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Still Ill: Narcissism is Sick Again

Terrible news! Call off the Xmas Party at Men’s Health magazine! Cancel the male strippers and the buckets of (low-fat) blancmange!

Self-love isn’t going to be rehabilitated after all. At least not by the shrinks. Professionally speaking, it will remain the love the dare not speak its name — even as the culture screams nothing else.

According to this piece by Jennifer Allen in The Sunday Telegraph, in the face of strong criticism, the American Psychiatric Association has backtracked on its plan to remove Narcissistic Personality Disorder from the new edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Allen suggests the reason they tried to de-list narcissism in the first place was not down to any recognition of how ‘normal’ narcissism has become in the world outside the consulting room, but because of the American psychiatric trend to biologise mental illness (‘Baby, I was born this way’) and prescribe drugs instead of the ‘interminable’ talking cure.

Allen isn’t impressed though by the APA’s backtracking:

I find the volte-face dismaying, not because I’m for prescribing drugs and against talking cures. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to see that narcissism has shifted from a pathological condition to a norm, if not a means of survival.

Narcissism appears as a necessity in a society of the spectacle, which runs from Andy Warhol’s “15 minutes of fame” prediction through reality television and self-promotion to YouTube hits.

Well, quite. But then, I would agree as I’ve been saying this for years, darling.

Perhaps, being somewhat cynical, the objection to de-listing NPD was driven precisely by the ubiquity of narcissism. It’s certainly a growth market.

I don’t doubt that NPD, or something akin to it exists, and can be an extremely unpleasant experience both for the sufferer and those they come into contact with — here in the UK we’re only just getting over Tony Blair. But even before the advent of Big Brother, Facebook, iPhones and Immac for Men the symptoms of NPD were vague and common enough failings to be applied to almost anyone who had anything about them.

Or, to quote Gore Vidal, anyone better looking than you. According to the DSM ‘narcissists also tend to be physically attractive on first impression, giving them advantages when first meeting people’.

Here’s the full list of NPD sins provided by the DSM:

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  • Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
  • Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

If you thought that just five of these symptoms might apply to you, then you may have NPD. If you found that they all apply to you then you’re probably in prison serving a very long stretch indeed or have your own TV cookery show and supermarket endorsement deal.

Though I suppose a psychiatrist would probably say that someone with NPD would likely not be able to recognise those traits in themselves. At any rate, that’s what I’m telling myself.

So if you found that none of these traits applied to you then you’re probably Jesus Christ. Or Barbara Streisand.

Tartphones

Martin Lindstrom writing in The NYT today (‘You Love your iPhone. Literally.’) claims to have found evidence, using fancy-pants neuro-imaging technology, that people are not ‘addicted’ to their smartphones as is commonly suggested, but rather, ‘love’ them.

And not, like, ironically. Or like ‘I heart my iPhone’. But like they love a person. Or how they used to love a person. Before iPhones replaced people.

But most striking of all was the flurry of activation in the insular cortex of the brain, which is associated with feelings of love and compassion. The subjects’ brains responded to the sound of their phones as they would respond to the presence or proximity of a girlfriend, boyfriend or family member.

In short, the subjects didn’t demonstrate the classic brain-based signs of addiction. Instead, they loved their iPhones.

When the iPhone was launched in 2007 I diagnosed its appeal, without the use of neuro-imaging technology, or even access to the actual product, as being a form of narcissism. Takes one to know one, I guess. The clue is in the ‘i’, of course:

Imagine the perfect relationship.

Imagine a relationship so perfect that it will be the only one you need. One that is better and cooler and smarter than all the rest. A relationship that will make you the envy of your friends and the centre of attention at dinner parties. Imagine a relationship that is entirely controlled by you.

A relationship, in fact, that is – finally! – all about YOU(I know I have).

Imagine the iPhone. The perfect lover. The perfect friend. The perfect child. The perfect accessory. The perfect kit. The perfect kick. Walking, talking technosexual porn.

Not forgetting of course that by putting t’internet and GPS navigation in your pants, smartphones make it much easier to ‘stray’, or ‘cheat’ on anyone you might still be having an actual, real-time, old-time relationship with. Or just pursue discreetly your hitherto hidden fantasies. To find out more about you. Which is an endlessly fascinating story, naturally.

And no matter how many people you hook up with through your tartphone you’ll always remain faithful — to your phone.

The iPhone is really the Iphone. It’s a direct line to yourself. Now, isn’t that a call we all want to take?

I now have a smartphone myself, natch. And because I have a certain knee-jerk disdain for the ‘gorgeousness’ of Apple so lauded by most of my media friends — and didn’t fancy a love-triangle with Steve Jobs — I picked up a more homely-looking Android (Samsung Galaxy S). Like most more homely-looking lovers, it works a lot harder at pleasing me.

And, yes, we’re very much in love, thanks for asking. Until the next upgrade.

Tip: DAKrolak

Men’s Health Staff Celebrate News That Narcissism Is No Longer an Illness

I jest of course. The staff at Men’s Health wish they looked like that.

Even if I’m sure quite a few of them dance like that — when the readers can’t see them (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell may be about to be repealed in the US Armed Forces, but not any time soon at Men’s Health publisher Rodale Inc.).

The topless, somewhat top-heavy chaps miming to Kylie in the vid are actually models from a gay porn outfit. The clip is called ‘A Tribute to Kylie’ – but should probably be called ‘A Tribute to My Tits’.

Then again, lots of things today should probably be called that, including Men’s Health, Strictly Come Dancing, and Mikey Sorrentino’s wannabe narcissists’ self-help book, Here’s the Situation.

Get outta their way!

Especially now that narcissism is officially no longer a mental illness.  Earlier this month it was announced that the next edition of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual, the bible of therapists and psychiatrists, would no longer include narcissism in its list of personality disorders.

 

Quentin Crisp & Hurtian Crisp

The Naked Civil Servant is the best and funniest TV drama ever made. And I’m sorry, but it’s a scientific fact.

And like its subject it could only have been made in the UK.  Even if Crisp said he hated England – and he did, over and over again.

So many lines in Philip Mackie’s superb screenplay for the Thames TV adaptation glitter like, well, the icy aphorisms that Crisp filled his eponymous autobiography with. But it was Hurt’s breakthrough performance as Crisp which is most historic: rendering Crisp, as Quentin himself acknowledged — and welcomed — something of an understudy to Hurt’s Crisp for the rest of his life.

The actual, quasi-existing Crisp, born Dennis Charles Pratt in Sutton, Surrey in 1908, sometimes sounded by this stage (he was nearly 70 when the drama aired) like a vintage car tyre losing air ve-ry slow-ly. And was almost as immobile. Hetero dandy Hurt injected a kind of rakishness – a hint of phallicism, even – to Crisp’s defiantly passsssive persssssona that came across rather more invigorating and sexy than he actually was. Hurt rendered Crisp rock ‘n’ roll when he probably wasn’t even up for a waltz. When Hurt repeatedly intoned Crisp’s Zen-like answer to the world and Other People and Desire in general – ‘If you like’ – it sounded slightly more aggressive than passive.

(And for me, Hurtian Crisp was further improved and made edgier by what I shall call Hoyleian-Hurtian Crisp: I met the performance artist David Hoyle in the early 80s when we were both teenage runaways to London’s bedsit-land. He would perform key moments from TNCS mid conversation about the weather or who was on Top of the Pops last night, adding a dash of David Bowie and Bette Davis to the mix. David always succeeded in making these impromptu excerpts sound as if they were flashbacks to his earlier life. Which, since he grew up a sensitive boy in working class Blackpool in the 1970s watching a lot of telly, they were.)

TNCS, both the book and the dramatisation, is criminally funny precisely because so much of what Hurt/Crisp says/declaims is so shockingly true.

The line whispered delicately in the ear of the leader of a 1930s queerbashing gang is now almost a cliche, but still has hilarious force: ‘“If I were you I’d bugger off back to Hoxton before they work out you’re queer.” Some toughs are really queer, and some queers are really tough. Crisp’s truths, particularly about human relationships, are the truths told by someone who has nothing to lose – largely because they’ve already lost everything to the bailiffs of despair. This is the ‘nakedness’ of the Civil Servant.

Because it was one of the first TV dramas to depict a self-confessed and unapologetic — flaunting, even — homosexual TNCS has been frequently misrepresented as a ‘gay drama’. But Crisp’s sexuality is not really what TNCS is about – or in fact what Crisp was about.

To a degree it is about being ‘out and proud’, or at least determined to inflict oneself on the world, but not so much as a homosexual, and certainly not as ‘a gay’, in the modern, respectable, American sense of the word. It’s not even, thankfully, a plea for tolerance. Rather it’s a portrayal of the heroic self-sufficiency of someone who decided to stand apart from society and its values, henna their hair and work as a male street prostitute – and then, lying bruised in the gutter, turn a haughty, unsentimental but piercingly funny eye back on a world which regards him as the lowest form of life. It’s the blackest and cheekiest kind of comedy – which is to say: the only kind.

‘I am an effeminate homo-sex-u-alll’, declared Crisp to the Universe, over and over again. And the Universe had no choice but to agree. By being utterly abject Crisp forced the Universe to do precisely as he instructed. A blueprint for celebrity that was to be repeated many, many times by others before his death in 1999 and even more times after – though usually rather less wittily and with less jaunty headgear.

Crisp added that as an effeminate homosexual he was imprisoned inside an exquisite paradox, like some kind of ancient insect trapped in amber: attracted to masculine males – the famous Great Dark Man – he cannot himself be attracted to a man who finds him, another male, attractive because then they cannot be The Great Dark Man any more. Hence the famous, Death-of-God declaration in TNCS, after many, many mishaps and misrecognitions: ’”There. Is. No. Great. Dark. Man!“’

Strictly 19th century sexologically speaking, Mr Crisp was probably more of a male invert than a homosexual and often said that he thought that he should have been a woman, and even wondered whether he was born intersexed (this despite famously dismissing women as ‘speaking a language I do not understand’ – perhaps because he didn’t like too much competition in the speaking stakes). Either way, he doesn’t appear to have been terribly happy with his penis or even its existence – something homosexual males, like heterosexual ones, are usually delirious about. But then again, perhaps rather than expressing some kind of  proto-transsexuality Quentin’s Great Dark Man complex was merely setting up a situation in which he could remain ever faithful to his one true love. Himself.

In Thames TV’s TNCS, which begins (at Crisp’s request) with a pretty, pre-pubescent boy as Quentin/Dennis dancing in a dress in front of a full-length mirror, Hurtian Crisp is an out-and-proud narcissist, who simply refuses to take on board the shame that such an outrageous perversion should entail. When he attempts to join the Army at the start of the war he causes apoplexy in the recruiters for being completely honest about his reasons for doing so: he doesn’t mouth platitudes about ‘doing his duty’, ‘his bit’ or ‘fighting Nazis’. He just wants to eat properly and the squaddies he knows seem to have quite a nice time of it, loading and unloading petrol cans in Basingstoke. His openness about his homosexuality is palpably less shocking to the Army officials than his honesty about his self-interestedness. About his interest in himself.

Or as Hurt/Crisp replies as a preening adolescent youth when asked by his exasperated, buttoned-up Edwardian petite-bourgeois father: ‘Do you intend to admire yourself in the mirror forever??’

If I possibly can.’

And boy, did he. TNCS, which aired slap in the middle of the 70s, was probably more of an inspiration to the glam, punk, new-wave and new romantic generation than to gays in general. Hurtian Crisp and his hennaed hair and make-up sashaying the streets of 1930s London symbolised in the 1970s the idea of an aestheticized revolt against Victorian ideas of proper deportment and dullness that had dominated Britain for much of the Twentieth Century. The best British pop music had always been a form of aesthetic revolt, and Crisp seemed very much his own special creation, which is what so many teens now aspired to be. Crisp was taken for a real original and individual in an age when everyone wanted to be original and individual. Or as Crisp put it himself later:

‘The young always have the same problem – how to rebel and conform at the same time. They have now solved this by defying their parents and copying one another.’

TNCS changed Crisp’s life and made him very famous indeed. A reality TV winner before such a thing existed, his prize was the chance to move to America. Since he had loved Hollywood movies from childhood and was later treated like a Hollywood starlet (albeit in air raid shelters) by American GI’s in London during the Second World War, no wonder he grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

But if there’s anything to be learned from An Englishman in New York, the sequel to TNCS broadcast on ITV recently, it’s that it may all have been a terrible mistake. Even if Mr Crisp never thought so.

Although Hurt turns in a technically fine performance, he seems to have become more Crispian and less Hurtian. Perhaps that’s inevitable with the passage of time (Hurt is nearly 70, the age Crisp was when he first played him). Or perhaps it’s simply that his acting skills have increased. Whatever the reason, it’s not a welcome development here. And I’m sure Crisp would have agreed.

But much, much worse is the redemptive reek of this sequel. Everything is made to turn on Crisp’s ‘AIDS {upper case back then, remember} is a fad’ quip made in the early 80s and the trouble this got him into in the US – and why he was a good sort, really. Despite the things he actually said. So we see him adopt a gay artist dying of the ‘fad’, fussing over him and arranging for his art to be exhibited. We discover him sending secret cheques to Liz Taylor’s Aids foundation. We even hear him explain what he meant by ‘fad’ (supposedly it was a political tactic: minimize the gay plague to avoid a hetero backlash).

Now, this obsession with redemption may be very American and has of course, like many American obsessions, become more of an English one of late – especially when trying to sell something to the Yanks, as I’m sure the producers of this sequel are hoping to do. But if there was any point to Crisp at all it was that he was utterly unsentimental – except where royalty were concerned – and relatively free of the hypocrisies of everyday life.  This sequel supposedly about him is full of them. So forgive me if I’m unconvinced.

Crisp was invincible in his determination to regard the US as the dreamland of the movies of his youth made real: America was as he put it ‘Heaven’ where England was ‘Hell’. And why not? If you’ve spent most of your best years deprived of almost every single illusion that comforts most other people, why shouldn’t you have one big one in your retirement?

And to be fair much of what he had to say about the friendliness and flattering, encouraging, open-hearted nature of Americans compared to the mean-minded, resentful, vindictive English is quite true, even today. But Crisp’s whole approach to life was even more at odds with American culture, even in its atypical NYC form, with its emphasis on self-improvement, aspiration, uplift and success. ‘If at first you don’t succeed, failure may be your style,’ said Crisp, who regarded himself as a total failure. Could there be a more un-American worldview? Apart that is from, “Don’t try to keep up with the Jones.  Try to drag them down to your level.  It’s cheaper.”

In an early documentary from the 1960s Crisp, sitting in his London bed-sitting room sipping an unappetizing powdered drink he takes instead of preparing food, which he can’t be bothered with, that ‘has all the vitamins and protein I need but tastes awful’ he describes himself as a Puritan.  Actually Crisp was a Puritan with an added frosting of asceticism. Crisp was deeply suspicious of all pleasure (save the pleasure of being listened to and looked at) and most especially of sex, which he described as ‘the last refuge of the miserable’. And four years of house dust is a very good way of showing how above the material world you are.

It’s a very middle class, middle England, middle century Puritanism – just like Crisp’s background. But Crisp was also his own kind of revenge on himself, or on the world that had made him — of which he was a living parody. Ultimately none of us are really our own special creations. The most we can hope for is a special edition.

Crisp’s Puritanism was part of the reason why he could never embrace Gay Lib (‘what do you want to be liberated from?’). He was recently subjected to a stern posthumous ticking off by Peter Tatchell, an original Gay Libber, in the Independent newspaper prompted by what he sees as the ‘sanitising of Crisp’s ignorant pompous homophobia’ in An Englishman in New York. Post-60s Crisp was apparently jealous of a new generation of out queers who were stealing his limelite: he wasn’t the only homo in town any more.

This broadside was a tad harsh, and Tatchell sometimes sounds as if he’s on the Army board that rejected Crisp (while accusing him of ‘homophobia’ threatens to make an absurdity of the word). But I agree that the sequel does ‘sanitise’ Crisp, though I think this a bad thing for different reasons to Mr Tatchell. I also suspect there’s some truth to the accusation of ‘jealousy’, but I’d be inclined to put them in another form. Maybe Crisp didn’t want homosexuality to be normalised because if it were it would undo his life’s work. Likewise, I think Crisp would have loathed metrosexuality.

And as the sequel suggests, in one of its few insightful moments, one reason for Crisp’s failure to answer the gay clarion call was simply that he didn’t believe in causes, or the subjugation of truth and dress-sense to expediency that inevitably goes with causes. Unless that cause is yourself.

Besides, like many ‘inverts’, Crisp was a great and romantic believer in Heterosexuality – the ideal kind, of course, rather than the kind that heterosexuals actually have to live, and which they execute very, very badly.  He used to call heterosexuals ‘real people’ (as opposed to ‘unreal’ homosexuals), but I suspect he thought he was the only real heterosexual in town. And in a sense, he was.

***

I can’t leave you without pointing out that while Quentin Crisp may have dismissed Aids as a ‘fad’, Hurtian Crisp became more associated with ‘the gay plague’ than almost anyone save Rock Hudson: literally becoming the sound of the seriousness of the subject. In 1975 hetero Hurt plays the most famous stately homo in England. The success of this gets him to Hollywood, where four years later in 1979 he is cast in an even more globally famous role – as ‘Patient Zero’ in Ridley Scott’s Alien: the first host for the terrifying unknown organism that enters his body by face-raping him and which proceeds to kill-off in horrifying, phallic-jackhammer fashion, his shipmates. Two years before the first identified Aids cases in NY.

Eight years later, Hurt was the unforgettable fey-gravelly voice for those terrifying tombstone ‘AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance’ ads (complete with jackhammers) that ran in heavy rotation on UK TV, urging people to read the Government leaflet pushed through their letterbox and practise safe sex.

In other words, The Naked Civil Servant had become a rubber-sheathed civil servant.

Old Spice: interview Crisp gave Andrew Barrow of the Independent a year before his death.

Crispisms

  • In an expanding universe, time is on the side of the outcast. Those who once inhabited the suburbs of human contempt find that without changing their address they eventually live in the metropolis.
  • It is not the simple statement of facts that ushers in freedom; it is the constant repetition of them that has this liberating effect. Tolerance is the result not of enlightenment, but of boredom.
  • To know all is not to forgive all. It is to despise everybody.
  • You fall out of your mother’s womb, you crawl across open country under fire, and drop into your grave.
  • I simply haven’t the nerve to imagine a being, a force, a cause which keeps the planets revolving in their orbits and then suddenly stops in order to give me a bicycle with three speeds.
  • It is explained that all relationships require a little give and take. This is untrue. Any partnership demands that we give and give and give and at the last, as we flop into our graves exhausted, we are told that we didn’t give enough.
  • The consuming desire of most human beings is deliberately to place their entire life in the hands of some other person. For this purpose they frequently choose someone who doesn’t even want the beastly thing.
  • The simplest comment on my book came from my ballet teacher. She said, “I wish you hadn’t made every line funny.  It’s so depressing.”
  • Even a monotonously undeviating path of self-examination does not necessarily lead to self-knowledge. I stumble towards my grave confused and hurt and hungry.
  • Someone asked me why I thought sex was a sin. I said, “She’s joking, isn’t she?” But they said, “No.” Doesn’t everyone know that sex is a sin? All pleasure is a sin.

Twinsome Devils and the Narcissus Complex

Mark Simpson paints a portrait of a clonosexual world of Dorians

(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2008, collected in Metrosexy)

Most ads these days aren’t worth a first glance. But earlier this year D&G Time launched a heavily-rotated global campaign directed by Hype Williams that was definitely worth a second. If you looked hard enough, you could see right into the mirrored heart of the 21st Century – a ‘new’ century that is now nearly a decade old. Not since the Levis ‘male striptease’ ads of the 1980s has there been a commercial that summed up – and summoned up – an era.

First time, you see an attractive young man and woman in tasty D&G evening wear checking their D&G watches anxiously, hurrying across different sides of the sexy night-time Metropolis to hook up with one another, to the urgent, techno sounds of Stylophonics’ ‘R U Experienced? (‘Dance music for people who want to listen to tomorrow’s music today!’), finally they arrive breathless at their meeting place. But rather than rushing into each other’s arms, they ignore one another and instead clinch and kiss a same-sex partner that turns up at the last minute.

So those naughty people at D&G flirt with shocking, or at least surprising homosexuality again, coolly wrong-footing our heterosexist assumptions – or ramming gayness down our throats. Either way, this seems to be the ad that most people saw. In other words, most people watched it only once.

Watching it again, paying attention this time, you realise that the ‘same-sexuality’ of D&G Time goes much deeper – and is much more shocking. So much so you can understand why people wanted to see just reassuring homosexuality – even homophobes. Second time, you notice that the same-sex couples are in fact… the same. Twins. Clones. Mirror images. These latter-day Echo and Narcissus are, like many if not most of us these days, on a hot date with themselves. Or at least, a hot, idealised D&G version of themselves. No wonder they’re in such a hurry.

What’s more, D&G Time – and this is looking more and more like the D&G Century – has the effrontery not only to ram down your throat what consumer and celebrity culture today is all about, but of course for reasons of decency usually goes out of its way to deny and disguise, it also does it in such a way that feels and looks entirely natural, entirely appropriate. The lack of shame about rotating around yourself is perhaps the most eye-catching thing of all. Only the Italians could get away with it.

What, then, is D&G Time? What is the era, the epoch it heralds and meters and so accurately, so tastefully accessorizes? Well, a cloned, digital world in which the driving force, the coiled spring at the heart of the jewelled mechanism, is not heterosexual reproduction, or even homosexual coupling, but rather, narcissistic perfection. Narcissistic perfection achieved through fashion, consumption, cosmetics, technology, surgery and really good lighting. A utopian-dystopian, twinsome future in which men and women date themselves instead of each other that has already arrived. Dance music for people who want to listen to tomorrow’s music today.

It’s a measure of how far and how quickly we’ve come that only a few years ago this ad would have been regarded as ‘sick’ by almost everyone, not just a few homophobe holdouts.  But the brazen auto-strumpetry of D&G Time broadcasts that narcissism is no longer a pathological condition – it’s the contemporary condition. That’s to say, it’s no more pathological today than desire itself — since narcissism and desire are much the same thing, particularly since we’re now surrounded by such shiny, pretty accessories as D&G jewellery.

The triumph of metrosexuality has seen to that. Contrary to what you may have heard, metrosexuality is not about ‘feminized’ males – or even about straight men ‘acting gay’. To talk in such terms is merely to reveal yourself as a hopeless nostalgic. As the ‘father’ of metrosexuality, I can tell you that metrosexuality isn’t about men becoming women, or becoming gay – it’s about men becoming everything. To themselves. In much the same way that women have been for some time.

In the early Noughties I defined the metrosexual as someone who ‘might be officially gay, straight, or even bisexual, but this is utterly immaterial as he has taken himself as his own love-object and pleasure as his sexual preference.’ The metrosexual announced the beginning of the end of ‘sexuality’, the 19th Century pseudo-science that claimed that your personality and psychology and taste in home furnishings was dictated by whether or not your bed-partner’s genitalia were the same shape as yours.

As we approach the Teenies (what else should we call what comes after the Noughties?) this process, with a flush of hormones, has been speeded up. D&G Time is neither homo, hetero, bi – or even metro. It’s simply same-sexuality. Clonosexual. In D&G Time, all genitalia are the same shape: fashion-shaped. In place of the Oedipal military-industrial complex of the 20th Century we have… the all-consuming Narcissus Complex of the 21st.

We live, you can hardly failed to have noticed, in an age of Dorians, male and female, admiring themselves in webcams, phone cams, digicams, online profiles and the two-way mirrors of the global Big Brother House. There may or may not be a portrait in the attic, but if there is you can be sure that it’s been Photoshopped. Back in the 20th Century – which seems much, much longer than just a decade ago – I thought that the definition of a transsexual was someone who behaved as if they were being photographed 24 hours a day. Now, of course, this is how everyone under the age of 25 behaves. Because they are.

As the young Quentin Crisp, a reality TV winner long before there was such a thing as reality TV, or even TV, responded prophetically to his starchy father’s angry accusation: Do you intend to spend the rest of your life admiring yourself in the mirror??

‘If I possibly can.’

Whatever you or I may think of narcissism – and Gore Vidal famously described a narcissist as ‘someone better looking than you’ – it’s far, far too late for an opinion. After a century of very bad press indeed, narcissism now holds the (nicely turned) whip-handle over the culture. Even politics, always the last to know, has noticed: in the UK the ‘Nasty’ Tory Party is now led by a nice, dashing, moisturised young man who wants very much to be liked, while the American Democratic Party earlier this year chose a gym-going, preening youthful male over a tougher, older, more experienced female candidate in large part because he was much prettier than her and reflected back, in his charmingly, deliberately vague way, a more flattering image of themselves.

Now that we’re pretty much over the 20th Century we can see that at the end of the 19th Century Dorian’s Dad, Oscar Wilde, the ‘first celebrity’, wasn’t punished for his homosexuality so much as his narcissism. Wilde the aesthete may have been gaoled for sex with males, shortly after the word ‘homosexual’ was coined, becoming its most famous exemplar, but it was the ‘gross indecency’ of his vanity that had sentenced him in the minds of many Victorians, long before his trial.

‘Have you ever adored a young man madly?’ he was asked in the witness box. Wilde parried, quite truthfully: ‘I have never given adoration to anyone but myself.’ You could have heard a cologne-soaked silk handkerchief drop. A line that would have worked perfectly in a comedy of manners in a West End theatre fell ominously flat in the courtroom. No wonder he was given four years hard labour – a fitting punishment for idle self-contemplation in Victorian England. An England that persisted, of course, for much of the 20th Century.

For that other Nineteenth Century celebrity, Sigmund Freud, narcissism was a necessary and healthy part of childhood, but one that must be abandoned to reach full adulthood (remember that?). This explained, he wrote, the fascination that ‘children, humorists, criminals, and anyone who holds on to his/her self-contentment and inaccessibility’ represent for us (Wilde was of course all three). He could also have added ‘women’ to that list, since women were expected to hold onto their narcissism – and use it to attract men. Heterosexuality was based on this Victorian division of sexual labour – as this division broke down in the latter part of the 20th Century heterosexuality was, as we now know, eventually itself phased out. (The very innovations which have helped free women from domestic drudgery, such as the pill, washing machines, microwaves, Hoovers, and feminism – in that order – have also freed men from… women.)

For Freud the universal Oedipus Complex was the principle way in which boys became men. Today by contrast the universal Narcissus Complex is the way in which boys become… prettier boys. Vanity, thy name is Man. Both Narcissus – who was, it needs to be said, a chap – and Oedipus were warned by Tiresias the blind transsexual seer (and like Quentin, a reality TV contestant avant le lettre) that they would live a long life so long as they didn’t know themselves. As poor old Oedipus found out when he consulted him, Tiresias’ prophecies although always accurate weren’t exactly helpful. Narcissus doesn’t know at first that the handsome image he glimpses in the pool and falls in love with is himself (in other words Narcissus isn’t very narcissistic). It’s only when he twigs and ‘knows himself’ that he dies of despair, knowing that he can never possess himself.

The original Narcissus myth has been misrepresented for much of the last hundred years as a cautionary tale about the pathology of male beauty. In fact, it was a warning to beautiful youths to be more generous with their looks – to both sexes. Sodom & Gomorrah in reverse.

Narcissus is not doomed by his own beauty but by his thoughtless spurning of various suitors, male and female. His selfishness. One cruelly rejected youth prays to Nemesis that Narcissus should know what it is to love without hope. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, assents and arranges for Narcissus to be punished for being so hoity-toity by ensnaring him with his own looks.

It’s a lesson that seems to have been instinctively learned by today’s tarty youths. Success and fame is now something for the heroically narcissistic and exhibitionistic, those who makes themselves constantly available for our love, on TV, at the cinema, on billboards and in glossy magazines. Or emerging glistening and glamorous from the roof of a red double-decker bus at the Beijing Olympics to the strains of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, showing a wildly cheering world their latest cosmetic surgery.

Today, narcissism is not abandoned, of course, but cultivated. It’s an industry. The industry. No wonder Oscar Wilde has been so rehabilitated to the point where he and Freddie Mercury are to all intents and purposes the same person. Today, children, humorists, criminals and footballers are not merely envied, they are emulated. We are encouraged – nay, compelled – to mistake them/recognise them for our own idealised reflection. (This is no doubt the point at which I should quote smoke-and-mirror-phase Jacques Lacan, but as far as I can tell, Lacan’s only real achievement was to turn lucid Freudianism into self-regarding Gallic metaphysics.)

The calculated childishness and fickleness of consumerism makes narcissism not only possible but necessary – since it is the very basis of our global economy. This is why 21st Century narcissism is not a form of contentment but rather of endless desiring. The Narcissus Complex is the romance of the endless perfectibility of ourselves proffered by the smoked High Street changing-room mirrors of a mediated world – the irresistible lure of a hyperreal, twinsome version of ourselves. What the entire history of human culture turns out to have been working towards.

Before his own doom, Wilde wrote a prose poem called ‘The Disciple’ which played with the story in a typically Wildean inverted fashion. Some Oreads grieving for Narcissus come across the pool and ask it to tell them about Narcissus’ famed beauty. The pool replies that it has no idea how beautiful Narcissus was. The Oreads are baffled: ‘Who should know better than you?’

‘But I loved Narcissus because,’ replied the pool, ‘as he lay on my banks and looked own on me, in the mirror of his eyes I saw my own beauty mirrored.’

As Wilde wrote in the Preface to his masterpiece, the Narcissus novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which has proved as eerily timeless as Dorian’s looks: ‘It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.’

D&G, however, have mirrored both.

Copyright © 1994 - 2016 Mark Simpson All Rights Reserved.