The words “narcissism,” and “narcissist,” seems to have been unused until the nineteenth century — the late nineteenth century in the case of narcissist. Since that time their usage has trended upward, and really exploded from the early 1970s on. As late as 1973 the Ngram score for narcissism was 0.000037 percent, but in 2016 it stood at 0.000134%, a near quadrupling in incidence. In 1973 the score for narcissist was just under 0.000002%. But in 2016 it was 0.000035 percent-indicating a nearly eightfold increase in usage over the forty-three years in between.
This seems to me significant — and not for the conventional reason that supposedly those living today are the most narcissistic people who ever were (something said in every generation, and I suspect not really true about this one).
Rather it is because of how words like these tend to be used.
In considering this term let us, for the moment, forget its associations with self-love, which I think confuse more than they reveal. (It is generally thought that people are supposed to love themselves, after all. In the Bible the Great Commandment is that “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” — not instead of yourself, or even more than yourself — while it is to be presumed that one should love others greatly, and love oneself no less.) Rather let us think of how the narcissist actually expects others to treat them. The narcissist must be the center of the attention of everyone else, always. They must be praised — flattered — by others, all the time. There can be nothing for anyone else in their presence. Everything has to be about them.
Putting it another way it isn’t that a person thinks of themselves first sometimes (or even all the time) that makes them a narcissist. It’s when they demand that everyone else do so always — and takes anything else as an affront.
As usual, it is those who have no power who are most likely to be accused of this failing, even though they are unlikely to have ever been guilty of it (it’s very hard to be narcissistic for long if no one cooperates) — while those who have the most power are far, far more likely to be guilty and far, far less likely to be accused. Think, for example, of how royalty is treated — its elevation to national symbol, the national anthems that sing its place in its people’s hearts and its supposed virtues constantly, the protocols and ceremonies that presume it to be always in the thoughts of its nation, which is supposed to cheer and weep at its purely private glories and purely private tragedies.
Of course, those born into a royal household generally did not create all this — all these things instead organized by their parasite hangers-on to further their own agendas, and indeed I imagine that any royal of intelligence or feeling at all can only regard such nonsense sardonically. But even they tend to go along with it. The result is that even when not narcissists, they certainly play the part in the grandest of narcissistic spectacles.
However, those who moralize at others are likely to look at anyone who says the obvious about this as having done something in bad taste — and snarl at the put-upon nobody who asks for a little human consideration as a “narcissist” instead.
In short, like “self-pity,” it is a word they use to browbeat nobodies when they ask for what may be no more and often much less than what may be their due, and defend what those who have been fortunate see as their complete lack of obligation to anyone else. And whatever one may say about the up-and-coming generation’s alleged narcissism, that has certainly grown more common these past few decades — testifying to nothing so much as the deep, genuine narcissism of the accusers.
Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.