In Ovid’s hauntingly beautiful poem Metamorphoses, he tells of a prophecy given by the blind seer Tiresias on the birth of Narcissus: “If he but fail to recognise himself, a long life he may have, beneath the sun.”
Narcissus grows into a young man celebrated and desired for his beauty, yet he spurns and humiliates all who court him. One of his would-be lovers, the nymph Echo, follows him everywhere but is brutally repelled. Rejected, “hiding her blushing face,” “her great love increases with neglect; her miserable body wastes away, wakeful with sorrows,” until nothing “remains except her voice that lives, that lives among the hills.”
Nemesis, the much-feared Goddess of Divine Retribution, is angered by the cruelty of Narcissus. She is the restorer of the proper order of things, who punishes arrogance, hubris, those who commit crimes with impunity.
Drinking at a mountain pool, Narcissus becomes enchanted by the beauty of his own image reflected in the water. “All that is lovely in himself he loves, and in his witless way he wants himself: he who approves is equally approved; he seeks, is sought, he burns and he is burnt.” “Crazed with love,” Narcissus cannot bear to disturb the lily pond carrying his beloved image. He pines away and dies of thirst. All that remains of the beautiful youth is a white flower, narcissus.
In The Happy Life, David Malouf interrogates the strange disparity between our conquering the material conditions of life and our state of restless discontent, and asks why contentment – happiness – seems to have eluded us. There is much to admire in the essay and the gentle spirit with which it unfolds, echoing, one guesses, the quiet contentment of its author. His perceptions are characteristically delicate. The sources he uses are satisfyingly deep and the insights fresh.
So beguiling is the style that it seems almost churlish to complain. Yet object I must. For Malouf’s perceptions remain disparate, and the argument, for all its grace of expression, remains imprecise and diffuse. Consequently we are left with tantalising fragments of insight where we might hope for a denouement.
Although Malouf intuits many of the surface aspects of our contemporary discontents, he fails to get at the culture underpinning our malaise, nor its psychological architecture. So where might we find a coherent conceptual framework to make sense of the fragmentary insights of Malouf’s beautifully written but ultimately unsatisfying sketch?
Strangely, it is right there in the classical source to which Malouf turns. He discusses Ovid’s poem, but misses entirely the depiction of the crucial myth of Narcissus and the light it might throw on our contemporary malaise. The underlying problem impeding our “pursuit of happiness,” undermining our “search for contentment,” lies in the contemporary culture of narcissism.
Language matters. It is no surprise that so fine a novelist as Malouf has an acute ear for tones, textures and meanings embedded in language. He turns to classical sources, including the Greeks, to illuminate our search for happiness. And indeed the Greek word eudemonia, roughly translated, means happiness. But, as Wittgenstein warned, we need to be attentive to how language “relates to a way of living” and is embedded in “the kinds of lives and practices” from which it derives. Hence it cannot be extracted from “the activities into which it is woven” without loss of meaning. To remove a word from its cultural context is like hearing only the top melodic note in a chord of music. The top note might be happiness, thinly interpreted, but the richer full chord of eudemonia resonates with intimations of the virtues: courage, justice, moderation, discipline and an examined life. A life like Socrates’, who was willing to swallow hemlock and die, for truth is worth dying for. Or, as Plato suggested, the good life is one in which it is better to suffer evil than to do it. For the Greeks, then, eudemonia sounds these deeper notes, where the happiness of human flourishing is inextricably tied to the life-practice of the virtues.
Some of the loveliest passages in the essay are in his analysis of the paintings by Rembrandt and Rubens and the famous love poem by Donne. Malouf’s sensitive account shows the kind of happiness possible when sensuality and love are united, and undistorted by Christian bodily shame. The attractiveness of these passages comes from the fact that each of the works centres on a sexual intimacy in which the Other is fully, joyously present, as love and desire moves toward them and is returned. The glorying is not in the Self but in the Other. There is such ease in their faces! Trust makes the self-forgetfulness which liberates Eros possible. The space between two people is utterly alive. Malouf juxtaposes the visions of happiness depicted there – lush, erotic, joyous – against the dour, shame-ridden sexual repression of Christianity.
Yet this looking backwards, at another era, as opposed to examining our own world, obscures the fact that we face quite different problems. In analysing our time, Malouf would have done better to examine the powerful, haunting painting of Narcissus by Caravaggio. There is no Other. A solitary figure is illuminated against a dark backdrop and stares with such intensity and desire at his own image that all else ceases to exist, falls away into darkness, obliterated from sight. There is only Narcissus and the pool on which his lonely image floats.
For the kind of relatedness that Malouf celebrates as being at the centre of human happiness is precisely our weakest point, where our hopes are most distant from our desires. We have record numbers of family breakdowns, commitment phobia, the rise of loneliness and its dark companions, depression, anxiety and even suicide. There is a tendency for the deepest human relationships to be commodified and to have meaning emptied from them. If happiness is about anything, surely it is about meaning, and in the wake of these changes there has been for too many a collapse of just that, with all the anxiety and anguish that come with postmodernity’s unbearable lightness of being.
The historian Eric Hobsbawm has argued that by the end of the ’60s there had occurred “a triumph of the individual over society”, a “self-regarding individualism pushed to its limits … The world was now tacitly assumed to consist of several billion human beings defined by their pursuit of individual desire.”
That too, said differently, is the conclusion of a leading contemporary psychoanalyst, Peter Fonagy. “In recent years,” he remarks, “issues of narcissism have taken centre-stage.” It is always important to understand in a thinker what they are moving against. Malouf seems much more alive to the barrier to happiness as it was in Freud’s time, when the central problem was sexual repression. Yet the hysterias born of sexual inhibition have long since given way to quite different problems, disorders of the self such as narcissism. Love is turned inward; for all too many there is no Other.
Narcissism is characterised by an overweening sense of entitlement, exploitativeness, hyper-competitiveness, lack of empathy, vicious rage when thwarted, inability to love or maintain relationships, and grandiosity, a sense of superiority born of our “specialness” which entitles us to privileges. Whatever is good for the self is good. It is self-destructive and destructive of others, just as in the myth of Narcissus.
Christopher Lasch first wrote his book The Culture of Narcissism in 1979, yet the problem has grown much, much worse since then. By the time Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell wrote their 2009 book The Narcissism Epidemic, many of Lasch’s examples looked tame. And the problem is now more widespread. Measures of narcissism show it to be steadily rising amongst college populations with every succeeding generation. The title of a book penned by a TV Bachelorette star reads Better Single than Sorry: A No-Regrets Guide to Loving Yourself and Never Settling. Even evangelical Christians accept the premise. “Love God, love yourself, love others, in that order,” advised one megachurch pastor.
So many contemporary problems derive from narcissism. The ugly sense of entitlement and lack of empathy are evident in all forms of bullying, road rage and flaming in the blogosphere. These are not only examples of incivility, but also of narcissistic rage. A recent analysis of hit songs shows how songs once lamented the loss of a beloved, but now brag of physical prowess or make aggressive sexual demands.
There is a link too, that Malouf misses, between the brave new world of the “permanent temporariness of relationships,” as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman describes it, and the “body project.” The fleeting “hook-up” establishes a competitive free market of bodies. The self is profoundly reshaped. The historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg found that in the late nineteenth century girls scarcely mentioned their bodies in diary entries. Moral language was reserved for improving character. In a diary of 1892, for example, there is the entry: “Resolved, not to talk about myself or my feelings. To think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversation and action. Not to let my thoughts wander. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others.” But a diary entry in 1982 shows that the cult of self-improvement now resides in the body: “I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can with the help of my budget and babysitting money, I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got a new haircut, good make-up, new clothes and accessories.”
Increasingly, this new “self” is delivered by plastic surgery. Malouf discusses the lovely Rubens painting, but any depiction in modern times of such a generous form would send an upper-middle-class woman scurrying for liposuction and a surgical nip and tuck. Once the strategy of ageing Hollywood stars, the numbers of such procedures have skyrocketed. As always, it is the land of the “free” which is the most extreme, but the same trends are followed elsewhere. Most importantly, the devout belief here is that a better appearance delivers not just happiness but a new self. In the ubiquitous human makeover programs, a new self emerges from the old like a butterfly from a chrysalis.
Nor should one underestimate how profoundly this “Look at Me!” sense of self has shifted because it has developed under the gaze of our peers – “the grid of 200 million,” as George Frow puts it – rather than the gods. In one of the earliest twentieth-century critiques of celebrity, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson’s character, like all narcissists, finds ageing impossible. She consoles herself with a celluloid version of the lily pond, obsessively watching her younger self perform every night. When her lover/prisoner shows interest in someone else, she shoots him. But Sunset Boulevard was a critique, and understood as such. Now the shift towards self-admiration means being famous is considered a kind of new right. Perhaps even an obligation. Youngsters in the West increasingly declare being famous as their most important goal in life. In one study, US college students felt that having high self-esteem, feeling good about oneself, was more important than any other value: good grades, friendship, love and even sex. This narcissism is given endless means of expression through reality TV and social networking.
Malouf comments on the dent to our happiness from “stress” but does not do enough to identify the causes. A narcissistic society is hyper-competitive. It is a society where, as Twenge and Campbell put it, there are “a lot of sharp elbows.” In this context Malouf mentions our obedience to “the Economy,” an entity too large to control. Yet our economic predicaments, global, national and individual, are hardly separate from narcissism either. It is behind the wild grandiosity of CEO salaries, the selfishness of tax cuts to the mega-rich, and the catastrophic mismanagement by Wall Street of other people’s money. Equally it is implicated in the stressed individual of the straining and groaning “working family,” which delivers more hours per family to service their heavy burden of debt. Like Narcissus, we are all too often in love with an illusion. When one thirst is slaked, another “need” emerges to take its place.
Towards the end of the essay, Malouf describes our concern over “the Planet” as further adding to our stress. Like “the Economy,” it is too big an idea for people to cope with. There is something in this insight. Yet surely he should go further. Recall the prophetic words of Tiresias, warning that if Narcissus does not recognise who he is and what he is doing, he will perish. In the form of climate change, the Planet is presently delivering warning of retribution as if from Nemesis, the dark and dangerous goddess of balance, daughter of Justice, whose “adamantine bridles” restrain “the frivolous insolences of mortals.” But like Narcissus, we go on gazing at the lily pond, enchanted and intoxicated by all that we see there, those trappings of the good life that reflect us back so much larger and more dazzling than we really are, maybe all the way to extinction.
Anne Manne is the author of Motherhood: How Should We Care for Our Children?, shortlisted for the Walkley non-fiction prize, and So This Is Life: Tales from a Country Childhood.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 42, Fair Share.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY