Friday, June 8, 2012

A Sound Bite for Narcissists: You're So Vain (Carly Simon)

A narcissist may not feel familial or romantic love except as it reflects upon his or her own self-image. If others love him, then his worth increases accordingly, but he will not return the love given. Narcissists are self-centered, self-absorbed, vain, smug, and egotistical. They love no one and nothing better than they love themselves.

Their speech includes numerous uses of the pronouns I, me, and mine, and they judge everything by its effects upon their needs, desires, and ambitions. If something fails to enhance their beauty, it’s worthless. If someone fails to complement the narcissist’s self-image, he's discarded. If anyone dares to challenge or critique the narcissist’s dreams and schemes, he’s dismissed.

Pity the poor narcissist, however, at least in one version of his mythological origin, one told by Ovid:

From birth to young adulthood, everyone judged Narcissus to be beautiful. Nymphs threw themselves at him, and in an earlier version not included in Ovid’s work, a young man kills himself because Narcissus spurns him. Indeed, Narcissus spurns all advances, especially physical ones. He remains apart, a being entire unto itself until he sees himself reflected in a perfectly clear, placid pond. Only then does he know desire. He longs to hold or kiss the reflection, but of course, when he reaches into the water, he disturbs the image and resigns himself to sit still, admiring and loving from afar. His devotion to himself leads directly to his death because he does not fulfill any other basic biological need. He does not eat, seek shelter, or long to belong. He simply looks at himself until he withers and dies.

The ancient Greeks, as the story suggests, believed narcissism deleterious to a full, rich life. After all, Narcissus lives and dies alone. His legacy is vanity and self-absorption, a man lacking in empathy for anyone other than himself.

Contemporary world residents hold narcissism in low regard, too. Indeed, narcissism is one of several personality disorders recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. Its indicators include self-aggrandizement and an almost pathological avoidance of intimacy, and these are the traits that authors often employ when creating narcissistic characters.

Villains, for example, may be narcissists, especially in the work of Ian Fleming and all those others who have re-invented the James Bond brand. How many of 007’s antagonists have exclusive, loving relationships with just one other person besides a Persian cat? Villainy also requires secrets and lies, the sort of misinformation that will keep intimate understanding and long-lasting bonds at bay.

One of the most amoral narcissists, in my opinion, is Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother and Denmark’s queen. King Hamlet cherished her, even shielding her from the harsh “winds of heaven.” She acted as if she were devoted to her husband, the king, yet she dallied with Claudius, her husband’s brother, and even married him after King Hamlet’s death, never once contemplating how sordid such a union appeared to all of Denmark, never considering how much pain her son might feel after his father’s sudden death and her inexplicable haste to marry again to a man whom Prince Hamlet deemed unworthy, a “satyr” next to his father’s godlike stature.

In a sorry show of insensitivity and selfishness, Gertrude consoles her son by reminding him that all things die. She also stands by while the new king, Hamlet’s uncle, mocks her son, suggesting that Prince Hamlet’s grief is not manly.

As any narcissist might, Gertrude absorbs her new husband’s attention as if it is due her, and she ignores any pain or shame her actions bring to Elsinore, Denmark and her reputation. Disgusted and enraged, Hamlet lists her negligence in loving herself more than Denmark, in caring about her own pleasure more than her son, and in forsaking a man, her first husband, who cherished her. Then, she glimpses her reflection through her son’s eyes, and the “sight is dismal.”

Still, Gertrude does not fall to her knees and pray for forgiveness or even for strength to endure the “nasty sty” she has made for her bed. She plays the role of Queen, devoted wife and supportive mother who cheers for her son during the final fencing match. She remains self-absorbed to the end.

Women such as Gertrude and men who wear the costumes of Love and Devotion often do so to serve themselves. They are called gold-diggers, players, Lotharios, mean girls, Gordon Gecko, and Ron Burgundy. All things, including human beings who can be broken and maimed, exist to flatter and sate them, and if they ever experience remorse, the moment passes quickly.

Reading Challenge:

“Read” Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy or watch episodes of Mad Men. Look for narcissism in the men who populate those fictional eras. They believe they are entitled, and women exist to serve their needs, desires, and ambitions.

Writing Challenge:

Choose a celebrity or prominent figure from the world of entertainment and news. Write a character sketch for that celebrity, selecting those traits that are narcissistic.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Commonly Confused Words Stationary and Stationery

Stationary means an item or person fixed in a place, someone or something that does not move.

Stationery means writing materials, including envelopes, note cards, paper, and even printer paper.

One way to remember the difference between the two words and their correct spellings is to think of the envelope that covers the letter paper or card. Envelope begins and ends with an e; there’s even one more e in the second syllable. So stationery has an e in the last syllable to match the e’s in its cover companion, an envelope.

Narcissus remained stationary (not moving) as he admired his own reflection, so stationary that he withered and died. If only he’d gone in search of stationery (writing materials) to send a letter to himself, then he might have picked up a bit of food or water on his way and survived.