YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

June 8, 2014

“Narcissism”: healthy vs. unhealthy

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Echo and Narcissus: Waterhouse

Echo and Narcissus: Waterhouse

These sources are what I found in a quick search around the internet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissism
http://psychology.about.com/od/psychiatricdisorders/a/history-Of-narcissistic-personality-disorder.htm (NPD excluded from DSM-5.)
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22729454 (on narcissism and S-M behavior)

None of them steps outside of personal psychosexual development in the family to explore the institutional or ideological context in which “narcissistic personality disorder” either occurs or never shows itself.

My blog on the subject constitutes my personal experience and is not the result of clinical training, though the word “narcissistic” is thrown around in popular culture, sometimes to characterize women, but lately to characterize the grandiosity attributed by classical liberals and conservatives to Barack Obama. “Progressives” return the favor by describing all classical liberals and conservatives as heartless, uncompassionate individualists, oblivious to cries from their [imagined communities].

First, “healthy narcissism.” All my work has been driven by the search for creativity and how to impart it to students of all ages. In my view, such originality and discovery is linked to a healthy sense of self, that is, a person with healthy narcissism is not afraid to plunge into deep and uncharted waters to gain an accurate picture of ourselves and the institutions in which we function, no matter what pathology powerful professionals attribute to this search for truth.

But in the [neoclassical] Greek myth, Narcissus is so captivated by his image in a pond, that he is oblivious to the voice of Echo (society), so that he thoughtlessly falls into the pond and drowns. That is how Melville’s character “Ishmael” (the foil to narcissistic Captain Ahab) describes the tale in the first chapter of Moby-Dick: “Narcissus is the key to it all.” And indeed, Ahab does drown, strangled by the rope with which he would revengefully harpoon the White Whale, oblivious to the crew who will also perish. (The link to progressivism’s emphasis on social relationships as opposed to personal self-absorption should be obvious.) [Wikipedia dates the painting by Waterhouse as painted in 1903, after Ovid, in time for the progressive movement: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echo_and_Narcissus_(Waterhouse_painting.%5D

The insult of the narcissism label is often felt by women. On the one hand, women are supposed to be protective mothers and wives, attuned to the most subtle emotions and symptoms of their charges, while they are simultaneously driven to defy aging and yet to be well turned outward to the opinions of relatives and then future mates. When the late academic Christopher Lasch wrote his famous The Culture of Narcissism (Norton, 1979) I bristled. It was an obvious slap at the fashionable notion that “culture” had been “feminized” since the emancipation of women. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Culture_of_Narcissism which argues that Lasch was reacting to militant student activists and to the decline of the family.)

Narcissism and attachment theory. It cannot be emphasized enough that pathological narcissists are unable to form non-exploitative attachments to others, whether these be persons or causes. In order to maintain their self-images as high achievers, for instance, they need a steady stream of “narcissistic supplies” from an adoring public. Although they tend to vacillate between idealizing and demonizing other persons, they can’t take criticism, even of the most tactful kind. For as “perfectionists” in the face of deflating errors or rejection, they are incapable of soothing themselves, for they are devoid of internal good objects (i.e., the mother’s unconditional approval).

I don’t know what a psychoanalyst would say about my claim, but every mother knows that the management of separation from young children so that they may attend nursery school or play with other children (out of mother’s sight), is a challenge. This process gets even more complicated when weaning is premature, or when a succession of nannies are the primary caretakers of children, for “object constancy” is vital to building self-confidence in the child who is expected to stand “alone” apart from mother. The resultant “separation anxiety” can be experienced by either the child or the mother or both. (See my essay https://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/panic-attacks-and-separation-anxiety/.) I often wonder how many Sixties radicals embraced collectivist ideologies in hopes of finding a stable, nurturing family that would compensate for feelings of abandonment by parent(s) and society alike. Had socializing institutions not idealized authority, would these often privileged youngsters identified with causes that were seemingly designed to punish them by losing caste?


Second, which leads to me the question of narcissism and sadomasochism. I have known several men of high intellectual attainment who were 1. panicked at the thought of criticism but who sought punishment in sexual situations. (They might take the role of sadist or masochist, depending on their personal histories with mom), and 2. lived with simultaneous feelings of grandiosity and worthlessness in their psyches, hence were unable to enjoy their achievements in the eyes of others; moreover they were exceedingly manipulative in personal situations. Whether these symptoms were caused by particular family practices and configurations or are institutionally-induced, are beyond my capacities to identify. But here is one quote from my research in the Sadomasochism Collection at UCLA, that sums up the gratification that follows the beating administered by a mother-substitute:

[excerpt from a fantasy by Steadman Thompson, middle-management at the Armstrong Cork Company, Akron, Pennsylvania, in the Sadomasochism Collection, UCLA:] “As I stood up, she came forward with the silver collar. I was aghast at what I had said and done but I stood still and let her fit the cold metal around my neck. As the lock clicked with an icy finality my misgivings rose to an apex.
“Now look, Vivienne,” I whined.
The wand whistled and struck stingingly before I could flinch. “Speak when spoken to, slave and address me as “Mistress” unless I give you another title to use. Now take a hold of the back of my robe.
As I timidly obeyed, she raised her wand and from the wand and the ball on her crown came a light so intense it washed away all our surroundings.”

Steadman Thompson had been subjected to a magic wand, to a “switch” and after taking his punishment, he was returned to the lap of benignant authority, or what I have called elsewhere “Conservative Enlightenment” (a form of pseudo-enlightenment that fails to liberate us from illegitimate authority). How many of our “professionals” in middle management are sadistic with respect to the students (or others) in their charge, while being masochistic with respect to the orders and curricula dished out by their powerful superiors in administrative capacities?

Or, as Melville’s Ishmael queried? “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” (https://clarespark.com/2011/04/10/who-aint-a-slave/, and/or https://clarespark.com/2012/12/02/index-to-sadomasochism-blogs/.)



December 12, 2013

The Wall Street Journal discovers lobotomy craze for vets

VA quackeryAs late as today, December 12, 2013, The Wall Street Journal, has discovered that traumatized veterans of WW2 and even later conflicts were routinely lobotomized, a procedure that is said to have its greatest application in the 1940s and 1950s. Written by Michael M. Phillips (pages A1, A8-A9), the author relies on “dusty” boxes found in the National Archives.  The surgery was primarily applied to “depressives, psychotics and schizophrenics, and occasionally on people identified as homosexuals.”

Where have journalists been all these years? Even anti-science, anti-psychiatry students of the history of medicine consider this lurid chapter to be closed, though my blog index to lobotomies remains popular. See https://clarespark.com/2010/11/29/index-to-lobotomy-blogs/.

But even more relevant to the WSJ alarming discovery is the series on military psychiatry, which remains in a primitive state, perhaps owing to the assumption that wars are inevitable, and that fighting men are expendable, whereas blundering diplomats and governments are not. Above all, we must maintain hierarchies and obedience to our betters, a message amplified by such favorite television series as NCIS, where the good father (Gibbs, played by Mark Harmon) protects his cohesive fighting family, ever the uncomplaining “team.” https://clarespark.com/2010/04/22/links-to-blogs-on-military-psychiatry/. On blundering diplomats see https://clarespark.com/2013/08/31/the-devil-in-history-a-j-p-taylor-vs-r-palme-dutt/ (with an addendum by Niall Ferguson).

As I have argued before, WSJ, like Fox News Channel or Commentary is an outpost of the moderate men. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/11/06/moderate-men-falling-down/.) I had hoped that the WSJ article would exhibit some homework in other archives, hence pointing to our continued confusion over the causes of anxiety, depression, “shell shock,” “PTSD,” and other mental illnesses that might be preventable without the taboo associated with any of the “personality disorders” said to be curable now with cognitive behavioral therapy, guided by DSM-5.  (See https://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/nobody-is-perfect/, one of my items in the lobotomy blogs.)


The point of this blog is that ordinary people take the rap when our “betters” give the orders and fail in their jobs to keep individual, social, and international peace. Is it possible that our world is run by quacks? Are we quacks for trusting them? If so, what can we do about it? Leave your comments on the blog.

May 18, 2013

Friendship in the era of anti-Freud

Paul Prud'hon, 1793

Paul Prud’hon, 1793

The publication today of the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 manual, reminds us that insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies alike have no interest in Freud’s “talking cure”—which simply meant that relief from psychogenic symptoms could be alleviated by telling a neutral party (the psychoanalyst) in a protected, safe (confidential) setting about the traumas and family relationships of early childhood up to the present; in the case of Freudian therapy, such memories were usually repressed but dredged up through free association and transference, in which the analyst was the recipient of feelings about the parent that gradually, under the guidance of the analyst, were traced back to the family of origin. Presumably psychogenic symptoms would abate.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talking_cure.)

The un-ambivalently bourgeois Freud and his methods are now not only under attack by postmodernists and Foucauldians, but by his old enemies, those who believe that human suffering is inevitable in this, the Devil’s realm, and that freedom from what are now deemed to be “personality disorders” can at best be alleviated with pills and behavioral cognitive therapy, a form of short-term “affordable” therapy that ostensibly rewires the brain. (It is derived from Behaviorism, and was seen as torture in Clockwork Orange.)

While I was briefly teaching at California Institute of the Arts, a form of therapy called “Re-evaluation Counseling” was in vogue and several marriages broke up as a result, for it was my theory at least that partners in “co-counseling” (never married to each other) had never experienced being listened to for one hour as they brought up troubling experiences from their past. Such rare attention to old troubles was an impetus to romantic love (as I speculated). (On this method and its origin, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Re-evaluation_Counseling.)

Which brings me to the subject of this blog: how even one intimate, strictly confidential friendship can partly substitute for the loss of Freud and his methods.

First, despite the romanticizing of the nuclear family by politicians and churches, the family of origin is a hotbed of potential trauma that can haunt the adult throughout life, poisoning all relationships and causing chronic illness. I have no doubt that rivalries for the favor of either Mother or Father are real, however out of fashion “Freudians” may be. But we must bury such rivalries (with either parent, or with siblings) for the sake of the “family unity” that is favored by demagogues of every stripe.  I refer not only to Oedipal feelings or to “the Elektra complex” but to the fierce resentments inflicted through sibling rivalry. Our feelings toward parents and siblings, however, must remain “pure” and unambivalent, for ambivalence is a no-no as we celebrate Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or the birthdays of childhood rivals whom we are not permitted to resent, even as they displaced us or bullied us in untold and/or repressed family dramas. (For more on this, see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/17/bondage-and-the-family/, and https://clarespark.com/2011/01/26/obama-and-the-rhetoric-of-the-political-family/.)

How can friendship alleviate these forbidden, often sick-making feelings? My first advice is not to expect family members to substitute for the undivided attention of a friend. Parents and siblings are the last persons who want to hear about their lack of parenting skills or other deficiencies, some structural and not their fault at all.

Second, the friend must be one who has been tested through time not to gossip and to keep confidences; also to be non-judgmental about the expression of negative feelings. Such a person will presumably  have enough self-knowledge to be an appropriate recipient of such personal confidences and not to be freaked out.

If we are so unlucky not to have such a buddy, then do what I do: cuddle up to the great fiction writers and poets. Most of them were Freud’s inspiration too, as he freely admitted. Besides the Greek dramatists, many of the greatest contemporary novelists of the last two centuries were such resources, whatever their politics. Personal favorites of mine are Benjamin Disraeli, Herman Melville, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow. Melville, for instance, threw his inner feelings and ambivalence wide open for all readers to witness, to mull over, and to apply to one’s own closest attachments.

Above all, however, read the post-Freudian attachment theorists: you won’t find many feminists recommending them, for they  emphasize the danger of careless separations between mothers and infants: John Bowlby, Donald Winnicott and Margaret Mahler. (For my summary of how hasty maternal separation from infants and small children can cause panic attacks and separation anxiety, see https://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/panic-attacks-and-separation-anxiety/. For my blogs on Freud and anti-Freudians see https://clarespark.com/2013/03/16/blogs-on-freud-and-anti-freudians/. For an even more negative view of DSM-5 than mine see http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21578050-single-book-has-come-dominate-psychiatry-dangerous-shrink-wrapping?fsrc=scn%2Ftw%2Fte%2Fpe%2Fshrinkwrapping.)

Panic Attack George Grie

Panic Attack George Grie

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