The original poster child for the vice of vanity is a mythological Greek youth by the name of Narcissus. He was an incredibly beautiful young man, but he was not conscious of this fact, having grown up in a culture where mirrors did not exist. One day, he was out in the woods, and he came upon a perfectly still pool. Bending down to drink, he caught sight of an unbelievably attractive face. Immediately, he fell in love with his own image and was so transfixed that he was immobilized — indeed his name is derived from the word narcosis, meaning “numbness” or “sleep,” from which we get words like narcolepsy and narcotic. Benumbed by his own beauty, he lost his humanity and was transformed into a narcissus flower.
Narcissism has come to refer to a psychological condition in which one is completely self-obsessed or self-absorbed. There are, however, very few narcissists who are self-consciously narcissistic. Narcissus himself was not aware that the face in the water was his own: He thought that he had found and fallen in love with another person.
There is a profound insight here into the nature of vanity: Vanity is not merely an excess of self-involvement; it is a perversion of the desire for the other. The narcissist is not someone whose thoughts are constantly revolving around himself, but someone who is constantly projecting his own desires, whims and personality onto others around him so that all of his relationships are fundamentally oriented back towards the self. Most people who are obsessed with their own appearance, for example, are vain because they expect to use their looks to attract other people, especially sexual partners.
Vanity does not, however, involve a genuine desire for another person as a person. Just as lust reduces another to the level of an object in order to gain sexual satisfaction, vanity reduces other people to the level of objects in order to gain flattery and admiration. The vain person produces his or her own life, appearance and accomplishments in such a way as to inspire others to sycophantic adulation. The reflection of his own self-congratulation in the applause of his friends brings the vain man much greater pleasure than he could possibly gain simply by patting himself on the back.
The role of vanity in the sexual revolution cannot be overlooked. There is a tendency for both Catholic and feminist commentators to cast women as the victims of a culture which produces women as objects to be consumed by men. On the contrary, it is the vice of vanity that has induced so many women to accept the objectification that has been offered to them. Without this vice, women would simply refuse to wear demeaningly revealing clothing or to make themselves sexually available in relationships that provide them with no lasting emotional satisfaction, and often with no temporary physical satisfaction either. What many women are getting from these situations is an ego stroke, a sense of validation based on the empty flatteries of the men who are using them.
Ironically, while the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s gave primacy to the exercise of lust itself, many of its contemporary manifestations suggest a swing in favor of vanity. Practices such as sexting and a whole host of technologies which move sex into e-space provide little satisfaction for physical desire, but ample opportunity for narcissism. These technologies allow people to become sex objects, and to receive the admiration that they desire, without having to actually relate to anyone.
In some cases, the identities that are produced in order to gain public recognition and acceptance have little or nothing to do with the person herself. It is possible to create alternative identities through the use of false profiles, avatars and the sharing of information which is untrue. Many people who lack self-confidence in their real lives will create a fantasy personality and will slowly come to live more and more within the virtual world where they are enabled to become that person. These fantasies simultaneously conceal the real person and also enable the real person to proclaim things about himself that he would normally be ashamed or embarrassed to reveal.
The middle-aged man who pretends to be a 14-year-old girl and the teenage boy who pretends to be a 900-year-old vampire are not merely hoping that people will be deceived into loving their avatars. On the contrary, just as Narcissus was in love not with himself, but with the reflection of himself in the medium of water, the person who creates a false online identity is in love with the reflection of himself in the medium of the Internet. When others approve of and acclaim his false personality, he feels validated just as though those were real relationships and his avatar was truly himself.
Next time, I’ll be claiming my 15 minutes of fame.
Melinda Selmys writes at VulgataMagazine.org.