Narcissism and genuine inspiration share a quality of insensitivity to immediate surroundings. Determining which is which, therefore, is a tricky business. The rule for this determination was given by Jesus in the saying that you shall know a tree by its fruits.

This rule makes simpler sense in what would be traditionally described as a righteous culture. Confucius say something like:

In a righteous culture, poverty is shameful. In an unrighteous culture, wealth is shameful.

I think shame-logic can tend to obscure the truth. In our desire to avoid feeling shame we are tempted to miss the point. That point being, in a healthy culture there is a correlation between genuine inspiration and success; while in an unhealthy culture, such as the one which dominates our world, the opposite is true.

The comparison gets even more interesting if we look down from the pinnacle of success, to the lower-hanging, less fully-formed, fruit. The tree of genuine inspiration yields abundant riches even far from the top; whereas the approaches to Narcissism are littered by human wreckage. Zombie and post-apocalyptic nightmares are anxious reflections of this inner reality.

Thing is, though, no tree fruits overnight, and therefore it is not such a simple thing to say which tree is which. Are these the fruits of insight or delusion, authenticity or self-obsession, true imagination or narcotic phantasy?

Jesus and Mary in a Dumpster

Science fiction author Philip K Dick spent years considering the distinction between these two, first somewhat unconsciously in his published works and later explicitly in the collection of voluminous personal writing he referred to as his Exegesis. His fascination lay not simply in distinguishing the one from the other, but in the possibility of the unreal being transmuted into the real. God, he came to think, entered the world through trash.

This idea finds a parallel in academic recognition of the artistic value of what used to be called pulp fiction, and another in the rise to dominance of comic book heroes to the substance of most every Hollywood blockbuster. In addition to his experience of this transformation within his own work, Dick drew on the theory of redemption central to the Christian tradition. The Lost Sheep is exactly the psyche sunk within the phantasy of its individual will.

Following in his footsteps, we arrive back at the question that has obsessed Christian denominations from the start: just what is it that attracts redemptive Grace?

Denial of the efficacy of works has always been a reminder of the incapacity of individual mind to truly grasp the mystery of Reality. Yet, in denying the sufficiency of works lies the danger of denying the necessity of them. As Picasso said: inspiration comes, but she likes to find you working. Or as Taoist alchemists such as Liu I-Ming referred to the relationship: using yin to summon yang.

I will venture to say that the image of Christ crucified provides the most famous form of this archetypal action. His is the image of perfect submission, of that pure yin that is alone able to summon the crown of true yang.

Joseph Campbell provided another image of this, in a story that came (if I recall correctly) from ancient India. In this story, it is the temple prostitute alone who is able to cause the river to run in reverse. What reason is given for making it do so escapes me. Suffice it to say that none of the brahmins had a prayer, but the prostitute, having lived a life of perfect submission, accomplished what they could not.

It is no coincidence that Mary Magdalene was the beloved of Jesus, and vice-versa. The two are sides of the same coin.

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One thought on “Great Moments in Narcissism

  1. William Winslow 4 years ago

    I am struck by the notion that the Lord comes as a thief in the night, appearing at a place and time of His choosing and in an unexpected form. Like any decent thief, He taketh something from you, you would prefer not to give. I have seldom imagined God hears our prayers for the simple observation that our Will and His seem seldom to align except when the former submits to the latter. But now I imagine that such a Being may well listen to these prayers, while still doing what is necessary. Acknowledging that His form is unknown, I can still entertain the notion that what He taketh is ONLY what is necessary, and perfectly so. He comes then, as a flame, burning off what spiritual and physical husk is necessary to remove to expose Grace planted there at the Beginning. Works did not plant the seed. Prayer did not plant the seed. The Lord did. But if your soul is inclining toward some kind perfection, meaning your deeds, your heart, your works, and your prayer are bent toward the Divine, you enter a reciprocity with the flame. Rather than burning, let’s say, nearly all that you are, something is kept in the world for a time, because, essentially, it is at one with the Divine Will if only in a derivative fashion. The part of you which is united in Grace may stand. That is what I think Salvation is.