Malignant Narcissism and Empaths
The list of characteristics described below have many similarities to the ones published by the DSM describing the symptoms of narcissism as a mental disorder and to the depictions in Michael Brenner’s email on the subject, but the organization and sometimes the emphasis is somewhat different. My concern is less with the person afflicted with the condition – I contend that he is a lost cause – but with those caught up in the mass psychosis stimulated and reinforced by the condition. I want to make clear how the skills of persuasion can or cannot be used to penetrate the minds of those caught up in the madness – including my own – and to peel them away from an obsession with the narcissist towards a greater concern with the damage done and how to deal with it. I want to pull away from the very narcissist who would colonize my mind and my attention yet not ignore the individual who inserted into a presidential executive order, not what the president in his legal capacity is allowed by law to do, but the “I” who will absolutely permit or deny.
Let me begin with contrasting the characteristics of a malignant narcissist with those of an empath, the latter clearly not a mental disorder though often regarded by others as strange or alien. The characteristics of the latter are probably rarer than that of the malignant narcissist, but just as readily recognizable. In the Denis Villeneuve’s film, The Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s inventive “Story of Your Life” and a script by Eric Heisserer, Louise (played by Amy Adams), a professor of linguistics, is an empath of an extreme order, capable of anticipating even more than just picking up another’s feelings; she is able to adumbrate the future. That is why her daughter has the name, Hannah, which is a palindrome spelled the same forward or backward. Louise is the real alien in the movie. (As a side note, the film was made in Montreal and used two McGill professors as consultants for the linguistic issues in the film – Jessica Coon and Morgan Sonderegger.)
The fact that Louise is a linguist is not accidental, and not simply because of the function she plays in translating an alien language into our own. She is a linguist because she is totally attuned to the logic of grammar, of syntax. Language is inherently interactive. And alien languages can only be deciphered as children do by starting small with the ordinary rather than grandiloquent statements. She can decipher coherent patterns of thought where others read only chaos and still others use language as only a chaotic representation of their own internal souls. Linguistic self-indulgence is the use of speech, broken sentences and fractured thoughts, diversions, excursions and free associations, to reveal internal incoherence and absence of both reflection within and an ability to reflect the conversations of others. Such an individual is indifferent to established customs and norms for the preservation of coherent communication.
Donald Trump is the alien in all our lives who has totally dispensed with the “grammar of hard thinking” in preference to using speech as a mode of self-reference and self-preservation. He uses language to impress himself on others and to inflate himself among others. Impression, however, is not communication. His is a malignant and dangerous presence and precisely the kind of person who would have attempted to blow the aliens from another part of the universe up even though they demonstrated no evil intent and even though they self-evidently belonged to a civilization far superior to our own.
Words lose their meaning – “false facts” is an inherently contradictory phrase. If something is false, it is not a fact, and if something is a fact, it is not false. Words also lose their contact with reality, so any word can mean just what you want it to mean disregarding customary or traditional use. Those who speak the language of “false” or “alternative” facts would confound coherence and logic in favour of sheer nonsense. While humans still converse through the medium of language and words, the medium disintegrates before our ears in favour of noise and grunts of affirmation or shouts of “Arrest her.”
Reality becomes totally plastic in the process. In fact, reality is reduced to process. The distinction between the virtual and the actual world gets lost. Since a malignant narcissist is the gatekeeper of his own reality without balance and certainly without any checks, he alone is entitled to determine what is true and what is false so that anything he dislikes and would challenge his mental portrait is a disturbance. Such assertions are banned as false facts and relegated to the recycling bin. It does not matter who did what; there is virtually no accountability. There is no need to decide what happened since the fault is in asking the question not the failure to offer an answer. And it is impertinent to ask why something happened since the ultimate answer is always because that is what The Donald wanted. Donald Trump truly lives in a world that is both truth-challenged and memory-challenged where all norms of measuring truth have been discarded.
In contrast, the aliens are represented as communicating through visual images, the logic of which Louise has the task of deciphering. However, those images on the glass barrier between the aliens and humans seem clearly to be reproductions of the representation of the nerve patterns of hubs in our brains and suggest a mode of communication that can dispense with the mediation of language. Just as some estimate that we have twelve main mental hubs, the aliens land twelve “spaceships” – really timeships – from twenty-five hundred years hence – at twelve different places on earth. I was sure the landing places formed a pattern, but as far as I can recall, the movie never revealed that pattern though the window drawings were broken down into twelve elements.
My concern here is not with the movie, but with the character of Louise who stands out in such stark contrast to that of Donald Trump. Whereas Amy Adam’s character is tremulous, soft, quiet and inviting, that of Donald Trump is hard, bombastic and repulsive. Whereas Donald’s world is made up of enemies and allies, and the greatest enemy is characterized by those committed to communication – the media – the world Louise encounters is one that is grasped through networking rather than through the barrel of a gun sight or a piece of artillery.
That is why The Arrival has very little action and virtually no violence. The Arrival is the story of reason and thought dominating fear and violent action. The Arrival is the story of feeling in tune with thought rather than radically separated from it. The Arrival is the story of female sensibility and reason winning over male schizophrenia. The Arrival is the story of integration rather than differentiation and specialization, of dynamic interaction rather than either/or thinking, of connecting various specialized faculties, whether seeing, hearing, language use and conceptualization as well as feelings.
The tone of Louise is always modulated and lacks any of the immoderate hysteria of that of Donald Trump with his broken sentences, fragmented thoughts, eruptions and disruptions, with the eternal recurrence of self-reference. Louise explicitly and directly feels and experiences the emotions of another, even of the supposed “aliens” or heptapods on the other side of a glass barrier. Louise is so clearly claustrophobic and cannot stand the “space suits” or contamination protection outfits that the military insist she wear. She strips that costume off at the first opportunity so she can come closer to her own thoughts and feelings as well as that of the aliens.
Louise, given where she lives and how she responds to the mass and mob movements, is a moment of serenity in a sea of panic. And she flees the panic. She flees the crowd. She is an independent thinker and feeler. She does not feed off fear, but struggles to overcome it. Donald Trump, by contrast, loves mass rallies and mass events. He draws his energy from the masses instead of drawing out energy from an inner being to give to others.
The greatest difference, however, is with respect to truth and falsity. Louise knows when she is being handed “false news.” She knows when others have got it wrong and especially when they are lying. She is an empath. Donald Trump is a malignant narcissist who cannot even discern when he is telling a lie. “Look at the incident in Sweden last night,” he will shout out at his rally, even though no one can locate the incident to which he was referring. MN are the enemies of empaths. As Michael Brenner wrote, “Attentiveness to the feelings and emotions of others risks subordinating the imperial self to someone else.”
Donald Trump always reminds me of carnies I worked with and about whom I wrote an essay for my anthropology professor in first year university. When they told a story, the time references never made sense because the past experience in Windsor the year before or in London, Ontario last week were as real as the events the evening before and were woven together in an amalgam where it was almost impossible to separate fact and fiction.
The biggest difference between malignant narcissists and empaths is that the former suffer from a disorder, but have a disproportionate influence in this world, whereas the latter belong to a truly higher order of being, of thinking and of feeling, but are generally considered as aliens. If malignant narcissists are bottom feeders, empaths are givers. If a malignant narcissist loves discord, an empath is tuned into harmony. If malignant narcissists reject anything that will challenge their prior beliefs, empaths are open to the novel and the new. If malignant narcissists love the garish and the kitschy, an empath is entranced by true beauty, creativity and subtlety.
A malignant narcissist is obsessed with himself and evaluates everything in relationship to himself. An empath is attuned to the other and easily picks up otherwise ignored cues. An MN can be told a feeling, can have that feeling demonstrated before him, but will be blind and deaf in the face of it, as Donald Trump was to the Muslim couple whose son died fighting for America. An empath senses based on only the slightest cues. That is, of course, why The Donald can go on and on creating barriers to any unwanted incursions from what is going on around him while an empath is highly sensitive to negative vibes and disruptive environments. A negative environment can overwhelm an empath. A MN works to dominate and overwhelm his environment.
A MN seems to lack any intuition. When an ultra-orthodox reporter asked Donald Trump at his recent inchoate press conference about what he planned to do about the rising spate of anti-Semitic incidences in America, instead of treating this as a lob from a pro-Trump supporter, and even though he should have recognized him from their conversation the day before, Trump cut him off, ordered him to sit down and went on a diatribe on how he was the most non anti-Semitic person around. Trump cannot read a room or a person even when its stares him in the face. All conversation can only be excessively self-referential. But Trump can manipulate a room better than anyone as he picks up and plays on negative feelings and responds to and exaggerates fears.
And hopes. For everything he blesses is the best and the brightest, the most beautiful and the most wonderful, the most glittering and the most captivating, the most splendiferous and the most stupendous. Alternatively, it is trash, the worst treaty ever made, the worst medical plan ever introduced, the worst slums ever seen and experienced, the worst mess that any new president could inherit. There are only these two extreme poles. There is no middle ground.
Trump is said to have a thin skin since he allows satirical sketches and negative statements about himself to irritate him so much that he cannot help scratching. But I have learned that this is not because his skin is thin and he is sensitive to criticism, but because he has a very thick almost impenetrable skin, but nevertheless allows any minor irritant to become and be read as an overwhelming assault on his very being. Unlike an empath, a MN has the body armor of an armadillo. It should be no surprise that empaths dislike narcissists and malignant narcissists heap scorn and abuse on “feelies.” A MN would rather grab for the pussy of a woman than have her emotionally touch him; it is as much a defensive as an aggressive gesture.
Donald Trump has an attention span of 2-3 minutes. He has a hard time listening to others, let alone an intelligence briefing which is a distillation of enormous effort and analyses. He always knows better – better than the intellectuals, better than the scientists, better than the generals and better than the intelligence officers. An MN is almost incapable of listening since his own voice drowns out almost any intrusion through the senses. An MN is the precise opposite of an empath.
With the help of Alex Zisman