Near the end of a most interesting essay on “Art, Will, and Necessity,” Lionel Trilling has a brief summary of one of the many insights Freud had into human psychic development. It deserves serious reflection because regression is a phenomenon of increasing familiarity. As Trilling notes:
“According to Freud, in the very earliest stages of infancy, the self is not experienced, let alone conceived, as separate from its environment. In the first months of life the universe is, as it were, contained within the infant’s sensory system. Only by gradual stages in the process of maturation does the infant come to perceive that the world is external to it and independent of it, and learns to surrender the omnipotence of its subjectivity. Recognizing the imperative nature of the objectified universe, the infant acquires the ability to deal with the external world in individual acts of will. Thus it survives, and to the agency of its survival, to that element of the psychic economy which has guided the infant in making this necessary differentiation between itself as subject and the world as object, Freud gave the name of ego.
“The development of the ego is a process of infinite complexity, of which one aspect is its periodic reluctance to go forward in its growth. Sometimes it is tempted to regress to a less active and effectual stage, even to turn back to the comfortable condition of subjective omnipotence, to the megalomania of infantile narcissism.”
Freud called this the development of the “reality principle,” the slow and at times painful awareness that the self is not all, that there are cruel necessities “out there” that are separate from us and demand our attention. To the extent that the world becomes more threatening, to the extent that our attention turns back upon itself and dwells on its own immediate pleasures and desires, to that extent is growth and maturity stunted. And it is this phenomenon that demands our attention, because today we demand that the world be of our own liking and to the extent that it is not, to that extent is its objectivity denied and the truths that are painful twisted into “alternative facts” and “false news.” The phenomenon of “regression” is of particular interest.
Recently ours is a world of immediate gratification, a world in which our desires are satisfied as soon as they are felt — like those of the infant who cries and is fed or changed. Indeed, increasingly we seem to lack the ability to mature, to grow as adults and face the demands of a world not of our own making. Instead we retreat into our world of things which we have “bought” on time — because we want them now, not later, a world of pleasure where everything is as we would have it be. If our world is not as we would have it be, we reject it and refuse to allow that it is real. We seem to have developed a very weak reality principle, as Freud would have it, and prolonged our infancy well into old age. As Trilling notes, in the normal maturation process the infant as he ages “comes to perceive that the world is external to it and independent of it.” We seem to struggle with that realization, to fight against it. Triggered, perhaps, by our growing fear and uncertainty we submerge ourselves in a world of entertainment — including, but not restricted to, the electronic toys that allow us to prolong the illusion that we are in total control of the world around us. This supports Trilling’s contention that many of us may be regressing to a stage of “infantile narcissism.”
What to do? It would seem that until or unless we address the matter head-on it will simply grow worse. We need to come out of ourselves, admit that the world is not of our own making, that things are not always as we would have them be, in order to begin to grow as human beings. Above all else, though Freud pays little attention to this feature of human development, we need to become aware that others are often, though not always, deserving of our sympathy and even our love. Awareness of others is hand-in-glove with awareness of the objective world. This involves attachment to that world, including other people. And this entails the awareness of its independence of us, including its determination at times to thwart our deepest wishes — while at the same time acknowledging that so much of it deserves our attention, affection, and attachment. These are key ingredients to developing a healthy reality principle, an adult relationship with the world around us.
The alternative, as Freud would have it, is to continue to wish, unconsciously no doubt, to return to the womb where it was safe and warm and all our needs were immediately gratified. That’s not the “real” world; that is the world of “subjective omnipotence,” the “megalomania of infantile narcissism.”
“(M)egalomania of infantile narcissism.” Our culture is so steeped in this, we’re now choosing leaders who celebrate this idea with gusto, probably without even knowing what it means. Boy, oh boy.
The man (whom you do not mention) has created his own reality — which does not accord with the one we are all familiar with!
All you say is quite true. Sadly, it offers further proof, if any were needed, that we are on a runaway train, for those who see the world as they wish to see it, rather than accepting facts and reality, show no desire to open their eyes, remove the blinders and crawl out of the womb to bring about change. If one doesn’t believe there is a problem, if one sits in front of their television or video game console and consoles himself that all will be well without him having to so much as take off his bedroom slippers, then we cannot fix that which is broken and we cannot move forward. The big question is, how do we drag people from their comfort zone of “infantile narcissism”?
People will not admit a problem until or unless it affects them directly. Climate change is about to reach that pitch and it may wake a few more people up. Otherwise, it will take an equally alarming series of events that (again) affects a great many people directly. Meanwhile they will continue on the path of least resistance.
Quite so, my friend. They are about to get a wake-up call, but frankly I’m not sure even then they will understand. Sigh.
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A fascinating topic, Hugh. As I read through your article, I found myself agreeing, then disagreeing, then agreeing, then dis…
I agree that the civilized world (most of mankind today) is regressing into a state of what you call infantile narcissism. This is particularly obvious in richer nations (Canada for me here) where consumerism is king and toys rule the day, whether useful or not.
But for too rare exceptions people are defaulting into individual, national and racial exceptionalism and when coupled with a sense of entitlement, that gets ugly. So yes, there is definitely a trend towards degeneration of moral values, particularly by those who decry the loss of same the loudest.
What I do not agree with, is the principle of “attachment” in order to participate in the building up of our world, or society.
Quote: “we need to become aware that others are often, though not always, deserving of our sympathy and even our love. Awareness of others is hand-in-glove with awareness of the objective world. This involves attachment to that world, including other people. And this entails the awareness of its independence of us, including its determination at times to thwart our deepest wishes — while at the same time acknowledging that so much of it deserves our attention, affection, and attachment.
From personal experience, I say that you’re asking the impossible here, and you end up with a massive contradiction, asking for attachment to the world. Attachment is the main problem. A baby is attached to its mother and she’s seen as the Provider. Attachment prevents growing up and seeing the entire picture. Attachments also are cause for friction because they lead to jealousy, controlling and anger when the attachment doesn’t perform as expected.
Why not total detachment? Why not self-empowerment in which I make all the decisions affecting my life and how I react to the world around me? A truly mature individual needs no attachments to act in positive ways. Nor does she need to put herself in a position where she has to react to someone because she feels they “deserve” her attention. No one deserves my attention; no one can claim it. I decide on a case by case basis, who gets what, when, and how, of my willingness to serve. I won’t let anyone make any claims on me or what I represent. That way I don’t get pulled down, and the would-be claimant, upon finding no handhold on me, has to look to his own resources. Self empowerment and total detachment lead to self empowerment and detachment in others.
Any attachment creates an external force upon an individual which the individual may not be in a position to reciprocate. That leads to inner conflict which will infect the attachment. In any healthy relationship, and detachment creates relationships with all and sundry for no one is special, freedom must, of necessity, rule. Any attachment is a violation of my freedom of choice.
To understand the problem of infantile narcissism we need to look at the problem of the dictatorship of consumerism. Consumerism is a regressive, debilitating sickness; an addiction fed mainly by Western capitalism advertising and brainwashing though it has now spread world-wide with no sign of abating until “cheap” goodies run out.
You make excellent points, as usual. But I do think attachment in the form of love — a desire for the happiness of another — is a key to growth and maturity (perhaps even mental health). I am working on yet another take on the effects of capitalism. I tend to agree with you there!
“Consumerism is a regressive, debilitating sickness; an addiction fed mainly by Western capitalism advertising and brainwashing…”
I try to tell my wife and daughter this all the time (less eloquently than you), but they either don’t get it, or they don’t care!
Many don’t want to think about things they find disturbing. It’s a defense mechanism, I suppose. I have become that way about the current political situation in the United States which I turn away from most of the time.
It is that need for immediate gratification component of this infantile narcissism that is most worrisome for me. One almost but not quits, can feel feel sorry for the person who suffers from this because sooner or later, reality will burst this person’s world’s balloon that he or she has created.
And our president is the embodiment of infantile narcissism — as you know better than many.
Hugh, we ended up with an infantile narcissist in the White House. Part of me asks how could people not see through both the “infantile” and “narcissism.” But, that is his talent – he got people to focus on the Hillary piñata instead and take whacks at her.
A key trait of narcissists is to paint others with the faults you are accused of. Just today, he is saying the Russiand are hacking to help Democrats. That is vintage narcissism. Calling others liars and fake news again is vintage narcissism.
I am sorry to make this about Trump, but he is the best example of a narcissist on the planet. Keith
I had him in mind….without mentioning him!