Sunday, January 17, 2010

Listening to Golem

This blog "Welcome to the Machine" stops here. It will continue, in a similar style, as the new blog Listening to Golem. This change is purely symbolic in nature and it marks the turning point that brought the previous blog and its initial motivation for existence to a conclusion. "Welcome to the machine" is being edited for publication in book form. "Listening to Golem" will continue what "Welcome to the Machine" would have liked to be, a reflection upon the world of science and its inner rituals.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Napoleon in rags

You used to ride on the chrome horse with your diplomat
who carried on his shoulder a Siamese cat
ain't it hard when you discover that
he really wasn't where it's at

(Bob Dylan, "Like a rolling stone")

There were many spoken and unspoken questions in the past few days over my recent post on NPD. For this reason I will review here some books about narcissism that I've been reading in the past weeks, as a part of the psychotherapy treatment I am undergoing, aimed at containing and hopefully undoing the damage accumulated over the past two years. No more comments on that, my posts covering that length of time spoke more than eloquently about it, and then I am tired of playing Banquo's ghost at conference banquets!

The two "tests" about NPD and narcissistic abuse that I described in my previous post are not my own creation: they are almost literally lifted from a combination of the diagnostic criteria for narcissism, as given in the second and fifth of the books listed here below. There is a broad psychiatric literature on personality disorders, which mostly focuses on the two most serious ones, narcissism and borderline. In addition to the specialized literature, there are several books available for a more general public that address the main characteristics of the narcissistic personality disorder and its effect on other people. The general accepted paradigm is that the narcissists themselves very rarely improve, and mostly the condition becomes more severe with the aging process. Thus, most of the literature about narcissism does not address the person affected by NPD, but focuses instead on the people who happen to be at the receiving end, and who typically are themselves likely to develop very serious psychological problems as a consequence of having skirted the event horizon of a narcissist. There are several very good books aimed at helping the recovery of victims of narcissistic abuse, while there are very few aimed at helping narcissists step out of their solipsistic vision of the universe and begin to relate to other people and eventually learn what it means to put oneself in another person's shoes and to savor the gift of empathy.

There is a notable exception to the lack of literature addressing recovery paths for narcissists, and it is given by the poignant book on narcissism written by the Jungian psychoanalyst Nathan Schwartz Salant, "Narcissism and character transformation". This book is much deeper and interesting than all the others I've been reading on the subject, and it is the only one that takes a compassionate look at the narcissistic character. It is not really meant to be read by the narcissists themselves, rather it is aimed at the psychotherapists or social workers who are engaged in the daring task of trying to treat narcissists. The book presents a path in several steps, which follow the morphemes in the Greek myth of Echo and Narcissus as narrated by the Latin poet Ovid.

The fundamental problem of identity in narcissism is explored from the Jungian perspective, in light of concepts of the Self, immanence and transcendence, animus/anima dynamics, archetypal aspects. The profile of the narcissistic character is sketched by Schwartz Salant in wide brushstrokes that highlight the main difficulties that are likely to emerge in the psychoanalytic work: "lacks penetrability", "rejects interpretation", "cannot tolerate criticism", "cannot integrate synthetic approach", "low empathic capacity", "takes pride in having no needs", "lacks sense of history or process", "disturbed masculine and feminine functioning", "potential for positive archetypal constellation". Some of these characterizations, such as lack of empathy and the tendency to rewrite history and situation so as to come out clean, are the same that we are going to encounter again in all the other references on the subject, while some here are more specifically taken from a Jungian point of view and refer more directly to the Jungian approach to psychotherapy. In any case, the book focuses on the main issues, the envy/rage core of the narcissistic person and the mirror transference in the relation to others. The first stage of the transformation process proposed by the book is described in terms of the Ovid retelling of the Greek myth and in particular the role of the nymph Echo. The analysis of the Ovid text is by itself very interesting and worth reading quite independently of any direct interest in the theme of narcissism, with interesting parallels to Neo-Platonic philosophy and anthropological and ethnographic studies. The main point the author is making in this first stage is the need and limitations of the mirroring response in starting a transformative process in the narcissist: "while a meaningful echoing response is necessary, there is reason to doubt its transformative effectiveness even when it exists with great psychic depth". If one has experienced the frustrations of years of continuously attempting to provide this type of supportive response to a narcissist, in the hope of catalyzing a transformative process, one knows exactly how much one has to invest only to see one's efforts destroyed as soon as the fear of confronting the deeper core of the defensive personality structure gets the upper hand and whatever door had momentarily seemed opened to penetration from the outside slams closely shut, leaving you out in the cold to wonder. Using the image of the reflection of the mask in the water as part of the mysteric cults of late antiquity (the fresco of the Villa of the Mysteries of Pompei) the author elaborates more deeply on the theme of the mirroring reflection. As concrete goals of change in this first stage, the author proposes "the change in stage one to a positive masculine functioning, for example to a sense of spirit not involved in power and overriding ambitions". The second stage, according to the author, focuses on the discovery and development of empathy, which he associates mythologically to the emergence of the feminine aspect. All along the emphasis is on how the therapist can use a careful combination of echoing techniques, interspersed with real attempts at reaching the depth of the narcissistic resistance, in a gradual way that would not cause the defensive barriers to immeidately slide shut preventing any further attempts at communication. It is a difficult, frustrating, and immensely slow process, and that is the reason why, almost universally, the psychiatric literature writes off the NPD as incurable and focuses only on helping the recovery of the victims. Schwartz Salant is the only one who does not seem to give up and tries to outline a credible if incredibly complicated path that aims at circumventing the defenses of the narcisistic character and bring about some process of transformation. The discourse is heavily loaded with the methods and language of Jungian analysis, so this book will appeal to people who have a specific literary sensitivity: the use of material from the Classics, Greek and Latin literature, Neo-Platonic philosophy, Eleusian and Dyonisiac mysteries will appeal mostly to people who share this cultural background. It certainly appeals to me for this very reason, and I find it more profoundly rich of useful reflections on the theme of narcissism than many of the more immediate "self help" type of references.

Though I very much like this lucid and deep analysis of narcissism offered by Schwartz Salant (whose other book on the borderline disorder is also extremely interesting), I have to say that for personal reasons, at this particular time I am also looking more closely at all those other books, the ones that address paths of recovery for people who have suffered in a close encounter with a narcissist. These books are typically more of the "self help" type, which I tend to find a bit shallow and not very elaborate. However, I can't deny that there are special situations when this form of very direct and unmediated narrative becomes very relevant and genuinely useful. I will give a brief guided tour of four such books, all published relatively recently, all addressing people caught in destructive relations, be it personal or professional, with narcissists. I will quote some passages from these books, as a way to elaborate on the somewhat blunt and direct comments of my previous post on the topic.

Eleanor Payson's recent book "The wizard of Oz and other narcissists: coping with the one-way relationship in work, love, and family" is one of the best available references directed at victims of narcissists. It follows the typical parabola of this type of human relation from its exciting beginning to its tragic end, using as a guiding metaphor the story of the Wizard of Oz. The story begins when one enters "the illusory world of the narcissist". The warning is clear right from the introduction: "the NPD person's complete self-absorption results in the insidious tendency to devalue those within his or her sphere of influence, either subtly by condescension, or openly with criticism. The inevitable impact on the individual in a relation with an NPD person is a dangerous erosion of self-esteem." I will quote freely sentences from the beginning chapters of this book that characterize the typical dynamics of interacting with a narcissist:

"Somehow you are never included in the picture with the narcissist, and you may find yourself wondering: `who am I if I am not allowed to exist?'"

"By the time you realize that something is wrong, the cumulative effects can range from bruised self-esteem to severe depression"

"From a distance this individual appears rather intriguing, charming, and even charismatic. With a closer look, however, you notice that he is monopolizing the conversation and appears animated and engaging as long as the focus is on him."

"You are increasingly fascinated with his performance and even more so as he selects you to be his exclusive audience."

"As your self-esteem withers and your confidence in knowing your reality diminishes, you gradually concede more power and control to the NPD person."

"The NPD person is not able to recognize, other than superficially, the feelings and needs of others... This is not to say that the NPD individuals don't often shower you with attention, gifts, or favors. Indeed, they often do. But the ultimate goal is always for some kind of return. The giving may be to foster a certain image or an overall feeling of indebtedness in you, such as an IOU note to be called in at some other time. You, of course, would rather believe you received the gift because you are cared for and valued."

"When you are involved with an NPD person, you may continue to tell yourself that things will eventually even out - that you will get your turn and when the time does come, he or she will be there for you, too. ... Then an event in your life focuses the spotlight on you, and you are shocked and disappointed by his or her behavior. ... At this point you are finally ready to look at the destructive impact this type of relationship has had on your life. ... The moment of truth is often a confusing mixture of intense feelings. You might feel outrage, hurt, and betrayal. At the same time you may feel released from the self-doubt that has dominated your thoughts and emotions."

"Socially, the overt NPD type is apt to convey the feeling that you are the audience, there to enjoy his entertaining personality. ... In a deeper relationship the NPD individual will exhaust you in his need for your constant attention and appreciative support, yet his desire to charm you will insidiously give way to sarcasm and competitive tension."

"The most insidious and subtle dynamic underlying all interactions with the NPD individual is his unconscious capacity to turn his lack of boundaries into an asset by causing you to lose the boundaries that define you. ... Sooner or later you find yourself orbiting within his sphere of influence, having lost sight of your own feelings, opinions, preferences, and goals."

Here's some more, which touches just the right chord: "In the circumstance of mutual admiration or an exciting shared goal, you can maintain an observing eye on the potential for the narcissistic dynamic. You will learn to maintain conscious awareness of the intoxication of mutual positive regard due to the fact that it becomes both an idealization and distraction dynamic causing you to forgo your desires and lose your ability for self-care."

"He also induces you into a sense of obligation and disproportionate loyalty"

"This initial phase of the relationship, which is characterized by the NPD person's idealization of you, will be followed by a subtle or not so subtle `turning of the tables'"

That's when one finds oneself suddenly playing the role of Banquo in the Shakespearian play. Macbeth is the ultimate story of the betrayal of friendship and loyalties in the name of a merciless quest for power and supremacy, in the grip of unrelenting tyrannical egos. It's not for me to ravel in this darkness any longer: the raging storm of narcissism tramples everything in its wake, with no regard for the scars it leaves behind ... till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane.

Payson chose the lighter tale of the Wizard of Oz, because this isn't the story of the narcissists, their slaughtering of friendship and caring, their progressive sinking into suspicion and paranoia, as depicted so beautifully in Macbeth. This is the story of the narcissist's victims, who go through the long and painful process of unmasking the illusory grandeur of the Wizard of Oz, disarming his capacity to hurt others by exposing the pitiful core of fear that hides behind curtains of defensive structures, and in that way finally manage to escape the illusory world of Oz back to a safer and well grounded sense of reality.

The main difficulty comes in the fact that NPD people have a great capacity to look well adjusted, charming, even sensitive. They are high achievers, courted, admired. It is very difficult for those who experience the hurtful side of the interpersonal relation to come forward and find understanding. Still quoting Payson: "The deep and severe disturbance of an NPD person is primarily seen in the pain he or she inflicts on others" and also "The NPD person's ability to project his problems onto you is so powerful, you have come to believe you are the one with a problem." This is why it is so important to seek professional help when one is caught into this type of interpersonal dynamics.

Another key problem of the relation with an NPD person is summarized by Payson as: "Unless he can take credit himself for your achievements, he is unlikely to validate it as success."

When one enters the narcissist's inner circle, which one would like to think means a deeper human relation we usually like to call friendship and a closer sharing of experiences and thoughts, one finds in fact a very ambivalent environment. Still quoting Payson: "The chosen few may be lavished with attention and appear as if they can do no wrong. Even these individuals, however, are subject to the tyranny of the NPD person's control and are held hostage to his will."

"The narcissist views others and the world around him as an extension of himself, perhaps as you might view your arm or leg. Because the narcissist can only understand others by absorbing them into his own experience of self, he determines that others should behave and act the way that HE behaves and acts." (emphasis of the author)

"... the narcissist has assessed, with considerable skill, the vulnerabilities of another person. He then effectively manipulates this person until he achieves his desired outcome. ... He has an almost self-righteous attitude that this is his mission in life, as if he were the captain of a ship of fools."

Typically you begin to see the real face of the narcissist when at some point something good seems to be happening in your life. The ability the NPD individual shows, on such occasions, to erode and undermine your feelings from within by carefully planting the seeds of self-doubt shows that, behind the appearance of caring, lies a core of cold envy and rage that only wants to destroy others as the only way to affirm oneself:

"Unconsciously, his/her envy and pain make it impossible to enable you to be happy. Equally evident is his/her inability to share in your joy if you should have good fortune or success. Since the NPD person must always feel `one up' with you `one down', acknowledging your success would threaten his/her defensive need to feel superior."

The theme of narcissism and envy is a deep and important one, that is treated at length in all the serious books on the subject. I will comment more on that later, with an extensive quote from another reference.

There are crucial defining times in a person's life, where it is no longer possible to move gradually from one moment to the next in a gentle reassuring adiabatic continuation of the past into the future, sailing smoothly across the threshold of the present. At such times, the singularity is reached. Those deep transformative moments are frightening, because they are accompanied by a loss of certainties, a need to question the foundations, the solid ground upon which one thought one had been standing all along, until it suddenly revealed itself as made of shifting sands. The edifice crumbles and the ruins await a slow process of reconstruction. It will not result in a restoration of a past order, whose existence has been annihilated, but a free experimenting with new forms, until out of the rubble something finally takes shape. Not an imposing tower of Babel, this time, but something with real substance and consistence. If attended to with sufficient dedication, these moments of crisis can herald the discovery of a deeper level of meaning, the true one that is stifled in the toxic fumes of ego driven conquests, and which can finally emerge only when the leaning tower imprisoning them is eventually toppled, when the Birnam Wood finally begins to walk and comes to give siege to the castle of Dunsinane.

The real question, however, is why we fall prey so easily of the illusions so convincingly orchestrated around us. The simple answer is that they appear to offer a relief from the endless struggle of life, a much desired momentary feeling of safety, a sense that, for once, we may allow ourselves the luxury of just swimming along with the flow. That's the allure of the narcissist, who is able to create this convincing illusion of shared destiny. Only with time one is forced to finally realize that the flow one was happily accepting to be carried by is in fact nothing but the narcissist's all devouring self-centered maelstrom. One can dig deeply into an investigation of cultural and multigenerational patterns, but why we fall for the illusion remains ultimately an unanswered question, one we will continue to drag around with the spoils of our wounded self.

Payson, as well as other of the references I am reviewing here, describes how certain types of early life traumas can essentially evolve in two very different ways in people: one is the narcissistic character disorder. These are the grandiose achievers, who are solely focused on the feelings and needs of their own self, whose strength is the capacity to captivate others and recruit them to serve their own vision, who are incapable of feeling empathy for others, tend to be suspicious of others, demand admiration and approval, and are secretly driven by a suppressed fear of humiliation. Then there is another pattern that similar type of early life experiences can take in people, which is often referred to as the "co-dependent" type. These are people who tend too easily to focus on the needs and feelings of others, have difficulties maintaining a clear sense of their own boundaries in relation to others, give their trust too easily. Needless to say, it is this later category of people that become most easily victims of the narcissists, who take the longest time to realize the truth of what is happening, to see the other person for what he really is, and take concrete steps to limit the hurt and damage.

Payson describes very clearly some of the most common defensive strategies used by the narcissist in conversation, in order to get around your attempts to have a honest and genuine discussion of what is happening. In particular, the "distraction dynamic" is a very effective method employed by the NPD person to defocus the issue and change the subject of conversation abruptly rather than having to be accountable for his own responsibilities, or else the "double message" strategy in which he manages to convey simultaneously completely conflicting messages. I have slammed against this barrier so many times in the past two years that I don't want to say any more about it, except quoting a couple of sentences from Payson:

"At other times, when you are simply sharing your thoughts about a subject of interest, the NPD individual may begin sharing something so unrelated that you wonder if you fell down the rabbit hole in Alice's wonderland."

"If you have co-dependent tendencies, you may find that your impulses compel you to expose yourself all the more by offering support and becoming more vulnerable."

"When you invariably frustrate his exquisite sensitivity to appreciation and admiration, or disappoint his expectation of you as his perfect ideal, he will project his anger and rage and will demonstrate a variety of defensive behaviors to keep you in line."

"One of the most powerful abilities of the NPD person is the way he projects the illusion that his logic is airtight and his analysis well reasoned as he astutely points out your weaknesses and problems. Before you realize it, your back is to the wall, trying to defend yourself against a barrage of mesmerizing attacks. ... As you reflect on your behavior later, you may shrink in shame at your loss of control and the terrible things you said. These episodes of your loss of control only intensify your fear that you are, in fact, the one with the real problem."

Once again, it is important to realize in time that one cannot handle the subtle and continuous twisting of reality that is inherent in the narcissistic dynamic alone, without help from a trained professional mental health care expert who can provide a sane sounding board and reality check and who can help you maintain a clearer sense of where the progressive erosion of reality you experience is really coming from. Otherwise, as Payson says:

"Serious symptoms for you may range from depression to chronic anger to stress-related illnesses, or the use of escape mechanisms such as compulsive of addictive behaviors".

I have now been through two years of this and I know what it means. In the end one has to examine life carefully and ask oneself the most difficult question: was it worth it? With all the nice work done, all the thoughts and ideas I enjoyed, the feeling of purpose, the projects, the new ideas and hopes, the beauty of it all, was it worth all the suffering that followed? The honest answer, I am afraid, is a clear "No".

How does it feel?
How does it feel,
to be on your own
with no direction home,
like a complete unknown,
like a rolling stone?

A somewhat frustrating feature of the existing literature aimed at helping victims of narcissistic abuse is that behind very promising titles such as "Disarming the narcissist" or "Freeing yourself from the narcissist in your life" one typically finds some very good descriptions of all the main aspects of NPD and their hurtful effects on other human beings, which are surely helpful, in the sense that at least those who are going through the impossible experience of interacting with a narcissist are reassured they are not going mad. However, when it comes to what is promised in the title, namely how to stop the downward spiral of pain and anguish, they have little to offer other than generic advice on practicing meditation to help keeping one's cool under the continuous shower of incoherent paranoid ranting and hurtful insinuations of the narcissist, or practice establishing and maintaining boundaries. Well, sure, alright, that much I could guess. The trouble is that narcissism is all about violating boundaries and anyone who is by one's own personal nature less able to resist this type of invasion and destruction of one's inner self will have a very hard time getting out of a seriously self-damaging situation just by an exercise of prana yoga. Discovering from one day to the next that one has been suddenly relegated to the sphere of non-existence after seven years of sharing both work and a (supposedly) close human relation will not be made any less painful by breathing exercises and some lame new age rhetoric.

Despite this very anti-climatic conclusion, the newly published book "Freeing yourself from the narcissist in your life" by Linda Martinez-Lewi contains a lot of material that anyone who has had a close encounter with an NPD person should read. The first half of the book is in fact probably the best available reference that gives the most accurate illustration of the typical dynamics of interpersonal interactions with an NPD individual. If the later part of the book, where it should come to advise on what to do is left wanting, this first part is sufficient to make the book a precious help for anyone caught in such a distressful situation. The case narrative based on the very famous (or infamous) lives of Frank Lloyd Wright, Pablo Picasso, and Ayn Rand serves well the purpose of setting the stage for an in depth analysis of the many forms of defensive barriers that the NPD erects between his inner uncertain self and the external world upon which all the unbearable aspects of his own characters, those based upon the pathological reactions to feelings of shame, are projected out onto other people.

The book gives a quick but well argued analysis of the role of envy in the NPD attitude:

"Envy in the narcissist is skillfully hidden. Yet it burns in his gut. The narcissist conceals his envy from himself. After all, he knows he is the best. Why should he be envious of someone who is his inferior? This envy arises from a deep self-hatred...He is confounded by human warmth, mutual dedication, and affection."

In other words: I am the best hence I cannot possibly be envious of others, therefore it is everybody else who is envious of me. Every time someone criticizes the NPD person or disagrees with him, the narcissists, who is unable to cope with criticism and dissent in any form, concludes immediately that is it a manifestation of envy and jealousy. The resulting pileup of paranoid fears and delusions is another distinctive character of NPD:

"The narcissist has many enemies, real and imagined ... He is suspicious even of the chosen few ... he is paranoid, tormented by anticipated attacks of perceived enemies ... looking for potentially incriminating information."

I think many people dealing with narcissist must be painfully familiar with this type of phenomenon, the continuous obsession of the NPD person about the envy he claims other people must be feeling for him: the endless ranting about jealousies that are invoked to explain just about anything that is not immediately agreeable to the NPD's ego. Often this frantic search for reasons to cast others in the role of enemies easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy: there is no better way to alienate other people and turn them eventually into enemies than to wrongfully accuse them of jealousies they never felt and attribute to them second motives and doubt their loyalty and friendship. So, in the author's words, "The narcissist lives in a state of constant suspicion. Friends can suddenly become enemies in his world." This is why the course of life, for most narcissists, progressively isolates them from others, leaving them eventually surrounded only by enemies and sycophants. The powerful projections of envy that emanate from the narcissist are difficult, even for the most evenly balanced person, to handle. One can easily become trapped into the projection, accepting it as real. Where Ockham's razor should come to the rescue (there is either a whole world filled with people whose only motivating drive in life is to envy the narcissist and spend their time scheming against him, or else there is just one person who projects out these feelings attributing them to everybody else), often a silence of complicity descends, whereby people are more easily willing to accept the projection as an unquestioned reality rather than to struggle against the powerful force with which it is imposed. Sometime it is with more subtle ways that the paranoid view of the narcissist gets accepted as real by others. As Martinez-Lewi says, "His confidence and charm draw others into his delusional world."

The book focuses specifically on what is referred to as the "high-level" narcissist, to distinguish it from other forms of NPD, variously terms "covert" or "low-level" in the literature. These are the great performers, those narcissists that typically are "very successful and innovative in their professional lives".

The course of a typical interpersonal interaction with this type of NPD person is described as:

"He becomes energized, electrified, as he basks in the glory of the full attention of the audience. If the focus wavers away from him even for a moment, he skillfully brings it back to himself... `Conversations' with narcissistic personalities are always one-sided: he talks, you listen. There is no give and take, no real interchange, no communion of thought or feeling. You are the captive audience. Narcissists are walking advertisements of themselves... The narcissist takes up a vast amount of psychological space, leaving room only for himself... Those who associate closely with this type of individual often feel that they are leading his life rather than their own and that his life is more valuable than theirs... A successful narcissist deludes others into believing that he is genuinely interested in them. It appears that you are the most important human being that he has ever met... When it becomes evident that you are of no value to him, there is nothing swifter than the narcissistic brush-off, sometimes subtle, often abrupt. What appeared to be a vital link with the narcissist has just been expertly severed."

One of the sad and tragic ironies is described as follows:

"The narcissist has an incredible sense of self-entitlement. Everything is about him... Although he may be a malevolent human being, the narcissist believes that he is a `good person'. Blind to his deceptions and cruelties, he automatically plays the role of victim when he is accused of iniquity."

Here is an example: after almost two years of increasingly painful interactions during which I tried in all possible ways to find any kind of explanation for what was happening, the NPD person's statement about himself was "I am coming to the conclusion that I am really far too nice a person while there are sharks all over the place". I would have laughed had I not been too busy crying: one could easily reach a different type of conclusion, at least on the level of human sensitivity involved in making such statements in the given circumstances. One reason why one cannot break through the barrier of the narcissist's defenses is that they served him so well all along:

"High-level narcissists are handsomely rewarded for the very attributes that make them inconsiderate and demanding human beings: self-absorption, aggressiveness, hubris... They are fawned over and admired despite a delusional consciousness that rides high on the winds of self-adoration."

There comes a time in life when one badly needs a wakeup call and that's what Martinez-Lewi provides in the clearest possible terms:

"All relationships with narcissistic individuals are exploitative. Believing that you have a real understanding with one of them is a blind illusion. Whether personal or professional, agreements, contracts, or covenants with narcissists are made to be broken."

" The narcissistic personality values himself alone... he betrays and manipulates everyone who crosses his path."

"The narcissistic personality surrounds himself with individuals who act as extensions of himself. He fuses with those who will protect and expand his grandiose sense of self. When the time comes to discharge a member of the inner circle, he asks himself... who is the replacement? As long as these supporting actors succeed in keeping their star shining brightly, the narcissist showers his blessings on them... These blessings can be removed as quickly and abruptly as they were bestowed if the `master' is displeased or slighted... Regardless of their years of loyalty and sacrifice, these faithful servants are coldly discarded, like trash thrown into a Dumpster... The moment you cease to satisfy his endless ego needs, the narcissist will dispose of you. If you thwart him, he may destroy you."

"The narcissist is incapable of truly caring for someone else. ... In his obsession to win at all costs ... he leaves many lives in disarray and chaos, like bodies strewn on a battlefield. ... A narcissist cannot be loyal to another human being... At some point determined by his wishes and desires, the relationship will come to an end."

"The narcissist is a tyrant who controls the world that he creates. He holds absolute power over his subjects, who have no rights of their own... When the goal is reached, the narcissist raises the bar and changes the rules. He sets up the game so that he always wins and you always lose... In his psychological world one person is interchangeable with another... Those under his control are not free to lead their own lives, to make decisions and mistakes, to use their talents and energies, to have their own dreams. Their only purpose is to assist the narcissist in fulfilling his grandiose vision of himself."

"Often very attractive, narcissists know exactly how to manipulate others... He gives the impression that he understands you intimately and has your best interest at heart... He communicates that `you are the most important person in the world'... He presents himself as a savior who understands your deepest longings."

"Ruthlessness begins with a pervasive insensitivity to the feelings of others. It grows slowly and surely in small, steady, almost imperceptible increments. ... the narcissist is tragically divided between two selves: the outer shell of charm, grandiosity, and supreme self-confidence, and the inner core of emptiness, rage, paranoia, and despair... When ruthlessness runs its natural course towards destruction, it becomes treachery... Acts of treachery cause mortal wounds on the psyche that never heal, wounds that must be endured every day. Treachery tears a hole in our trust in life itself... The narcissist is predatory... he may not actually kill his victims, but he finds undetectable ways to diminish or destroy their lives."

"The narcissist is always in a race that he must win. He competes in every arena. ... The successful narcissist creates an intricate system of positive feedback, in the form of friends, associates, partners, spouses - who perpetually fulfill his endless needs. When the sources of these ego rewards become unavailable or fail him, the narcissist experience intense feelings of emptiness."

"The narcissist expects others to mirror him perfectly... The smallest criticism or oversight is a source of wounding... Narcissist egos are rigid, vulnerable to the subtlest slight. It is ironic that those who are so comfortable inflicting body blows on others cannot tolerate even the mildest criticism or affront."

Again one has surely met many times the narcissist who claims to be a very sensitive person precisely because his ego is so easily wounded by the imperfect mirroring of the people around him or the slightest form of criticism. This more than anything else shows how far remote the NPD person is from the very meaning of the word "sensitivity" and from genuine human feelings. Sensitivity, like empathy, is by definition the capacity one has of feeling the pain of others, not a measure of how reactive and defensive one's ego complex is!

The reason why it is so difficult to come to terms with what is happening and see the truth in time before suffering permanent damage is once again the capacity NPD individuals have to simulate genuine caring. In the words of Martinez-Lewi:

"On the surface, the empathy of the narcissist seems to be genuine... the high-level narcissistic personality appears to care about our deepest and most intimate thoughts and feelings. ... He gives you the impression that you are not alone as long as he is by your side, solving your problems, anticipating your needs. ... In the embrace of an accomplished narcissist, we can easily be deluded. ... Will you be able to wake up, wiggle out, and escape, or will you become another victim of his pseudo-empathy?"

I don't particularly like the general tone of "Why is it always about you?", Sandy Hotchkiss' addition to the psychology literature on narcissism, because of its overtly conservative standpoint and the occasional pseudo-religious lingo. It is probably meant to appeal to a certain type of American public. However, there are interesting parts of the book. The "seven deadly sins of narcissism" are, according to the author: Shamelessness, Magical Thinking, Arrogance, Envy, Entitlement, Exploitation, and Bad Boundaries. In this, the description of the defensive structures of NPD and the resulting dynamics of interpersonal relations matches essentially what one finds in all the other sources. Once again, the advise that is offered to the victims of narcissists does not stretch too far beyond the simple common sense: Know Yourself, Embrace Reality, Set Boundaries, and Cultivate Reciprocal Relations. All very well, this indeed touches precisely on where the problems arise in attempting to develop close human relations with an NPD person: what goes wrong from the start is the negation of self (only the NPD's self is ever allowed to exist), negation of reality (only information that reinforces the narcissistic structure is allowed through, the rest is either twisted and rewritten to fit the need or simply discarded), violation of boundaries and lack of true reciprocity. Indeed, one also knows that the people who fall for the illusion aptly created by the NPD are usually people who have some intrinsic difficulty with the assessment of self-worth and with maintaining a clear sense of their own boundaries. The trouble is that this is a self reinforcing process: narcissists erode other people's self esteem, making them more and more vulnerable to further denial of self, and so on. The coping strategies suggested in the book fall short, in my opinion, of providing a viable suggestion of how to break the cycle once it has been set into motion. They still contain, however, several useful observations that are worth reading. In particular, one of the topics that I found more carefully analyzed in this book than in the other references is in the chapter "Narcissism and aging: the mirror cracks". This details the worsening of narcissistic traits with the aging process with the ultimate sliding down the edge of an indistinct paranoid fog of madness, while all the defensive structures of manipulation and deception progressively crumble, until having alienated all the people who could have offered genuine human affection and support, the narcissist faces the endgame of life in an entrenched state of terrified isolation. On the contrary, the chapter on adolescence is probably the worst one in the book: a shallow collection of politically conservative stereotypes with no special insight.

Wendy Behary's "Disarming the narcissist: surviving and thriving with the self-absorbed" takes the point of view of schema theory (in the sense of Gestalt Psychology not of algebraic geometry!) in describing the narcissistic character disorder and its effect on other people. Again the narcissist-codependent dynamics is analyzed in depth. With respect to the other books, apart from the specific behavioral psychology point of view, it contains an interesting and more elaborate discussion of the origins of narcissism from childhood trauma. Behary distinguishes between two types of children that may evolve into NPD people in their adult life: the "spoiled/dependent child" and the "deprived-dependent". The first is pretty much what is discussed in most other references, the child that is doted upon by parents who hijack his natural development in the service of a projection of their own ambitions, while the second is especially interesting, at least for what I know about the specific case I have been dealing with. I quote directly Behary:

"The most popular proposal for the typical origins of narcissism is that the child grew up feeling conditionally loved, meaning that love was based upon performance. His parents may have expected him to be the best. ... He was not shown how to walk in someone else's shoes, or how to feel the inner emotional life of another person."

The book then focuses on the narcissist-codependent dynamic, by presenting a series of schema that are simultaneously activated in both and that end up determining the painful course of the interaction. I don't know much about the cognitive behavioral approach to psychology, but roughly what schemas describe is patterns of behavior which manifest themselves in a somewhat rigidified form in interpersonal interactions. It seems to be a helpful formalism to identify characteristic traits behind individual pathologies.

At the end of this long excursus on the literature on the subject of narcissists and their victims, comes the final moment of reflection upon it all. Having invested an enormous amount of inner resources in what I mistakenly thought was a shared enterprise, until it became plainly obvious that it was never meant to be, the deeper transformative act can only consist of turning this sense of defeat into a deeper reflection and ultimately a liberation from the chains of illusion. Not only there was no shared dream, despite of all the work, the talking, the gestures, the appearance of connectedness, but this long lasting and powerful illusion slowly drained away all other resources from their natural inclinations, bending them in the service of an imposed and unnatural sense of purpose. In that respect, the shattering of the dream brings about a sense of newly rediscovered freedom to finally develop one's own meaning and vision. If the experience of rejection, of being cast out of the illusory paradise of a tyrannical kingdom of heaven, does not destroy us, we may find ourselves finally in a safe place for the healthy and satisfactory development of our minds and thoughts. It is once again Milton's words from "Paradise Lost" that come knocking at our door: "Here at least/We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built/Here for his envy, will not drive us hence". Lucifer's struggle for existence in Milton is an apt representation of that same struggle, as described over and over in the various books about the victims of narcissism that I have been reading. These verses of Milton began to resonate in my mind long ago, well before I could even tell precisely what it was that seemed amiss, with my consciousness still too heavily encased in denial, and now I finally see so clearly what, some levels deeper in my mind, I must have been seeing all along, and refusing to admit.

You used to be so amused
at Napoleon in rags and the language that he used.
Go to him now, he calls you, you can't refuse
when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.
You're invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

How does it feel?
How does it feel,
to be on your own
with no direction home,
like a complete unknown,
like a rolling stone?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Here comes the flood

Don't be afraid to cry at what you see
The actors gone, there's only you and me
And if we break before the dawn, they'll
Use up what we used to be.

(Peter Gabriel, "Here comes the flood")

Whose idea was it to get me stuck for three nights in this nowhere out at the dark end of the Paris suburban train line, while all the other people at this conference are experiencing the warmth of some pleasant Parisian nights, right in the middle of the Quartier Latin? Whose? Well, not mine! Anyway, I've got only 27 more hours to go through, only 27, though it feels like an endless time, "ticking away the moments", each sleepless minute of dark cold night stretching like a blanket to cover agonies of thoughts. Only 27 hours to go. Counting.

When the flood calls
You have no home, you have no walls
In the thunder crash
You're a thousand minds, within a flash

Why am I going through this? One more conference, one more talk to give, one more responsibility. To what? To whom? When am I going to finally hit the bottom and start to climb my way up towards life again? Maybe, possibly, now. 27 hours, I can go through that. And then, will there be a next time? Another lesson to learn all over again? Or does this finally suffice to seal the tombstone over seven years of misplaced illusions?

The jaded underworld was riding high
Waves of steel hurled metal at the sky
And as the nail sunk in the cloud, the rain
Was warm and soaked the crowd.

In the loneliness of these cold winter nights, out in these deserted snows, you cannot even reach for a friendly voice, for some noise of life in the streets, some dim glow of city lights, to guide you through the slow indifferent rolling of the skies. Five hours to dawn, counting, and a meaningless trap that snapped shut around you, bringing you back one more time, one last perhaps, to this same place. Insane, what does that word convey? Only a sound that momentarily breaks the continuum of stillness in the air, and the sweeping force of a rising tide.

Lord, here comes the flood
We'll say goodbye to flesh and blood
If again the seas are silent
In any still alive
It'll be those who gave their island to survive.

There are disciplines of the mind that teach us how to face the flooding waters of our deeper self that come rushing up - those waves of steel hurling metal at the sky - without being swept away and drowned by their primitive force. The oriental cultures had Zen and Yoga, the Europeans developed Jungian analysis. When Jung, over the course of many years, patiently compiled the calligraphy of his illuminated manuscript of the "Red Book" or Liber Novus, he was the last of the great alchemists who sat through the centuries in the silence of European winter nights, listening to the roar of voices from within. Did they expect to uncover the secrets of nature, or to contain the tidal forces that break us from within? I can turn the question back at myself, because we haven't really moved that far away from our alchemical ancestors, still playing around with our quest for a philosopher's stone, whatever it is that we like to call it these days, quantum gravity and the like. Still apparently fumbling around to make sense of the natural world, while most of the time trying, in fact, to devise a strategy of containment that keeps us going from one day to the next, without being torn apart by our inner tidal waves.

There is a numinous quality to Jung's drawings of the Liber Novus, a rare sense of peace accompanying the threatening deluge of our desperate demons. Liber Novus is now for the first time in print. Back home, I spent the week prior to this difficult trip, immersed in the warm comfort of a true and genuine love, reading through this very private world of Jung's active imaginations, trying to prepare the mind to withstand the coming lonely nights out here with this dance of ghosts and regrets. The discipline of Liber Novus is that of recognizing images, hidden in the powerful surge of despair that wells up inside our bodies and minds. Those images are ritually attended to, as in the miniatures of Liber Novus, transformed by our active intervention, integrated into our thought processes, which alchemically transform a menace into an inner dialog. The process turns us in this way from passive recipients of nightmares to proactive seafarers of the deep waters of the imagination.

Only four hours to dawn. Counting.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The monsters of the ego

Are you a victim of narcissistic abuse?

No, I have not turned the subject of my blog into a self help recovery group, but unfortunately the scientific profession is populated by narcissists and by their traumatized victims. So the likelihood that, if you work in scientific research you may be either one or the other (or sometimes both) is very high.

Narcissism is classified psychiatrically as a "personality disorder", along with other well known types of illnesses such as the much discussed borderline. Many people suffering from narcissistic disorder are high achievers, driven, focused, successful. Invariably highly self centered and incapable of empathy for other human beings, they often become the perpetrators of abuse, typically in the form of manipulating partners, collaborators, and other close human relations, into acting as "mirrors that clap", whose sole function is to provide a continuous source of validation to the narcissist. These same people are then disregarded entirely whenever they cease to provide the narcissistic feed and dare to commit the unspeakable act of existing as other people, with their own individual rights to existence, dignity, and self-expression. The narcissist, with his insatiable hunger for being always at the center of everyone's attention, for special entitlement to a privileged right to existence, can inflict an infinite amount of pain and anguish on the people who, in one role or another, end up being exposed to his endless demands for self-gratification. As it is well known from the psychological studies of narcissism, the attitude of the narcissist comes in fact from a poor self-image, and unstable sense of self worth, which needs to be continuously validated at the expense of other people.

Here's a few quick hints on how to recognize, before it's too late, if the people in your life whom you feel close to - collaborators and friends for instance - are narcissist abusers and if you are becoming the victim of a relation with a narcissist.

Test 1: Unmask the narcissist. Have you ever observed him engage in five or more of the following behaviors?

- He cuts people off when they are trying to speak, interrupting them continuously in a disruptive and obnoxious manner.

- He pretends to be an expert on things he truly knows nothing about, and insists on being right at all costs even when more knowledgeable people disagree.

- He shows a lack of empathy towards problems of other people, such as a cold and insensitive response to an illness or an accident that you or somebody else close to him suffered.

- He has an extremely low tolerance for criticism.

- He is always seeking approval and admiration, if not adulation, from other people.

- He demands to be loved and admired by everybody but is rarely capable of reciprocating.

- He is distrustful of the motivations of others, suspecting people of envying him and scheming against him.

- He shows a clear disproportion between the importance he attributes to things that happen to him and to the same things when they happen to others.

- He behaves as if other people were identical and interchangeable: behaviors such as telling the same things over and over again in exactly the same way on all occasions, without any care for the specific sensitivities of different audiences.

- He exhibits a tendency to praise and cherish people for a period of time, as long as they serve the purpose of feeding his narcissistic needs and then abruptly dismissing them when they reveal themselves as real people with rights and needs.

- He thinks that special rules apply to him, or that he is above the rules that apply to all others.

- He is unable to sense the pain he inflicts on others.

- He is self-obsessed, continuously thinking and talking about himself.

- He exhibits a tendency to perfectionism and an exaggerated fear of committing mistakes.

- He is workaholic.

- He surrounds himself preferentially with people who please his ego without ever posing a challenge, such as people he can safely perceive as intellectually his inferiors.

- He rejects, if not overtly attacks, people who pose an intellectual challenge or dare to explicitly disagree with any of his statements and pronouncements.

- He uses acts of generosity towards other people to generate in them a sense of dependence and indebtedness, which is then used as an instrument for manipulation and control.

- He wants at all costs to be always "the first of the class".

- He is unable to offer a sincere apology.

If you checked five or more items from this list, then you are dealing with a narcissist and your mental well being may be in serious danger. If you checked close to all of them, then you are dealing with a severe case of "overt maladaptive narcissism" and your life may be in danger too. Seek help!

Test 2: Are you the victim of abuse? If you have just identified one of your close relations as a narcissist, think of whether in the course of your interactions with him you experienced five or more of the following sensations and thoughts.

- You feel physically tense: back ache, stomach ache, fast heart rate, difficulties breathing...

- You never know what to expect: he is seemingly caring and considerate one moment (when in need of your approval) and coldly dismisses you the next moment with no warning and no justification.

- You developed a severely damaged sense of self-worth and self-esteem.

- You underwent a prolonged period of severe depression, possibly with suicidal thoughts.

- You begin to doubt your own existence and your sense of reality.

- You experience lack of sleep for prolonged periods of time.

- You have a sense of not being allowed any room to voice your own thoughts and opinions.

- You feel you have to struggle to be heard.

- You feel that whatever he does to you, he will always blame you for it.

- You experience exaggerated feelings of guilt.

- You are drawn back into trying to relate to him even though you only experience pain in doing so.

- You feel trapped in an impossible situation, unable to find a way out.

- You feel as if you had to fight all the time and are worn out and exhausted.

- You are scared and confused.

Seek help with a mental health care professional! Being a victim of narcissistic abuse can be a severely traumatic life experience, especially if the perpetrator is a person you admire and looked up to as a role model. Especially if your professional life is entangled with this person, getting out of the abusive relation may be extremely challenging. It may seem frightening, and you may be tempted to put up with more abuse, as an attempt to defuse the tension and save what mattered so much to you in the relation, what you thought you were sharing. Beware: there is no such thing as sharing with a narcissist, and you can only learn that the hard and painful way. There is no healthy give-and-take relation with a narcissist, only a manipulative, crippling, subjugating type of giving and a demanding, exploitative, and insensitive type of taking. It is especially difficult to accept this when your interactions with him are both at the personal and at the professional level. How much of yourself, your work, your aspirations, do you have to sacrifice in order to save your life and your psyche from the destructive assaults of your narcissistic abuser? How could I be such a fool? The painful realization often comes with a sense of disbelieve, how could I have not realized he was like that? That's another thing that the psychiatric literature on the subject teaches us very clearly: the narcissistic personality is especially good at that, at being deceptive and manipulative, at simulating genuine affection and caring. Except that, in reality, the narcissist is only capable of caring about himself. He can care about you only as long as he continues to see you only as a mirror, which is usually for the first period of your personal or professional relation. As soon as he begins to perceive that you have a voice of your own and a a right to existence, the troubles start and since then on there is no return, because there is no possibility of a two ways communication, really. It is painful, extremely painful, to come to the conclusion that people who have meant a lot in your personal and professional life can only destroy you and that you should disengage to save your life. It is painful, but the alternative is only to continue to descend along the dark path of self-destruction. Stop! Break the chain that keeps you tied to an abuser in the vain hope to catch once again a glimpse of what things were like when you lived in the illusion he fabricated for you by promising that you'll be journeying together and sharing the joys of intellectual fulfillment.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The mystery of communication

For the first time in a couple of years at least, I experienced what it is like to do creative work purely for pleasure and enjoyment, without being motivated by rage or by the need to defend a basic right to existence. Just that simple joyous feeling of liking what one is doing, of curiosity and playfulness. The sense that the thing itself in fact does not matter much, that the process of doing, of learning, of sharing thoughts and ideas, is more fulfilling than achieving any specific goal. A very taoist idea: the path is what matters not the goal. Well, it is possible, still possible, it seems. Maybe it requires very special circumstances, like this week of suspended reality, immersed into a world where time flows at a naturally slow pace, where work progresses along with long walks on the beach of a lake that looks like a sea on a surprisingly sunny day amidst bouts of autumn rain, where there is science and there is a lot of room for other forms of culture floating and mixing inside the same bubble of reality. I wonder if for some lucky few it may always be like that, whether there may always be a rich cosmos where the human and the noetic blend harmoniously instead of being at each other's throat, where there is so much to share. For once, it no longer makes me feel like trying to walk my way through a barren landscape. I had nearly convinced myself that I had been running after an illusion for a good part of my life, for seeking this type of experience. I had almost admitted to myself that I had dreamed up a chimera that cannot exist. So for once, finally, I am just writing because I am happy instead of indulging once again in that whole other spectrum of feelings I've been reversing down the pages of this blog, and maybe I'll stop being such a bore, for a time. It is a mystery what makes communication possible between people, what a substratum of shared experiences is needed to establish connections at levels that are deeper than the skin of reality. That is, indeed, what culture is all about: culture is what makes communication possible.

There's a whole spectrum of scientific disciplines that developed around the modern need for a theoretical understanding of communication and information transmission. This is a need that developed historically as soon as the technology for telecommunication became available. The existence of the first long distance telephone networks and the related problems of transmission of signals without loss of information was the first engineering challenge that called for a better understanding of what a message is, of how information is encoded, transmitted, and decoded. This early origin of the theory of information was followed historically by the first global war where science played a major role in determining the outcome and the resulting geopolitical equilibrium for the rest of the century. Within that war, a science of encoding and decoding messages became a crucial part of the arsenal that decided the outcome of battles. And if by 1951 Marshall McLuhan's "Mechanical Bride" had started to teach us how the medium is the message, the process of abstraction of the notion of communication had already been perfected in 1949, when Shannon published his mathematical theory of communication, which is a scientific milestone of the 20th century and quite a beautiful book to read.

The theory of telecommunication engineering merged in this way with the theory of coding and decoding procedures and created an intricate network of overlapping notions: entropy of languages, Kolmogorov complexity, Turing machines, codes from algebro-geometric curves. It is a rich universe of our contemporary scientific culture that I am only slowly beginning to explore. The development of computers and information technology proceeded hand in hand with the mathematical theory, until the more recent develoments paving the way to the jump into a realistic quantum computation technology. So far I only took a glimpse of a vast landscape seen through a keyhole, but finding a keyhole shaped like the state of one's present understanding is all one needs to unlock the door that leads to the next world of learning.

For a pleasurable excursus into the interplay between the development of the mathematical theory of information, coding, and communication, and the cybernetic movement, I have been entertaining myself with the recent book of Triclot "Le moment cybernétique : La constitution de la notion d'information", which I got on my recent Paris trip. A more philosophically oriented work, it consists of an informative excursus from the early days of communication theory and cybernetics, across Turing, the first comparisons between computers and the brain (see von Neumann's Silliman lectures), the role of entropy, the theory of automata, all the way to final reflections upon the impact on society and the political implications of this whole branch of science, on which already Wiener had pronounced himself in very stimulating reflections.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Seeds of the real

Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi.

(Jacques Prévert)

Airport waiting once more. Been in Paris a week, back a week, flying to Chicago today. I had thoughts of calling off the Paris trip all the way until the moment when I finally stepped on the plane. I found Paris unusually warm for October, but familiarly rainy, dead leaves and all. Every day the difficult negotiation of thoughts and feelings, stepping tiptoe over wounds still laying bare, fumbling for a remnant of scrambled mental processes that once had seemed like a coherent frame. A slowly emerging picture of something still possibly existing, ideas, matching formulae, similarities laying hidden amidst differences as wide as the gaping mouth of Chaos in Hesiodean hexameters. Soaked in rain - so much for it to wash away - I walked the familiar places, tried to see friends, tried to feel purpose and meaning in that all. Through the night I read Giordano Bruno, trying to find meaning there too, a search for something that still elicits a sense of connectedness. Focus, I have learned in the experience of the summer months, is what keeps us, if barely, this side of the line dividing existence from nothingness: the focused thought of a well defined scientific problem, stripped bare of everything that is human, and therefore hurtful, about it. It was a good idea, it now seems, not to have called the trip off: running away is never a valuable strategy.

There is a comforting quality to the process of learning: reading, thinking, understanding, a very basic type of human pleasure. In a case as clean and well defined as a mathematical concept this process is refined to a degree of elegance and essentiality that confers to it a special esthetic beauty. It makes it all the more comforting in its abstraction, like that type of Zen meditation exercises where one concentrates one's full attention on a detail of an image, making it into an abstract entity, while emptying the mind from all the other turmoils that torment it. How to compute the probability distribution in a random matrix model, one step after the other, a relaxing mental exercise, a Zen koan. For this to work, however, one needs to be able to let go, to forget all that seems - that is in fact - so much more important and compelling. With science we are able to comprehend and act upon the course of nature, but what ultimately remains beyond reach is the possibility of changing the nature of human beings. One simply has to learn when to let go, and then free the mind so that it can savor the pleasure of learning and its therapeutic value.

On my last day in Paris, browsing with friends at an open air book fair, I managed to get hold of a numbered copy of Max Ernst's "Journal d'un astronaute millenaire", one of his lesser known but very interesting collage books published in the sixties. I even manage to negotiate a reasonable price. "L'astronaute millenaire" is but one of the surreal visual stories in this collection, along with "Le rire du poetes", "humanae vitae", "l'enfance de l'art", etc. This late work has a very different style from the longer earlier collage stories, like "Une Semaine de Bonté". Those were long and elaborate narratives, with the dream like quality through which the observer's brain provides consistence and perceives deeper level structures at increasingly longer scales in the juxtaposition of incongruous collage elements. By constast, the millenary astronaut collages consist of still frames: the narratives they compose are short and iconic like collections of situational portraits. So masks mask and unmask each other while millenary astronauts predict the eclipses of the galaxies.

et le peintre arraché à ses songes
comme une dent
se retrouve tout seul devant sa toile inachevée
avec au beau milieu de sa vaisselle brisée
les terrifiants pépins de la réalité.

(Jacques Prévert - Promenade de Picasso)

Welcome to the desert of the real
(The Matrix)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

In peace for all mankind

Transumanar significar per verba
non si poria

(Dante Alighieri - Divine Comedy, Paradise)

Just went to a public lecture of Buzz Aldrin: moon landing anniversary, Planetary Society fundraising, book promotion event, whatever it was that brought him here. Surely an inspiring character, from the height of Moon-walk to the depth of his personal history of depression and mood disorders. Certainly an occasion for reflection, once more on the theme of hero figures: it is easy to understand how, at the time of the moon landing, the expectations created around the space race made the Apollo 11 astronauts into instant world heros. It was, after all, a great success to be celebrated being able to bring people safely to the surface of the moon and back. A symbol of what modern science and technology can achieve constructively, in stark contrast with the sinister background of the Cold War arms race: in peace for all mankind. Yet the human cost of the hero status bestowed upon the returning astronauts has been enormous: Armstrong all but disappeared from public life and Aldrin returned to it after his own long dark voyage through the underworld of depression and alcoholism. The all too human need to forge other people into symbols, hero figures, myths, is an incredibly aggressive act towards precisely those people one is trying to elevate above the human level. It is not just the people who accept to wipe out their own capacity for independent thought and action and to devalue their own lives by preferring instead to live vicariously through another person that are the victims. The people who are cast (reluctantly or willfully) into the role model attire are also victims of a scheme from which there is no escape except accepting the increasingly dehumanizing effect of being transformed into a symbol. Most people who find themselves in this role too easily lose the capacity for sincere human feelings, for empathy, for understanding, all precious qualities traded in for stylized and shallow adopted behaviors that fit the image of what the need to appear. It is no wonder that people break down when they realized how much they are asked to sacrifice. I am being carried away by a too familiar line of thought once again. In fact, Aldrin's public lecture was entertaining and inspiring. The criticism of the current perspectives for a manned space program very much to the point, with interesting comments on the structural differences between the Apollo and the planned Orion of a seemingly improbable return of NASA to the Moon, on his ideas about the cycler trajectories bringing a spacecraft on a periodic trajectory between the Earth and Mars - a sort of planetary commuter, on his original expertise in orbital rendezvous which is what brought him to the Apollo mission in the first place. Interesting, all of it. I am glad I was able to attend. Forty years down the line from that Moon walk day, heros are still living the life imposed on them by the chains of fame, still an example to us all, still keeping alive the dream of space exploration, and yet, one cannot help sensing also an undercurrent of psychological strain, the erosion that notoriety and its demands cause on our most cherished souls.

In the forty years since the Apollo 11 days, the dreams and expectation of our collective scientific imagination of the future of mankind have slowly moved from outer space to inner space, driven by the sharp comparison between a stagnant space program and the rapid advances of computer and information technology. Just as neural and cognitive science gradually replaced hard core physics as the hip science of choice of the younger generation, the focus of the imagination shifted from the exploration of the cosmos to the exploration of the human mind. In particular, the current of thought that came to be known widely as transhumanism became more and more representative of the new vision of the human future. The basic idea of transhumanism is the transformation of biological human beings into something else, which can range from the milder forms of human/machine blends we are already familiar with through the virtual reality aura created around our physical bodies by the multitude of our electronic accessories that keep us connected, to much more drastic images of future full downloads of human consciousness into machine hardware.

Curiously enough, both transhumanism and space exploration come historically from exactly the same source. Both can be traced back to a group of Russian philosophers and mystics of the late 19th century, the "biocosmists" revolving around the figure of Nikolay Fedorov. Among them was the geochemist Vladimir Vernadskii, whose work on the biosphere may well make him the precursor of all modern environmental science, as well as the father of rocketry and space exploration, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Fedorov and the biocosmisms advocated the achievement of immortality through science, via the modification of the biological human being, and at the same time they advocated space exploration as one of the ultimate goals of the new enhanced humanity.

Tsiolkovsky made the space exploration part of Fedorov dream become a reality. A lone provincial teacher of science in Kaluga, first scorned by the establishment of late Tzarist Russia and then sponsored by the Communist government and made into a national hero, Tsiolkovsky had a deep influence on the making of several Sovient scientists and engineers: Sergei Korolev, Boris Chertok, and the Khrushchev era Soviet cosmonautics. A very nice recent book by James T. Andrews "Red Cosmos" gives a carefully balanced and well argued account of the figure of Tsiolkovsky and his lasting influence on the space era. Most interestingly, Tsiolkovsky resoted to a mixture of technical writings, science popularization, and science fiction to promote his ideas, calculations and technical results about multistage rockets. It was precisely this capacity to address an audience at many levels that made him so successful in attracting a generation of young people to science, who ultimately transformed the dream of space exploration into a reality.

The other side of Fedorov's biocosmist philosophy was slower in developing. If with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 the space race had officially started and it would bring within just a few years robotic probes and human beings in space and eventually to the Moon, the biocosmist vision of a deeply altered (and perfected) human nature lied dormant for a much longer time and only recently has transhumanism emerged again as a strong current of thought.

It is perfectly understandable why, between the time of Fedorov and where we stand today, people steered away for a long time from the idea of an artificially enhanced humanity. The horrors of the Nazi ideology promoting a superior race loomed large on any thought of fiddling with the biological human beings. It was only after the development of cybernetics and the theory of information and communication that an idea of transhumanism emerged once more, this time addressing the problem of human/machine interaction. Wiener's writings on cybernetics purposely blur the boundary between the mechanism and the homeostatic functioning of biological systems. Finally, the accelerated development of computer technology made the human/machine interaction an everyday reality and the transhumanist ideas more and more relevant.

One also sees these days a return of the original biocosmist vision blending transhumanism with space exploration in a very interesting new manifestation. The most interesting science fiction writer of today, the Australian Greg Egan, has developed in his novels and short stories a transhumanism vision of disembodied human consciousness reproduced in an informatic medium as the basic substratum for space exploration. With no need to violate the laws of physics, his transhuman characters can populate space adventures spanning the range of times and distances of the cosmos, promoting the very sound scientific ides that a space faring civilization, or network of civilizations, can only exist if it abandons the biological constraints dictated by an evolutionary process adapted to a planetary environment but not suitable for the cosmos. I recommend Diaspora as a good example of Egan's transhumanist and very scientific form of science fiction.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Ash Wednesday Supper

No, I know, this is not Ash Wednesday in the sense of the Christian calendar of festivities, but it is a warm late summer Wednesday night and ashes from forest fires are raining down the skies of Los Angeles. It is the season when the Santa Ana blows a stream of hot air down the Saint Gabriel mountains and the campuses are frantically working to meet their grant proposal deadlines. For many this is a time of reflection, a sort of scientific Yom Kippur, where one is forced to draw a picture of one's own scientific activity over the past year and tries to envision where one is going and why. The harsh reality of Darwinian selection, by which a large pool of highly qualified applicants will be selected against by lack of resources and only a small elite will savor the privilege of supported research, makes the introspection at this time of the year all the more poignant, all the more sincere.

I personally think that forcing people with periodic regularity to perform a long and careful reflection on the status of their research work and aspirations is an excellent idea. One sees too often in other countries (in my own experience, Germany for example illustrates this point rather clearly) how senior scientists are generally no longer, or only very rarely, subjected to a direct scrutiny of their activities. Sure, there are reviewing committees for departments and research institutes but those come infrequently and the confrontation with the evaluation is less direct, since the latter typically focuses more on addressing the performance of entire units and less on specific individuals. It is easier in such circumstances to hide behind inflated egos who too easily convince themselves that whatever they are up to at any given time is of crucial importance to the scientific community, even though this may patently be a self generated delusion. "If I did not believe that what I do is extremely important, I would immediately stop doing it" a German scientist once told me: LOL, as they say in internet youth jargon. Such examples make one wish that more frequent and harsher forms of peer reviewing would provide a good cure for this type of exaggerated and unjustified self aggrandizing. At the same time one would like to have a situation where a society that cares about science would have the mean to support science as a whole, which means supporting essentially all scholars who are actively engaged in scientific research and not just the lucky five to ten percent, as is typically the case with government grants in the US. After all, one does not want to do the opposite mistake either, and neglect something that may perhaps not look sufficiently flashy and promising today, but which may reveal itself as being of real importance tomorrow.

The issue, in a sense, is like the political reflection about anarchy versus the status quo of law and order: do we really need to invent god and police to make sure that people can aggregate into a civilized society? Is it really only the fear of punishment that can move a person to act in a way that is mutually beneficial to all? Isn't there also something that one likes to call reason that people can appeal to? Transplanted in the context of science and the support for research activity: is harsh selection for scarce resources and the fear of losing the means of financing one's own research activities the only way to force people into a critical reflection of their own ideas? Isn't there a better way, which would be compatible with the principle of a more widespread and less elitist support for science, but which at the same time would avoid the excesses of narcissism and indulgence described above? I believe it all boils down, somehow, to an issue of "class consciousness" or of lack thereof. Despite the fact that science is a collaborative enterprise that grows upon itself and self regulates, a lot of scientists seem to be incapable of seeing themselves as a collective, a union, a class with common interest and common needs. No trade union of scientists yet exists, as far as I know (though I was personally tempted to talk the Wobblies into creating one). It is probably too much individualism, too much ego worship, too many ingrained habits of seeing others as rivals, competitors to outrun, to foster one's own delusions of superiority, that make it difficult for many to take the necessary steps towards perceiving us all as a commune. The professional associations of scientists try to bridge that gap by generating, somewhat artificially it often appears, a sense of belonging, but individualism is still the rampant and unchallenged behavior of most. Had there been a bit more "class consciousness" in our midst, perhaps a broader umbrella of public support for research would have been negotiated, while at the same time the excesses of self-indulgence would have been curtailed from within, without the need to resort to god, police, and the NSF to do the chastising for us. That healthy deep moment of reflection that comes to us every year at the seasonal Yom Kippur of science would still be possible, even in the presence of better and more broadly spread funding for scientific research, not because people are forced to reexamine their ideas, but because they feel that it is healthy to do so, for the common good.

The Ash Wednesday Supper, as the reader has certainly not missed, is also the title of the first of the three major philosophical dialogs of Giordano Bruno. Written at the time of his Oxford years (1583-1585) it is deeply critical of the British academic system, in ways one can still see reflected in the attitudes of today. In Oxford Bruno lectured about Copernicus and his then brand new revolutionary work in astronomy, as well as about Renaissance Neoplatonism. He was the first who dropped all the convenient "save the phenomena" paraphrasing used by Copernicus in his writings and went straight for the simple bare statement: the Earth revolves around the Sun. Yet, he was accused by the Oxford academic establishment of not being capable of independent original thought, of simply repeating what others have written in books: Copernicus's astronomical work, and Marsilio Ficino, for the Neoplatonic revival. It appears that already at the time of Giordano Bruno people where incapable of understanding that reading books and being knowledgeable of the interesting work done by other people is not a sign of being incapable of creative and independent thinking. As a response to the unjust accusation laid before him by the Oxford academics, Giordano Bruno promptly composed and published his three major philosophical works: "The Ash Wednesday Supper", where he severely criticized the attitude of his detractors, and the two beautiful and deeply original "Of the infinite, universe, and worlds" and "Of the cause, principle, and one". Then, he promptly left his position in Oxford and resumed his wanderings about the lands of Europe until he was eventually arrested by the Inquisition in 1592, after having been turned down for the chair of mathematics at the University of Padova (which would have granted him immunity from prosecution), which was instead assigned to the other candidate on the "short list", Galileo Galilei. After eight years of trial by the Inquisition, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake as a heretic, for those very same philosophical claims on the plurality of worlds and the infinite cosmos that he laid out so elegantly in his British writings.