says well we’ve had all these years ofwarfare over religion we’ll stop askingimportant questions and all thesedecades these centuries after theEnlightenment here’s the world we’vereached this is the way I read you youcan correct my reading but let me finishquoting you instead of violent warsthere could be violent video gamesinstead of heroic featsthere could be thrilling amusement parkrides instead of serious thought therecould be intrigues of all sortsin a soap opera it is a world wherepeople spend their lives amusingthemselves to death close quotenow that is a devastating indictment ofmuch of contemporary America correctwell it is I mean I think this has been06:59the trend of modernity now it’s it’s07:02it’s not as though politics has07:04disappeared though it’s it’s often just07:05gets displaced in various ways but but07:08yes I think there is this this07:10incredible degree to which we’ve we’ve07:14we’ve substituted the realities of07:18politics for these sort of increasingly07:20fictionalized worlds and and it’s07:23probably uh that’s probably a very very07:25unhealthy thing there’s sort of a07:27slightly different frame that I’ve often07:29given on this is is that in in the last07:3340 or 50 years there’s been a shift from07:36exteriority which I which you know doing07:41things in the real world to the sort of07:43interior world which is sort of in a way07:46can be thought of this also the shift07:47from politics to entertainment or07:50something like that and and the the from07:54a dr. Phil a the powerful frame I give07:57is you know almost exactly 50 years ago08:00today and you know July of 1969 men08:03reached the moon and three weeks later08:05Woodstock began and with the benefit of08:07hindsight we can say that that’s when08:10you know progress ended and when the08:12hippies took over the country or08:14something like that and then we’ve had08:16we’ve had this incredible shift to08:18interior tea in the decades since then I08:20would include things like the drug08:22counterculture I would include08:24videogames you know maybe a lot of08:27entertainment more generally you know08:30there’s sort of parts of the internet08:31that can be scored both ways but but08:34certainly there all these things where08:36we’ve shifted towards the you know your08:39world of yoga meditation there’s a world08:41of interior culture that sort of and it11:04Rene Girard is in some ways theaddresses an aspect of human nature wellit’s it’s good it’s the very thing thatthe Enlightenment says no no don’t eventhink about such things rightyeah well the Enlightenment alwayswhitewashes violence it’s one of thethere are many things we can’t thinkabout an under Enlightenment reason butone one is certainly violence itself andand if you go to the anthropologicalmyth of the Enlightenment it’s the mythof the social contract so what happenswhen everybody is that everybody’selse’s throat what the Enlightenmentsays is everybody in the middle of thecrisis sits down and has a nice legalchat and draws up a social contract andthat’s maybe maybe that’s the foundingmyth the central lie of theEnlightenment if you will and whatGerrard says something very differentmust have happened and when everybody’sat everybody’s throat the violencedoesn’t just resolve itself and maybe itgets channeled against a a specificscapegoat where the war of all againstall becomes a war can of all against oneand then somehow gets resolved but in ain a very violent way and so I think youknow what what Gerrard and Schmidt orMachiavelli or you know the12:18judeo-christian inspiration all have in12:20common is this idea that human nature is12:22problematic its violent it’s um you know12:25it’s it’s it’s it’s it’s it’s not12:27straightforward at all what what you do
Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, gives the inaugural Girard Lecture at Stanford University. Entitled “Why Did the Holocaust Happen? A History Lesson for the Future,” the lecture presents Snyder’s latest research putting the Holocaust in a global historical perspective. www.girardlectures.org
This is my summary and reworking of Rene Girard’s Mimetic Theory. I have tried to explain it a way that is accessible to the average person. This theory helps you understand yourself, Scripture, your relationships, and also politics, economics, current events, history, culture, and pretty much everything else in life. So if you want to understand Mimetic theory, or maybe have struggled through a few books by Rene Girard, try watching this video to see if my explanation helps make sense of the importance of these ideas.
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.
.. The word narcissism was everywhere—this diagnosis of everyone’s ex, condemnation of the personal-essay trend, fear of the coming selfie apocalypse.
.. 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.
.. 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.
.. 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?
.. 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.
.. 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.
.. 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.
.. 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.”
.. 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.
.. 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.
.. There is so much scholarship on the history of psychology and narcissism, and even in my reading I only skimmed the surface.
.. 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.