Simon Blackburn’s Mirror Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love endeavours to bring the philosophical wisdoms of Aristotle, David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant (to name a few) to bear on the contemporary cultural configurations of a destructive narcissism. Provoked by the force and cunning of L’Oréal’s marketing slogan, ‘because you’re worth it’, Blackburn assists his readers in questioning the true value of self-love once it coincides with the easy gratifications of a permissive society and the shameless legacies of the ‘greed is good’ zeitgeist.
The quiet anger that runs through this book is declared early on with reference to the representative figures of the times: ‘the many bankers, CEOs, remuneration committees, hedge fund managers, tax lawyers, civil servants scuttling through the revolving door into the arms of the great accountancy companies, private medical providers, or arms manufacturers – [and] the many politicians of all stripes with inherited wealth castigating the inadequacies of the poor […]’ (p.x). The author duly takes to task the most obvious targets: the charming or charismatic narcissist whose environment colludes with his ‘delusive belief in his self-sufficiency’ to create a dangerous immunity from moral accountability or contrition (p.70). Chapter 4 features the ‘hubristic personality’ of the Blair/Bush model, while chapter 5 features the fat cats (or kleptoparasites) whose ‘vanity, psychopathy, culpable ignorance, self-deception, and lack of imagination all contribute richly to cocktail hour in the City’ (p.102). There are lessons too for the less recognizable narcissists among us. Blackburn invokes the curse of the selfie as a failure to engage with the world around us, and smartphone technology as corrosive of civic space more generally. Likewise, ‘today’s twitterati’, are both narcissistically caught up in their own reflection, and, as per the figure of Echo in the Narcissus myth, punished for their garrulousness by a debilitating speech deficiency – presumably 140 characters isn’t ‘worth it’. It would be true to say that Blackburn delivers his challenges to our self-love with a gentle charm of his own, and finally enacts a direct appeal to his reader’s narcissism by insisting that she is indeed ‘worth it’ on account of her interest in the moral questions that he has raised in the preceding pages.
Perhaps the principal difficulty with this topic, which Blackburn identifies, is that an ample dose of self-love is entirely necessary if one is to have any chance of getting on in the world. This means that the primary challenge is to tease apart the terminology: narcissism, pride, vanity, egoism, solipsism, self-absorption, self-esteem, self-respect, self-love and so on. Blackburn fleshes out the figure of ‘Uncle William’, Charles Darwin’s son, to suggest the intricate interplay of degrees of self-consciousness in our appraisal of good or bad narcissism. Uncle William possesses a narcissistic insouciance which allows him sit through his famous father’s funeral with his black gloves on top of his cold head. Is this shameless conduct, the type of bad manners that indicate a failure to recognise and align one’s self-conception with the expectations of one’s social environment? Or is this the behaviour of an ‘unself-conscious’ man whose release from self-scrutiny models an attractive mode of being in the world? The lesson seems to be that the right kind of self-love (a love of self that entails a curious mixture of self-regard and self-disregard) can engender the right kind of love of others. According to the paradox of hedonism ‘to be happy you must quite literally “lose yourself”. You must lose yourself in some pursuit; you need to forget your own happiness and find other goals and projects, other objects of concern that might include the welfare of some other people, or the cure of the disease, or simply in the variety of everyday activities with their little successes and setbacks’ (p.95).
The direction of Blackburn’s critique is that contemporary culture does not hold out sufficient possibilities for ‘losing oneself’ in line with good self-love. In this regard, his work reiterates the thrust of much cultural criticism of the late 1970s in which narcissism was synonymous with heightened individualism, rampant egoism, destructive self-interest, and other such descriptors that evoke the corrosion of communitarian relations (Christopher Lasch’s best-selling The Culture of Narcissism (1979) epitomised this trend). But of course, Blackburn is not, by trade, a cultural critic; he is a philosopher. Tantalisingly, on the inside book jacket, we are asked to consider whether ‘narcissism and vanity [are] really as bad as they seem?’ – as a philosopher Blackburn answers ‘no’, but as an observer of what he terms the contemporary self-esteem industry he answers ‘yes’. This split allows us to evaluate the book accordingly: For its contemporary cultural analysis, I was not convinced. Ultimately this is not a book that seeks to redeem Narcissus, nor thoroughly consider the ways in which seemingly narcissistic practices may entail moments of good sociability (e.g. that a selfie culture is not in any straightforward way a selfish culture). However, for its general curation of its chosen philosophical coordinates – especially the treatments of the Narcissus myth in chapters 2 and 7 – this book is worth it. Blackburn’s tone is light-hearted and often entertaining, and I don’t doubt the book’s appeal to a generalist audience wishing to take pleasure in a well-crafted distillation of philosophical ideas of the good life.
Julie Walsh is a Global Research Fellow at the University of Warwick. She works across the disciplines of psychoanalysis, social theory and psychosocial studies and is currently working on a project entitled Test-Cases in Shameful Sociability. Her new book Narcissism and Its Discontents is forthcoming with Palgrave this year.
Correspondence to Dr Julie Walsh
Link for Test-Cases in Shameful Sociability