The fragile beauty of narcissismAnja van Kralingen
I know arrogance and narcissism can be most annoying, particularly when it’s the other guy that’s the guilty party. Nevertheless take solace in the simple fact that all arrogance is, in the final analysis, nothing more than naiveté. The OED defines arrogant as “having or revealing an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or abilities” Arrogance derives from the verb “arrogate” which is “to take or claim something without justification”. The sin of arrogance is assuredly one of ignorance, nothing more. Arrogance is “claiming ownership without justification”, in other words, more commonly, an inflated sense of self-worth. Why is it inflated? Because it assumes that that which is the source of pride endures, when the truth is it does not.
Personally I find arrogance an attractive trait, one which is far too rare in my country, South Africa. The South African psyche is one which typically and tragically diminishes itself in the face of the other, as has been all too evident in the pervasive tendency of South African sportsmen to fold at the critical moment on the international stage. As a younger man I aspired to arrogance, though I lacked the edge that one needs though to really access arrogance proper. I was too short, too stupid and too ugly to really be fully invested in my own project of self-glorification. Naturally, as a man, these shortcomings could have been forgiven had I possessed a sufficiently impressive apparatus, which I didn’t, or been wealthy, which I wasn’t.
Despite having to endure these vagaries of fate, I made a determined effort to be an arrogant man. I managed to pin down the selfishness bit quite well. Some two odd decades later, my brother recently caused a public spectacle, so excessive was his mirth, when I suggested I had now found redemption in a life of selfless service to others. But selfishness and arrogance, although related, are not quite the same thing are they? One can be intensely selfish without the savage beauty of pride. No doubt the rat and the lion are equally selfish, but one does imagine the rat to be a proud creature.
My point is that arrogance, narcissism, pride, all forms of hubris, are not without aesthetic value. The arrogant man believes, or at least attempts to believe, that he is or has something of unique and special value. His arrogance is predicated on this idea, albeit in vain. In displaying arrogance the arrogant man makes a claim to value which exceeds the narrow restrictions of normativity. He, or she naturally, says something to the following effect,
I am beautiful, or
I am precious, or
I am rich (in whatever form), or
I am wise, or
I am strong, or
I am courageous, or
I am a winner, or
I am skilled, or
I am or possess excellence, or
I will endure.
Or one or other of the multitude of variations of these themes.
However, as we know only too well, beauty fades; strength, courage and vitality are the province of youth; skill and excellence wash away with the sands of time, whatever petty victory the arrogant lay claim to is meaningless in the greater scheme of things, no one and nothing endures. As Yann Martel put it, in the Life of Pi,
“The whole of life becomes an act of letting go.”
Recently under instruction from a higher authority, my wife, on a house hunting mission, I visited the home of a frumpy, dumpy, late middle age woman, who has lived in our neighbourhood for many years. Whilst we were being shown around the house, I amused myself, as I usually do in these situations, by studying the books, images, photos, paintings and drawings on display. Never quite sure what it is I am hoping to find, I nevertheless take a voyeuristic pleasure in this act of looking into people’s private lives on display in their home. On this occasion I was struck by a pair of sketches, in pencil, of a couple. The sketches showed a middle aged, handsome, man, clearly a man of some authority, a man of distinction, of good taste and good breeding. A worldly man, who had staked his claim to this little part of God’s green earth. His albeit handsome portrait paled though by comparison to the exquisite beauty that accompanied his portrait and that I took to be his wife, and, by deduction, I inferred must be none other than the matronly woman showing us around the house.
My powers of description are inadequate to the task of properly communicating this fine creature’s refined, almost sublime, beauty, captured in this simple pencil sketch. Later on when I asked my wife what she knew of this woman, she told me that rumour was that she was something of a jetsetter, in a more romantic time in our history, entertained by Arabic princes and enchanting Middle Eastern aristocracy. And this story, although I have no real sense of its veracity, fit the image I had seen in the sketch. An image of what a truly exquisite beauty looked like in a different era, an era when a certain type of feminine grace was at its pinnacle, the type of women you might see in the early James Bond movie, or on the cover of Vogue thirty years ago.
Anyway long story short, after suffering a mild stroke she settled for suburbia and her older but ever so handsome beau, who was now dead. She too was now old and that beauty on the wall I imagine must have haunted her as memories can, especially when they are of one’s glorious and youthful self. Fallen on hard times she was now “selling the house”. And as we waked through her life and had this glimpse into her yesterdays, I saw that she was still not without a certain pride, a sense of class, displaying a decorum reserved for the well-educated and well-bred. She read the right books, played the correct instruments and carried herself well. But it was at best a lone flickering flame left from what was once an inferno, an after image of the force of nature she must have been in her prime when, I don’t doubt, she wilted men where they stood with nothing more than a glance.
That is the nature of things. That which is the source of pride, even hubris, will not last, it really is as simple as that. So perhaps one can see the assertion of arrogance, howsoever ill justified it may be, as an act of courage in the face of the inexorable abys of time. Naturally it is a courage founded on a flawed predicate, that the source of hubris is grounded in something real, something which will endure, when of course it isn’t and won’t. Nevertheless unconscious as it may be it is an act of rebellion, asserting meaning when all indications are to the contrary.
Until we speak again,