The Poet’s Place


For lack of anything new to say, I choose to reblog an old post that was widely ignored.

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 Recently the print journalists have been replaced by media journalists of the entertainment variety.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,electronic devices of all shapes and sizes, 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 before, 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 (especially you-know-who), 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 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.


6 thoughts on “The Poet’s Place

  1. A sad, yet truthful statement about our society today. We went out for an early dinner at one of our favourite Chinese restaurants yesterday, and seated at a nearby table was a family of four, presumably taking dad out for Father’s Day. Each of the four sat tinkering with their cell phones, and at no time did I see them actually speak or interact with each other. I find this a sad statement and such a missed opportunity to talk to the kids, find out about their lives.

    And to the other point in this post … yes, people as a whole seem to be much more self-absorbed … I have referred to it as the ‘me-istic’ generation and frequently wondered how it came about. I think your post explains it well. I have one friend who calls to talk, talks about herself, her family, her problems, and then when I attempt to say anything about what might be on my own mind, she suddenly has something else she needs to do. Have people completely quit caring about one another and only use human contact to give them an audience to air their own grievances?

    Good thought-provoking post, dear Hugh … I find it harder and harder to recognize this world we live in.

    • I have tried to get to the bottom of the problem in my book “The Inversion of Consciousness from Dante to Derrida.” I think it started when we in the West started to fall in love with money and power and our attention turned away from the world and toward ourselves and our own “needs” — i.e., wants. God was declared dead and we decided to take his place!

      • I went to Amazon to check for this book, but it is ‘currently unavailable’. I will check the library a bit later. This is your field of expertise, and I am merely an observer of human nature, but I notice people have trouble defining ‘need’ vs ‘want’. I used to have this discussion with my children when they were growing up. I expect children to need guidance in separating the two, but today I see so many adults who claim to ‘need’ something that, to me, is an option, an add-on, a luxury. But then … I like simple. 🙂 And my other observation is that perhaps when God was declared dead, it was money and material items that replaced Him?

      • Yes. Materialism replaced spiritualism, in brief. If you want my book, drop me a note with your address and I will send you a copy! (

  2. I recognise this state of being too…I used to send out a diary and slideshows to my family and friends about my travels. One kind person (not a close friend really), said that it was funnier than reading ‘Bill Bryson,’ and I suppose the self-effacement and dry humour of some of the predicaments I related about myself and my husband were less self-promoting, and more to allow people to experience those same things with us. Yet, my sister told me that some people might see it as ‘showing off!’ She wasn’t interested and I quickly realised that she was only interested in her own problems and telling me all about them. And I quickly realised that none of my family actually noticed when they stopped ‘coming’ to them. Even my husband wouldn’t read them, even though it was about ‘us!’
    It is sad that nobody tells stories any more…everyone is off on their own and don’t want to learn anything from others.
    You have hit the proverbial ‘nail on the head,’ indeed Hugh.

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