Infantile Narcissism

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.”

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Lies and More Lies

In light of the fact that the New York Times recently reported that Trump was guilty of 87 “misstatements, exaggerations, and falsehoods in a week” I thought this post from a while back worth repeating, though, as I say, those who follow this man are convinced that every criticism that is leveled against him is a lie by “those damned liberals.” As I also say, we have lost sight of just what lies are — they are not just those statements we dislike, they are those statements that seek to alter the truth and tend to mislead.

In one of my favorite episodes of “Seinfeld” George is giving advice to Jerry who has been asked to take a lie detector test to determine whether he does or does not watch a soap opera every day. He is seeking to impress a cute policewoman and is afraid the truth will put her off. George is giving him advice because George is so good at lying; it has become a habit with him. He tells Jerry, “it’s not a lie, Jerry, if you really believe it.”

Needless to say, this doesn’t work, because Jerry simply cannot keep up the ruse. But it seems to be working in today’s political scene as the Republican candidate (who shall remain nameless if not blameless) seems to be very good at lying. I suspect he has had a great deal of practice — after all he claims to be a successful business person when, in fact, his businesses have a habit of failing. But I also suspect that he really believes what he says. Or, perhaps, he doesn’t know what he says because he doesn’t listen to himself. His mouth seems to open when his brain is engaged elsewhere — heaven only knows where.

The problem is that his mindless minions who hang on his every word and grammatically incorrect sentence seem to believe whatever he says. One thinks of a cult where the followers blindly follow where the leader leads — or points. And this is a problem because when the lie becomes the norm, then facts are useless, even meaningless. Lying becomes merely a word that is used by the minions to discredit criticism of their leader who can do no wrong. Those “Fact-checkers” who claim to be neutral and only interested in setting the record straight are dismissed as biased and perhaps even in the pocket of the opposition.

Freud talks about the “reality principle” that operates as one grows older, separating fact from fiction, truth from myth. This principle is central to maturity in the human animal. Without it, he or she remains a child living in a make-believe world in which everything goes as planned and there is no pain or suffering. This, of course, is the world of those who continue to insist that there is no Truth (except what comes from one man’s mouth) and where lies are otherwise the norm. Reality is displaced by myth and the leader standing before you is larger than life and beyond reckoning. What others say about him are all lies. Everything he says is solid gold.

What happens in this case — and it is this case which is of major interest since so many seem to be living in this mythical world where one man has all the truth there is and everyone else is an inveterate liar — is that ears are closed to the truth as it relates to the real world: the real world has ceased to exist. The only world is the world in which the man standing before you says whatever comes into his head and it is taken for the truth, the only truth there is. Everything else is a lie, the only lies there are.

Philosophers will tell you that truth is attached to statements that correspond with facts in the real world. Thus, if I say the cat is on the mat, this is true if, and only if, the cat is, in fact, lying on the mat. But when the “successful businessman” standing before us tells us that the truth is what he says, and what he alone says, then the cat disappears and the only reality is the reality created by this man’s words — such as they are. We hear what he wants us to hear and nothing else. Our minds become closed to the fact-checkers because we are told they are biased. The word “lies” attaches only to those things said by those who oppose this man. The paradox is that he lies when he says that others lie. But we are no longer able to distinguish between the lies and the truth — except when it is pointed out to us by our Infallible Leader.