On Narcissism

12 May

By Rhea H. Boyden

‘We have become fatally entangled in the cocoon coils of our conceit’ -D.H. Lawrence

I was recently sitting in a café with two friends and they were arguing over which was the more narcissistic:  Twitter or Facebook?  One of the friends had quit Facebook because she had had a bad experience with it and was claiming how much she hated the self-centred, show off aspect of it. ‘Twitter is way worse’ my other friend contradicted. ‘It is the ultimate self-promotion tool.’  I am the one who had somehow provoked this argument by telling them that I had now joined Twitter as a method of promoting myself more as a writer, but that I was concerned about precisely that: self-promotion. ‘I certainly don’t want to be retweeting everything on to Facebook,’ I told them. ‘I post enough stuff on there as it is with all my articles, essays and poems. I don’t want to overwhelm my friends with even more of it’.

The whole reason this was a subject of discussion at all was because I had, earlier that very day announced on Facebook to my friends that they could now follow me on Twitter and within two minutes a friend of mine commented on my post and said: ‘So you are a proper twat now, aren’t you?’ He is a good friend and we respect each other greatly, and I know he was only joking, but still I took it as a warning. ‘Yes’ I admitted, ‘I am a twittering, tweetering twat!’

I would be inclined to say that online dating is a tad more narcissistic than either Twitter or Facebook because here we bring the sensitive issues of dating and sex to the fore, and of course we want to make a good impression, go on dates, be admired, loved and so forth. Last year I went on one date with a man, and I knew after our first date that I was not interested in him. I had gotten completely the wrong impression from his profile. There was no chemistry, that was that. We had some mutual friends, however, and somehow we remained friends on Facebook even though I had declined his offer to go on a second date. Over the months, despite my rejecting him, he continued to click like on many of my articles until one day we got into a chat and he then attacked me for being completely self-centred, narcissistic and continually talking about myself in my articles. I was hurt, to say the least, so I went on the defensive. ‘I write autobiography and memoir.’ I told him. ‘That is what I do. I take my life as a starting point, then I do some research and weave the research and statistics through my personal stories and essays, and, I might add, I also reveal many of my weaknesses and flaws in the hopes that people might relate to it.’ My pride was hurt. ‘Well’ he said snidely, ‘I prefer fiction’.  ‘Oh really?’ I retorted, now getting a bit nasty with him ‘You say you prefer fiction, but you read my posts anyway?’ This pissed him off and we ended up throwing a good few poisoned daggers back and forth. I told him that I honestly thought he was attacking my writing because I had declined to go on a second date with him. ‘I have been rejected time and time again by men I am interested in’ I told him, ‘That’s the way it works and I am sorry if you are hurt. Your criticism of my writing is not constructive, but if you have something constructive to say about it I will gladly listen to it’. He did not have anything helpful to say, so I did what I had to do: I defriended him. I had only met him once for coffee. End of communication with him.

I have, nonetheless, taken this little episode slightly to heart. ‘So, am I really narcissistic and self-centred? Is what I write and post on Facebook incredibly conceited and all about me, all the time? Do I irritate my friends with my posts? Surely if someone does not want to read my articles they can just ignore me, or heck they can block me or defriend me if they like! I certainly know that there is no universal audience and some people probably hate what I write and post here. I cannot change that. I am not, and probably never will be a fiction writer. I write about what I experience in the world and I put it on my blog and on Facebook and I am not about to stop.  I enjoy it, it is my hobby, it gets me published and it gives me something to do on a Sunday afternoon when I have again failed to secure any kind of date within the confines of the online dating world. Of course I love getting likes and feedback on my articles, and I love getting published. It’s a kick and it fulfills me. I have some harsh critics who bring me to my knees on style and syntax. I have one critic who recently asked me who on earth my audience was for this topic, as he could not understand at all who would want to read it or find it the least bit interesting. That made me pout too, but it made me think about the importance of a target audience.

The successful autobiographer and memoir writer David Sedaris says that his partner Hugh has also accused him of narcissism and being extremely self-centred in his writing.  He takes it to heart but he keeps on writing one successful and hilarious story after the next. I would imagine as long as one keeps the stories of oneself self-deprecating and is willing to expose oneself, then one can hold an audience’s attention and avoid somehow being accused of being completely arrogant and conceited. Writing about oneself is a way of connecting with the world as far as I can see. See here, I am holed up here at home on my own, in front of my computer trying desperately to connect to you, the listener, reader, friend etc. out there. I am so very small in the grand scheme of things and I know it. Do I suppose I have a very unique and above average destiny/life that is worth reading/pondering/writing about at all?  Well, how can I answer that? Doesn’t everyone have a story to tell? In his short story ‘Mister Squishy’ David Foster Wallace depicts his very important character who holds a high position in a company, as sitting in his office ‘sketching his own face’s outlines as he talked on the phone or waited for programs to run’. The character is indeed so self-absorbed, that his sexual fantasies do not involve fantasising about someone else but rather he fantasises about himself.

There is a wonderful painting by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio that depicts Narcissus staring into his reflection in the lake. He has been doomed to this fate by Nemesis for rejecting Echo’s love. His reflection cannot reciprocate his love and he eventually dies staring at himself.  The narcissus, which is a beautiful flower related to the daffodil is the symbol of vanity in the Western world. Narcissism has become such a buzzword in our me-centred world, but my gut feeling is that it is deeply tied to loneliness and alienation, and that most people mean well and do not want to only think of themselves but are rather struggling to connect to the world. It may seem a naïve assumption and I may seem to be wallowing in self, but writing this essay and expressing these thoughts have made my solitary Sunday afternoon a more joyful and fulfilling one, and I don’t feel as lonely or lost in my own world and self-absorbed neuroses (which I surely have in abundance) as I write.

2 Responses to “On Narcissism”

  1. marita casartelli downes mfa May 28, 2013 at 6:03 pm #

    Dear Rhea,

    All writers are self-absorbed. Even in my fiction, I know that every character I write about is really “me” in some way. It’s not an insult, just an observation. I’ve heard that men like to pursue — you’re turning him down for a date probably made him more determined — remember that feelings are not facts and that his feelings are nobody’s business but his own. Maybe he’s the one who is narcisstic and wanted you to write about him? Of course, we don’t belong in his head.
    I don’t know if you are in a writers group or if you’ve considered getting an MA or MFA in writing, but it was very helpful for me. I learned to give and accept criticism.
    You are a writer and you are published. That should be enough for now. You have to find your voice and your style and that takes awhile. We can’t all be James Joyce. Even he didn’t start out writing Finnigans Wake!


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