The Poet’s Place

Shelly is supposed to have said that poets are the legislators of the world. Ernst Cassirer later said that poets create culture — using the word “poet” in the broadest sense possible. I assume Shelly was speaking about poets like himself; Cassirer was speaking about artists who could create with words and pictures and thereby help us look at the world anew.

I think Cassirer was right, though I’m not sure about Shelly. But soon after Cassirer made his pronouncement the poets became journalists who wrote stories and in writing helped us see our world as they saw it and to make it into something new whenever they got tired of the old way of seeing things. Recently the print journalists have been replaced by media journalists of the entertainment variety. Our world is now created for us by those in the entertainment industry and consists almost entirely of pictures, moving and still: films, TV, radio, the arts, and the internet. And we are pounded relentlessly.

In any event, the world they are creating is one that centers around the self. It is a theme I have developed in past blogs, but it is worth mentioning again in light of recent events. We are so much in the middle of a world of self-absorbed individuals we may not be aware of it. But just listen and watch: note how many popular songs refer to “me”; watch the TV commercials closely as they stroke the viewer; note how many reality TV performers will resort to any trick to grab the spotlight (and how many thousands want to be on stage); note how many politicians talk about themselves and see themselves as the center of the political world, how the sense of entitlement is ubiquitous, and how the internet is full of images and words telling us about those who post them. Or just consider U-Tube. Note also how materialistic we have become and how fame and wealth have become the center of so many young lives in our culture.

All of these are sure signs of a narcissistic personality.  And this desire for fame, which triggers millions of words and images on Facebook and My Space and the millions of U-tube episodes involving self-absorbed people who want to be seen and heard, is spreading like the plague. In fact, it has been argued that the craving for fame at any cost is the major reason for much of the violence that has become alarmingly commonplace in this society, such as the recent shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. The kid who takes (his mother’s) guns to school and kills several teachers and twenty young children may simply want to be seen and heard: a wasted life for a few minutes in the limelight. It seems unlikely, but studies have shown that our cultural narcissism runs that deep.

As readers of my blogs will recognize, I am drawing on Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell’s important book The Narcissism Epidemic. They make a very strong case that what started as a push to make kids feel better about themselves in our schools and in their homes has blossomed into a pervasive sense of entitlement and even cultural narcissism. We have become a society in love with itself, just as Narcissus in the Greek myth fell in love with his own reflection upon seeing it in the water. If they are right in their assessment of the situation, the repercussions are serious indeed.

The two main features of narcissism are the inability to build interpersonal relationships and what Freud called a weak “reality principle.” What this means is that we are becoming increasingly unable to get close to one another and we tend to live fantasy lives. Our electronic toys make this easy as they keep us from making human contact and push us deeper into a make-believe world where everything that happens is all about us.

As Miranda says in The Tempest, “Oh, brave new world that has such people in’t!”  In Shakespeare’s day Miranda was filled with wonder; if she said that today she would be snickering. And the major player in this drama is the entertainment industry that creates fictional worlds, invites us in, and tells us we are the most important part of the drama.  And we lap it up.

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7 thoughts on “The Poet’s Place

  1. Along these lines, I had a friend point out once that all Apple products begin with “i.” It’s another way of making the consumer feel important and also contributes to this narcissism epidemic. It’s hard not to be narcissistic in this culture!

  2. Hugh. great post and Emily excellent comment. At the deepest level, we all want recognition in some form. I think the 80’s decade being the first “me” decade may have started us down an unhealthy path of narcissism. I also think that technology has enabled sellers to segment their audiences and market “me” stuff more directly to the hypothesized buyer. They have now gotten even better at the greedy “me” targeting. What I found interesting on the Black Friday and Gray Thursday is the number of purchases for the buyer. If you want to feel great buy more stuff. It is now harder to walk in the shoes of others and people tend to care less. I worry that the poets and reporters who make unpleasant things known are much fewer in number and have been replaced by marketers and entertainment news, as you note above. I know I am rambling, so please forgive. But, what makes me feel the best is not buying, it is helping others. That currency outweighs the value of any purchase for me. Thanks Hugh, BTG

  3. Agreed. It is like a breath of fresh air to see the great posts and comments they invite. You throw a great party Mr. Curtler. By the way, I saw an older movie last night called “North State” about the first class action sexual harassment case in the country based on mine in Minnesota. Very good, but tough movie to watch – Charlize Theron, Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sean Bean, Siissy Spacek were in it. Take care, BTG

  4. Even our commercials encourage narcissism; watch the first 15 seconds of this Zale’s jewelry commercial in which the actors look like twins:

    Are we being encouraged to merge with ourselves? Note the handholding…

    BTW, Shelley did say that; it’s the last sentence of his “Defense of Poetry” (1821): “Poets are the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to battle, and feel not what they inspire; the influence which is moved not, but moves. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

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