The Tone of Culture: from Prometheus to Narcissus

Michael Paul Gallagher, S. J.

In his recent film, entitled in English Wings of Desire, the director Wim Wenders portrays two angels visiting the earth. They have the power to observe everything without themselves being seen. For instance, in a highly impressive scene they wander around the huge public library in Berlin, being aware of the hidden longings and agonies of the silent readers, and watching all with a certain detached compassion. The film's early sequences are in black and white, as if to capture something of the desolation of existence as perceived by the visitors from above. Then it changes into colour as they decide to become 'incarnate', and thus even visually the film becomes a celebration of human potentials as against its own earlier evocations of despair.

Sadly, it falls into the old cliche of the romantic ending, with an angel opting to save a woman trapeze artiste from her loneliness. Having so magnificently evoked some of the social and cultural issues of our Western world, the close seemed to retreat to the most banal of Hollywood stereotypes. It promotes the myth of interpersonal intimacy as a seeming solution for all ills and shrinks from initially social horizons to a finally evasive and sentimental image of human reality.

Privatised Images in Literature

One can even find the same temptation and fall as far back as Charles Dickens and in a novel of such social passion as Bleak House. Here also the vast panorama of England's unjust systems is expressed only to be abandoned in the end; the novel implies that it is in domestic bliss between a man and woman that the only answer can be found. This privatisation of horizon is a trait of much nineteenth century fiction. Indeed the whole genre of fiction was born from the needs of the emerging leisured classes. Besides, the very act of reading a novel (as opposed to watching a play in a theatre) is by its nature solitary and private. At the core of the reception of fiction by a reader is a situation that is ‘alienated from lived experience', and typically the novel sees any `key to change as lying in the personal realm of self-understanding'. 1

These introductory remarks are intended to set a scene for our discussion of the search for happiness today. The purpose in mentioning the world of cinema and literature is twofold. On the one hand, the real crisis of our culture is more one of images than of pure ideas. Hence a question implicit throughout these pages will be how the images of happiness are promoted or controlled in our culture. On the other hand, one of the characteristics of our Western or ‘developed' world is that the image of personhood often shrinks into a merely private self in search of interpersonal intimacy as the ultimate ideal of happiness. This again will be a central and more explicit concern of these pages - to describe how this narrowing of human concerns shows itself and to ask about its sources and effects.

Changing Tones of Unbelief

These characteristics in our culture are of crucial influence on the possibility of faith today. Many commentators have identified a certain limbo of lost-ness as one note in the spiritual chord of the present time. They have discerned a shift in the dominant typology of atheism: it has moved from the more explicit rejections of a 'Promethean' atheism (with its sense of the exaltation of humanity in an adventure of freedom), through a ‘Sisyphean' version of unbelief (where humanity is seen as burdened with a struggle that is ultimately doomed to frustration), to an opposite face of atheism that can be associated with Dionysius (in the sense that a cult of spontaneity reigns and old

dogmas are regarded as irrelevant and empty). 2

But to capture the inarticulate and pervasive religious indifference of this late twentieth-century - at least in much of the so-called ‘developed' world - we seem to need yet another symbolic figure from Greek mythology, Narcissus. Instead of the active assertiveness of his predecessors, the atheism of Narcissus is marked by self-concern, seeing the world as a reflection of his own self, and by a high degree of unconcern about any more self-transcending questions. It seems strangely suitable that in the Greek legend of Narcissus, the youth was initially suffering from an inability to be responsive to love. As a punishment for this apathy (literally non-feeling), he fell in love with his self-image in a mountain pool, and since this proved an unattainable object of desire, he entered into a frustrated grief due to which, in one version, he committed suicide.

Approaching this theme in other terms it is possible to claim that our culture of unbelief has moved from one marked by alienation in the sixties, through one marked by anger in the seventies, to one largely of apathy in the eighties.3 Clearly this is a sweeping generalisation but it has its limited usefulness. Above all it serves to pinpoint some important questions about the search for happiness now: is it the search of an apathetic Narcissus? Is his apathy a sign of his being a victim of his surrounding culture? Might it be the mask that protects his hurt hunger to love and be loved? And how might the Christian vision save the contemporary Narcissus from another kind of suicide?

Individualism as the Liberal Dilemma

In his study and critique of the tradition of liberal thought, Roberto Mangabeira Unger has some valuable insights into the roots of narcissistic individualism over the last few centuries. He argues, for instance, that the 'narcissism' of the self has close links with 'the deification of mankind in the Hegelian-Marxist religion of immanence'. 4 He acknowledges that ‘Individualism is so deeply rooted in our thought that it is hard to understand' except by viewing it in the light of some contrary ideal such as collectivism; for the liberal individualist, society itself is artificial and even threatening, 'because all values are individual and subjective'.5 In the liberal vision of society, individuals are 'radically separate' and there is a 'tendency to abandon the explicitly theological form of the religiosity of transcendence' with the result that a 'secularisation of transcendence' occurs, giving rise to various forms of agnosticism. The best healing of this trend would seem to lie in 'the struggle for sympathy' but typically this natural search for love becomes reduced in the liberal horizon to romantic love' with the result that the 'passage from narcissism' is stunted. It is a case of the myth of intimacy ousting any vision of social and faith-based hope, as was mentioned earlier with regard to the Wenders film. Unger sums up his case against the limited images on offer as a human ideal in the liberal tradition: very sharing of common purpose appears to be a diminishment of individuality'. 6

Against this backdrop of the dominant ideology of the 'developed' world - a topic of much greater complexity than can be treated here - one may turn to some present-day versions of narcissism. Gilles Lipovetsky has written a somewhat agonised essay of cultural analysis, lamenting the emptiness of contemporary individualism. He lists its features as 'broadened privatisation, erosion of social identity, political and ideological disaffection, increasing destabilisation of personalities' 7 He focuses in particular on the collapse of a culture of authority and the emergence of a hedonist 'psychologisation' as a dominant characteristic of the modern self. He links this with many other converging elements in modern society, the cult of the 'cool', the idolatry of emotional self-realisation, the strategies of 'non-stop seduction' in the media and the resultant sense of life as mere 'spectacle'. To cite his own words 'In a system organised according to the, principle of "sweet" isolation, public ideas and values cannot but decline, only the search of the ego and its own interests remains, the ecstasy of "personal" liberation.'8

Basing himself on various other studies Lipovetsky also chooses Narcissus as the symbol of this age, seeing the dominance of this mentality as an all-pervasive technology of control, limiting the human image to the asocial realm. This culture remains blind to what does not belong to the world of intimacy or what cannot be measured by the yardstick of sincerity. Its slogans are of 'participation' and yet its main tone is one of disenchantment. It is obsessed with desires of affective relationships and yet this Narcissus remains a figure of desolation, 'too well programmed in his self-absorption to be touched by the Other'.9

Diverging Views on Narcissism

If Lipovetsky represents a rather negative and indeed judgmental approach to the phenomenon of narcissism in contemporary culture, not all commentators take such a severe line. Where Lipovetsky extends his suspicion to the realms of ecology, 'green' consciousness and feminism other writers hail a certain breakthrough in contemporary times and even welcome the centrality of the self as a potentially healthy version of Narcissus. In this respect, Christopher Lasch provides an interesting example of a writer who has modified his stance somewhat over the years. In his earlier work, The Culture of Narcissism, he spoke of North American life in particular as having reduced

'the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.' He saw this as a stage further than the older 'culture of competitive individualism' which had been dominated by 'economic man'; now the stage is occupied by 'psychological man ... haunted not by guilt but by anxiety' and concerned to fulfill needs for 'immediate gratification'. 10 This largely critical portrait of the narcissistic tendency broadened out to consider also the social conditions that produce such a personality: the bureaucratic world fosters dependence; in a social order of large-scale banality, personal relations arc made to carry too much weight; the world of entertainment creates a population of fans living with fantasies; in short the 'new narcissist' is the 'final product of bourgeois individualism'. 11

Significantly Lasch adds some remarks on the religious or a-religious aspects of these developments: 'The ideology of personal growth, superficially optimistic, radiates a profound despair and resignation. It is the faith of those without faith'.12 However the same author, in a more recent book, has rejected the automatic identification of 'narcissism' with hedonism or with 'self-seeking, egoism, indifference'.13 Instead he sees a 'beleaguered' self-contracting to its defensive core because of so many threats and radical transitions around. He partially defends the Narcissus situation, seeing it now as an understandable strategy for psychic survival under modem pressures. Thus he is slow to equate it with mere selfishness. Even more emphatically, Lasch thinks it a mistake to use the term individualism in a constantly pejorative sense (as Lipovetsky seems to do); instead he thinks of the notion of selfhood as a valuable element in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and as allowing for ‘tension, division, conflict'.14 He would still be a critic of the immaturities of narcissism but he would not want to see this as the only form of modern individualism.

Where this more optimistic analysis is rooted in psychology another takes its bearings from the world of the new physics. Fritjof Capra offers a still more benign view of the developments in modem culture, seeing new possibilities of emerging from the old mechanistic paradigm of 'competitive struggle' and the arrival of a more `holistic: and ecological view ... similar to the views of the mystics'.15 In parallel, fashion it is striking that, at the end of one of his studies in contemporary culture, Theodore Roszac, having defended 'our sovereign right to self-discovery' argues for the need of a 'monastic paradigm' to guide this adventure, so as to integrate the 'need for personal solitude and spiritual growth'.16 Reading through such authors, one finds oneself confronted with two different judgments about what seems to be the same reality. Is the focus on the self the root of much evil in today's world and in particular of the eclipse of faith in God? Or is it a positive development, a new but authentic note of wonder and autonomy made possible by modern social and economic conditions?

Beyond Analysis to Causes

Such questions cannot be answered without taking other and larger horizons into account. It is one thing to describe these common characteristics of individuals in our culture. But have they a coherent explanation? Just as the Second Vatican Council thought of atheism not as a spontaneous happening but as produced by certain cultural causes,17 so too the traits of subjectivist narcissism have roots and origins that can be identified. A strong case can be made that this individualism is a predictable by-product of the egoist system enthroned politically and economically in the 'developed' world. If so, the self-concern and psycho-spiritual impotence experienced by many an individual can be viewed as the outcome of the cultural priorities larger than the individual. In line with this way of thinking, liberal capitalism has come to be recognised as a more subtle enemy to faith than the cruder regimes of communism.

Daniel Bell has argued that our typical western systems of capitalism are rooted in what he calls 'cultural contradictions', in the sense that they give allegiance to three contrary principles: a principle of efficiency, or more particularly of functional rationality, seen most clearly in the management of the economy; a principle of equality in the social organisation; and a principle of self-gratification in the culture. The result, as he sees it, is that hedonism 'has become the

prevailing value in our society'.18 Like Lipovetsky and some of the other authors already mentioned Bell sees symptoms of dehumanisation in this post-industrial society, where ‘atomistic individuals' chase psychological 'wants' (rather than basic 'needs') in a 'game between persons'. He wonders about the rescuing role of religion in such a culture, being convinced that the 'real problem of modernity' is a 'spiritual crisis' and that 'some religious answer will surely be forthcommg'.19

Idolatrous Systems

Bell's emphasis on going beyond description to an explanation of the narcissistic tendencies as fostered by a specific system, is shared by some more overtly theological commentators. Thus Gerald Arbuckle examines the changing languages of religious life and highlights the 'anti-structure' bias in the cultural revolution of the sixties: 'it was an attempt to make ambiguity and uncertainty, not a mere passing feature of life, but a way of living in itself'. 20 Adapting some of the social research of Mary Douglas, Arbuckle contrasts two cultural models as stressing respectively the role of the group or of the individual. The latter kind (termed 'weak group and weak grid') is considered as 'highly secularised' where even if God 'is acknowledged to exist, he is apt to be reformulated to support individualism and privatisation of religion itself '.21 In other words, even God can become an unchallenging idol and yet another mirror-image for Narcissus.

A second religious author puts these dangers more trenchantly still: John Francis Kavanaugh holds that in North American society 'our problem is idolatry' and 'its presence is systemic'. In his analysis, the values of the Christian Gospel are avoided in the complacently 'christian' culture that is the American way of life. He speaks of the 'enthronement of the commodity as the center of our lives' and sees this idolatry as entailing a 'systematic rejection of human freedom' in the sense of the potential for 'self-commitment'. in brief, 'we do not walk in freedom, since we are paralysed by what is' and fall into a 'practically lived atheism'.22

Still another writer, Michael Warren, exploring the issue from the point of view of youth ministry today, has called for 'refocused attention toward the social forces affecting young people' and he locates part of the trouble in the world of media images where 'young people are continually having their lives imagined for them'.23 This 'programmed consciousness' involves a trivialisation of human desire and is a crucial way in which a whole new generation can have their attention hijacked into secondaries, so that the agenda of their hopes becomes limited to the personalistic and the immediate.

If our culture causes such a kidnap of basic human freedom, it is possible to go further and to argue that 'most of our difficulties over faith are linked with this lack of freedom' rather than being a problem of pure 'truth on its own'.24 Prior to any searching for truth is the freedom to be aware of the very possibility of that search. The struggle towards faith today is radically conditioned by culturally induced forms of unfreedom. The typical case is not that people opt in selfish fashion to be like Narcissus. It is rather that they are victims of a powerful set of cultural controls that condemn them to this prison of immaturity. Thus the modern enemy to faith is not simply a matter of closed individual consciousness but of socio-cultural systems that, like the birds in the sower parable, can rob individuals of any chance of listening for the Word. To awake to the non-neutral influences of the social contexts is to become aware of the need to perceive Christian faith as necessarily a resistance movement to the dominant ideologies. To think of the struggle in merely personalist terms would therefore be far too innocent for today's situation.

From Judgment to Dialogue

And yet there is a danger in placing so much emphasis on this note of seeing through the idolatries and escaping their alluring influences. The danger is that one can easily dismiss a whole culture in a global way without genuinely discerning it. Too glib a negative judgment about narcissism can result in the religious stance being superior but also insensitive to the potential growth-points for faith within modern culture. Moreover, some note of self-critique is necessary for honest dialogue over faith, and in our contemporary situation it would be dishonest to leave unmentioned the frequent disappointment with the institutions of religion as many people experience them. The Church too is a culture with temptations to limited vision and limited living of its ideals. It too is liable to fall into its own version of narcissism, in the sense of being excessively occupied with its own self. Religion too can have its idols of 'false absolutes' and its several ways of imaging a 'distorted faith'.25 Therefore, any critique has to include self-critique. It is one thing to discern the confusions of our surrounding culture - its impoverished images, its loss of community, its drifting values. But it is also necessary to discern the warts of Church realities: people are disappointed when they encounter only verbal beliefs, routine practices, or implausible norms.

For a few decades now, Thomas Luckmann has insisted that 'the privatisation of individual existence is linked to the privatisation of religion in general' 26 In his view, modern industrial society inevitably evolved its own style of 'individual religiosity', rooted in self realisation', in order to cope with a situation where 'subjective structures of meaning are almost completely detached from the function ally rational norms' of the dominant culture.27 Hence a temptation

for religion today is to be content to provide what the spiritual consumer will 'buy' and in this way religion can degenerate into an acculturated product, a source of inner comfort rather than of gospel

challenge. To accept this as the only fate for faith would be to betray the communal vision of the New Testament as well as to forget the many cultures of the world where the Western Narcissus holds little or no sway. If it is true that abundance 'increases the power to create isolation',28 this is far from being the situation for the majority of mankind. Most of the poor of the world cannot afford subjectivity of this kind - a point that came home to the present author when he saw a Woody Allen film during a stay in Latin America.29 So what we have been exploring here is a significant cultural phenomenon but limited for the most part to the more pampered sections of our planet. Confronting this Narcissus tendency, one seems caught between the Scylla of dismissive judgementalism and the Charybdis of over-optimism about a secular spirituality. Certainly the trap of awareness without action is only a new name for faith without works, but is all the elevation of the self in modern culture necessarily of this gnostic and enclosed mentality?

What seems needed is a reverence for the human situation that allows for a nuanced discernment of the wheat and the weeds within contemporary culture. Of course a key point of that gospel parable was the inseparability of good and evil in this world. Therefore we are always faced with ambiguity. Even in what is called narcissism, seeds of goodness lurk. The hope is to disentangle the strands of 'egoism' and of 'autonomy' within 'Western individualism'.30 It is a mammoth task.

It seems suitable to end, as we began, with an insight from the world of fiction. Flannery O'Connor, that most theologically literate of writers, once remarked that 'Redemption is meaningless unless there is cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause'.31 In one rich sentence she has pointed to at least three essential conditions for any response to the Narcissus situation. First, there is the seemingly impenetrable shell of indifference. Secondly, there is her emphasis on reaching life as experienced, something that is unreachable by any mere conceptualism or exhortation.

Thirdly, by her whole career she sought to respond to this imprisonment of imagination by a strategy of images and parables. Perhaps there are fruitful indicators here for a response to our situation, for even Narcissus-type 'people want to know why they are unhappy in hedonism'.32



1. Lennard Davis, Resisting Novels: Ideology and Fiction, London 1987, pp. 12, 121.

2. This three-fold evolution of atheisms is adapted from Jose Gómez Caffarena, Raices culturales de la increencia, Santander, 1988, pp.21-26.

3. This cycle in a more psychological form is dealt with in two essays here. See pp. 20 - 22 and p. 44.

4. Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Knowledge and Politics, New York,

1976, p. 214.

5. Unger, pp. 82-83.

6. Unger, pp. 160-161, 213-219.

7. Gilles Lipovetsky, L'Ère du Vide: Essais sur l'Individualisme Contemporain, Paris, 1983, p. 7.

8. Lipovetsky, p. 48.

9. Lipovetsky, p. 87.

10. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism, (Acabus edition), London, 1980, pp. 21-23.

11. Lasch, ibid., p. 23.

12. Lasch, ibid., p. 103.

13. Christopher Lasch, The Minimal Self, London, 1985,p.15.

14. Lasch, ibid., p. 258.

15. Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point, London, 1983, pp.12, xvii.

16. Theodore Roszac, Person/Planet, London, 1979, pp.3, 288, 290.

17. Gaudium et Spes, par. 19.

18. Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, New York, 1976, p. xi.

19. Bell, pp. 22, 28, 148, 169.

20. Gerald A. Arbuckle, Strategies for Growth in Religious Life, New York, 1986, p. 6.

21. Arbuckle, p. 220.

22. John Francis Kavanaugh, Following Christ in a Consumer Society, New York, 1981, pp. xviii, 28,44-45, 98.

23. Michael Warren, Youth, Gospel, Liberation, San Francisco, 1987, pp. 40-41.

24. I refer here to my own book Free to Believe: Ten Steps to Faith, London & Chicago, 198 7, p. 1.

  1. This theme has been well treated in the pastoral letters of the Basque bishops published under the title Ante el Reto de la Increencia., San Sebastian, 1988. The references here are to pp. 46-47.
  2. Thomas Luckmann, Life-World and Social Realities, London 1983, p. 172.

27. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion, New York, 1967, pp. 105, 111.

28. Richard Sennett, The Uses of Disorder, London, 1977, p. 49. 29. cf. 'Looking North at a World of Self, pp. 131 -133 here.

30. Alain Finkielkraut, La Defaite de la Pensée, Paris, 1987, p. 149.

31. Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, London, 1972, p. 33.

32. Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, (Free Press Edition), New York, 1975, p. 268.