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Posts Tagged ‘narcissism’

The Uncanny I: An Interview with Kristin Dombek

October 11, 2016 | by

Photo: Amy Touchett.

Readers of The Paris Review will remember Kristin Dombek’s essay “Letter from Williamsburg,” one of our perennial favorites. In August, Dombek published her first book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, a diagnosis of our attention-starved culture and its fixation on self-absorption. The book covers everything from Bram Stoker to My Super Sweet 16; the New York Times calls it “sharply argued, knottily intelligent, darkly funny cultural criticism.” Dombek spoke to Robert Polito, the poet, biographer, and critic, about “the mysteries of ethos, when and why we trust and distrust who we do, in life and in writing.” The Editors


When I talk to fellow nonfiction writers, I’m always interested in how they locate themselves along the prose or argument continuum. When you sit down to write an essay, are you primarily thinking prose—sentences, words, tone—or are you thinking argument, what you might wish to say about a subject? And are you the sort of nonfiction writer who plans, or even outlines, or is the writing more improvisatory and about discovery for you ?



Usually an essay begins with an argument, for me. Not a linear argument, in the sense of a line of reasoning, but an argument as in two people or groups shouting at each other, but in my head. The dumber the disagreement, the more I want to kind of explode it and discover what it covers up, find better language for what life is really like. In this case, the disagreement was narcissism is the opposite of human—i.e., a total lack of warmth, empathy, “human” feeling—versus narcissism is everybody. Usually, what’s next is scene, where the language of the essay gets discovered, and the idea. Often an editor helps to lay bare the structure that will let the idea happen, rather than being told to the reader.

But in this book, at least in its final version, I wasn’t working in scenes but rather channeling kinds of Internet and academic language that aren’t really my own, and kind of sculpting that language like material. So there is so much telling, summary, which is painful for me to read. There wasn’t a reasonable progression of ideas, but on one axis, a progression of kinds of language, and then on the other, a slow panning out from the trapped, limited perspective of fearful, solitary, listicle-fueled diagnosis to a broader view, and poetry. Read More »

Oops, and Other News

August 17, 2016 | by

This is what happens when you touch the art.

  • Guess what, people? Your garden-variety, Norman Mailer­–style, chest-thumping, self-aggrandizing narcissist is obsolete. This is the twenty-first century, and we have newer, more sophisticated, and more popular models for self-love. Kristin Dombek writes, “The narcissist is, according to the Internet, empty. Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you. No one knows what it is, but everyone agrees that narcissists do not have it. Disturbingly, however, they are often better than anyone else at seeming to have it. Because what they have inside is empty space, they have had to make a study of the selves of others in order to invent something that looks and sounds like one. Narcissists are imitators par excellence. And they do not copy the small, boring parts of selves. They take what they think are the biggest, most impressive parts of other selves, and devise a hologram of self that seems superpowered. Let’s call it ‘selfiness,’ this simulacrum of a superpowered self.”
  • Say you’re in this band—let’s call it, say Metallica—and you release four earth-shatteringly seminal thrash-metal albums in the late eighties. And then you start to suck. And you persist in sucking. For decades. This is not, by ordinary standards, a sound business strategy—but what if, as Drew Millard suggests, Metallica is playing a very long game, profiting from toying with its fans’ emotions? “I get the sense that Metallica fans wouldn’t view the band’s early material with such reverence if the band hadn’t started systematically alienating the people who got them to the top. When it comes to fandom at least, hate is a far stronger emotion than love, and it seems like the further Metallica has drifted from its roots, the more incredulous the world has become that this group of sell-outs and lame-os could have once made such perfect, untouchable music. This relationship works in reverse as well: if the first four Metallica albums hadn’t been so great, it wouldn’t be so fun to hate on every move the band has made since then.”
  • You’re not supposed to touch things in museums, which means it’s very fun to touch them. A rash of recent accidents—a kind of museum crime blotter, if you will—makes the allure of touching very apparent. There’s the guy “who wanted to take a photo of himself with a sculpture in the foreground and a painting in the background. The visitor could not frame the photo to his liking, so he wrapped his arms around the abstract sculpture, which was the size of a person, and turned it on its pedestal to get the best angle.” Or the boy who “smashed a giant Lego sculpture of Nick from Zootopia at an expo in Ningbo, China. The artist had spent days piecing it together, reports said.”
  • Governments have attempted to neuter the appeal of cigarettes by doing away with their branding, insisting on generic packages in place of subtle marketing. But this misplaces some of the allure of addiction, as Rob Horning writes: “It seems more plausible that addiction generates its own rationalizations, its own myths, its own ideology. We need to experience a physical grounding for our ideological beliefs, and we need to have ideological excuses for our physical addictions, so they tend to work in tandem, symbiotically … Brands can seem like a way to add a phony value to an otherwise undifferentiated commodity. But they also mark the entry point for consumers into some vicarious fantasy, some idea tangential to consumption. The potential value of a brand rests in the conflation of compulsion and the desire to believe. It must make you feel as though you are choosing and also have no choice.”
  • Today in fiction as prognostication: Did Daphne du Maurier’s 1972 novel, Rule Britannia, predict Brexit? “In Du Maurier’s imagined referendum the government has ‘backtracked’ on its original support for the Common Market and now opposes British membership. If this contrasts with the Conservative government’s support for the Remain campaign this year, the book still has clear parallels with political events, according to Professor Helen Taylor, of Exeter University. She cites one section of the novel, in which the prime minister bemoans the political and financial repercussions of the leave vote, saying it ‘brought great economic difficulties, as I feared would be the case and as I warned you at the time, and our political autonomy and military supremacy were also endangered.’ ”

Serial Queens Now and Forever, and Other News

April 1, 2016 | by

The actress Ruth Roland in an advertisement for the serial Hands Up in 1918. Image via The Atlantic.

  • Remembering Zaha Hadid, the “starchitect” who died yesterday at sixty-five: “It always amazed me that Hadid had somehow attracted a singular reputation for being difficult to deal with. Compared with other prominent architects, no one was more down to earth, more exuberantly real, than her … Why did every second article attach ‘diva’ to her name? Isn’t every architect a diva? Truly, it was because Hadid was a woman who had dared to enter a man’s world, and took no shit from anybody, though plenty was offered. She had to be twice as smart and three times as tough as her male counterparts in order to get anything built. And even then she struggled for years to realize her projects, and was forced to endure cruel and humiliating referendums on such thwarted projects as the Cardiff Bay Opera House, or the ongoing Olympic-stadium debacle in Tokyo, in which the government blocked Hadid’s competition-winning design from going forward after protests from prominent Japanese architects.”
  • In the 1910s, before women even had the vote, they were starring in swashbuckling adventures courtesy of the early film industry: “During the early years of cinema in the 1900s and 1910s, men starred in action films such as westerns, but women dominated the so-called ‘serial’ or ‘chapter’ film genre. These were movies in which the same character appeared over several installments released on a regular basis, with plots that were either ongoing or episodic. The story lines typically featured female leads getting into danger, getting out of danger, brandishing guns, giving chase in cars, and battling villains … By the early 1920s, those films and their stars, the so-called ‘serial queens,’ disappeared. What happened? The answer may have to do with the early film industry’s short-lived tolerance of greater female involvement at all levels of the filmmaking process … ”
  • Everyone wants to be an artist. If you want to be a wealthy artist, though, there’s one simple trait you should go out of your way to cultivate: narcissism. “Researchers found that work by narcissistic artists is likely to sell for more money at auction than work by their humbler counterparts … The researchers obtained the signatures of 815 modern and contemporary artists from Oxford Art Online, then used them as a measure of narcissism when comparing auction price data sets from 1980 to 2012. In their analysis of hundreds of pre- and postwar paintings, they found that narcissistic artists’ work sold for as much as 25 percent more than that by their less narcissistic peers.”
  • Teju Cole on the photographer Raghubir Singh: “Singh worked from the late ’60s until his untimely death in 1999, traveling all over India to create a series of powerful books about his homeland … Singh had a democratic eye, and he took pictures of everything: cities, towns, villages, shops, rivers, worshipers, workers, construction sites, motorbikes, statues, modern furniture, balconies, suits, dresses and, sure, turbans and saris … How do we know when a photographer caters to life and not to some previous prejudice? One clue is when the picture evades compositional cliché. But there is also the question of what the photograph is for, what role it plays within the economic circulation of images. Some photographs, like Singh’s, are freer of the censorship of the market. Others are taken only to elicit particular conventional responses—images that masquerade as art but fully inhabit the vocabulary of advertising.”
  • Today in fact-checking imperialism: “In its last week in print, the Independent carried a piece under the headline: ONE MORE THING IMPERIALISM HAS TO ANSWER FOR: DYSENTERY. It’s a striking statement, but is it true? … In the case of Shigella flexneri … imperialism has to take some of the blame. Study no. 19 from the Institute of Medical Research in Kuala Lumpur, ‘Dysentery in the Federated Malay States’ by William Fletcher (a bacteriologist) and Margaret Jepps (a protozoologist), was published in 1924 … Jepps and Fletcher’s laboratory studies showed that most cases of dysentery were caused by flexneri, and that the link between its mortality rate and poverty was dramatic. The Kuala Lumpur General Hospital charged fees. It had wards of three classes: first for ‘Europeans’ (mortality negligible), second for ‘Eurasians, well-to-do Asiatics and government clerks’ (mortality 2 to 3 per cent), and third for ‘native laborers, paupers and vagrants’ (mortality about 25 per cent).”

Copious Free Time

June 9, 2015 | by


A postcard, ca. 1910.

“Why are narcissists always talking about how busy they are?” my friend wondered as we left the party. At this party, a certain narcissist had been droning on about how much she had to do; how she really shouldn’t be there; that she would be leaving any moment. The implication had been, I suppose, that she was far busier than anyone else—or at least that her docket of tasks was more important. Or that she was more conscientious, maybe. I’m not sure. But it did seem to signify a failure to live in the moment, as it were.

This is a type most of us have encountered at one point or another. Two stand out in my mind—a college professor and the manager of a restaurant where I worked one summer. Both liked to talk, constantly, about how frantically busy they were. But more than this, both of these people were fond of a certain phrase: in my copious free time. As in, “Yes, yet another thing for me to do in my copious free time,” or, “Thanks, Bob! We all know how much I need to fill my copious free time!” or, “I think we all know who’s going to end up doing that—with all my copious free time.” Read More »

The Subtle Thief of Youth

September 15, 2014 | by

selfie stick

The beginning of the end?

Yesterday I saw my first selfie stick. I had read of such things, but I’d never seen one in the wild. It was being wielded by an extremely chic Japanese tourist who held her iPhone at, well, stick’s length, her face shaded by a floppy-brimmed hat, a cigarette drooping from her lips. People tell me such sticks, or “Smart Phone Boom Arms,” are ubiquitous in other countries, and I’m sure they’re all over the place here, too—but it still seems to me that it would take a lot of chutzpah both to carry an implement so explicitly dedicated to the pursuit of narcissism and then to publicly voice-activate it for good measure. “They’re all over the Vatican,” reported one friend.

If you prefer a more private form of solipsism, may I suggest you search for your own first name on The rabbit hole that led me to this was a long one—I was curious about the name Beryl, if you must know—but, shamefully, it ended in my finding such reader-supplied entries as: Read More »

The Dreams in Which I’m Dying

August 29, 2014 | by

The vanity of the zombie apocalypse.


A publicity still from The Last of Us.

There are few things as narcissistic as an apocalypse fantasy. The apocalypse doesn’t mean the end of the world, just the end of humankind, and considering such a fate can lead us into a sentimental peace with the present day. Suddenly, in spite of all its flaws—flaws that might be harder to accept in less dire circumstances—the world seems worth keeping intact. In recent years, zombies have been a catalyst of fictional doom in every conceivable manner, from popular horror and comedy to moral parable and literary send-up. They offer us freedom from death in exchange for our subjective consciousness and social identity. But we’d sooner have death, if it means our egos can be spared for a bit.

The Last of Us, a PlayStation game whose latest version was released last month, is a story about a zombie apocalypse, but it wasn’t supposed to be. Its creative director, Neil Druckmann, said in a 2011 interview that he wanted the game to be more of a love story, one between a middle-aged man and a fourteen-year-old girl. So maybe it’s more accurate to describe The Last of Us as a story about a kind of taboo love that requires a zombie apocalypse to normalize—and, by extension, a story that, through love, gives the fungal zombification of humanity a silver lining. Our species may be on the verge of extinction, but if we’re able to fall in love and learn a little about ourselves along the way, it can’t be all bad. Love is where all educated people go to bury their narcissism. Read More »