Letters to Sam Vaknin no 12
©Stephen McDonnell and Sam Vaknin 2004, 2005
All text is copyrighted and is published here
with the permission of the authors.
9 2005, Letter Twelve to Sam
Vaknin from Stephen
The foolish pursuit of beauty
no 3 , I wrote of Miss X who might well fill the definition
of frienemy. Frienemy was coined by the characters of the TV
show Sex in the City, about women in Manhattan and their ups
and downs with friends and lovers. Over the years I have seen
the ravages such frienemies wreak on people. They are hypocrites,
and liars, but for a good cause they insist they have your best
interest at heart.
As an aside, I think I make a good foil for your thoughts.
I ran across a piece of wisdom - literally a piece of paper I
found in the street as I walked my dog - by Eugene Ionesco that
goes, "It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question."
So let me change the subject from evil to beauty.
Over the years it struck me that certain people are obsessed
with 'beauty'. They want to be beautiful, and they want to live
in a beautiful world, where there is no 'ugliness'. I confess
to being vain, but my tastes are not always the best. I remember
a Hound's-tooth pattern pair of pants I loved, that on hindsight
were horrible. But then everyone's tastes vary. Miss X, whom
I mentioned, used to tell me what was in and out. She had a very
good sense of coolness. Something that is a la mode, is not always
beautiful, and maybe that is where we should start a discussion.
I believe NPDs have a fine sense of what is attractive, both
physically and intellectually. They know that a web site that
is high in the rankings usually gets more attention than the
small one that may have more information but is not 'recognized'.
They know that breast implants or a full head of hair will attract
the opposite sex. They know that humans are attracted to beauty.
When does vanity become narcissism?
legend of the most beautiful boy, Narcissus, is a lesson
taught to those who foolishly believe in beauty as an end all
and a be all. The beautiful Narcissus attracted the admiration
and love of both men and women. When a wood nymph fell in love
with him, he ignored her and she pined away. The god of vengeance,
Nemesis, resurrected her as Echo who could only repeat what she
saw and heard. Sounds like many who run after beauty. Nemesis
punished Narcissus for his hubris by having him look into a pool
of water and falling in love with that image.
If we look around us in magazines, newspapers, and films
and on television
we are bombarded by images of beautiful people, people who want
to be looked at and admired simply because of their outer surface.
Some of them even make pornographic videos of themselves so that
even more people will want to look at them. None of them have
done anything to improve humankind's sort, they simply exist
to be admired and even worshiped like our friend the Narcissist.
Christopher Lasch has pointed out that we live in a Narcissistic
age, where image is more important than substance. Beauty is
a wonderful concept, but what is beautiful varies from culture
to culture. As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder
because real beauty does not need another to exist, and one man's
meat may be another man's poison. Tastes vary. Canons of beauty
vary from year to year. Like fashion, what is in this year will
be out next year. Yet we continue to look for beauty, both in
humans and in nature.
I believe that when one sees beauty, it is like a bowl movement,
something that is natural and pleasurable, and that sometimes
stinks. Beauty provokes an emotion. For a narcissist, this emotion
is more important than anything. Because he or she sees how beauty
can capture people. In studies of monkeys, they were given the
choice between food and looking at pictures of high
status monkeys in their troupe they often preferred looking
at the pictures. Beauty and status are linked in some way in
our simian minds. It can be assumed that looking better would
benefit them in the long run, as they would receive more attention
There is a sexual attraction to beauty as well. Most young
men and women pass through a blossoming stage when they are beautiful,
attractive and naÔve and the center of attention. They
also go crazy for an image, a rock idol or one of their professors.
The need for a beautiful image takes over their reasoning the
sexual drive and the wish for power are intertwined. Most of
us pass out of that stage, if we are lucky, but the narcissist
loves the attention, so wants to continue to seek this state
of bliss. They want to be the center of attention and they act
like beauty queens, strutting and posing. Those youths who do
not blossom take refuge in intellectual pursuits or in crime;
both of these avenues can also attract attention. Good looks
and grooming in the Ape world helps in the art of mating; it
shows that you are both healthy and have good genetic material.
The pursuit of absolute beauty is a human endeavor (despite
some examples of animal artists) that has no real reason to exist.
Some people devote their whole lives to beauty, either creating
it or criticing those who create. Are artists like the Bowerbird,
building a structure that attracts attention and mates? Is this
the purpose of beauty? Is it vainglorious?
Tempted as I am to discuss the philosophy of aesthetics, I
want to refocus the discussion on pathological
narcissism. I described my perceptions, as a diagnosed narcissist,
of beauty - and especially of the bodily variety - in these pieces:
Narcissist, the Machine (The Narcissist's
Physique Dysmorphique (Narcissism and
Body Dysmorphic Disorders)
Studying my Death (Narcissism and Mortality)
I think that a simple rule of thumb will do:
To admire beauty is not narcissistic. To admire one's own
beauty is. This is why I suggested the typology of somatic vs.
Narcissists are either cerebral or somatic. In other words,
they either generate their Narcissistic Supply by applying their
bodies or by applying their minds.
The somatic narcissist flaunts his sexual conquests, parades
his possessions, exhibits his muscles, brags about his physical
aesthetics or sexual prowess or exploits, is often a health freak
and a hypochondriac. The cerebral narcissist is a know-it-all,
haughty and intelligent "computer". He uses his awesome
intellect, or knowledge (real or pretended) to secure adoration,
adulation and admiration. To him, his body and its maintenance
are a burden and a distraction.
Both types are auto-erotic (psychosexually in love with themselves,
with their bodies and with their brain). Both types prefer masturbation
to adult, mature, interactive, multi-dimensional and emotion-laden
The cerebral narcissist is often celibate (even when he has
a girlfriend or a spouse). He prefers pornography and sexual
auto-stimulation to the real thing. The cerebral narcissist is
sometimes a latent (hidden, not yet outed) homosexual.
The somatic narcissist uses other people's bodies to masturbate.
Sex with him - pyrotechnics and acrobatics aside - is likely
to be an impersonal and emotionally alienating and draining experience.
The partner is often treated as an object, an extension of the
somatic narcissist, a toy, a warm and pulsating vibrator.
It is a mistake to assume type-constancy. In other words,
all narcissists are BOTH cerebral and somatic. In each narcissist,
one of the types is dominant. So, the narcissist is either OVERWHELMINGLY
cerebral - or DOMINANTLY somatic. But the other type, the recessive
(manifested less frequently) type, is there. It is lurking, waiting
The narcissist swings between his dominant type and his recessive
type. The latter is expressed mainly as a result of a major narcissistic
injury or life crisis.
Sex for the narcissist is an instrument
designed to increase the number of Sources of Narcissistic Supply.
If it happens to be the most efficient weapon in the narcissist's
arsenal ñ he makes profligate use of it. In other words:
if the narcissist cannot obtain adoration, admiration, approval,
applause, or any other kind of attention by other means (e.g.,
intellectually) ñ he resorts to sex.
He then become a satyr (or a nymphomaniac):
indiscriminately engages in sex with multiple partners. His sex
partners are considered by him to be objects - sources of Narcissistic
Supply. It is through the processes of successful seduction and
sexual conquest that the narcissist derives his badly needed
The narcissist is likely to perfect his
techniques of courting and regard his sexual exploits as a form
of art. He usually exposes this side of him ñ in great
detail ñ to others, to an audience, expecting to win their
approval and admiration. Because the Narcissistic Supply in his
case is in the very act of conquest and (what he perceives to
be) subordination ñ the narcissist is forced to hop from
one partner to another.
Some narcissists prefer "complicated"
situations. If men ñ they prefer virgins, married women,
frigid or lesbian women, etc. The more "difficult"
the target ñ the more rewarding the narcissistic outcome.
Such a narcissist may be married, but he does not regard his
extra-marital affairs as either immoral or a breach of any explicit
or implicit contract between him and his spouse.
He keeps explaining to anyone who cares
to listen that his other sexual partners are nothing to him,
meaningless, that he is merely taking advantage of them and that
they do not constitute a threat and should not be taken seriously
by his spouse. In his mind a clear separation exists between
the honest "woman of his life" (really, a saint) and
the whores that he is having sex with.
With the exception of the meaningful women
in his life, he tends to view all females in a bad light. His
behaviour, thus, achieves a dual purpose: securing Narcissistic
Supply, on the one hand ñ and re-enacting old, unresolved
conflicts and traumas (abandonment by Primary Objects and the
Oedipal conflict, for instance).
When inevitably abandoned by his spouse
ñ the narcissist is veritably shocked and hurt. This is
the sort of crisis, which might drive him to psychotherapy. Still,
deep inside, he feels compelled to continue to pursue precisely
the same path. His abandonment is cathartic, purifying. Following
a period of deep depression and suicidal ideation ñ the
narcissist is likely to feel cleansed, invigorated, unshackled,
ready for the next round of hunting.
But there is another type of narcissist.
He also has bouts of sexual hyperactivity in which he trades
sexual partners and tends to regard them as objects. However,
with him, this is a secondary behaviour. It appears mainly after
major narcissistic traumas and crises.
A painful divorce, a devastating personal
financial upheaval ñ and this type of narcissist adopts
the view that the "old" (intellectual) solutions do
not work anymore. He frantically gropes and searches for new
ways to attract attention, to restore his False Ego (=his grandiosity)
and to secure a subsistence level of Narcissistic Supply.
Sex is handy and is a great source of the
right kind of supply: it is immediate, sexual partners are interchangeable,
the solution is comprehensive (it encompasses all the aspects
of the narcissist's being), natural, highly charged, adventurous,
and pleasurable. Thus, following a life crisis, the cerebral
narcissist is likely to be deeply involved in sexual activities
ñ very frequently and almost to the exclusion of all other
However, as the memories of the crisis
fade, as the narcissistic wounds heal, as the Narcissistic Cycle
re-commences and the balance is restored ñ this second
type of narcissist reveals his true colours. He abruptly loses
interest in sex and in all his sexual partners. The frequency
of his sexual activities deteriorates from a few times a day
ñ to a few times a year. He reverts to intellectual pursuits,
sports, politics, voluntary activities ñ anything but
This kind of narcissist is afraid of encounters
with the opposite sex and is even more afraid of emotional involvement
or commitment that he fancies himself prone to develop following
a sexual encounter. In general, such a narcissist withdraws not
only sexually ñ but also emotionally. If married ñ
he loses all overt interest in his spouse, sexual or otherwise.
He confines himself to his world and makes sure that he is sufficiently
busy to preclude any interaction with his nearest (and supposedly
He becomes completely immersed in "big
projects", lifelong plans, a vision, or a cause ñ
all very rewarding narcissistically and all very demanding and
time consuming. In such circumstances, sex inevitably becomes
an obligation, a necessity, or a maintenance chore reluctantly
undertaken to preserve his sources of supply (his family or household).
The cerebral narcissist does not enjoy
sex and by far prefers masturbation or "objective",
emotionless sex, like going to prostitutes. Actually, he uses
his mate or spouse as an "alibi", a shield against
the attentions of other women, an insurance policy which preserves
his virile image while making it socially and morally commendable
for him to avoid any intimate or sexual contact with others.
Ostentatiously ignoring women other than
his wife (a form of aggression) he feels righteous in saying:
"I am a faithful husband". At the same time, he feels
hostility towards his spouse for ostensibly preventing him from
freely expressing his sexuality, for isolating him from carnal
The narcissist's thwarted logic goes something
like this: "I am married/attached to this woman. Therefore,
I am not allowed to be in any form of contact with other women
which might be interpreted as more than casual or businesslike.
This is why I refrain from having anything to do with women ñ
because I am being faithful, as opposed to most other immoral
However, I do not like this situation.
I envy my free peers. They can have as much sex and romance as
they want to ñ while I am confined to this marriage, chained
by my wife, my freedom curbed. I am angry at her and I will punish
her by abstaining from having sex with her."
Thus frustrated, the narcissist minimises
all manner of intercourse with his close circle (spouse, children,
parents, siblings, very intimate friends): sexual, verbal, or
emotional. He limits himself to the rawest exchanges of information
and isolates himself socially.
insures against a future hurt and avoids the intimacy that he
so dreads. But, again, this way he also secures abandonment and
the replay of old, unresolved, conflicts. Finally, he really
is left alone by everyone, with no Secondary Sources of Supply.
In his quest to find new sources, he again
embarks on ego-mending bouts of sex, followed by the selection
of a spouse or a mate (a Secondary Narcissistic Supply Source).
Then the cycle re-commence: a sharp drop in sexual activity,
emotional absence and cruel detachment leading to abandonment.
The second type of narcissist is mostly
sexually loyal to his spouse. He alternates between what appears
to be hyper-sexuality and asexuality (really, forcefully repressed
sexuality). In the second phase, he feels no sexual urges, bar
the most basic. He is, therefore, not compelled to "cheat"
upon his mate, betray her, or violate the marital vows. He is
much more interested in preventing a worrisome dwindling of the
kind of Narcissistic Supply that really matters. Sex, he says
to himself, contentedly, is for those who can do no better.
Somatic narcissists tend to verbal exhibitionism.
They tend to brag in graphic details about their conquests and
exploits. In extreme cases, they might introduce "live witnesses"
and revert to total, classical exhibitionism. This sits well
with their tendency to "objectify" their sexual partners,
to engage in emotionally-neutral sex (group sex, for instance)
and to indulge in autoerotic sex.
The exhibitionist sees himself reflected
in the eyes of the beholders. This constitutes the main sexual
stimulus, this is what turns him on. This outside "look"
is also what defines the narcissist. There is bound to be a connection.
One (the exhibitionist) may be the culmination, the "pure
case" of the other (the narcissist).
Are narcissists homosexual by nature?
The Irish philosopher John O'Donahue author of the best seller
Anam Cara has written another book entitled Beauty, and in it
he posits that beauty is the cure to everything. Ah, if only
this was true those who would agree with him believe in perfection.
They do not want a fly in their soup. Years ago I met a young
French man of noble birth who was also homosexual. As we walked
the boulevards of Paris, full of interesting people, he told
me that he found them all ugly. For him only someone who looked
like him, and shared his sexual desires, was beautiful. No wonder
Freud connected the love of oneself embodied in narcissism to
The drive of a narcissist seems to be toward finding someone
just like them; they are seeking the image that they created,
the clone of themselves, their alter ego, and the virtual image
in the mirror. Most narcissists see their outside image as the
having the same sex as themselves. This other, has stepped out
of their body and wonders around doing and saying things. Within
the hollow darkness of their souls sits another entity that is
a shriveled person that never developed beyond childhood. I suspect
that thing looks like one of the children suffering from early
aging. No wonder they look for beauty, because they hate themselves.
I am conjecturing here, and only Sam can tell me if I am wrong.
Where does the pursuit of beauty take the NPD? When Hitler
visited Rome, Mussolini - the inventor of fascism had false house
fronts put up, hiding the ugliness that he despised. (Vladimir
Putin did the same thing during the St Petersburg anniversary
celebrations.) Italians are particularly attuned to how things
look; is this one of the wellsprings of fascism? Hypocrisy taken
to its fullest expression? Hitler and his gang hated the looks
of Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals. They were vermin that mired
the Nazi idea of a beautiful perfect society. Maybe this is why
I cringe when I hear someone talking about beauty in a certain
way; I wonder if they want perfection rather than reality. An
I suspect that their dreams will become our nightmares!
Reading a book by a famous landscape artist, I ran across
a funny story. He liked to wander the countryside looking for
'picturesque' scenes to draw and paint. He found a barn full
of junk and very dilapidated, and he asked the farmer if he could
do a painting of it. When he returned a week later he found that
the farmer had cleaned out everything and painted it bright red,
destroying the beauty the painter found appealing. One man's
meat is another man's masterpiece.
In conclusion, I think that beauty can be found everywhere.
Those who try to capture it and exclude everything else are blind
to real beauty. Narcissists want to impose their concepts and
ideas of beauty on others. Most of the foolish chasers of beauty
are dangerous because they believe their opinions are sacrosanct.
They are not really lovers of beauty, but of their own tastes
in beauty, and that is a dangerous thing. Like Martha Stewart,
a oparagons of taste, they dictate beauty and so crush anything
that they find ugly. Remember the story of Cinderella!
I am a heterosexual and thus
deprived of an intimate acquaintance with certain psychological
processes, which allegedly are unique to homosexuals. I find
it hard to believe that there are such processes, to begin with.
to find any substantive difference between the psychological
make-up of a narcissist who happens to have homosexual preferences
ñ and a heterosexual narcissist.
They both are predators, devouring
Narcissistic Supply Sources as they go. Narcissists look for
new victims, the way tigers look for prey ñ they are hungry.
Hungry for adoration, admiration, acceptance, approval, and any
other kind of attention. Old sources die easy ñ once taken
for granted, the narcissistic element of conquest vanishes.
Conquest is important because
it proves the superiority of the narcissist. The very act of
subduing, subjugating, or acquiring the power to influence someone
provides the narcissist with Narcissistic Supply. The newly conquered
idolise the narcissist and serve as a trophies.
The act of conquering and subordinating
is epitomized by the sexual encounter - an objective and atavistic
interaction. Making love to someone means that the consenting
partner finds the narcissist (or one or more of his traits, such
as his intelligence, his physique, even his money) irresistible.
The distinction between passive
and active sexual partners is mechanical, false, superfluous
and superficial. Penetration does not make one of the parties
"the stronger one". To cause someone to have sex with
you is a powerful stimulus ñ and always provokes a sensation
of omnipotence. Whether one is physically passive or active ñ
one is always psychosexually active.
Anyone who has unsafe sex is
gambling with his life ñ though the odds are much smaller
than public hysteria would have us believe. Reality does not
matter, though ñ it is the perception of reality that
matters. Getting this close to (perceived) danger is the equivalent
of engaging in self-destruction (suicide). Narcissists are, at
times, suicidal and are always self-destructive.
There is, however, one element,
which might be unique to homosexuals: the fact that their self-definition
hinges on their sexual identity. I know of no heterosexual who
would use his sexual preferences to define himself almost fully.
Homosexuality has been inflated to the level of a sub-culture,
a separate psychology, or a myth. This is typical of persecuted
minorities. However, it does have an influence on the individual.
Preoccupation with body and sex makes most homosexual narcissists
Moreover, the homosexual makes
love to a person of the SAME sex ñ in a
way, to his REFLECTION. In this respect, homosexual
relations are highly narcissistic and autoerotic affairs.
The somatic narcissist directs
his libido at his body (as opposed to the cerebral narcissist,
who concentrates upon his intellect). He cultivates it, nourishes
and nurtures it, is often an hypochondriac, dedicates an inordinate
amount of time to its needs (real and imaginary). It is through
his body that this type of narcissist tracks down and captures
his Supply Sources.
The supply that the somatic narcissist
so badly requires is derived from his form, his shape, his build,
his profile, his beauty, his physical attractiveness, his health,
his age. He downplays Narcissistic Supply directed at other traits.
He uses sex to reaffirm his prowess, his attractiveness, or his
youth. Love, to him, is synonymous with sex and he focuses his
learning skills on the sexual act, the foreplay and the coital
Seduction becomes addictive because
it leads to a quick succession of Supply Sources. Naturally,
boredom (a form of transmuted aggression) sets in once the going
gets routine. Routine
is counter-narcissistic by definition because it threatens
the narcissist's sense of uniqueness.
An interesting side issue relates to transsexuals.
Philosophically, there is little difference
between a narcissist who seeks to avoid his True Self (and positively
to become his False Self) ñ and a transsexual who seeks
to discard his true gender. But this similarity, though superficially
appealing, is questionable.
People sometimes seek sex reassignment
because of advantages and opportunities which, they believe,
are enjoyed by the other sex. This rather unrealistic (fantastic)
view of the other is faintly narcissistic. It includes elements
of idealised over-valuation, of self-preoccupation, and of objectification
of one's self. It demonstrates a deficient ability to empathise
and some grandiose sense of entitlement ("I deserve to be
taken care of") and omnipotence ("I can be whatever
I want to be ñ despite nature/God").
This feeling of entitlement is especially
manifest in some gender dysphoric individuals who aggressively
pursue hormonal or surgical treatment. They feel that it is their
inalienable right to receive it on demand and without any strictures
or restrictions. For instance, they oftentimes refuse to undergo
psychological evaluation or treatment as a condition for the
hormonal or surgical treatment.
It is interesting to note that both narcissism
and gender dysphoria are early childhood phenomena. This could
be explained by problematic Primary Objects, dysfunctional families,
or a common genetic or biochemical problem. It is too early to
say which. As yet, there isn't even an agreed typology of gender
identity disorders ñ let alone an in-depth comprehension
of their sources.
A radical view, proffered by Ray Blanchard,
seems to indicate that pathological narcissism is more likely
to be found among non-core, ego-dystonic, autogynephilic transsexulas
and among heterosexual transvestites. It is less manifest in
core, ego-syntonic, homosexual transsexuals.
Autogynephilic transsexuals are subject
to an intense urge to become the opposite sex and, thus, to be
rendered the sexual object of their own desire. In other words,
they are so sexually attracted to themselves that they wish to
become both lovers in the romantic equation - the male and the
female. It is the fulfilment of the ultimate narcissistic fantasy
with the False Self as a fetish ("narcissistic fetish").
Autogynephilic transsexuals start off as
heterosexuals and end up as either bisexual or homosexual. By
shifting his/her attentions to men, the male autogynephilic transsexual
"proves" to himself that he has finally become a "true"
and desirable woman.
To your other observations:
Fromm "diagnosed" both Hitler
and Stalin as narcissists. As Saul Friedlander noted, both Fascism
and Nazism were aesthetic movements (one of them founded by an
But this was old hat! Hitler and
Nazism are often wrongly portrayed as an apocalyptic and seismic
break with European history. Yet the truth is that they were
the culmination and reification of European history in the 19th
century. Europe's annals of colonialism have prepared it for
the range of phenomena associated with the Nazi regime - from
industrial murder to racial theories, from slave labour to the
forcible annexation of territory.
Germany was a colonial power no different to murderous Belgium
or Britain. What set it apart is that it directed its colonial
attentions at the heartland of Europe - rather than at Africa
or Asia. Both World Wars were colonial wars fought on European
soil. Moreover, Nazi Germany innovated by applying prevailing
racial theories (usually reserved to non-whites) to the white
race itself. It started with the Jews - a non-controversial proposition
- but then expanded them to include "east European"
whites, such as the Poles and the Russians.
Germany was not alone in its malignant nationalism. The far
right in France was as pernicious. Nazism - and Fascism - were
world ideologies, adopted enthusiastically in places as diverse
as Iraq, Egypt, Norway, Latin America, and Britain. At the end
of the 1930's, liberal capitalism, communism, and fascism (and
its mutations) were locked in mortal battle of ideologies. Hitler's
mistake was to delusionally believe in the affinity between capitalism
and Nazism - an affinity enhanced, to his mind, by Germany's
corporatism and by the existence of a common enemy: global communism.
Colonialism always had discernible religious overtones and
often collaborated with missionary religion. "The White
Man's burden" of civilizing the "savages" was
widely perceived as ordained by God. The church was the extension
of the colonial power's army and trading companies.
It is no wonder that Hitler's lebensraum colonial movement
- Nazism - possessed all the hallmarks of an institutional religion:
priesthood, rites, rituals, temples, worship, catechism, mythology.
Hitler was this religion's ascetic saint. He monastically denied
himself earthly pleasures (or so he claimed) in order to be able
to dedicate himself fully to his calling. Hitler was a monstrously
inverted Jesus, sacrificing his life and denying himself so that
(Aryan) humanity should benefit. By surpassing and suppressing
his humanity, Hitler became a distorted version of Nietzsche's
But being a-human or super-human also means being a-sexual
and a-moral. In this restricted sense, Hitler was a post-modernist
and a moral relativist. He projected to the masses an androgynous
figure and enhanced it by fostering the adoration of nudity and
all things "natural". But what Nazism referred to as
"nature" was not natural at all.
It was an aesthetic of decadence and evil (though it was not
perceived this way by the Nazis), carefully orchestrated, and
artificial. Nazism was about reproduced copies, not about originals.
It was about the manipulation of symbols - not about veritable
In short: Nazism was about theatre, not about life. To enjoy
the spectacle (and be subsumed by it), Nazism demanded the suspension
of judgment, depersonalization, and de-realization. Catharsis
was tantamount, in Nazi dramaturgy, to self-annulment. Nazism
was nihilistic not only operationally, or ideologically. Its
very language and narratives were nihilistic. Nazism was conspicuous
nihilism - and Hitler served as a role model, annihilating Hitler
the Man, only to re-appear as Hitler the stychia.
What was the role of the Jews in all this?
Nazism posed as a rebellion against the "old ways"
- against the hegemonic culture, the upper classes, the established
religions, the superpowers, the European order. The Nazis borrowed
the Leninist vocabulary and assimilated it effectively. Hitler
and the Nazis were an adolescent movement, a reaction to narcissistic
injuries inflicted upon a narcissistic (and rather psychopathic)
toddler nation-state. Hitler himself was a malignant
narcissist, as Fromm correctly noted.
The Jews constituted a perfect, easily identifiable, embodiment
of all that was "wrong" with Europe. They were an old
nation, they were eerily disembodied (without a territory), they
were cosmopolitan, they were part of the establishment, they
were "decadent", they were hated on religious and socio-economic
grounds (see Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners"),
they were different, they were narcissistic (felt and acted as
morally superior), they were everywhere, they were defenseless,
they were credulous, they were adaptable (and thus could be co-opted
to collaborate in their own destruction). They were the perfect
hated father figure and parricide was in fashion.
This is precisely the source of the fascination with Hitler.
He was an inverted human. His unconscious was his conscious.
He acted out our most repressed drives, fantasies, and wishes.
He provides us with a glimpse of the horrors that lie beneath
the veneer, the barbarians at our personal gates, and what it
was like before we invented civilization. Hitler forced us all
through a time warp and many did not emerge. He was not the devil.
He was one of us. He was what Arendt aptly called the banality
of evil. Just an ordinary, mentally disturbed, failure, a member
of a mentally disturbed and failing nation, who lived through
disturbed and failing times. He was the perfect mirror, a channel,
a voice, and the very depth of our souls.
Nazism - and, by extension, fascism (though the two are by
no means identical) - amounted to permanent revolutionary civil
wars. Fascist movements were founded, inter alia, on negations
and on the militarization of politics. Their raison d'etre and
vigor were derived from their rabid opposition to liberalism,
communism, conservatism, rationalism, and individualism and from
exclusionary racism. It was a symbiotic relationship - self-definition
and continued survival by opposition.
Yet, all fascist movements suffered from fatal - though largely
preconcerted - ideological tensions. In their drive to become
broad, pluralistic, churches (a hallmark of totalitarian movements)
- these secular religions often offered contradictory doctrinal
I. Renewal vs. Destruction
The first axis of tension was between renewal and destruction.
Fascist parties invariably presented themselves as concerned
with the pursuit and realization of a utopian program based on
the emergence of a "new man" (in Germany it was a mutation
Superman). "New", "young", "vital",
and "ideal" were pivotal keywords. Destruction was
both inevitable (i.e., the removal of the old and corrupt) and
desirable (i.e., cathartic, purifying, unifying, and ennobling).
Yet fascism was also nihilistic. It was bipolar: either utopia
or death. Hitler instructed Speer to demolish Germany when his
dream of a thousand-years Reich crumbled. This mental splitting
mechanism (all bad or all good, black or white) is typical of
all utopian movements. Similarly, Stalin (not a fascist) embarked
on orgies of death and devastation every time he faced an obstacle.
This ever-present tension between construction, renewal, vitalism,
and the adoration of nature - and destruction, annihilation,
murder, and chaos - was detrimental to the longevity and cohesion
of fascist fronts.
II. Individualism vs. Collectivism
A second, more all-pervasive, tension was between self-assertion
and what Griffin and Payne call "self transcendence".
Fascism was a cult of the Promethean will, of the super-man,
above morality, and the shackles of the pernicious materialism,
egalitarianism, and rationalism. It was demanded of the New Man
to be willful, assertive, determined, self-motivating, a law
unto himself. The New Man, in other words, was supposed to be
contemptuously a-social (though not anti-social).
But here, precisely, arose the contradiction. It was society
which demanded from the New Man certain traits and the selfless
fulfillment of certain obligations and observance of certain
duties. The New Man was supposed to transcend egotism and sacrifice
himself for the greater, collective, good. In Germany, it was
Hitler who embodied this intolerable inconsistency. On the one
hand, he was considered to be the reification of the will of
the nation and its destiny. On the other hand, he was described
as self-denying, self-less, inhumanly altruistic, and a temporal
saint martyred on the altar of the German nation.
This doctrinal tension manifested itself also in the economic
ideology of fascist movements.
Fascism was often corporatist or syndicalist (and always collectivist).
At times, it sounded suspiciously like Leninism-Stalinism. Payne
has this to say:
"What fascist movements had
in common was the aim of a new functional relationship for the
functional and economic systems, eliminating the autonomy (or,
in some proposals, the existence) of large-scale capitalism and
modern industry, altering the nature of social status, and creating
a new communal or reciprocal productive relationship through
new priorities, ideals, and extensive governmental control and
regulation. The goal of accelerated economic modernization was
often espoused ..."
(Stanley G. Payne - A History
of Fascism 1914-1945 - University of Wisconsin Press, 1995 -
Still, private property was carefully preserved and property
rights meticulously enforced. Ownership of assets was considered
to be a mode of individualistic expression (and, thus, "self-assertion")
not to be tampered with.
This second type of tension transformed many of the fascist
organizations into chaotic, mismanaged, corrupt, and a-moral
groups, lacking in direction and in self-discipline. They swung
ferociously between the pole of malignant individualism and that
of lethal collectivism.
III. Utopianism vs. Struggle
Fascism was constantly in the making, eternally half-baked,
subject to violent permutations, mutations, and transformations.
Fascist movements were "processual" and, thus, in permanent
revolution (rather, since fascism was based on the negation of
other social forces, in permanent civil war). It was a
utopian movement in search of a utopia. Many of the elements
of a utopia were there - but hopelessly mangled and mingled and
without any coherent blueprint.
In the absence of a rational vision and an orderly plan of
action - fascist movements resorted to irrationality, the supernatural,
the magical, and to their brand of a secular religion. They emphasized
the way -rather than the destination, the struggle - rather than
the attainment, the battle - rather than the victory, the effort
- rather than the outcome, or, in short - the Promethean and
the Thanatean rather than the Vestal, the kitschy rather than
the truly aesthetic.
IV. Organic vs. Decadent
Fascism emphasized rigid social structures - supposedly the
ineluctable reflections of biological strictures. As opposed
to politics and culture - where fascism was revolutionary and
utopian - socially, fascism was reactionary, regressive, and
defensive. It was pro-family. One's obligations, functions, and
rights were the results of one's "place in society".
But fascism was also male chauvinistic, adolescent, latently
homosexual ("the cult of virility", the worship of
the military), somewhat pornographic (the adoration of the naked
body, of "nature", and of the young), and misogynistic.
In its horror of its own repressed androgynous "perversions"
(i.e., the very decadence it claimed to be eradicating), it employed
numerous defense mechanisms (e.g., reaction formation and projective
identification). It was gender dysphoric and personality disordered.
V. Elitism vs. Populism
All fascist movements were founded on the equivalent of the
Nazi Fuhrerprinzip. The leader - infallible, indestructible,
invincible, omnipotent, omniscient, sacrificial - was a creative
genius who embodied as well as interpreted the nation's quiddity
and fate. His privileged and unerring access to the soul of the
fascist movement, to history's grand designs, and to the moral
and aesthetic principles underlying it all - made him indispensable
and worthy of blind and automatic obedience.
This strongly conflicted with the unmitigated, all-inclusive,
all-pervasive, and missionary populism of fascism. Fascism was
not egalitarian (see section above). It believed in a fuzzily
role-based and class-based system. It was misogynistic, against
the old, often against the "other" (ethnic or racial
minorities). But, with these exceptions, it embraced one and
all and was rather meritocratic. Admittedly, mobility within
the fascist parties was either the result of actual achievements
and merit or the outcome of nepotism and cronyism - still, fascism
was far more egalitarian than most other political movements.
This populist strand did not sit well with the overweening
existence of a Duce or a Fuhrer. Tensions erupted now and then
but, overall, the Fuhrerprinzip held well.
Fascism's undoing cannot be attributed to either of these
inherent contradictions, though they made it brittle and clunky.
To understand the downfall of this meteoric latecomer - we must
look elsewhere, to the 17th and 18th century.
Looking forward to our next dialog!
Letters to Sam 1 | Letters
to Sam 2 | Letters to Sam 3
| Letters to Sam 4 | Letters
to Sam 5 | Letters to Sam 6 | | Letters
to Sam 7 | Letters to Sam 8
| Letters to Sam 9 | Letters
to Sam 10 | Letters to Sam
Last updated September 25, 2006