Friday, May 29, 2015


A friend sent a video of a psychiatrist discussing his take on narcissistic personality disorder, which turned out to be a report on his own personal brand of narcissism. I found it to be engaging, but ultimately unrecognizable. Since I live a musical life, I encounter all sorts of people who could be labeled "narcissists." I would venture to say that all musicians have some narcissistic traits, but the presence of narcissism in musicians is really about degree, and about balancing narcissistic traits with other traits.

Someone in music who has absolute pitch, physical skills, a good memory, and a healthy helping of intelligence could easily believe that those traits make him or her "better" than others. I have a good friend who instills the importance of humility into her students, particularly the ones who have a lot of talent, intelligence, and ability. She instills into them the belief that because they have talent and ability it is their responsibility to work extremely hard and remain humble in the face of a much larger force that allows music to happen. She has been doing this for a long time, and it seems to work quite well. I don't know about these students' inner sense of self (who does but each individual), but I do know that the way they present themselves in social and musical situations reflects a healthy balance of self-confidence and humility.

I believe that we all have a degree of narcissism that is hard-wired into us. If we didn't have it, we would not have survived infancy. Some of us have special physical traits that we either capitalize upon or ignore. Someone, for example, who is particularly attractive and is aware of his or her attractiveness will live a life that is "informed" by a certain physical presence whether he or she acknowledges it or not. Someone who is not conventionally attractive but has a highly developed intellect could cultivate a higher ratio of narcissism to humility.

I wonder if the 21st-century power of instant and potentially far-reaching communication can throw the narcissistic/humility balance off, leaving us in a world of people more interested in the reactions of people to what they say and do than in pursuing interests, finding community, and sharing friendship.


Philip Amos said...

Hmmm. I must wonder why you write of Narcissism rather than 'vanity'. I do think that vanity is truly the issue addressed, for Narcissism, being literally in love with oneself, is far more extreme. Indeed, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is in the DSM, aka the Psychiatrist's Bible. A vain musician would do well to read Claudio Arrau's article about his own psychiatric therapy, reprinted in Joseph Horowitz's Conversations with Arrau. Therein, Arrau writes of the necessity of ridding oneself of Ego. Not, of course, the good one, which makes us aware of what we are good at and what we are not. But the bad Ego, that which causes us always to put ourselves first. For a concert artist, that means putting him/herself before the music, before the composer, rather than serving both and striving to recreate the music as the composer intended it, which in turn means deep study to try to discern that intention. Recreation is much different from interpretation, and in the latter, the egotists are all too likely to indulge themselves, sometimes resulting in grotesqueries. I think we can all think of artists who did or do that!

Elaine Fine said...

I suppose that the writer of Ecclesiastes was right when s/he said that all is vanity. The question I have would be about the development of vanity to an extreme, and at which point, if any, it slips into Narcissism.

I'll have to seek out that book of conversations with Arrau! Thank you!

Philip Amos said...

Interesting question, Elaine. I am sure vanity may develop to an extreme, but equally sure it could not develop into Narcissism. I hauled out my copy of the DSM to see if the entry on NPD even mentions 'vanity', and it doesn't, as I fully expected. To clarify things somewhat, let me give a summation of the DSM's diagnostic criteria for NPD:

-- reacts to criticism with feelings of rage, shame, humiliation
-- exploitative, taking advantage of others
-- grandiose sense of self-importance, exaggerating achievements and talents, expecting to be noticed as 'special'
-- preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
-- sense of entitlement, groundless expectation of favourable treatment
-- need for constant attention and admiration
-- preoccupation with feelings of envy
-- lack of empathy

That last one is crucial, for so it is that NPD may be confused with or accompanied by Antisocial Personality Disorder. Reading into the criteria as a whole, one can see why it is that people who have killed lovers, colleagues, people who criticized them, people who failed to show the reverence expected by right, etc., have been diagnosed with NDP in pre-trial psychiatric examinations. Vanity is rarely more than irritating and tedious. NDP can be downright dangerous, even if it doesn't lead to murder. This leads to interesting thoughts about musicians, of course. It's not difficult to summon up names of ones one may rightly deem vain. I can't off-hand think of any I feel reasonably sure have or had NDP, but I shall be thinking about that. I have suspects. Your post has become a hot one among music blog readers, so I suspect the question may come up at a few dinner parties and such. What I am myself sure of is that these modes of egotism are barriers to musical performance of the highest degree of excellence or true greatness.

Anonymous said...

Today's pop psychology has so bollixed up words that vanity and narcissism somehow are to be equitable. Kohelet might speak of vanity, but it also and perhaps more importantly speaks of awareness bringing sorrow, as with more knowledge there is more sorrow. The DSM rightly parses away "lack of empathy," and indeed it is with empathy that great music is born, nurtured and performed. Therefore musical assumptions would be well founded by tearing away the notion of narcissism in music in and along all its avenues. The notion that creating and performing music is narcissistic seems a confusion between the original Greek myth (a study in not going further into the world, but rather losing one's self and indeed one's productive life) to psychological terminology which can never penetrate the mystery of music's power and lure, and the various uses of the term even in today's political sphere.

An interesting sidelight to this thread of thought is that so much of the Western canon until recently has been rooted on some notion of belief and its structures. For this masses by Machaut to Pärt, and carols from the medieval to Britten's "Ceremony," and such sublime works as the Mozart "Requiem" (very Latin and Catholic) as against the Brahms "Requiem," another kettle of theological fish. If anything it seems the modern penchant for chatting about psychological diagnoses as explanatory of the brilliant insights of Bach into counterpoint as to Berlioz in orchestration leaves a flaccid postmodern and now politicized musicology with worries about narcissism as well as sexism and more. But what will topple the Western canon and its cathedrals of sound and structure and sense?

It takes a composer to compose and a player to play, a virtuoso to take the most technically challenging works and the sublime heart to make the greatest impact of the simplest tune. None of that seems in the least narcissistic. From Kohelet comes the sound advice to banish anxiety from the heart.

I see no similarity between narcissism and vanity, but even if so, the advice is that it is all, in a way, meaningless. You write of concern that today's technology is creating those "...more interested in the reactions of people to what they say and do" that to simple work and honest relationships. All I know is that music has afforded me a bevy of great friends and colleagues, an outlet of great breadth and depth and the chance to give something to my world. No vanity, per se, in that except from the postmodern handwringing about nothing much and the word whirlwind in which we live where too many messages obscure the old and proven messages which our culture and canon have bequeathed us. It is a firm enough rock on which to stand, and I feel no need to gaze into the pond of my own ego and lose tomorrow's next work.

As the best teachers have said repeatedly to me, and I am sure to many of us, work. Study. Practice. Create. Recreate. Produce. The old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall so completely trumps any narcissist gazing into the pool of meditation on one's self. Persevere.