Friday, March 17, 2006

Idle thoughts on narcissism and genius...

Today I was thinking about the concept of narcissism. It’s a fascinating thing to me–that sort of vulgar self-love thrown up like a threadbare blanket over a profound and boundless self-loathing. Narcissistic people are, by definition, contradictory. They’ll blather on endlessly about their accomplishments, their successes, and their brilliance, but they don’t really believe in any of it. They’re dead inside and they hope that if they can just bully and bluff others into buying their line, they’ll come alive somehow. It must be a sad way to be, when your entire self-image is dependent on others believing your bullshit. That is, to me, the worst way to be hollow, the sickest way to be a slave–to need so much more regard than the rest yet to be unwilling to do anything honest to achieve it.

But do I have the wrong idea here? It brings up an interesting question: where does narcissism end and true accomplishment begin? When you encounter some guy who babbles on about his keen mind and his rare gifts while he hops from job to job and can’t even pay his electric bill, it’s easy to call him a narcissist. But what about someone who is truly distinguished, yet can’t shut up about it? It’s tempting to call such a person a “genius” and ascribe all of their unpleasant behaviors to that. Can you be a narcissist and a genius at the same time? It seems to me like you can. But, if this is true, isn’t it also true that narcissism could be an impetus to genius? For most narcissists, their sense of inferiority turns them into liars and blowhards. For some, however, it inspires great works of art, brilliant mathematical formulas, new multinational corporations, whatever. Or am I confusing two very separate forces here?

Is narcissism always pathological? Or can a narcissist “prove” him or herself and, in doing so, stop being a narcissist? My feelings are that the demands of bringing something authentically great into the world–be it a symphony, a novel, a business, or a theory–are antithetical to the shabby nature of narcissism. On some level, a poet must be sensitive. Is a narcissist always too dense and egocentric to fill this role? Likewise, an entrepreneur must be willing to work long and hard. Does the narcissist’s emotional laziness preclude this? A revolutionary physicist has to be a disciplined, rigorous thinker. How can this possibly co-exist with the sloppy intellectual tricks that define narcissism? I realize I may be extrapolating from inaccurate romantic notions of genius or narrow psychological understandings of narcissism, but the question remains: are there benefits to narcissism? If not for the narcissist in question and the people who have to suffer his or her presence, for society at large?

What do you think?