Vol. 45 No. 3 1978 - page 338

begin to distinguish the narcissism of the latter half of the twentieth
century from the individualism of the nineteenth and early twentieth
The self was never heretofore "the ultimate value" nor was it
meant to be. Self was subordinate
group (family, tribe, or society) or
god, to something larger than itself. This older concept of self is
reflected in literature. Until quite recently, with the exception of the
picaresque, the hero is the celebrated individual who insures not his
own but society's survival. It is the reversal from celebration of the self
in a defined cultural context to celebration of the self in opposition to
the cultural context which describes the revolution in the individual's
self-image. This revolution is not primarily psychological (in source)
but reflects modern homelessness, that is, individuals have no "place,"
no group or god or tribe with which
identify and through which to
realize themselves. Without a socially-determined role to satisfy, one
must increasingly turn to personal satisfaction in its narrow sense.
Despite the fact that it is easier to satisfy an externally-defined role
rather than an insatiable, uncertain self which must determine itself,
this shift in the conception of self has been paradoxicall y idealized as
the end result of a series of struggles against a repressive social order.
We will sketch here the breakdown of certain groupings and philoso–
phical premises which provided the raison d'etre for preceeding
generations, will turn our attention to the changing conception of self
which accompanied the shift in social organization and will finally
scrutinize some aspects of cultural narcissism which are so frequently
misperceived as disease rather than as symptoms.
The rise of narcissism cannot be understood without taking into
consideration the human dilemma to which narcissism pretends to
offer a solution. That condition is alienation. Modern man is beset by
two manifestations of alienation, one existential, which all human
beings at all times experience, and the other historic, to which
contemporary narcissism is a response. Man's existential dilemma, one
which transcends time and place, is the need to find meaning in a life
which is finite, while human aspiration and human imagination are
not. The acuteness of the dilemma, however, does vary with time and
is minimal in a setting in which the individual feels he fills a
predetermined place in a universe that makes sense. This is particularly
true in certain tribal organizations in which the emphasis on the self is
It is maximal in the contemporary preoccupation with one's
individuality, what we might call the sense of self, which is almost
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