Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Literary Narcissism and the Manufacture of Scandal

Ever since reading THE GREAT NAROPA POETRY WARS this summer, I have been thinking about narcissism in letters, alcoholism, Allen Ginsberg's substance abuse -- and how that book clearly shows that, though he would never fess up to it, Ginsberg was interested in the purposeful manufacture of Outrage, the politics of scandal and what might be called an Economy of Attention. I think too of other scandalists involved in a kind of ritual bondage of the Self -- whether the fewer famous ones, such as Pound, Eliot, Berryman -- or the many less famous ones, ephemera, bound up in Self but bound for the dustbin. Seems to be mainly a male phenomenon.

With the advent of listserves and then blogging, have we seen a spate of scandalmongering in the poetry world? Seems to be happening a lot recently.

1. A Literary Narcissist's behavior will not only tolerate but encourage attacks on himself so long as it can translate his own self-fascination into more news of himself.

2. Just as the Narcissist will use argument, catastrophe, disputation to attract attention, certain people will be willing to dispute the Narcissist in order to participate in the economy of attention. Others will dispute the Narcissist because they are so profoundly appalled by his/her behavior. Either way, the economy of attention is fueled.

3. The Narcissist needs Catastrophe. The more internal crises of shame the Narcissist endures and fails to heed, the more s/he will need to create external Catastrophes. A chief and signal way a Narcissist might attract attention is to start fights: Narcissists will gravitate toward satire and caricature as a means of creating argument. The Narcissist will attempt to construe strife with health: "These arguments need to happen," etc.

4. The Narcissist IS fascinating -- but not for the reasons the Narcissist thinks. S/he is fascinating because the energy s/he will expend in micromanaging the self image is so profoundly exceptional. People just sort of stand there slack-jawed wondering if this person has a life. The Narcissist however will mistranslate the fascination of others as admiration.

5. Poetry communities will tolerate narcissism so long as it is translated into a Social Energy which others can use to strengthen and promote their projects.

6. Narcissism and alcoholism. Alcoholism is a systematic way to push down socially regulating emotions like shame, guilt, and embarrassment at one's own self-aggrandizing behavior. The suppression of these emotions is never successful, even in the most energetic of self-aggrandizers, and they will periodically burst upward into brief displays of remorse and convictions to change. These brief spouts of regulatory behavior are sometimes shared publicly and sometimes privately among confidants. These displays however can often easily be "re-used" by the Narcissist as a way of showing his/her authenticity and emotional fealty to the community.

7. The Narcissist is aware of the economy of disgust surrounding his/her behavior. S/he becomes more and more sensitive to this and consequently begins to demand private declarations of loyalty from those people whom s/he knows consider themselves friends -- even if they have said nothing publicly against the Narcissist.

8. The Narcissist, aware of this disgust, will create a personal mythos in which s/he will be justified and exonerated by the rewards of literary "history." The stronger the disgust of others, the greater the energy used to maintain the mythos of exoneration by "history."

9. Narcissists are only interested in community so long as it pays dividends to their energy: they will support it if it feeds them.

10. The narcissist may outright demand in private that you "pay him" publicly with praise. Then he or she will publicly repay you with a communal mention.

11. In their attempt to cause others to adopt their self-fascination, Narcissists will become increasingly paranoiac, constantly searching the environment and community for news of themselves, for fealty or disloyalty.

12. The Literary Narcissist begins purposefully to conflate criticism of his social behavior into an indication of his/her literary worth. That is to say, the Narcissist will try to show that the reason others despise or are disgusted by him is in fact because he or she is a "Rebel," a true Literary "Revolutionist" -- and that the statements of disgust others publicly make at his behavior is merely an indication of (a) their necessary denial of the work because they are threatened by it, or (b) their jealousy of the work.

13. There comes a point -- and the point may come early -- where the community thinks to itself "teapot" and the Narcissist still hears "tempest." The truly insular narcissist (aka "the boor") will be met more and more with shunning, ignoring and silence. This will wrest the narcissist from his insularity -- such that he will begin another project designed to create Genuine Interest instead of mere scandalous attention. This project, like a new comet's head, will be followed by a long tail of manufactured scandal so as to call attention to its presence in the literary sky.

Gabriel Gudding