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.
I really love the book. I think The Selfishness of Others is an important book, as much for what you are doing formally with the notion of an essay as for the materials you are exploring. I’m eager to ask you about the shaping and writing of the book, but maybe we should start elsewhere. How did The Selfishness of Others originate for you?
I’m glad it’s out of my hands and in yours, then, because you are kinder to it. But it did begin for me with a question about essays, so I’m grateful for what you say. A few years ago, Mitzi Angel invited me to write a long essay for a new series of little books she was launching. The word narcissism was everywhere—this diagnosis of everyone’s ex, condemnation of the personal-essay trend, fear of the coming selfie apocalypse. I was feeling afraid of the Internet and unprepared for this meeting with Mitzi, and she was also asking if I had a memoir to write. So it occurred to me to propose an essay on narcissism. I had been wondering why people who seem evil to us, or who break up with us or just disagree with us entirely, can begin to seem “empty” and “fake” and uncanny, even inhuman. And as a nonfiction writer, and a reader, I’m always puzzling over the mysteries of ethos, when and why we trust and distrust whom we do, in life and in writing. Do you remember the beginning of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer? I was thinking about that book a lot at the time.
You mean Malcolm’s account of Stanley Milgram’s Yale experiment where someone believed he was involved in a study of the effects of punishment but what actually was being surveyed was his own cruelty under pressures of authority? Malcolm’s perfect as a ghost text hovering behind your book, I think.
That, yes. I suspect some of the things we condemn as narcissistic in others might be more accurately defined as how everyone has to perform—in capitalism, or online—doing things formerly considered vain, things we feel guilty or anxious about. But also Malcolm’s thinking about writing—the quote from Leviathan she uses as an epigraph, about how when we believe an argument, we’re really trusting the person who speaks or writes it, and then her famous opener about what frauds writers are, when they tell others’ stories—“Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to know what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” Like the journalist she writes about, and the murderer, too, the narcissist is bad because he fakes an “I,” rather than being an “I,” he charms you rather than being genuinely interested in you. Arguably, nonfiction writers always fake an “I,” even if we don’t use the word, creating ethos, so the reader trusts the text. Maybe anyone who writes does, any Facebook poster does. But an “I” can feel generous or self-absorbed, to the reader, and so can a more “objective” voice. Maybe the ease with which we dismiss one another as narcissists these days is partly a symptom of how much it’s changed, and speeded up, the way that we determine how and when to trust writers, now that almost everyone’s writing publicly all day long online.
This question of when we trust texts is related, in my mind at least, to this everyday problem of when and why we judge others as so self-absorbed as to be beyond empathy, and to write them off or turn away from them. Of course, sometimes we have to separate from people. Sometimes maybe even judge others as selfish. But if we believe that, on the whole, others are becoming more selfish and self-absorbed than ever before, how willing would we be to trust each other enough to work on the great injustices, the inequality and environmental catastrophes of our time? Is the well-being of future humans even worth fighting for, if all millennials are assholes?
Your various chapters, as I read them, follow a surprising, slyly circular design—you often start with an observation that looks true, even self-evident, and then complicate it, such that the opposite of that initial observation is ultimately just as compelling, maybe even more true. How did you arrive at that shape? Did you see that circular design as echoing the way narcissism operates, or perhaps is said to operate?
Yes, I guess so. And fear of narcissism. “He didn’t ask me a single question about myself. What a narcissist.” This is René Girard’s idea, that narcissism and fear of narcissism mirror each other.
I started reading passages aloud early on, in 2013, when I started writing. At the first event, I started with “The narcissist is, according to the Internet, empty,” which I thought was a funny line, the Internet calling people empty, and two people started crying. People lined up afterward to tell me about narcissists they knew, or joke that they were one, or tell me that the guy who read before me probably was one. People started dropping the word casually into conversation when they were around me, as if they were worried I thought they were one, and so they wanted to show me they knew what the word meant. I started wanting to exorcise this fear, so I think, I hope, the circular design lets the reader alternately suspect others and herself and me of the disorder until she’s just exhausted and stops worrying so much. Anyone who would pick up a book with this title is probably worrying too much.
Another way for me to imagine the intricate, unpredictable way your book moves is via E. M. Cioran’s great phrase—“thinking against oneself.” The Selfishness of Others is always thinking against, or away from, something you just wrote. I’m remembering a complex sequence early on that at once recognizes and deflects what you call your “personal stake” in the topic. As you remark—“I’m an essayist; I write the word I all day long, and I’m nervous when I do. More than anything, I don’t want you to think me self-absorbed. So I will try to take up the topic of the narcissism epidemic objectively. If using the word I turns out to be a symptom of narcissism, you won’t hear from me again.” Here you are not only “thinking against” some of the conundrums embedded inside your subject, but also the entire history of the so-called personal essay. That’s a lot to grapple with, isn’t it? How did you deal with that nagging matter of your I along the way? That classic I of the essay? Did you ever think of including more about yourself?
I was joking! But yeah, the experiment was initially to outlaw use of the “I” for most of the book, and then have it turn into memoir, to kind of investigate why we read memoir, what we want from writing about the “I.” The last third was memoir, in the original draft. Anyway, yes, to take on this topic is probably grandiose, if that’s what you’re saying. It was supposed to be an even smaller book than it is, and my editors persuaded me this was too much. Mitzi got me to see the problem and then left the country for England, in time to miss Trump but in time for Brexit, and the series was canceled and the little book was to come out by itself. And Lorin Stein got me to finish it, and did what he does—he just points at a phrase and gently tilts his head, and you see what’s wrong. He pointed at the last part of the book, the memoir, like that, and I cut almost all of it out. I tried to keep a sense of an uncanny “I” moving under the text, without ever using the word, but it’s not really “me,” it’s fraudulent. At least until the last few pages. For example I’ve never had a boyfriend who I feared was a narcissist.
Perhaps my favorite chapter is “The Bad Boyfriend.” There you rapidly dispense with the expected anecdotal horrors, though you invoke Tucker Max (I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell) and Neil Strauss (The Game). Instead, suddenly we’re reading about Freud, Fliess, Ferenczi, Kohut, and Kernberg. Not only what they might have speculated about narcissism but also their fascinating, almost secret backstories—Freud’s letters to Fliess and his travels with Ferenczi; or the revelation that Kohut’s famous “Mr. Z.” was a self-portrait. I’m interested in these stories specifically, but also your overall research. How did you decide what to include, and where to place your research?
There is so much scholarship on the history of psychology and narcissism, and even in my reading I only skimmed the surface. The story of Fliess and Ferenczi comes mostly from Elizabeth Lunbeck’s wonderfully deep history of Freud’s life during his writing about narcissism, in The Americanization of Narcissism, and the story of Kohut, from Charles Strozier’s biography. I tried to choose historical moments that show how definitions of narcissism change over time, and how each subfield’s portrait of “narcissism” reflects its methods and beliefs by thwarting them. Just as our own personal villains sometimes are not objectively speaking evil, but represent some challenge to the way we know things.
Your book so insistently pushes against the sort of reductive question I find myself wanting to ask now, but what do you think is our most dangerous misconception when we talk about narcissism?
One way to view narcissism is that the diagnosis is a symptom of a privileged portion of civilization—those of us who have time to go to therapy and sit online reading how to diagnose others—turning on itself, “thinking against itself,” maybe, but kind of blaming the problem always on someone else. We’re called upon to curate our lives, share them, focus on ourselves and self-brand and compete for money and stay mentally healthy and say positive affirmations to raise our self-esteem, and then narcissism is the word we use to condemn others who do exactly these things. And because the word names a lack of empathy, using it can create a certain narcissism of decency, I think, where we fetishize our own empathy. It feels new, but it’s also the oldest problem of the self. It’s tragic or it’s comic. Shakespeare was obsessed with it and David Foster Wallace exhausted it, to the extent that there was probably no need to write about it. Except maybe to celebrate the extraordinary surge of great nonfiction we see these days—what you’ve talked about as the “poetry of fact”—that gives us the “I” back in these slower, wiser ways, and sometimes, by dramatizing a mind thinking, gives us these dazzling opportunities for a slower and more complex empathy.
Lastly, might you comment on the flow of the book—the ascent across your chapters, if ascent is the trajectory, from incidentals like the weather (“The Cold”) and familiar intimations of personal and cultural illness (“The Epidemic”) early on, ultimately to arrive at “The Artist” and “The World,” with strategic stops along the way for “The Bad Boyfriend,” “The Millennial,” and “The Murderer”? How did you that reach that particular flow, that arrangement?
I arranged it as a movement backward in time, from the language of listicles and Internet self-help to social psychology and psychoanalysis, and then to philosophy, storytelling, and poetry, to Ovid. Retrograde motion, arriving at poetry and the present at the same time. And for me, the trajectory comes from my secret question, which was about why we want books, what books can do with the encounter with others’ selfishness, and our own, that diagnosis at the speed of the Internet can’t. Even and sometimes especially books written in the first person.
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