Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love, by Simon Blackburn (Princeton University Press), $24.95 /£16.95
“I celebrate myself, and sing myself”: the famous opening of Walt Whitman’s masterpiece, “Song of Myself.” It’s surely a worthy sentiment, especially given the time and place: a young, hopeful New World nation searching for a literature to serve in place of the inherited myths it mostly lacked. But Whitman lived long before the age of the selfie; those of us fated to inhabit this period might be forgiven for wondering whether at the present moment there might be a little too much celebratory self-singing going on. Don’t people have anything else to celebrate or sing, other than their paltry selves?
This is not to say that love of self is always to be criticised. One of the virtues of Simon Blackburn’s Mirror, Mirror is its evenhandedness: as its subtitle suggests, it wants to depict both positive and negative aspects of love for self. And if it sometimes seems to focus more on the abuses than on the legitimate uses, this is perhaps inevitable: given the thoughtlessly automatic way that self-esteem has tended to be valorised and promoted in our contemporary culture, any intelligent consideration of the subject is bound to take the stance of a sceptical and at times mildly cynical corrective.
How did we as a society come to forget that gazing in the mirror in rapt admiration might be hazardous to one’s health? Mirror, Mirror does not attempt a complete explanation, but it is clear that a sizable share of the blame rests on the media, and in particular on the advertising industry, which has found appeals to potential customers’ insecurities and self-conceptions devastatingly effective. Not all of the “uses” of self-love are positive; marketers and manipulators are highly skilled at using our own self-love, or lack thereof, against us.
The particular example Blackburn focuses on is the cosmetic company L’Oreal’s famous slogan, “Because you’re worth it” – a simple phrase that turns out to contain hidden complexities. While encouraging potential customers to think that they are “worth it” may help them feel justified in treating themselves to overpriced cosmetics, it also seems to risk undermining their need for such products. If I really felt that I was worth it, would I be so anxious about my appearance in others’ eyes? But as Blackburn observes, the apparently benign slogan undermines even as it appears to bolster. The human ego is so fragile that most of us doubt that we are worth it; but we cling to the hope that we could be – so long as we buy and apply the proper products. “I came to understand,” Blackburn writes, “that the underlying message was not ‘because you’re worth it’ but ‘because you aren’t worth it. But you could be if you buy the stuff.’”
The lamentable toll such advertising has taken on the mental equilibrium of legions of perfectly worthy and attractive young people is widely acknowledged. But Blackburn’s treatment of L’Oreal’s marketing strategy also connects in interesting ways with his discussion of authenticity. The ambivalence we feel toward the claim that we are “worth it” is closely related to the ambivalence that we feel toward the question of whether we want others to see our “real” – that is, authentic – selves. People who talk about the “real” me are often actually talking about a very idealised version of themselves, the wonderful, practically perfect person they know exists inside, even if no one else can see it. The irony is that this, in its way, is the very opposite of authenticity: the authentic you, as Blackburn sensibly observes, is the you who actually exists, not the counter-factual you that you wish were the case.
So just when is self-love good and admirable? For Blackburn, both the consequences of self-love and the question of whether it is an accurate reflection of reality must be taken into account. “Self-esteem is in order when it implies a just appreciation of one’s genuine abilities [and] out of order when it becomes tainted with the excesses of confidence, conceit, or the perception of a right to demand more from others than it is prepared to offer to them.” This sounds very reasonable and indeed perhaps obvious – we have all met with the sort of narcissist described here – but as Blackburn points out, concentrated in the wrong person, these disorders of self-love can have devastating results: many of the political tragedies of our time have their roots in such character flaws. Blackburn cites with approval David Owens’s book, The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power, in which Owens outlines a “pattern of hubristic behaviour” that he claims can drive political leaders to risky, at times downright foolhardy courses of action: getting involved in unnecessary wars, to take but one salient example.
Most interestingly, Blackburn connects hubris and narcissism with what turns out to be the main political target of Mirror, Mirror: the systematic exploitation of the powerless by the wealthy that he refers to by the term “kleptoparisitism.” His position is that today’s vastly unequal distributions of wealth are obviously unjust and immoral, that their being widely accepted as justifiable and even fair demands some sort of psychological explanation, and that the full explanation will make reference to factors including the ruling class’s excessively high self-regard (caused largely by their hubristic belief that they have earned, rather than lucked into, the privileges they enjoy) and sheer ignorance on the part of the privileged regarding the living conditions of others (most of the wealthy, because their attention is directed at those above them rather than those below, have no idea just how privileged they are).
This may seem grounds for dismay. If kleptoparisitism is the result of deep-seated human tendencies, is there any hope for abolishing it? But while the character defects themselves may be firmly implanted, the hyper-individualistic ethos that constitutes their particular expression in this context is something much more recent, and potentially reversible: “[I]f the ‘greed is good’ world was, as I have described, largely a cultural construction that supplanted any sense of civic society, public service, or common decency in the last third of the twentieth century, then a reverse shift should be possible […] [B]it by bit, with people working in schools, in media, by example, and over time, the ideological climate can shift.”
As a university professor, regularly faced with students young enough to have been born into the world shaped by this ethos – so much so that they often have a difficult time conceiving that society might be structured in some other way – I can only applaud any effort to remind the young, and the forgetful, that other possibilities do exist. The opening and re-opening of such possibilities constitutes much of the work of philosophy, and of the liberal arts in general. Blackburn’s wide-ranging, engaging, and deeply thoughtful volume is admirable for many reasons, but above all else, one hopes, it is a tool to help liberate the human imagination.