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A voluntary forced relationship

The Torments of Narcissism
Forfatter: Isolde Charim
Forlag: Paul Zsolnay Verlag (Østerrike)
PSYCHOLOGY / Is narcissism a social demand on the individual – that we must become more than what we are?


The title of the book can be translated in Norwegian as "Trouble of Narcissism". It was written by the Viennese Isolde Charim, who is a renowned philosopher, journalist and author in Austria. She is a regular columnist in the Austrian newspapers taz and Falter. In 2006, she received the city of Vienna's journalist award. And this year she received Austria's national prize for cultural journalism.

The book is divided into six chapters, which translated into Norwegian would be "Where does our volunteerism come from?", "Narcissism as voluntary submission", "The neoliberal trumpet", "Competition and its aftermath", "Narcissus and the others" and "The narcissistic morality".

To understand this book, one must redefine the term 'narcissism' as we know it today. narcissism in this book is not the same as egocentrism and excessive self-love. Here, narcissism is not a pathology (a character disorder). Attention is not directed to the ego, but to egoidealone. Charim borrows Sigmund Freuds term that represents the new social normality: narcissism.

We all follow a calling in life, as a citizen of a country, as a daughter, as a son and so on. Our calling defines us indentity and our volunteer submission. The dominant calling we follow today is narcissism. Narcissism is like a social demand on the individual. We must become more than what we are. We must become our ideal – as narcissism is the way we voluntarily submit ourselves today.

Unfreedom or submission?

Why do we voluntarily submit to conditions as they are, or accept things as they are? Where does this volunteerism come from? And is it even possible to free oneself from it?

Charim opens the book by introducing us to the French author Etienne de La Boétie, who in 1546 wrote About voluntary servitude [translated into Norwegian by Bernt Vestre in 1984, editor's note]. There he combines the paradoxical mixture of volunteerism with slavery.

La Boétie's paradox is alive and well today, where we live in voluntary coercion. In our society today, it is not voluntary unfreedom, but if voluntary submission. There is an important difference. When the subject is subjugated, there is no slave. Then you are not in a directly compulsory forced relationship, but in a voluntary one coercive relationship you have submitted yourself in. Or have you? Because the more I read, the more it seems that submission has almost become mandatory in our society.

In contrast to unfreedom, submission is experienced as an acceptance of the social order. The secret of voluntary submission is what makes each of us function "on our own."

Caught in the system

What does it mean for society when this anti-social ideology (narcissism) becomes dominant? Yes, when we strive to become our ideal self, we end up in competition with the rest of the citizens in society who strive for the same.

Competition leads to rankings, which in turn leads to division in society, since they form hierarchicale structures. These show the individual what place he or she has in society. The narcissistic ideal is the goal.

Our peculiarity is the paradoxical counter-principle that drives us, and to which we submit, completely voluntarily and automatically. The myth of our own uniqueness, promoted by narcissism, breeds our voluntary submission. According to Charim, we abuse ourselves by being voluntarily trapped in this narcissistic system. We are unhappy. Narcissism is our new everyday life, our new social structure.

After reading the book, I am left with many questions. How voluntarily we submit is debatable, as it seems we have no other choice. Are the happiest people among us those at the bottom of the hierarchy? Or those who have given up following the new social structure, who do not belong to the hierarchy? But if you no longer belong to the hierarchy, can you survive at all?

Charim finally concludes: "The ideology of narcissism is a dead end."

Pinar Ciftci
Pinar Ciftci
Ciftci is a journalist and actor.

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