Self-love is nothing new. The evolving self, ever-emerging anew, has been chronicled and acclaimed by poets innumerable. It was the central motif of American poet Walt Whitman, who declaimed famously:
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself.”
This “self” is not “pulled and hauled” by the “fever of doubtful news, the fitful events” but rather:
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
No fretful ego, tossed and turned on the turbulent sea of social life and public opinion, this self has found firmer ground to steady and center it.
The danger of such an orientation to the existing order has been obvious to many, and self-love has been regarded across time as an aberration by the guardians of a culture’s values.
From the classical Greek story about Narcissus’s fatal attraction to his own reflection to the Catholic churches frightening injunctions against self-love’s most blatant expression, cautionary tales against excessive self-reflection and attention abound.
A new twist to old fears emerges in face of new technologies. Visual artists have long been fascinated with their own image in their creative exploration of identity and representation, and as the tools to easily produce and alter the self image have now became widely available, along with easy access to a a digital audience, it’s not too surprising that many have followed suit. A collective obsession ensued, and the “selfie” was born.
In what sounds like the modern version between the Greek myth and a Puritan sermon, an online blog finds a Dr. David Veal recounting the story of a patient who spent up to ten hours a day trying to take the perfect selfie, neglecting food and school in the process, and then attempting suicide when he failed.
“Selfies are dangerous, much more dangerous than you might think,” the psychiatrist warns.
For some reason, crimes committed in service of the self frighten us so much more than crimes committed in pursuit of romantic love, although they are certainly no more heinous.
The jealous lover and vengeful narcissist are both capable of terrible cunning, treachery and even violence when their beloved is in question, it is only a question of whether the beloved is another or one’s own self.
On the other hand, love of self does not need to be narcissistic or sociopathic, any more than a lover has to be brutal or vicious.
In fact, self-love may be an important counter to the dangerous group solipsism we’re sliding into. To challenge or oppose the norms that inform society, one mustn’t expect approval from the group. The group polices the emergence of new, challenging ideas and concepts, and jealously guards its own position.
A radical self-love is the only antidote to group-think.
Seeking the ideal in another
Romantic love grew out of a courtly ideal, and became democratized in the industrial age. Only for the last 150 years has it carried with it the popular connotations of romance and love, but people across the ages have long sought the ineffable and the ideal in it. Literature and history is strewn with the gore and guts of those who tried. Love is a sweet delusion, but the price one pays for it later is many times its worth. As Freud noted in Civilization and its Discontents, “We are never so defenseless against the suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love.”
And yet he subtly hints at its delights when he said says wryly: “the weak side of this technique of living is easy to see; otherwise no human being would have thought of abandoning it for any other.”
The idyll love brings is sweet, to be sure, but short. Etta James sings:
The skies above are blue
My heart was wrapped up in clover
The night I looked at you
And I found a dream that I could speak to
A dream that I can call my own
I found a thrill to press my cheek to
A thrill that I have never known
Oh yeah yeah, and you smile, you smile
Oh, and then the spell was cast
And here we are in Heaven
For you are mine at last
The commencement of one lover’s bliss usually marks the beginning of the other’s hell. B.B king moans an apt riposte:
The thrill is gone
It’s gone away for good
The thrill is gone baby
It’s gone away for good
Someday I know I’ll be open armed baby
Just like I know a good man should
You know I’m free, free now baby
I’m free from your spell
Oh I’m free, free, free now
I’m free from your spell
And now that it’s all over
All I can do is wish you well
Romance is dead
Instead of seeking completion and unity in another, the self has been adequately disillusioned by the rigors of romance to have finally rebelled absolutely against it. Disney writers professed surprise and disbelief as people in the audience cheered and applauded for Hans in Frozen at the moment he says, as Anna waits for the kiss that will save her life, “Oh, Anna. If only there was someone out there who loved you.”
Anyone who has catered to the fantastic whims of a demanding lover can sympathize with the flourish of cruelty that Hans permits himself, even if you acknowledge its excess. And yet his words, designed to wound, are as effective as the kiss of old to awaken the maiden from her dream.
Whether the surprise was real or feigned, Disney is surely wily enough to have predicted this turn, even if the writers were not.
The romantic story no longer moves us as it once did.
Seeking the ideal in the self
Humans must pursue some ideal. In war, a man who will fight must be given some picture. Even a mercenary is pursuing some vision or dream, usually an idealized “good life.” When these visions prove false, the self turns inward and seeks perfection and unification within.
For those who have never truly experienced life via self-orientation, the popular concept of “I’m doing me” is probably truly puzzling, even if they pay it lip service. It’s not incidental that this expression and attitude arose out of black culture, long accustomed to singing its own praises. In fact, no other culture could have offered the self such perfect conditions in which to actualize.
For the followers, who superficially crave independence and adventure but are fated to experience it vicariously, there is the produced self, socially/culturally revised and customized for consumption in niche markets. The quantified self movement, which purports to define and develop the individual via data collection and analysis is just one obvious example of this. For those without the inner resources to actualize, submitting to such a solution is surely tempting.
For the true believers, though,“doing me” is just what comes naturally. They are naturally impelled rather than compelled. But whether you’re feeling yourself or not, the world really isn’t built for lovers anymore. For one thing, the singular has decidedly replaced the pair as the most basic economic unit.
The new self is however no island, and its contours are being shaped by new socio-economic conditions as well as its own its inner impetus. Nor is the self oblivious to the attention of others; even the healthiest psyche needs others to develop and grow, and if it can’t find them it will create them. Here the psyche gets quite ingenious. Double and even multiple consciousnesses are emerging from this condition. Really, it’s just begun to get interesting.
Creating additional impetus for this is the loss of anonymity and privacy, which is impacting the self in all kinds of unexpected and highly adaptive ways.
In other words, the self isn’t just reacting, it’s transforming.
As policy wonks and social scientists are learning, it’s all a lot more complex and dynamic than models can predict. Selfhood is being redefined in radical ways and the new self can’t be contained within the scientist’s laboratory. It’s being inculcated and birthed within consciousness itself, and love—self-love—is its witness.