Let us enter, you and I, into the moral universe of the modern narcissist.
The narcissistic person is marked by a grandiose self-image, a constant need for admiration, and a general lack of empathy for others. He is the keeper of a sacred flame, which is the flame he holds to celebrate himself.
There used to be theories that deep down narcissists feel unworthy, but recent research doesn’t support this. Instead, it seems, the narcissist’s self-directed passion is deep and sincere.
His self-love is his most precious possession. It is the holy center of all that is sacred and right. He is hypersensitive about anybody who might splatter or disregard his greatness. If someone treats him slightingly, he perceives that as a deliberate and heinous attack. If someone threatens his reputation, he regards this as an act of blasphemy. He feels justified in punishing the attacker for this moral outrage.
And because he plays by different rules, and because so much is at stake, he can be uninhibited in response. Everyone gets angry when they feel their self-worth is threatened, but for the narcissist, revenge is a holy cause and a moral obligation, demanding overwhelming force.
Mel Gibson seems to fit the narcissist model to an eerie degree. The recordings that purport to show him unloading on his ex-lover, Oksana Grigorieva, make for painful listening, and are only worthy of attention because these days it pays to be a student of excessive self-esteem, if only to understand the world around.
The story line seems to be pretty simple. Gibson was the great Hollywood celebrity who left his wife to link with the beautiful young acolyte. Her beauty would not only reflect well on his virility, but he would also work to mold her, Pygmalion-like, into a pop star.
After a time, she apparently grew tired of being a supporting actor in the drama of his self-magnification and tried to go her own way. This act of separation was perceived as an assault on his status and thus a venal betrayal of the true faith.
It is fruitless to analyze her end of the phone conversations because she knows she is taping them. But the voice on the other end is primal and searing.
That man is like a boxer unleashing one verbal barrage after another. His breathing is heavy. His vocal muscles are clenched. His guttural sounds burst out like hammer blows.
He pummels her honor, her intelligence, her womanhood, her maternal skills and everything else. Imagine every crude and derogatory word you’ve ever heard. They come out in waves. He’s not really arguing with her, just trying to pulverize her into nothingness, like some corruption that has intertwined itself into his being and now must be expunged.
It is striking how morally righteous he is, without ever bothering to explain what exactly she has done wrong. It is striking how quickly he reverts to the vocabulary of purity and disgust. It is striking how much he believes he deserves. It is striking how much he seems to derive satisfaction from his own righteous indignation.
Rage was the original subject of Western literature. It was the opening theme of Homer’s “Iliad.” Back then, anger was perceived as a source of pleasure. “Sweeter wrath is by far than the honeycomb dripping with sweetener,” Homer declared. And the man on the other end of Grigorieva’s phone seems to derive some vengeful satisfaction from asserting his power and from purging his frustration — from the sheer act of domination.
And the sad fact is that Gibson is not alone. There can’t be many people at once who live in a celebrity environment so perfectly designed to inflate self-love. Even so, a surprising number of people share the trait. A study conducted at the National Institutes of Health suggested that 6.2 percent of Americans had suffered from Narcissistic Personality Disorder, along with 9.4 percent of people in their 20s.
In their book, “The Narcissism Epidemic,” Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell cite data to suggest that at least since the 1970s, we have suffered from national self-esteem inflation. They cite my favorite piece of sociological data: In 1950, thousands of teenagers were asked if they considered themselves an “important person.” Twelve percent said yes. In the late 1980s, another few thousand were asked. This time, 80 percent of girls and 77 percent of boys said yes.
That doesn’t make them narcissists in the Gibson mold, but it does suggest that we’ve entered an era where self-branding is on the ascent and the culture of self-effacement is on the decline.
Every week brings a new assignment in our study of self-love. And at the top of the heap, the Valentino of all self-lovers, there is the former Braveheart. If he really were that great, he’d have figured out that the lady probably owns a tape recorder.