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Our narcissistic selves

By James Cumes - posted Wednesday, 13 September 2006

By and large, Australians don’t have “creeds” - and, if they did, they couldn’t articulate them. Most of us couldn’t frame a manifesto to which we could give “common” support.

What we do have is an essentially narcissistic character that responds to the theme “I want to - and I’m going to - do it my way”. We are or would like to consider ourselves to be individualistic, independent and creative.

This might be thought to show symptoms of immaturity - the narcissism of the child - not quite the illness of the autistic, but heading in that direction.


But that is too simple. The essential, and potentially self-destructive, character of humanity is that we are all narcissistic, wherever we were born, whatever our racial characteristics and whatever our “culture”. We all have an intense affection focused on ourselves or, if we lack such an affection - or have it in what we regard as insufficient intensity - we all want to win it, be awarded it or somehow or other to realise it. Above all, we want others to recognise that we have a worth approximating to our self-assessment.

For much of humanity, the self-image of individuals or the group is the image of the god they worship - who, in turn, is in their image. They see their actions as divinely inspired and godlike. They are superior to all other creation and may be unique in the universe.

Australians are no less narcissistic than the rest of their species but probably no more. They have been responsible and industrious enough to build a remarkable material and even non-material civilisation, in a remarkably short time on a not-remarkably accommodative continent. True, they destroyed a previous civilisation in building their own but they show some signs of maturity in their rhetoric of circumscribed regret.

In confronting this dichotomy between accomplishment and violation, what “creed” does it suggest we have in “common?” How far, as individuals, have we been party to the accomplishment and how far to the violation, and other more negative aspects, of our civilisation, culture and society?

In probing this, we move from the phenomenon of individual narcissism to the much more significant, potentially more valuable, but above all potentially more catastrophic phenomenon of narcissistic transference.

How strong are we Australians within our own bodies, minds and “souls”? Like the rest of humanity, some of us are stronger than others. A few - the supermen of Nietzsche - might be able to live within themselves - strong in their own self-image. In denying God, Nietzsche was the typical individualist genius: "Do not believe those who speak of supra-terrestrial hopes." He rejected all forms of narcissistic transference, believing the godhead could and did reside in him. His philosophy was the antithesis of the blind fanaticism characterising Nazism - with which his name has, ironically, been so unjustly linked.


Another robust individualist, the explorer, anthropologist and writer, Richard Burton, proudly proclaimed he'd broken all Ten Commandments. His advice to others was:

Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause. He noblest lives and dies who makes and keeps his self-made laws.

All other life is living death, a world where none but phantoms dwell;

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About the Author

James Cumes is a former Australian ambassador and author of America's Suicidal Statecraft: The Self-Destruction of a Superpower (2006).

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