Isolde Charim (2022)

Die Qualen des Narzissmus

In Die Qualen des Narzissmus, philosopher and publicist Isolde Charim approaches a fundamental question of human psychology from a somewhat unexpected angle: Why do we—that is, most of us, most of the time—voluntarily comply with rules, regulations, and norms? The popular “carrots and sticks” theory with its roots in the behaviorism of the 1970s and its culmination in the homo oeconomicus model clearly falls short of sufficiently explaining the vastness of human complexity. Mechanisms such as a fear of violent punishment, incarceration, or social stigmatization do play a role, undoubtedly. But Charim sets out to provide a deeper, multi-faceted answer. Namely one that’s based on the idea of a “sophisticated” narcissism and its interplay with society.

Understanding narcissism only as a short-sighted indulgence in a “love of oneself” is of course not sufficient for Charim’s argument. Instead, a more advanced view of narcissism, not as an attraction to the current self, but to an idealized version of that self, is what’s required. But this striving to become one’s “ideal” and to remain in unison with it is—by definition—in vain. However, it sets in motion an internal force, a motivation, a drive that makes us do all kinds of things: Lose weight, climb mountains, have children, carve out a career. The image of the “hedonic treadmill” comes to mind at this point, but it’s not explicitly mentioned in the book.

Charim however goes on to lay out how this internal, psychological view of narcissism as a driving force of behavior interplays with our modern economic and societal environment. She explores the archetypical relationships within in an increasingly narcissistic society—a society in which individuals, each striving for an ideal that they consider their very own, but which itself is shaped by the views of others, are both dependent on and ignorant to each other at the same time. They are dependent because they actively seek validation from others—likes, clicks, thumbs-ups—but also ignorant because they don’t mean to engage with each other in reciprocal relationships. They only need each other to reinforce their image of the self or of their self-ideal. They need each other as an audience, but one that’s only allowed to gape in awe.

Apart from sketching some of the obvious negative implications that this dynamic has on societies, which Charim doesn’t linger on for so long as to create the impression of culture pessimism, the book rarely judges the effects that it describes in a moralistic, “good or bad” manner. In fact, there is surprisingly little of a subjective viewpoint. Charim does, however, go full circle in an attempt to answer the original question of voluntary subjugation: She convincingly shows how the psychological mechanism of narcissism can interplay with societal forces in such a way that individuals comply with both formal and informal rules and norms of that society, but also with rules and norms that they craft for themselves in order to satisfy their narcissistic drive inside such a society.

Writing that sits on the edge between popular and academic philosophy often ends up frustrating its audiences on both ends of that spectrum. With Die Qualen des Narzissmus, Isolde Charim makes an admirable attempt to lower the bar for non-philosophers to grapple with the complexities of the science of the field. And while the book in general achieves that ambition, it also, at times, falls a bit short: At various points for instance, she tries to contrast what are in fact very subtle differences between the sophisticated ideas of thinkers such as Lacan, Foucault, and Žižek, which are not always easy to grasp for the non-initiated. Hence, the book is definitely more geared towards the “ambitious amateur” in philosophy who has a basic understanding of the field, rather than for the general public. For this type of audience though, among which I count myself, Charim’s book definitely provides an interesting and worthwhile reading experience.