In 1979 cultural historian Christopher Lasch wrote an important book entitled “The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations”. As I recall, it was a difficult read for me back then because I lacked the perception necessary to appreciate his nuanced observations and warnings. Forty years later I’m bit more perceptive, but in truth I’d have to be blind to miss the pandemic of narcissism that has swept Western culture, much of it encouraged by the invention of the smartphone and its obnoxious stepchild, the selfie.
I had the opportunity recently to travel abroad and visit some world-class museums. There was a time when one could wander through crowded museums and still manage to maneuver into position before a masterpiece and study it closely, if only for a moment or two, not only for the beauty of the piece but on its iconic nature, the role it has played in the long history of Western culture. There was an unwritten code of manners that people adhered to instinctively, recognizing each other’s needs. To art lovers, those moments are as sacred and meaningful as moments of prayer are to a person of faith in a small chapel or Medieval cathedral.
But times apparently have changed. The selfie phenomenon of a decade ago has expanded into full-scale productions with teams of collaborators dead set on photographing one person, striking a smiling pose that would make a professional model envious, next to a Van Gogh or Monet. It seemed wherever I met a famous painting, I found a de facto demilitarized zone of perhaps 10 feet, cleared by posers while their photographers stand at a distance recording their presence or perhaps their accomplishment.
What exactly is going on here?
Lasch wrote that “narcissists attach themselves to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma.” Well, I guess Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait” qualifies as that. Further, he says that the narcissist “escapes into grandiose self-conception and uses other people (and famous paintings I suppose) as instruments of gratification even while craving their love and approval.” The love and approval is provided by the hundreds of Facebook friends who must acknowledge, probably in faux admiration, that the poser leads an exciting life by standing next to a Van Gogh. The skill required for this achievement, I would add, is paying the price of admission.
Susan Sontag, writing long before selfies appeared, wrote, “the photograph becomes a documentary record, evidence of a life altogether valid, evidence of achievement”. The selfie taken with a famous painting, statue or presidential candidate as a prop is a middling achievement by any standard.
Trolling for likes on Facebook or Twitter, taken to extremes, can approach the pathological, displaying a need for an idealized persona, a social identity that used to be achieved by actual accomplishments. We see this vanity and self-glorification in our culture at the highest levels of public life. Lasch might as well have been writing about the selfie / Facebook phenomenon when he described a similar condition as “the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self”.
Fortunately, this experience was only a small part of my travels. But it offered a telling counterpoint to the main purpose of my trip, a solemn visit to the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach. To stand before the silent matrix of thousands of white grave markers, hearing the National Anthem and the simple dignity of taps is an experience I wish every American could have. Being there above the beaches, I found it difficult to even comprehend the depth of selflessness that was displayed 75 years ago. I don’t doubt that there are still thousands of young people who are equal to the challenge faced by those who gave their lives on those beaches but sometimes we forget when vanity and narcissism seem to prevail.