Book review: Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love by Simon Blackburn

Self-obsession is now socially acceptable
April 23, 2014















Echo and Narcissus (1903) by John William Waterhouse: the philosopher Simon Blackburn argues that narcissism is on the rise

©Walker Art Gallery/ Bridgeman Art Library

It has become a mantra of our self-help culture that you cannot love other people unless you love yourself. On this axiom temples have been built to the great god: “Me.” There are spa days, and candles around the bath, and all that slightly passive-aggressive talk about “boundaries.” The old religion has been turned on its head. Love others as you love yourself, was Jesus’s message. Unlike the therapists of today, he thought self-love needed no encouragement. It has been a central assumption, not only of the Christian tradition but of western philosophy more generally, that human beings are naturally selfish and that to live a good life one must extinguish precisely this trait. Something striking has happened to the world when one is as likely to be told “love thyself” as “love thy neighbour.”

It was modern narcissism that led philosopher Simon Blackburn to take his “perambulation” through “the uses and abuses of self-love.” More specifically, it was the L’Oréal advert, where a celebrity tells you that you too could drink from the cup of beautiful hair, “because you’re worth it.” What upset Blackburn was the fiction at the core of the campaign. The subtext was not that you’re worth it, but that on the contrary you’re “worth nothing,” and you ought to be ashamed of your physical inadequacies. Hand over the cash you “poor worm,” with your “warts and fat and farts and fears,” and you might become worthy. Or, as cosmetic surgeons promise at the sharper end of the spectrum, submit to my knife (and hand over the cash) and I will exorcise your fleshy evils. Succumbing to these voices is, Blackburn argues, to treat “one’s own body as a tool rather than a part of oneself. It is a horrific example of greed for the envy of others.”

On the other side of the coin is the celebrity. High up on her pedestal, her “hauteur” unveils a further fiction according to Blackburn. Bow down, she implies, because I am the one who’s really worth something. (Revealingly, “because I’m worth it” was the original slogan of the campaign, when it was first launched in the 1970s.) With a frequency that sometimes grates, Blackburn uses “she” when he’s discussing narcissism in the context of bodies, and “he” in the context of minds. However, he is clear that men too can be caught in the coils of the cosmetic snake. “Indeed,” he declares, “young men in underwear advertisements... nearly always project an especially loathsome narcissism.” But if his treatment of gender is sometimes off-key, the energy of his prose is generally exhilarating, and often funny. Exploring the fact that attractive people tend to have an advantage in life, even when their attractiveness should not be relevant, he relates how:

"I once attended a carol service in a great English cathedral, and was much diverted to see that in the stately procession of clerics, the tall, commanding figure of the bishop, magnificent under his towering miter, was followed by a slightly shorter dean, and then in strictly descending order of height came progressively inferior men of God, right down to the assistant curate of some insignificant rural parish, who was practically a midget."

Blackburn’s assault on narcissism is not confined to the excessive veneration of the body. Indeed, he admits that people trapped in this vice—often self-harming and self-loathing—deserve sympathy rather than condemnation. He is just as concerned with the “swarms of egoists,” for example, who “infest” public and cyber spaces, more interested in impressing others with the thing that they are doing than with the thing itself. But the main target of Blackburn’s ire are the “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—the many politicians of all stripes with inherited wealth castigating the inadequacies of the poor.” These “kleptoparasites” embody and promote a culture where the few earn a vast amount more than the many but comfort themselves with the “colossal self-deception” that they’re worth it, that “their predations on the common good give them no more than their due.” It is these people, “these mental and moral deficients,” that Blackburn says he would like to hang from the lampposts.

Yet the book as a whole is much gentler than this polemic suggests. It is an agile, learned tour of the emotions and attitudes that human beings have towards their own and other selves. Drawing on an eclectic array of texts from literature, psychology and philosophy, Blackburn examines the ways in which a healthy self-respect, and pride in one’s real achievements, can tip into vanity, envy and hubris. In doing so he puts the heat not only on the richest 1 per cent, but on us all, and all our follies.

Nor does Blackburn spare himself. “If a colleague complains of a bad review,” he writes, “our sympathy is all too likely to be mixed with the half-suppressed thought that, well, it was not too surprising, really, rather amusing—he does rather cut corners—whereas when we ourselves get a bad review, an abyss opens in front of us, the frame of the universe is shaken, and the very heavens cry out for justice.”

Rather than be defeated by despair, however, Blackburn thinks that just as the worst aspects of our fragile and deluded egos are made, not born, so they might be reformed. He conceives the book as what Kant “would have called an exercise in pragmatic anthropology,” an investigation not only of what we are, but of what we should be. Unlike other animals that have no choice, “human beings are free to make of themselves what they will.”

I think here Blackburn overplays our agency. There are structural features of our world—changeable in theory but proving intransigent in practice—that limit what we might make of ourselves. Race, wealth, class, disability, gender, and looks: all these shape the “self,” so that it is just not true that you could have been anything that you wanted to be.

In this light it becomes hard to sustain Blackburn’s distinction between good (merited) self-esteem and its bad (baseless) form. What these judgements fail to capture are the tiny everyday ways, not to mention the more obvious ones, in which society indicates to you what you are worth. We surely all know by now, for example, that if you are a girl, and you have been told that you are “bossy,” you might be cowed and ashamed, and not go on to thrive in leadership roles in ways that would make you an appropriate object of esteem. Moreover, it might be that a bit of baseless esteem is precisely what you need in order to bolster your self-confidence and get you over the hump of inequality.

Selves are made just as much by other people, as by their owners. Even the very notion of a core “self”—a “real me”—is itself questionable, as Blackburn explains in his wonderful penultimate chapter: what “I” am is “the myriad of small things” that I think, and do, and have done to me.

The challenge is to plot a course between Echo and Narcissus: neither so in love with ourselves that we care for no other, nor so fixed on the other that we dissolve into them.

Princeton University Press, £16.95