealt with by the British philosopher Derek Parfit in Reasons and Persons, a book that was highly celebrated—especially in analytical circles—at the time of its publication, but is barely remembered today. On the other hand, Lasch, instead of focusing his analysis on dissecting the ontological weakness of such a construct (a somewhat obvious approach, given our social and cultural condition), emphasizes another dimension of the same issue: how the self relates to the world where fate has thrown us.
And we must accept that, for the fragile construct that defines us—our self—not to collapse at the first dose of harsh reality, we need a certain amount of selfishness. But as with cholesterol, there is good and bad selfishness. The former would be equivalent to the self-love of which Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater once spoke, and the latter would be narcissism, which is nothing more than a distorted and pathologized perception of the self. In the first case, subjects love themselves so they can continue measuring themselves against the world; in the other case, subjects excessively like themselves precisely so that they do not need to face the world and be forced to accept their eventual failures.
In the four decades that have gone by since The Culture of Narcissism first appeared, its approach has become increasingly relevant. Perhaps during moments of relative collective calm when reality does not challenge us too much, narcissistic reverie can be maintained (for better or worse). But that does not apply these days. If anything, since the book was first published in 1979, the course of events has tended to increase humanity’s many different problems. The world has continued to challenge us in new, more powerful ways. But the narcissism that characterizes the present has not faded away or even been mitigated. In fact, it often seems to have increased, especially as a result of social media bursting into the public space. A case in point: the mirroring effect that social media prompts in their users, leading them to compulsively pursue “likes.”
In this sense, the distance between reality and individuals’ self-satisfied perceptions of themselves has only widened; the repeated failure of their expectations has not made a dent in their considerable overvaluation of themselves. All of this not only confirms Lasch’s thesis but makes it even more dramatic. We lack the possibility of radically transforming the current situation to solve the problems that afflict everyone; as a result, it seems that people can only choose whether to persist in their individualistic narcissistic daydreaming (which is perfectly compatible with the system, since the order of reality is unquestioned) or give up, tired and defeated, which is reflected in the metaphor of depression as the disease of our time.
As we are warned in the postscript, this book is not another tirade against the prevailing (bad) selfishness. On the contrary, it falls quite short in its complaints. The evidence is that the public discourse no longer even seems to have any antidote to narcissism other than self-help. That, or for the more erudite, reading excerpts of the Stoics, especially Epictetus, which works well in times of defeat.
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