The Selfishness of Others

Kristin Dombek

My friend Athena wrote a review of this essay on “the fear of narcissism” that suggested the writing fell a bit flat to her at the end. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I wound up feeling almost exactly the same way. A brief history of clinical and cultural understandings of narcissism, with sections focused around concepts like The Bad Boyfriend, The Millennial, The Murderer; the turning point is The Artist, where the focus shifts to Dombek’s self-reflection. As Athena said, it was perhaps intended as “some kind of experimental practice of writing as a selfish/other-centric dialectic,” but I was disappointed that everything built up to be so personal, self-centered. But it’s appropriate within the essay’s lens of narcissism being more easily identified in others.

In a 1979 critique of Freud’s “On Narcissism,” Girard suggests that what Freud diagnosed was not a kind of personality at all, not something some people are or have, but the ordinary dynamic of all desire. We’re all performing self-sufficiency as best we can, Girard argues, though we’ve become selves by imitating others, in the first place; such dependence on others is our fundamental, existential state. We become friends and fall in love with people upon whom we can project our fantasies that there are some selves that are, unlike our own, replete unto themselves, and thereby irresistible. But it is we who’ve made a mask for them, and when they turn away, the mask inevitably falls, and we call them fake, as if they’ve tricked us. It’s easier to diagnose them as narcissists than to admit this, but there aren’t any narcissists, according to Girard; it’s only in relation to the fullness we fantasized they had that we then call them by the name of what our desire makes us feel: empty.