A review of Anne Manne’s Life of I

In the wake of the 2011 Norway massacre, in which Anders Breivik killed 77 people (69 of them on the island of Utøya), a small and unseemly argument broke out amongst the commentariat about whether or not the killer’s actions constituted terrorism. For commentators of a conservative persuasion, the killing spree was the act of a lunatic; not sanctioned by any recognised group, Breivik’s slaughter of his fellow Norwegians was largely without political significance. For others, however, Breivik’s motivations, as set out in his sprawling manifesto, were plainly ideological and any suggestion to the contrary was an act of political mystification. Breivik was the herald of a resurgent far-right; a ‘lone wolf’ he may have been, but howling mad he wasn’t.

I wrote at the time that I thought this argument was predicated on a false antithesis: both positions – that because Breivik is ‘mad’ his actions are non-political, and that because Breivik is a fascist his mental health is irrelevant – were essentially non sequiturs. Clearly it is possible to be mentally ill and politically motivated, just as it is possible to be perfectly sane and adopt a crazy ideology. Many are the mass murderers who have killed while psychotic. But the form the murderer’s atrocity takes will often tell you something important about the culture in which it happens to occur.

For Anne Manne, the author of The Life of I, this debate now has a general resonance. Before standing trial, Breivik was diagnosed with concurrent narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) and anti-social personality disorder. Since all the evidence appears to suggest that narcissism is on the rise, especially among American youths, it is thus a matter of some urgency to explore the relationship between psychology and culture as it plays itself out in this particular arena. A crude dualism will be of little help. Yes, writes Manne, NPD is a ‘distinct pathological syndrome’. But that doesn’t let ‘society’ off the hook: ‘It is not simply a matter of the individual psyche. This is a problem of cultural significance.’

Accordingly, Manne’s book is a lot more integrated than its division into two broad sections – ‘Narcissism and the Individual’ and ‘Narcissism and Society’ – would suggest; in practice, it proves enormously difficult to treat either category in isolation, especially with topics such as sport and pornography. The separation, however, does allow Manne to establish a clear definition of narcissism before moving on to a more wide-ranging analysis of how it is incubated culturally. The result is a lucid and important book on an inescapable modern theme – a worthy successor, or supplement, to Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism (1979), to which Manne doffs her cap in her subtitle.

Rejecting the idea of ‘healthy narcissism’ as an invention of the self-help industry, Manne portrays the narcissistic personality as comprising a lack of empathy, an obsession with appearance, a willingness to exploit others, a sense of entitlement, grandiosity, and (most dangerously) destructive rage when thwarted. Manne proves an excellent guide through the literature, debunking myths and misconceptions and surveying the work of social psychologists, psychoanalysts and neuroscientists. In the end, she adopts a causal model that borrows from all these disciplines but owes a special debt to Freud, who stressed the relationship between narcissism and shame, or between grandiosity and fragility. This is the essence of ‘mask theory’, which regards the narcissistic personality as a sort of protective carapace atop a vulnerable, fragile inner self. The narcissist, it seems, is inherently unstable; his self-esteem is a work in progress and liable to collapse at any moment as a result of rejection or criticism.

Unsurprisingly, family dynamics are crucial in the development of such personalities. But the popular notion that narcissists are ‘spoilt’ turns out to be an oversimplification. Much of the evidence seems to suggest that narcissists, while overvalued in some ways, tend to be undervalued in others. Cold and unaffectionate parents who are nonetheless eager for their kids to ‘do well’ (and who praise them inordinately when they do) appear to be especially culpable. Narcissism, argues Manne, is born of the marriage between inattention and indulgence.

The case of disgraced cyclist Lance Armstrong is instructive. Overpraised by his mother and rejected by his father, Armstrong developed a toxic personality in which a high ‘explicit’ sense of self-esteem jostled with a low ‘implicit’ one. This made him not only super-competitive – determined to win at all costs – but also extremely aggressive when challenged: a narcissist on steroids, so to speak. As Manne suggests, so addicted is the narcissist to the ‘sugar hit’ of feeling good about himself that everything and everyone must be turned to that end.

The Armstrong example also affords a good link to the second section of the book, in which Manne considers how the panacea of economic competition appears to be highly conducive to, and perhaps even an emanation of, the narcissistic personality. In particular, and contra the current Treasurer, she notes how a sense of ‘entitlement’ is to be found not only, or even principally, at the bottom of the economic heap but also on its loftier slopes, where financiers and other fat cats zigzag through the snow-capped pines. In her final chapter, Manne suggests that narcissism is even mapped into the current debate on climate change and that a failure to put the needs of others on a par with our own is a calamity in progress. As she puts it: ‘The omnipresent danger, the implication of a more narcissistic society, is that rather than change direction, questioning the way we live now, we will prefer a technological fix consistent with preserving the life of the consumer.’

When Breivik was finally apprehended on Utøya, he said something that stayed with the arresting officers. As 69 students lay dead and dying, the man who had riddled their bodies with bullets held up a cut finger and requested … a Band-Aid. This is the world of the pathological narcissist – a world in which other people are expendable and in which one’s own needs, however trivial, are paramount. As an analysis of that world, and of its relationship to the wider one, The Life of I is excellent.

*

Anne Manne, The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism
MUP; $32.99; 311pp

First published in The Weekend Australian.