Narcissism grew like an invasive plant throughout the 20th Century.

Now it is in full bloom

Firstly a lot (not all) of “modern” art and poetry and even music stopped saying much about the societies which hosted them and became purely self indulgent, often pompously “abstract”. This mirrored a lot (not all) of what was happening in many areas of academic work, and a lot (not all) of what was happening in so-called high finance. When the digital camera democratized imagery, “selfies” (or the ultimate self-indulgence, sexting) became the dominant form of photography. Now Donald Trump stands on top of the American political muck heap and asks to be anointed as the emperor of self-love.


Thor May
Brisbane, 2016



Preface: This is a discussion paper, not a researched academic document. The reading list at the end is mostly a collection of contemporary links from the Internet and pretty accidental, not edited for quality. Where a topic is of broad general interest comes up with friends, I have adopted the practice of posting discussion starters like the present one on in the hope that others might also find them worth thinking about.






1. Introduction


Narcissism has been around a long time. Forever. After all the ancient Greeks made up that story about Narcissus, who died staring at his own beautiful reflection. Note that he died as a consequence of self-obsession – that’s a consequence which is usually forgotten. Of course we all die, and pretty soon too, so in personal terms it’s a question of what level of narcissism extracts too high a cost too soon. However, there is another, social question too, and that is the general level of narcissism found and tolerated in particular societies. This kind of societal narcissism plainly has causes as well as costs, both short term and long term. Haven’t we children of triumphant capitalism been bought up on the refrain that greed is good? The ghosts of Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko/Michael Milken still stalk the land.


2. Sources of Narcissism


Most of us tend to be a hero in our own movie. That’s a pretty normal kind of self-esteem within reason. The drive for some kind of self identity is a characteristic of our species. There is a reason that mirrors are ubiquitous in bathrooms. We have other drives too. Think for a minute and tick some of them off on your fingers. Maslow once made a popular list of a “hierarchy of needs” (see the Wikipedia entry below) which could serve as a starter kit.

A “drive” in psychobabble is an instinctual need that has the power of driving the behaviour of an individual” (Wikipedia). Since a ‘drive’ can’t be extracted for examination under an electron microscope like a chemical element, psychologists can happily survive for generations contradicting each other about such critters. However, the general idea is that instinctual drives of some kind are shared by all human beings, that they compete for prioritization in the organism, that these priorities alter somewhat over a lifetime, and that unbalanced environmental experience, especially during childhood, can skew the behaviour of an individual, sometimes in malignant ways.

When we label somebody as narcissistic in everyday life, we are generally asserting that this individual is behaving in ways that their normal need for self-esteem has metastasized in undesirable ways. Their behaviour may be merely annoying,  it may even be advantageous in certain social or professional situations, or it may have diverged so far from social norms as to be a menace to its author and to others. In other words, the phenomenon of narcissism covers a range, and the acceptability of that range may vary both across different cultures and across historical epochs.

The developmental stages from infancy to adulthood and beyond are much studied and much disputed.  This disputation extends to developmental distortions which lead to malignant narcissism as well as other behavioural characteristics. There seems to be some general agreement that individuals are born with certain personality dispositions, just as they are born with heritable dispositions to disease, longevity and so on. However, parenting and life experience can enhance both positive and negative dispositions, sometimes in unpredictable ways even within the same family.

Parents are generally anxious for their offspring to achieve the best possible potential, although their knowledge and practice in achieving such outcomes varies hugely. Parenting culture tends to be strongly bound to old cultural traditions and is often quite resistant to external advice or compulsion, whether those external influences be good or bad. Nevertheless there is a huge popular market for parenting books, articles, and talking-head expert interviews. This demand creates rich pickings for psychologists and whatever research hits the news stands.

Human behavioural research (like medical research) is only as good as the research design. Research designs are notoriously flawed given the vast number of variables in play. However little of this hedging survives the ignorance of popular journalism, with the result that a Google search for something as vague as “narcissism” will yield a torrent of contradictory “expert” opinions. Some of this cacophony will come through from the list of articles in the readings at the end of this essay. Like everybody else, I make the best sense that I can from competing claims, and choose in ways no doubt influenced by my own warped personality. For what it is worth, my own choice for one of the more credible contributions on managing developmental aspects of narcissism comes from a podcast by Craig Malkin (2016) listed below. He emphasizes the importance in childhood of what he calls “authoritative” parenting which provides a child with trusted support, but also gives them space to negotiate and grow.


3. Collective Narcissism


Margaret Thatcher, the late un/lamented Prime Minister of Britain who led a generational rush to disbanding any state’s obligation to its governed peoples, was famous for declaring that “there is no such thing as society”. She was, of course, making a boast about her own state of mind. Although by conditioning and perhaps by nature I’m an incurable individualist, I have personally found it impossible to ignore that most people behave as if they are in fact a part of a society, and (sometimes strangely contradictory) sub-societies within that society. Their attitudes and actions are much shaped by what they believe to be their place within such societies, and their treatment of outsiders is often equally determined by group norms.

Given the forgoing, the possibility of collectively encouraged narcissism makes a certain amount of sense. After all, encouraging collectively directed behaviour is what religions, ideologies, and their political agents have always pitched for. Whether or not the collective behaviour was malignant seems to have been no disqualification. Well, this writer is hardly the first person to have noticed such tendencies. So saluting a more astute observer (and exploiting his unrestrictive non-commercial copyright permission) I’m going to reproduce a whole web page from Dr Sam Vaknin’s book, Malignant Self Love, at  I don’t necessarily buy every proposition he fronts us with, but those propositions do become useful navigation markers in further thinking. The indented material below is all from Vaknin:

"It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness"

(Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents)

“Because of their ignorance of the size of the earth and the exaggerated opinion they have of themselves, the Chinese are of the opinion that only China among the nations is deserving of admiration. Relative to the grandeur of empire, of public administration and of reputation of learning, they look upon all other people not only as barbarous but as unreasoning animals. To them there is no other place on earth that can boast of a king, of a dynasty, or of culture. The more their pride is inflated by this ignorance, the more humiliated they become when the truth is revealed.”

(China in the Sixteenth Century: The Journals of Matthew Ricci, 1583-1610)

Ours is a civilization based on a carpe diem mentality of “every man for himself”, “what’s in it for me”, “out with the barely old - in with the untried new”: malignant individualism run amok and gone awry, infecting and contaminating every act and behavior. Even charitable giving has been transformed into narcissistic altruism. As their societies and value systems implode and crumble and as their skills are rendered obsolete, people suffer “anomic traumas”: deep pain and terror-filled disorientation in equal measures. They feel utterly alienated and atomized and they react with hurt-aversion and avoidance.

As empathy, emotional sustenance and communal support, solidarity, loyalty, and a sense of belonging all become relics of a fast receding past, the mass victims of anomic trauma put up primitive, stopgap and last resort narcissistic defences. These, in turn, only exacerbate the very traumatic conditions, social dislocations, and experiences that necessitated their deployment in the first place.

Moreover, the anonymity which is the inevitable outcome of life in anthill megalopolises and cities with millions of denizens – the abodes of three quarters of humanity in the wake of relentless of urbanization – is excruciating. In an effort to reassert their self-identity and to remind others of their existence as something more than a statistic, people resort to ever-escalating attention-seeking behaviors coupled with aggressive boundary-setting.

The “grab as you can and damn the consequences to yourself and to others” mentality spreads across generations and among peers. There is no refuge as collectives, large (nations, the church) and small (family, workplace, neighbourhood) are rendered dysfunctional by rapid-fire changes and commensurate enabling technology. Our very ability to self-organize, self-assemble, and act in unison is in jeopardy as is our future as a species.

From the dawn of history to the late 1950s, the collective was the organizing principle of human affairs. The pursuit of happiness was channelled via collectives and even dissidents and rebels formed collectives to express their grievances. But, this old system brought humanity to the verge of extinction. Disenchanted with mass ideologies, people switched to the opposite pole: militant individualism, which became the new battle cry and organizing principle of increasingly more narcissistic collectives and individuals alike.

In their book "Personality Disorders in Modern Life", Theodore Millon and Roger Davis state, as a matter of fact, that pathological narcissism was the preserve of "the royal and the wealthy" and that it "seems to have gained prominence only in the late twentieth century". Narcissism, according to them, may be associated with "higher levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs ... Individuals in less advantaged nations ... are too busy trying (to survive) ... to be arrogant and grandiose".

They - like Lasch before them - attribute pathological narcissism to "a society that stresses individualism and self-gratification at the expense of community, namely the United States." They assert that the disorder is more prevalent among certain professions with "star power" or respect. "In an individualistic culture, the narcissist is 'God's gift to the world'. In a collectivist society, the narcissist is 'God's gift to the collective'".

Millon quotes Warren and Caponi's "The Role of Culture in the Development of Narcissistic Personality Disorders in America, Japan and Denmark":

"Individualistic narcissistic structures of self-regard (in individualistic societies) ... are rather self-contained and independent ... (In collectivist cultures) narcissistic configurations of the we-self ... denote self-esteem derived from strong identification with the reputation and honor of the family, groups, and others in hierarchical relationships."

Having lived in the last 20 years 12 countries in 4 continents - from the impoverished to the affluent, with individualistic and collectivist societies - I know that Millon and Davis are wrong. Theirs is, indeed, the quintessentially provincial American point of view which lacks an intimate knowledge of other parts of the world. Millon even wrongly claims that the DSM's international equivalent, the ICD, does not include narcissistic personality disorder (it does).

Pathological narcissism is a ubiquitous phenomenon because every human being - regardless of the nature of his society and culture - develops healthy narcissism early in life. Healthy narcissism is rendered pathological by abuse - and abuse, alas, is a universal human behavior. By "abuse" we mean any refusal to acknowledge the emerging boundaries of the individual: smothering, doting, and excessive expectations are as abusive as beating and incest.

With 7 billion humans on the planet, the need to assert oneself, to be noticed, to be recognized as unique is ever more pressing. No one likes to feel a cog in a machine, an atom in an organism, or a speck among billions. Consumerism and mass communication that lead to global cultural and societal homogeneity foster the same narcissistic reactions and provoke the same narcissistic defenses in whole collectives as they do in individuals.

There are malignant narcissists among subsistence farmers in Africa, nomads in the Sinai desert, day laborers in east Europe, and intellectuals and socialites in Manhattan. Malignant narcissism is all-pervasive and independent of culture and society.

It is true, though, that the WAY pathological narcissism manifests and is experienced is dependent on the particulars of societies and cultures. In some cultures, it is encouraged, in others suppressed. In some societies it is channelled against minorities - in others it is tainted with paranoia. In collectivist societies, it may be projected onto the collective, in individualistic societies it is an individual's trait.

Yet, can families, organizations, ethnic groups, churches, and even whole nations be safely described as "narcissistic" or "pathologically self-absorbed"? Wouldn't such generalizations be a trifle racist and more than a trifle wrong? The answer is: it depends.

Human collectives - states, firms, households, institutions, political parties, cliques, bands - acquire a life and a character all their own. The longer the association or affiliation of the members, the more cohesive and conformist the inner dynamics of the group, the more persecutory or numerous its enemies, the more intensive the physical and emotional experiences of the individuals it is comprised of, the stronger the bonds of locale, language, and history - the more rigorous might an assertion of a common pathology be.

Such an all-pervasive and extensive pathology manifests itself in the behavior of each and every member. It is a defining - though often implicit or underlying - mental structure. It has explanatory and predictive powers. It is recurrent and invariable - a pattern of conduct melded with distorted cognition and stunted emotions. And it is often vehemently denied.

A possible DSM-like list of criteria for narcissistic organizations or groups:

An all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration or adulation and lack of empathy, usually beginning at the group's early history and present in various contexts. Persecution and abuse are often the causes - or at least the antecedents - of the pathology.

Five (or more) of the following criteria must be met:

1.   The group as a whole, or members of the group - acting as such and by virtue of their association and affiliation with the group - feel grandiose and self-important (e.g., they exaggerate the group's achievements and talents to the point of lying, demand to be recognized as superior - simply for belonging to the group and without commensurate achievement).

2.   The group as a whole, or members of the group - acting as such and by virtue of their association and affiliation with the group - are obsessed with group fantasies of unlimited success, fame, fearsome power or omnipotence, unequalled brilliance, bodily beauty or performance, or ideal, everlasting, all-conquering ideals or political theories.

3.   The group as a whole, or members of the group - acting as such and by virtue of their association and affiliation with the group - are firmly convinced that the group is unique and, being special, can only be understood by, should only be treated by, or associate with, other special or unique, or high-status groups (or institutions).

4.   The group as a whole, or members of the group - acting as such and by virtue of their association and affiliation with the group - require excessive admiration, adulation, attention and affirmation - or, failing that, wish to be feared and to be notorious (narcissistic supply).

5.   The group as a whole, or members of the group - acting as such and by virtue of their association and affiliation with the group - feel entitled. They expect unreasonable or special and favourable priority treatment. They demand automatic and full compliance with expectations. They rarely accept responsibility for their actions ("alloplastic defences"). This often leads to anti-social behaviour, cover-ups, and criminal activities on a mass scale.

6.   The group as a whole, or members of the group - acting as such and by virtue of their association and affiliation with the group - are "interpersonally exploitative", i.e., use others to achieve their own ends. This often leads to anti-social behaviour, cover-ups, and criminal activities on a mass scale.

7.   The group as a whole, or members of the group - acting as such and by virtue of their association and affiliation with the group - are devoid of empathy. They are unable or unwilling to identify with or acknowledge the feelings and needs of other groups. This often leads to anti- social behaviour, cover-ups, and criminal activities on a mass scale.

8.   The group as a whole, or members of the group - acting as such and by virtue of their association and affiliation with the group - are constantly envious of others or believes that they feel the same about them. This often leads to anti-social behaviour, cover-ups, and criminal activities on a mass scale.

9.   The group as a whole, or members of the group - acting as such and by virtue of their association and affiliation with the group - are arrogant and sport haughty behaviors or attitudes coupled with rage when frustrated, contradicted, punished, limited, or confronted. This often leads to anti-social behavior, cover-ups, and criminal activities on a mass scale.

Passive-aggressive Bureaucracies and Collectives

Click HERE to Watch the Video

Collectives - especially bureaucracies, such as for-profit universities, health maintenance organizations (HMOs), the army, and government - tend to behave passive-aggressively and to frustrate their constituencies. This misconduct is often aimed at releasing tensions and stress that the individuals comprising these organizations accumulate in their daily contact with members of the public.

Additionally, as Kafka astutely observed, such misbehavior fosters dependence in the clients of these establishments and cements a relationship of superior (i.e., the obstructionist group) versus inferior (the demanding and deserving individual, who is reduced to begging and supplicating).

Passive-aggressiveness has a lot in common with pathological narcissism: the destructive envy, the recurrent attempts to buttress grandiose fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience, the lack of impulse control, the deficient ability to empathize, and the sense of entitlement, often incommensurate with its real-life achievements.

No wonder, therefore, that negativistic, narcissistic, and borderline organizations share similar traits and identical psychological defenses: most notably denial (mainly of the existence of problems and complaints), and projection (blaming the group's failures and dysfunction on its clients).

In such a state of mind, it is easy to confuse means (making money, hiring staff, constructing or renting facilities, and so on) with ends (providing loans, educating students, assisting the poor, fighting wars, etc.). Means become ends and ends become means.

Consequently, the original goals of the organization are now considered to be nothing more than obstacles on the way to realizing new aims: borrowers, students, or the poor are nuisances to be summarily dispensed with as the board of directors considers the erection of yet another office tower and the disbursement of yet another annual bonus to its members. As Parkinson noted, the collective perpetuates its existence, regardless of whether it has any role left and how well it functions.

As the constituencies of these collectives - most forcefully, its clients - protest and exert pressure in an attempt to restore them to their erstwhile state, the collectives develop a paranoid state of mind, a siege mentality, replete with persecutory delusions and aggressive behavior. This anxiety is an introjection of guilt. Deep inside, these organizations know that they have strayed from the right path. They anticipate attacks and rebukes and are rendered defensive and suspicious by the inevitable, impending onslaught.

Still, deep down bureaucracies epitomize the predominant culture of failure: failure as a product, the intended outcome and end-result of complex, deliberate, and arduous manufacturing processes. Like the majority of people, bureaucrats are emotionally invested in failure, not in success: they thrive on failure, calamity, and emergency. The worse the disaster and inaptitude, the more resources are allocated to voracious and ever-expanding bureaucracies (think the US government post the 9/11 terrorist attacks). Paradoxically, their measure of success is in how many failures they have had to endure or have fostered.

These massive organs tend to attract and nurture functionaries and clients whose mentality and personality are suited to embedded fatalism. In a globalized, competitive world the majority are doomed to failure and recurrent deprivation. Those rendered losers by the vagaries and exigencies of modernity find refuge in Leviathan: imposing, metastatically sprawling nanny organizations and corporations who shield them from the agonizing truth of their own inadequacy and from the shearing winds of entrepreneurship and cutthroat struggle.

A tiny minority of mavericks swim against this inexorable tide: they innovate, reframe, invent, and lead. Theirs is an existence of constant strife as the multitudes and their weaponized bureaucracies seek to put them down, to extinguish the barely flickering flame, and to appropriate the scant resources consumed by these forward leaps. In time, ironically, truly successful entrepreneurs themselves become invested in failure and form their own vast establishment empires: defensive and dedicated rather than open and universal networks. Progress materializes despite and in contradistinction to the herd-like human spirit – not because of it.”


4. The artist as narcissist


When art critics, historians and the latte café glitterati talk about art (as opposed to just looking at it) “narcissism” seems to be a word that comes quickly to the lips. The obsession with physical beauty in classical Greek sculpture, the supposed Islamic prohibition on depicting the human form (the Quran itself actually contains no such prohibition), the supposed self-abnegation of medieval Christian art (or a projection of self-adoration into religious adoration?) … all seem to revolve easily around whether is OK to celebrate the self, or better to deny it. What are we to think about the apparent abandonment in much modern art of depicting any similarity with what human eyes and brains structure as natural vision? Is this a path to person-free insights into some deeper “truth”, or is it the ultimate narcissistic self-indulgence and/or defensiveness of charlatans with a contempt for MonaLisa.jpgcoherent communication with their fellow humans? … A kind of “believe I wield magic” pitch to the unwashed? At least for me personally, an artistic experience is often something seen out of the corner of my eye that takes my mind by surprise. Usually it is not the conscious creation of another artist. Yet we admit that there are gifted individuals who can render the ordinary extraordinary, in art or literature or music, who enable us to perceive a symphony where before we sexting.jpghad found only noise. The status of these meaning givers is not self-assigned, It is a laurel we bestow upon them. Should we outsource this recognition to marketeers. For me, no. You, I don’t know. Certainly many do, as per the manufacture of pop music, or the shoals of tourists taking phone-photos of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The phone-photo of the of the celebrity object, or celebrity person, or famous scene is inextricably linked in narrative and image to the wielder of the camera, similar in intention perhaps to sexting. Is this art?

When I see a collection of painted boxes on a gallery wall, or a monocolour blank canvas, is that art? Find your own answer. When Russian performance artist, Petr Pavlensky, nailed his testicles to the pavement in Moscow’s Red Square, was that really “art”? Find your own answer. When I see something as intricate as Jackson Pollock’s “Blue Poles” there is probably less hesitation about conceding a different kind of communication, less grumbling about the shallow narcissism of the artist.

BluePolesSegment.jpgPerhaps everyone can find a personal answer to questions like this. What is a little clearer though is that “acceptable” public answers to such questions are heavily influenced by the general public values of each age, and the indulgence of particular sub-cultures. Since more humans are alive at this moment than the total of all previous humans since the emergence of the species, it might not be too surprising that any individual with the energy to search can find art, literature or music to fit whatever tradition and level of genius they fancy. When you put that individual in a suit and giveCorporateArt.jpg  them a corporate credit card with the mission to find, say, a suitable collection of art works to decorate the corporate image of a glittering commercial tower in Gotham City, then personal whimsy is no longer an option. What is on the menu then is value set of a particular sub-culture. At that point perhaps we can at least ask a quizzical question or two about whether some kind of collective narcissism is in play, and how it rewards or punishes certain kinds of artists.


5. Politicians and other aberrations


Some occupations seem to have a magnetic appeal for narcissistic-dominant personalities. Rock stars, fashion mavens, media icons, and of course politicians. Most of these individuals are not much danger to anybody except occasionally to themselves. However grandiose delusions and an insatiable need for adoration in the guise of a politician, especially one at the top of the greasy pole of ambition, can blight the welfare of whole nations. The instances of this sickness spread like a stain across daily current affairs reports, infest history, and of course supply a bottomless theme for literature, movies and all the rest. Not that we ever learn. Well, mostly we don’t learn, but sometimes like a tragic drama we can see it waiting in the wings. This seems to be the condition with Presidential primary voting in the United States, circa 2016.

While there is not much doubt about Donald Trump’s narcissism, we are not sure about his political agenda, or even whether he is sure about it. LetatCestMoi.jpgWhat we are pretty sure of is that unleashed with a licence to say L’etat c’est moi, he would kill off any notion that the United States has room for a team of rivals, and plunge the republic into something like civil war. Of course, it is pretty close to such a deviation already, and has an unlovely history. America itself is incidental to this essay, and Trump would be nowhere without a particular segment of American society who need managing with different tools.

The point is though that narcissists standing on a pinnacle regularly lose any sense of proportion, and any tolerance for competition. Not only narcissists lose balance of course, Erdogan.jpgbut if vested with authority they can do real damage. One of the most tragic current political examples of  narcissism leading to mental imbalance is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, one-time wunderkind of Turkey, and now as president dragging Turkey into self-destruction. Erdoğan is one of countless examples found in public and private life. We hope that American leadership doesn’t tread that track and force us all to relive history again through Trump’s projection of  authoritarian saviour of a fearful and betrayed people.



6. Narcissism and the drive to survive


All living creatures have a drive to survive, at least until reproducing the species. After reproduction, some animals self-sacrifice, and if highly collectivized, like ants, a proportion will remain sterile and be dedicated entirely to the survival of the group. Each of these characteristics can be found in some fraction of human populations. Young men and women will sublimate their sexuality into fighting for “the glory of their country” (usually meaning for the enrichment of old men).

At the other end of the game of life, it seems that most people are only willing to play while it is fun. The prospect of physical and mental disability persuades them that the best life outcome is calling a halt to the whole charade sooner rather than later.

People don’t want to live past the age at which severe diseases and disabilities are expected. When respondents are asked how long they’d like to live, fewer than 10 percent choose 100 or older. Twenty percent want to live into their 90s. Thirty-two percent want to live into their 80s. Thirty percent don’t want to make it past 80. Why do most people want to die before they reach 90? Probably because being 90 sucks. But that’s true only because of the current rate of physical decline. (Saletan 2013)

Narcissism then, if it is seen as an underlying drive to preserve and promote the individual, comes with conditions attached. The vainglorious version is not for everyone and not forever. Many, knowing that they are not the alpha male or female of the troupe, find submission or even self-abnegation a better survival stratagem, both physically and emotionally.

However, the largest number have some dalliance with narcissistic tendency, especially at certain seasons in the life cycle. Very young children are universally self-obsessed, and forgiven for it. When the time for mating comes around, relentless self-promotion may look like a winning stratagem and may well go nicely with relentless self-admiration, at least as a public front. Ditto for the shark pool of careerism as the individual moves into their thirties and beyond. Not everyone relishes this kind of display culture of course, but variations on it are frequently observed.

The provocative title of this essay suggests that the common forms of narcissistic tendency just described have become more pronounced and more malignant in recent times. I know of no easy way to confirm or deny that proposition objectively. What we do know is that old cultural certainties are dissolving as we watch.

The Australia I was born into in 1945 had a population that was over 97% Anglo-Celtic in its origins. We thought we knew the rules. Now this country alone hosts people from over two hundred national origins, and there are more people spilling across the world than the total of all preceding generations. Regardless of what is codified in law, none of us really know what daily adaptations we will have to make next to “the rules”.

My mother didn’t see a light switch until she was 12 years old. I didn’t see a television until the same age. Now, willy-nilly in 2016 we are in instant Skype communication, free, with anyone across the planet. The education system I survived was designed to prepare us for a “career” with little change of employers over a working life. Now few people can expect to survive more than a few years with one employer, or even in one occupation. (The education system remains inadequate to prepare us for that).

The tenor of what I am suggesting here is that all the psychological “drives” which our ancestors marshalled to direct themselves into stable productive lives have lost any certainty in terms of the cultural values and rewards which might have attached to them. As I move between and across cultures, I have to constantly recalibrate my persona to make it acceptable to those amongst whom I happen to find myself for a season.

If I struggle to navigate these torrents of change at a personal level, it is quite likely that there are also tidal waves of populations throwing up adaptive profiles in unconscious social experiments to find what will keep them afloat. In uncertain times the urge to narcissistic self-preservation may well be one of the dominant themes.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Percy Bysshe Shelley 1792–1822



Reading List


Agence France-Presse (July 03, 2015) "Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Opens 'Public' Mosque in his Presidential Palace". NDTV online @

Bayley, Stephen (March 2015) "The shallow vanity of modern artists — not a pretty picture". The Spectator (UK) online @

Benincasa, Sara (10 March 2016) "Is Kim Kardashian turning you into an egomaniac?". The Guardian online @

Berry, Sarah (March 9 2016) "The problem with overconfidence is it may leave a train wreck". Brisbane Times online @

Cramer, Phebe (to 2011) "Phebe Cramer's books". [refer to the Malkin podcast for explanation] Goodreads website, online @

Flanagan, Richard (5 March 2016) "Notes on the Syrian exodus: ‘Epic in scale, inconceivable until you witness it’". [raw survival: where there is no space for narcissistic self-indulgence] The Guardian online @

Foster, Brooke Lea (Nov 19, 2014) "The Persistent Myth of the Narcissistic Millennial". The Atlantic online @

Hoffman, Jan (July 20, 2008) "Here’s Looking at Me, Kid". New York Times online @

Hughes, Lee Daniel (January 1, 2013) "Individualism, Narcissism, and psychopathy in modern society". Lee Daniel Hughes blog online @   

Jamieson, Amber (4 March 2016) "Not even my wife knows': secret Donald Trump voters speak out - We asked Guardian readers who are voting for Trump why they support him. From firm conservatives to fed-up liberals, their answers were revealing". [Is Trump a terminal narcissist, or using the parody of narcissism as a political tool?]The Guardian online @ 

Kennedy, Diana (Apr 06 2015) "Origins of narcissism in children: a critique, Part I". MindSpark website online @ -critique-i/

Maccoby, Michael (January 2004) "Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons". Harvard Business Review online @ 

Madison(May 16, 2011) "Narcissism in Art". Madison blog online @

Malcolm, Lynne and Olivia Willis (2 December 2015) "Narcissism and psychological abuse". Australian Broadcasting Commission online @ 

Malkin, Craig (2016) "Episode 3 - Part 2: Origins of Narcissism". [recommended] GoodReads Podcast online @

Manne, Anne (Monday 8 June 2015) "Narcissism and terrorism: how the personality disorder leads to deadly violence - What do Sydney siege gunman Man Haron Monis, Germanwings pilot Andreas Lubitz, Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, and Isis killers Mohammed Emwazi and Jake Bilardi have in common? Delusions of grandeur, a fear of failure and a need for admiration". The Guardian online @

Marcos, Angie ( May 11, 2015 ) "Experts weigh in on the origins of narcissism". Orange County Register online @

May, Thor (2008) “The End of Capitalism is Announced - The Decider announces the end of triumphalist capitalism. Whose zoo do these simians belong in now?” Thor’s China Diary2 online @

May, Thor (2005) “Copping it Sweet”. The Passionate Skeptic online @

May, Thor (2003) “So you wanna’ Write a Poem??”. online @

May, Thor (2001a) “Individualism or the Group?”. online @

May, Thor (2001b) “Dead or Alive?”. The Passionate Skeptic online @

May, Thor (2000) “Amity Li” [a mischievous snippet]. The Passionate Skeptic website online @

Mitchell, Georgina (February 29 2016) "Man kills 14 members of his family then himself, Indian police say". Brisbane Times online @

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Professional bio: Thor May has a core professional interest in cognitive linguistics, at which he has rarely succeeded in making a living. He has also, perhaps fatally in a career sense, cultivated an interest in how things work – people, brains, systems, countries, machines, whatever… In the world of daily employment he has mostly taught English as a foreign language, a stimulating activity though rarely regarded as a profession by the world at large. His PhD dissertation, Language Tangle, dealt with language teaching productivity. Thor has been teaching English to non-native speakers, training teachers and lecturing linguistics, since 1976. This work has taken him to seven countries in Oceania and East Asia, mostly with tertiary students, but with a couple of detours to teach secondary students and young children. He has trained teachers in Australia, Fiji and South Korea. In an earlier life, prior to becoming a teacher, he had a decade of finding his way out of working class origins, through unskilled jobs in Australia, New Zealand and finally England (after backpacking across Asia to England in 1972).


Narcissism grew like an invasive plant throughout the 20th Century. Now it is in full bloom  (c) Thor May 2016