The horrified global response to Donald Trump’s first week of office is justified. But it is often better to sidle up to a monster rather than staring it in the face.
The time has come,’ the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of shoes — and ships —
and sealing-wax —
Of cabbages — and kings —
And why the sea is boiling hot —
And whether pigs have wings.
Lewis Carroll. Through the Looking Glass. 1871
The unbearable heaviness of being
I’m at the local supermarket checkout – it’s Tesco, but it might as well be any other – as a two year old girl goes into meltdown because she is not allowed to have a lolly. There are various glances sent in the child’s direction, uncomfortable smiles, annoyed tuts, disapproving frowns, while the mother tries to scoop up the child, to physically remove her (and her own embarrassment). The elusive lolly was placed at the height of the child, of course, making a mockery of the removal of confectionery from checkouts.
We have all witnessed a scene like this many times. But on this occasion I saw more than just another screaming toddler. The first thing was the child’s wretched and inconsolable disappointment. Second, the embarrassed but indulgent mother. Third, the impact of the immediate environment that had created this drama in the first place.
It’s a difficult thing to be a small child, something adults easily lose sight of. As much as we attach sentimental feelings to our childhoods, we forget that the adult world is one of Brobdingnagian proportions to an infant. In his poem Animula, even T. S. Eliot looked on his early years with this wistful affection. To the child, who “confounds the actual and fanciful” the lolly (brightly wrapped, promising a sweet reward) is a just and proper recompense for the frustration and confusion of being small in this ridiculous denatured world of adults. A reward for how difficult it is to walk without falling; for having to run to keep up; for bangs against the hard unyielding legs of tables and chairs; for the pain of teeth growing; for – notwithstanding the leaps of joy – the absolute existential pain of being vulnerable.
Falling in love again
Psychology would have us place the ensuing battle of wills between child and adult as a necessary part of the journey out of self-regard into the community. The adult helps the child to overcome narcissism. Yet our Western culture, successfully exported to every other part of the globe, is narcissistic to the core: either explicitly narcissistic (Nationalist, Republican, UKIP) or implicitly (Socialist, Democrat, Labour). A strange hypocrisy exists – concepts of fairness and compassion are outwardly validated, but secretly denied. Don’t be so selfish, says the parent who is secretly proud of his offspring’s venal compulsions. So it is difficult to speak of narcissism without becoming as critical as the slew of scathing articles one finds online.
The myth of Narcissus is worth reading. Narcissus was born of the river god Cephisus and the naiad Liriope, his inheritance too fluid and lacking in boundaries. Small wonder his heart petrifies and he refuses all attachment. Yet his metamorphosis comes about through the medium of water. Ovid’s intention seems clear (“Fool, why try to catch a fleeting image, in vain? What you search for is nowhere: turning away, what you love is lost! What you perceive is the shadow of reflected form: nothing of you is in it. It comes and stays with you, and leaves with you, if you can leave!”), yet perhaps Thomas Moore’s deconstruction of the myth in his book Care of the Soul points us in the right direction. Instead of criticising Narcissus for his hard and icy self-regard we are encouraged to see beneath the defence of aloofness, to the wounded soul who finally learns to love himself, and in that instant is transformed. Moore writes:
America’s narcissism is strong. It is paraded before the world. If we were to put the nation on the couch, we might discover that narcissism is its most obvious symptom. And yet that narcissism holds the promise that this all-important myth can find its way into life. In other words, America’s narcissism is its unrefined puer spirit of genuine new vision. The trick is to find a way to that water of transformation where hard self-absorption turns into loving dialogue with the world.
Moore, Thomas. Care of the Soul. Piatkus, 1992
And what can we learn from Echo? We feel sorry for her, but we forget that her problem is that she can’t speak for herself but is instead cursed to always repeat the words of others. It is this very syzygy that is the most compelling aspect of the myth, the wounded self-regard and the loss of an authentic voice. The wound pushes others away, the repetition desperately seeks relationship. Both fail.
What am I suggesting here? That adults should give in to the demands of toddlers? Not exactly. But in the hard refusal of the intuitive need of the infant, we mirror something of Narcissus and in parroting the old wisdom of denial we become Echo. Now, in the person of Donald Trump, we witness a narcissistic apotheosis.
Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfilment of a great, noble call.
Yours is the aim to make this grand country grander,
This you will do, that’s our strong, firm belief.
Hail to the one we selected as commander,
Hail to the President! Hail to the Chief!”
Trump dances to ‘My Way’; Trump replaces the red curtains in the Oval Office with gold ones; Trump admires his narcissistic alter ego, Vladimir Putin. Trump sits at his desk signing, with a flourish of the pen, executive orders to roll back abortion rights, to revive the Keystone XL and Dakota pipelines, and to signal the demise of the Affordable Care Act. His gauleiters look on appreciatively1.
Homophobic, pro-life Vice-president Pence, whose response to Hurricane Katrina was to draw up a list of “Pro-Free-Market Ideas for Responding to Hurricane Katrina and High Gas Prices” is, if anything, even more monstrous than Trump. Concomitant with this alliance of troubled men is that everything has become uncertain. Charles Foster wrote:
An early conviction of mastery or comprehension turns people into monsters.”
Foster, Charles. Being a Beast. 2016
As much as I agree with this, I’m aware that we now live in a world in which every news item is immediately denied, individuals are traduced, figures are falsified and opinions shamed. It is lethal to agree with anything kind, or to be sympathetic to a position, in an online space, because we will be accused of ‘virtue signalling’. In the UK, companies who estimate electoral results frequently underestimate the Conservative vote because of ‘Shy Tories’, people who cannot bring themselves to publicly own their beliefs, but must wait until they are ensconced in the privacy of the voting booth (what does this say about Toryism, except that it cannot be countenanced, that to believe in it is shameful?). So what can we believe in?
This article suggests that Trump owes his presidency to the manipulation of Big Data. I cannot vouch for it. It may be clever PR for Cambridge Analytica, it might be genuine reportage. The point, of course, is that it is both. It plays into a fear of oversight and surveillance on the one hand, and a desire for control on the other. In the world of marketing, the eyes of middle managers gleam strangely at the prospect of further ‘leverage’. Perhaps no one person knows the truth, almost certainly because it is multi-variate: the truth is Big Data, climate change, fear of immigration, ignorance, anger, racism, tribalism, Russian state intervention and many others. I previously mentioned the role of Vladislav Surkov in the spread of disinformation2 – now truth has become yet more diaphanous, we have “post-truth” and “alt-truth” – and this unknowing is likely to get much worse. Democracy, as Plato suggested, leads to Tyranny.
It seems a shame,’ the Walrus said,
To play them such a trick,
After we’ve brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!’
The Carpenter said nothing but
The butter’s spread too thick!’
Lewis Carroll. ibid. 1871
Nothing, they say, is new. To complain about the state of the world is to invite a slew of corrective and contradictory opinions. To have hope, to have a vision – these are things held in contempt as naive and sentimental. We all carry a vulnerable and demanding child around with us, whether we admit it or not. Psychotherapy, in love with ideas of personal responsibility and individuation (ideas, along with drive theory, that belong to the Industrial Revolution) has on the one hand cosseted the narcissistic ‘inner child’, and on the other hand pathologised him. If the child stays protected she is effectively depoliticised, protected from the world. This inurement is unnatural, because humans are social and political by nature, as Aristotle observed. It follows that control, the method by which the inner child is protected, is also unnatural. It is this that James Hillman inveighed against when he accused meditation of being obscene. He was not attacking meditation per se, but the use of meditation as self-control when the planet is in such a sad state. He would be similarly scathing with the dreadful rise of mindfulness, the Bisto gravy of psychotherapeutic modalities.
Bonfire of the Vanities
Devotees of critical thinking would perhaps argue that no one is entitled to an opinion without expert credentials. Trump, and many of the followers of Trump, gleefully insist that people are fed up with experts. Expertise is, they argue, elitism, and elites are bad. But these ideologies cannot listen to criticism, and a deafness or sensitivity to criticism is the mark of a stuck ideological position. The elite membership of an ideology will pursue their policies ruthlessly, as the most casual observation of history will confirm. This is the danger of Trump, and it is also the danger of those who most vehemently oppose him. However, just as the child in the supermarket should not have been allowed to have the lolly, so Trump cannot be allowed to ruin what is left of the world. The tragedy of the child and the lolly is that the lolly has such power.
Sugar and power are both compelling . Eric Hoffer said: “You can never get enough of what you don’t really want.” With addiction one might begin to see that what is really wanted is either not known or believed impossible. Perhaps, as Alex Evans argues here, it is time for us to forego the fruitless fact-checking of meaningless noise and to begin a narrative informed by myth. Nor does myth have to preclude science. A new type of science has emerged from the ashes of the Enlightenment, a science that no longer believes the insidious fallacy of human domination:
Mit Würd’ und Hoheit angetan,
mit Schönheit, Stärk’ und Mut begabt,
gen Himmel aufgerichtet, steht der Mensch,
ein Mann und König der Natur.
In native worth and honour clad,
with beauty, courage, strength adorn’d,
to heav’n erect and tall, he stands a man,
the Lord and King of nature all.
Baron Gottfried van Swieten/Anonymous English text/John Milton. Libretto to Haydn’s Creation. 1798
The mycologist Paul Stamets believes that the ‘roots’ of fungi, the mycelia, have an archetypal pattern seen throughout the universe, in spiral galaxies, hurricane patterns, dark matter, our brains and even the internet. He has proven that mycelia can break down toxic wastes and pollutants, reduce silt and pathogens from agricultural watersheds, control insect populations, and generally enhance the health of our forests and gardens. These are anthropocentric values – but Stamets also says:
I believe that mycelium is the neurological network of nature. Interlacing mosaics of mycelium infuse habitats with information-sharing membranes. These membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long-term health of the host environment in mind.
The mycelium stays in constant molecular communication with its environment, devising diverse enzymatic and chemical responses to complex challenges.”
Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Ten Speed Press 2005
This stunning concept allows us to return to the mythological belief that the earth we walk on is sentient. It enables us to have humility, to understand that our knowledge of the forces and patterns of nature is only in its infancy.
As an evolutionary strategy, mycelial architecture is amazing: one cell wall thick, in direct contact with a myriad hostile organisms, and yet so pervasive that a single cubic inch of topsoil contains enough fungal cells to stretch more than 8 miles if placed end t0 end. I calculate that every footstep I take impacts more than 300 miles of mycelium. These fungal fabrics run through the top few inches of virtually all landmasses that support life, sharing the soil with legions of other organism. If you were a tiny organism in a forest’s soil, you would be enmeshed in a carnival of activity, with mycelium constantly moving through subterranean landscapes like cellular waves, through dancing bacteria and swimming protozoa with nematodes racing like whales through a microcosmic sea of life.
Stamets, Paul. ibid.
The path out of narcissism and into relationship lies in regaining a mutual relationship with the world, and that can be done only by looking into the pool and falling in love with oneself first. Tragically, I cannot imagine that Trump and Pence are able to even like themselves, their hatred of others is evidence enough of that.
“I like the Walrus best,” said Alice, “because you see he was a little sorry for the poor oysters.”
“He ate more than the Carpenter, though,” said Tweedledee. “You see he held his handkerchief in front, so that the Carpenter couldn’t count how many he took: contrariwise.”
“That was mean!” Alice said indignantly. “Then I like the Carpenter best—if he didn’t eat so many as the Walrus.”
“But he ate as many as he could get,” said Tweedledum.
This was a puzzler. After a pause, Alice began, “Well! They were both very unpleasant characters—”
Lewis Carroll. ibid. 1871
1. My spellchecker wanted to replace ‘gauleiters’ with ‘gagwriters’. It was nice to imagine a presidential comedian, signing carnivals into being, the process of government frequently interrupted with helpless laughter.
2. Film maker Adam Curtis has more to say about Surkov in his latest film Hypernormalisation.