I don’t know how you feel about that … but I really hate cleaning up the flat just before any kind of holidays! This year, I was quite lucky to find an essay, which I had written at least 10 years ago, during the first year of my studies at the university. I was probably asked to write something for my literature classes. The title of my composition was Narcissism in the modern society, since I didn’t really remember what my essay was about and the topic was quite intriguing, I started reading my work and I came to a conclusion it was quite well-written. I also think, it’s a good issue to talk about. So I’ll try to present you my essay, adding some comments here and there.
‘In my composition I would like to investigate the problem of narcissism in the modern society. My analysis will be based on a short story titled The Narcissus Plague by Lisa Goldstein, who is a Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy Award nominated American science fiction writer. In the introduction Goldstein writes:
I wrote ‘The Narcissus Plague’ after a week where everyone I met seemed to talk about nothing but themselves, and I began to wonder if there was some sort of plague going around (…) .
She presents the problem of narcissism as a plague, a kind of dangerous disease which can attack you immediately, without giving you the opportunity to defend yourself. People wear masks, gloves, and special goggles to protect themselves against this highly contagious illness. In this way we can see that it is a kind of science fiction story. The main character is Ms. Nuns, a journalist working in an editorial office. She is asked to interview a famous doctor Leila Clark, who has probably found the cure for this disease. Ms. Nuns has got a boyfriend, who is suffering from this plague, so she decides to steal the new medicine from Clark’s laboratory. The story ends with happy end, Nuns’ boyfriend recovers after taking a pill.
In general the term narcissism describes the character traits of self-love, based on self-image or ego and is often used as pejoratives denoting vanity or selfishness. The word is derived from a Greek myth. In psychology and psychiatry, excessive narcissism is recognized as a serious personality disorder.
In my essay I will try to investigate the text regarding to a problem of narcissism in the modern society. After reading this short story we can notice that people afflicted with narcissism do not pay attention to other people. They are interested only in their own lives and affairs.
(…) My dog never did get used to the new house. One day he got out and chased the mailman up a tree. No one was home, and the neighbors had to call the police (…) .
The man in the tollbooth is talking only about his matters and he does not notice that Ms. Nuns is in a hurry. This kind of attitude may be a problem. When we focus only on ourselves for a longer period of time, our ties with other people may be loosen. It is important to remember that a conversation should be two-sided in order to satisfy both sides of a conversation. If we do not satisfy our interlocutor in this way, he/she will feel unheeded. If we keep behaving in this way for a longer period of time, we will become deserted and lonely.
(…) My boyfriend Mark was one of the first victims of the more virulent strain. At the time I had no idea what was happening to him; all I knew was that he had changed from the concerned, caring man he had once been. “What makes you think I’d be interested in your old girlfriends?” I’d asked him angrily, over and over again, and, “Why don’t you ever ask me how my day went? Why do we always have to talk about you?” Now he lives with his mother, sitting in his old room and talking eagerly to anyone who comes by. I try to visit him about once a week (…) .
Ms. Nuns’ boyfriend is talking only about himself, without paying attention to his girlfriend. He does not really think about her needs, and he is not interested in her problems. She cannot count on him. It often happens in relationships, that people are not able to listen to their second-half. It can lead to a disintegration of a relationship, and in consequence to a breakup. It shows the importance of a two-sided conversation. In this quotation we can notice that narcissistic people are poor listeners characterized by lack of empathy.
Nowadays, we can notice spreading of the narcissus plague, because of our new lifestyle. We are getting more and more the consumption society, interested mainly in self-satisfaction. It is mostly caused by the media, which promote narcissistic culture. It is related to both the way of life and image or appearance. We decide to take part in this rat race, because we want to satisfy ourselves and we want to be accepted by the society. The earlier mentioned rat race extends the already existing gap between people. It is extremely difficult to be ourselves, as society offers us big rewards for conforming to certain rules and expected behavioral patterns. Because of all these homogeneous society rules, we want to become unique and better than others. This particular need leads to creating the phenomenon of celebrities who are seen to be valuable, thanks to what they have achieved on television or in social media. They often become role models for young people, who have still certain problems with the right assessment of real values and they are frequently misled by pop culture. They start focusing mainly on themselves which promotes narcissistic culture.
(…)The Narcissus Plague had not always been this virulent. Ten or twenty years ago people talked about the Me Generation, the Greed Decade, as if those things were normal, just human nature. But about six months ago the virus mutated, became far stronger. Shortly after that a team of doctors isolated the virus they think is responsible for the plague (…) .
In this fragment the author states the Narcissus Plague was not so virulent in the past. We know that the previous generations spent their free time in a completely different way. People had more time to maintain social contacts and relationships. They did not focus only on themselves, their friendships and partnerships were stronger and longer lasting. This problem is connected with the fashion, which propagates self-satisfaction and self-realization. People are aiming at gaining success at any costs.
The next problem which afflicts us very often is that our talks are getting more and more shallow. We do not want to lead conversations to get new information, it is just a good way to stay in touch with others. It is only an apparent contact, which helps us survive and show that we are still interested in others.
(…)The fountain in the center of the park was stagnant, green algae lapping at the rim. Its filtering mechanism had clogged; it was making strange mechanical whimpering noises as it tried to get the water to circulate. The person responsible for fixing it probably had the plague, I thought. It only took about a week for the virus to render you unfit for anything but talking about yourself. Things were breaking down all over the city (…) .
People infected with the Narcissus Plague focus only on themselves and neglect their duties both at work and at home. They seem not to notice anything which is not related to themselves and their own needs.
(…)I parked in the lot and rode the elevator up to my floor. “Hi, Amy, how are you?” my editor Thomas asked. This is the only way we greet each other now. It’s meant to assure other people that we can still take an interest in them, that we don’t have the plague (…) .
People also rely on shallow relationships to gain certain things from other people, which will help them in solving their own problems or gaining their own goals.
(…) “You won’t believe it,” she said. “The pilot on the flight back got the plague. There we all were, looking out the window or reading our in-flight magazines, and the next minute this guy comes over the intercom to tell us that his fingers are nearly all the same length. On and on — you wouldn’t believe how much mileage this guy could get from his hands. Every so often you’d hear a scuffle in the cockpit, where the co-pilot was trying to gain control of the intercom, but the pilot held on grimly all the way home.” She sighed. “For three and a half hours. Talk about a captive audience.” (…) .
The pilot can represent a metro-sexual type of a man, who pays too much attention to his appearance. Men have been encouraged to take more care of their look by television and social media, some of them went too far and lost certain attributes of a real man. The characteristics of the pilot are a little bit exaggerated, which helps us understand the problem which can occur in our real lives, when we cross the limits of self-admiration.
(…) “Gary got the plague,” he said. “You’ve got to come see this.”
“Gary? How can you tell?”
“Come on,” he said.
Gary seems to have always had the plague — that is, Gary has never paid attention to anyone else in his life. Unlike the victims of the plague, though, he’s always been very sneaky about it, managing to turn the conversation toward himself with all the subtlety and dexterity of a master chess player. Intrigued, I followed Thomas down the hall. Gary was in his cubicle. So were a number of other people, all of them sitting around his desk and watching him. “I like to be noticed,” Gary was saying. “I love it when people pay attention to me. That’s what I live for. I have to have someone listening to me and watching me at every minute (…) .
All narcissists need their own audience who will appreciate and admire them. They need people who will ensure them of their high quality and uniqueness. They do not notice the fact that other people are not interested in them at all. Being appreciated by others makes their lives valuable, they live just to hear compliments and to be followed by others.
(…) He turned. He seemed eager to see me. He always seems eager to see me — victims of the plague need other people to talk to. “When I was a kid we used to turn the sprinklers on hot days,” he said. “All the kids in the neighborhood would run through them. And then the ice cream truck would come, and we’d all go and get ice cream.” He went on in the same even, contemplative tone. He never noticed that my attention wandered, that I looked out the window as often as I looked at him.
When he was well he had never talked so much. He would think before he spoke, weigh each of his words carefully. I had never met anyone before who so clearly meant what he said. Six months ago he had asked me, with no wasted words, if I thought we should move in together. He’d gotten the plague instead. And here I was, trying to find the man I loved somewhere within this garrulous stranger. I sighed and checked my watch. I try to spend at least an hour with him.
Finally the long hour ended. I stood up to leave. He looked sad to see me go, but he did not stop his flow of reminiscences. I knew from previous weeks that he was incapable of asking me to stay. In a very real sense I was not a separate person to him. I was Audience (…) .
In this short story we can also notice motive taken from Ovid’s ‘Myth of Narcissus’. Mark, who is Ms. Nuns’ boyfriend, is starring at his own reflection in the window to admire himself. It is one of characteristic symptoms, which accompanies people infected with narcissism. The narcissists are afraid of being criticized, that is why they avoid meaningful relationships, which could lead to any criticism aimed at their person. They create the illusion of deep relationships, which help them maintain their good name no matter how other people respond to them.
(…) I said nothing, but hurried down the hallway. Mark turned from the window. “Here.” I said, giving him the pill before he could say anything. “Swallow this.”
He looked into the glass, studying something — his own reflection? — that I couldn’t see. “Swallow the pill,” I said again, and this time he did.
“I always dreaded going to school after summer vacation,” he said. “I hated having to put on shoes after going barefoot all summer. They never seemed to fit right somehow …”
How long would it take? Would it even work at all? Seventy-nine successes — would Mark be the first failure?
Mark continued to talk. I heard about his friends at school, the ones he liked, the ones he hated, his first crush. I heard about his teachers.
“I never liked getting used to a new teacher,” Mark said. “Some of them were nice, but some of them were horrible, like Mrs. Plauscher. I — I — You.” He looked at me, found my eyes. “Oh, you!” he said. “Where have you been?”
The story ends with happy end. Mark recovers from a narcissistic disease. He looks like a person, who has just woken up and did not notice any changes during his deep sleep. It is also true when it comes to narcissistic people, who usually do not notice their problem until a serious breakthrough happens in their lives.
The problem of narcissism is common in our modern society, this is why we should pay more attention to this phenomenon and try to solve the problem before it is too late. We should resign from taking part in the rat race and focus more on our family and friends. It will have a beneficial influence on our private lives and on our relations with other people.’
This essay was written over ten years ago, but it touches upon problems which are still up-to-date. Remember being yourself is very important, however you’re not the center of the world … you should also be sensitive towards other people’s problems and needs, so that they are also interested in you and the things which are truly important for you.
And what about you? Have you been infected with the Narcissus Plague? If yes … it’s high time to change it! Hope I didn’t bore you to death with my essay … it seems it’s good to clean up your room from time to time.
See you around!
Lisa Goldstein, The Narcissus Plague. Available in World Wide Web: http://www.infinityplus.co.uk/stories/narc.htm /Polish translation provided by Natalia Gerlich, Passion Piece
Zygmunt Freud, Wstęp do psychoanalizy. Warszawa: PWN, 1984. ISBN 83-01-03863-2. s.401-418 [Teoria libido i narcyzm]
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