René Girard, The Last Psychiatrist, and Mimetic Narcissism
I’ve been reading a lot of René Girard lately and along the way, I’ve seen a lot of parallels with another favorite writer: The Last Psychiatrist (TLP). My fascination with TLP goes back to 2011, when I discovered and quickly became obsessed with his writing on narcissism, media criticism, advertising, and psychology (and later made a movie that was heavily influence by his writing).
Connecting the dots in my mind has been delightful, and I wish they could get together and hash things out. Unfortunately, Girard is dead and The Last Psychiatrist is… well, last I heard he was drinking himself to death while writing a book about porn. I wish him well, wherever he may be.
There are many parallels between Girard and TLP, but I want to pull on one little thread that begins with Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.
TLP’s project is far-reaching and delightfully tangential, but at its core, it’s a wickedly incisive, earnest, and often hilarious exploration of narcissism:
Shame over guilt; rage over anger; masturbation over sex; envy over greed; your future over your past but her past over her future…
The narcissist feels unhappy because he thinks his life isn’t as it should be, or things are going wrong; but all of those feelings find origin in frustration, a specific frustration: the inability to love the other person.
He’s a man in a glass box, unable to connect. He thinks the problem is people don’t like him, or not enough, so he exerts massive energy into the creation and maintenance of an identity: if they think of me as X…
But that attempt is always futile, not because you can’t trick the other person– you can, for an entire lifetime, it’s quite easy. But even then, the man in the box is still unsatisfied, still frustrated, because no amount of identity maintenance will break that glass box.
If the other person is also in a glass box, then you have a serious problem. If everyone is in their own glass box, well, then you have America.— The Last Psychiatrist: A Generational Pathology: Narcissism Is Not Grandiosity
But where does it come from? Where did it start?
Reading TLP, you get the sense that this epidemic of narcissism is a fairly recent phenomenon. Except, hold on, here he is talking about Dostoevsky:
Most people will give you the usual suspects, so let me add my personal favorite: Notes from The Underground. I know I’ve written about it elsewhere, but it’s a profound work of psychological insight.
While not exactly about depression, it’s fairly obvious he is depressed. But more importantly, the reason for his depression is an inability to connect with any other people. He sees them, he has remarkably precise observations about their character, but he completely misses/misinterprets their connections to him. He can only process reality in one direction, inwards: what it does to him, how it makes him feel, the impact of it on himself. Everyone else in the world is relevant only in the way they affect him.
Because of this perspective, he cannot help but be depressed; and, from my own experience, that narcissism is by far a more significant factor in today’s “clinical depression” than anything else.— from a comment on Recommend writing about depression – majordepressivedisorder | Ask MetaFilter
Notes from Underground was published in Russia in 1864 and it wasn’t science fiction and I don’t think Russians got American TV until 1989. The Boomers and American TV may have taken narcissism to dizzying new heights, but if it was going on in 1864 then you can’t pin it entirely on TV or advertising or going off the gold standard or thinkpieces in The Atlantic or mind-coddling or glyphosate or seed oils whatever is making us all sad and fat and angry these days.
Girard was also a fan of Dostoevsky and like TLP, he saw in his work a great illumination of his big idea: mimetic desire.
“Except for a few characters who entirely escape imitative desire, in Dostoevsky, there is no longer any love without jealousy, any friendship without envy, any attraction without repulsion. The characters insult each other, spit in each other’s faces, and minutes later they fall at the enemies feet. They objectively beg mercy. This fascination coupled with hatred is no different in principle from Proustian snobbism and Stendhalian vanity. The inevitable consequences of desire copied from another desire are envy, jealousy and impotent hatred. As one moves from Stendhal to Proust, and from Proust to Dostoevsky, the closer the mediator comes, the more bitter are the fruits of triangular desire.”– Deceit, Desire and the Novel (page 41)
Girard reads Notes from Underground and doesn’t see narcissism1, but a classic case of mimetic desire. The Underground Man is trapped in internal mediation, locked in mimetic rivalry with everyone he encounters. The result is a man consumed by envy, jealousy, and impotent hatred. In other words, the classic narcissist.
(if you’re lost and want a good primer on Girardian thought, I recommend Secrets about People: A Short and Dangerous Introduction to René Girard).
Because Girard is an anthropologist2, he’s well-positioned to sees that this phenomenon has roots that predate the 20th century. He wrote an essay called “Innovation and Repetition,” which is hard to excerpt but goes something like this: once upon a time in the West, before the intellectually wild and libertine 18th century, the term “innovation” was considered a bad word. Intellectuals and thinkers considered innovation a dangerous thing that could topple the social order.
The way to a good and virtuous life was through imitation — but not imitation of just anyone — you had to imitate great figures from the past, paragons of virtue from the domains of religion or philosophy.
But then, starting in the 18th century, thinkers started to get interested science and innovation and as we proceeded through the 19th and 20th centuries, the idea of God started to die. Imitation became gauche and innovation was the hot new thing.
The narcissism of today is not some recent phenomenon, but the result of a centuries-long shift in Western thought and culture. We didn’t invent it, but we perfected it.
Imitation may be uncool, but it happens regardless. You’re going to have models. The only question is “who?” and if you’re not deliberate about it, well, this is where TLP really shines.
One of his great insights was that ads don’t sell a specific product, they teach you how to want — as in, the car commercial doesn’t tell you “a Lexus is great” but it does tell you “your car defines your sexual desirability” or “your car is how you communicate who you are.” You watch the BMW ad and think “that guy’s a douche, everyone knows driving a BMW won’t get you laid” and the trick has worked — by rejecting the specific message, you accept the premise. “I love nature, that’s why I’m a Subaru man.”
And into this narcissistic world where internal mediation runs rampant, advertising comes in like a genius con artist and sees the setup for the greatest con of all time. You can trick people into wanting what you want them to want and all they’ll ask for in exchange is for you to define their identity.
If you don’t understand this, then you’re an easy target for advertisers, ideological charlatans, and anyone who wants to plug into your mimetic API for their own ends. You’re walking around with the private keys to your identity exposed.
If that makes you depressed and bitter, well then, don’t worry, they have something they can sell you for that. And if you immediately blame capitalism, then I think you missed the point of section II.
So, what do you do, if you’re like Underground Man, moving through the world bitter and spiteful of everyone around you, filled with envy and rage?
TLP struggled to answer this question, and I think that was in part because he saw mimesis as wholly the province of narcissists:
The narcissist has identity– but it is one he chose, not one that evolved naturally. That means he thinks of himself as something– based on a model. He consciously identifies with someone– Tony Soprano, the guy from Coldplay, Jack Kerouac, or a combination of traits from people, etc. The psychopath has no model– he just exists. Since the narcissist’s identity is entirely made up, it requires other people for constant reaffirmation of his identity and of its value.— The Last Psychiatrist: Psychopathy, Antisocial Personality Disorder, and Narcissism
The healthy individual doesn’t copy his identity, he allows it to evolve naturally. But what does it mean for your identity to evolve naturally? We can agree that the wholesale imitation of a TV character is a bad idea but is it possible to even exist without some level of imitation?
He never arrives at the Girardian concept of a higher, external mediator, but does get pretty close:
So what about the next generation, those under 25? If the problem was the unopposed influence of TV– not the TV, per se, but the lack of opposing influence– then the solution is some opposing influence.
I am nervous about recommending “the Classics” because it sounds contrived and pretentious, but anything that has withstood the test of time and is not something that was created to be consumed by current narcissist adults is as good a place to start as any.
Do the opposite of what the narcissists did. They wanted to know enough to fake it. They read just enough to use the book to build an identity, so they read about books, but not the actual books.— via The Last Psychiatrist: Can Narcissism Be Cured?
The unopposed influence of TV needs a counterweight — you need to go further into history, find something old to read — but he doesn’t quite arrive at the Girardian insight — why you need to go into the old books.
It’s not because they boomers didn’t read them, and it’s not because they’re Lindy (although that’s related), it’s because they’re above you, far away enough in time and space that there’s no risk of mimetic rivalry. Imitating the ancient Greeks or Romans, or Thomas Edison or Joan of Arc or basically anyone who isn’t someone in your actual life or on TV is better than imitating someone you know, a potential rival.3
If mimesis is inevitable, then who you choose to imitate is really important. To deny the choice, to let yourself go wherever the current takes you, means that you’ll inevitably imitate the people around you or whoever the dominant culture or whoever advertisers wants you to imitate.
Maybe you get lucky and have good role models, but maybe you don’t and you end up bitter, envious, and full of impotent rage. And that’s no way to live. At least that’s what my models say.
Choose wisely, wildman.
What does Girard think of narcissism? Well, he wrote an essay called “Narcissism: The Freudian Myth Demythified by Proust” and the astute reader will guess from the title that he’s not a huge fan of the concept. It’s hard to distill his opinion down to just one sentence, but — wait, never mind, he actually wrote this: “The whole theory of narcissism is one of the most questionable points in psychoanalysis” (from Mimesis & Theory). And there’s a funny bit where he basically says that the very idea of narcissism is an obstacle to “arrest our thinking at the point where Freud arrested his; it confirms our natural tendency, the tendency of all desire to consider ‘self-centeredness’ and ‘other-centeredness’ as separate poles that can become dominant in separate individuals.” In other words, the concept of narcissism prevents you from understanding the real truth and which diehard TLP readers will see the delicious irony here. If Girard’s favorite pastime was pointing out things that are actually mimetic desire, then TLP’s favorite pastime was pointing out things that are actually narcissistic defenses (against change, usually). For example: therapy, trying to understand yourself, addiction, projection, blaming others, rage, reading too much TLP, writing thinkpieces, hating on hipsters, etc. And maybe me pointing out that things are defenses against other things is my defense against… things. Or change. I don’t know. ↩
Yes, I know his formal training was not in anthropology. ↩
Look, obviously there are people from the past that are not good to imitate. The point isn’t that “everyone dead is a good role model”, the point is that “a dead person can’t become a rival.” You still have to choose good models. ↩
Travailler, toujours travailler.
Roding then took Rilke outside for a tour of the grounds. As they walked, Roding began to tell Rilke about his life, but not in the way one might speak to a journalist on assignment. He understood that Rilke was a fellow artist, and so he framed his stories as lessons that the young poet might take as examples.
Above all else, he stressed to Rilke, Travailler, toujours travailler. You must work, always work, he said.
“To this I devoted my youth.” But it was not enough to make work, the word he preferred to “art”; one had to live it.
That meant renouncing the trappings of earthly pleasures, like fine wine, sedating sofas, even one’s own children, should they prove distracting form the pursuit.— from You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin by Rachel Corbett
More from Lost in the Cosmos:
But what is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down. The best film of the year ends at nine o’clock. What to do at ten? What did Faulkner do after writing the last sentence of Light in August? Get drunk for a week. What did Doestoevsky do after finishing The Idiot? Spend three days and nights at the roulette table. What does the reader do after finishing either book? How long does his exaltation last?
He gives several (slightly tongue-in-cheek) options, including suicide, sex, and alcohol. But also, travel or moving:
The self leaves home because home has been evacuated, not bombed out, but emptied out by the self itself. That is, home, family, neighborhood, and town have been engulfed by the vacuole of self, ingested and rendered excreta. What writer can stay in Oak Park, Illinois? One leaves for another place, but soon it too is ingested and digested.
Yeah, thinking of leaving myself.
Escaping the predicament of the self
The difference between Einstein and Kafka, both sons of middle-class middle-European families, both of whom found life in the ordinary world intolerably dreary:
Einstein escaped the world by science, that is, by transcending not only the world but the Cosmos itself.
Kafka also escaped his predicament–occasionally–not by science but by art, that is, by seeing and naming what had heretofore been unspeakable, the predicament of the self in the modern world.— Walker Percy, Lost in the Cosmos
I didn’t love this book, which I found through Austin Kleon, but I did love the chapter on escaping the self and re-entry problems.
How to not be busy
Step one: identify what seem to be, right now, the most meaningful ways to spend your life.
Step two: schedule time for those things.
There is no step three.
Everything else just has to fit around them – or not. Approach life like this and a lot of unimportant things won’t get done, but, crucially, a lot of important things won’t get done either. Certain friendships will be neglected; certain amazing experiences won’t be had; you won’t eat or exercise as well as you theoretically could.
In an era of extreme busyness, the only conceivable way to live a meaningful life is to not do thousands of meaningful things.—Oliver Burkeman
Found this in my notes from a few years ago. Huge fan of Burkeman’s book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.
Sure, follow your passion, you masochist
The etymology of the word “passion”:
Middle English, from Old French, from Medieval Latin passiō, passiōn-, sufferings of Jesus or a martyr, from Late Latin, physical suffering, martyrdom, sinful desire, from Latin, an undergoing, from passus, past participle of patī, to suffer.From wordnik.