August 19, 2009


Solzhenitsyn On Our Future (Peter Augustine Lawler, Summer 2009, The City)

According to social critic Christopher Lasch, writing in The Culture of Narcissism, the increasingly common product of our effort to understand ourselves as free individuals with interests and nothing more is the narcissistic personality. To be narcissistic is to experience everyone and everything as existing for me—people experience themselves as more alone than ever.

The narcissistic person, Lasch observed, aims to be protectively shallow, so as not to lose himself or his interests in other people, in deep thought or in love. He also has a fear of binding commitments and a willingness to pull up roots, to maximize his emotional independence and keep his options open. He wants to free himself to judge every moment of his life according to his interests, or according to what’s best for securing his own being. Most of all, the narcissistic person is repulsed by an experience of dependence—on other people, on nature, and even on his own body. He opposes himself—his free existence—to any attempt to limit his freedom. Because he can’t acknowledge his dependence, he’s incapable of feeling or expressing loyalty or gratitude. He is aware of his reality, but also his emptiness, of existence as a collection of pixels, disconnected in every respect from the world around him. He insists on defining himself by himself for himself.

Consider the incoherent way sophisticated Americans understand themselves today. They are, more than anything, proud of their autonomy, and they favor choice in nearly all areas of life. Since Darwin teaches the whole truth, they know they are qualitatively no different from animals—just chimps with cars, cell phones, and bigger brains.

If you look at the behavior of these self-defined autonomous chimps, it’s clear who they really think they are. They work to maximize their personal autonomy. They don’t really believe they’re stuck with what nature gave them—they refuse to act like chimps. They labor against nature, refusing to spread their genes by having little chimps, and rebelling more insistently against nature’s indifference to their particular existences. They act like they don’t like being chimps and have freely chosen to do something about it—and many look down at those non-narcissist evangelical and orthodox religious believers, doing their natural social duty of reproducing, going through life not nearly as upset by their contingent and ephemeral biological existences.

According to the great thinkers of the pre-modern world, human beings are political, familial, and religious animals. Their mixture of reason, love, freedom, and embodiment leads them to give institutional content and communal form to the lives together. But the contemporary narcissist hates any formal limitation or direction to his freedom. So he does what he can to live without politics, family, and church. He tries to live nowhere in particular, because he experiences himself as being nowhere in particular.

...observes himself in the rearview mirror of his car.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 19, 2009 8:35 AM
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