Sunday, May 25, 2008

If Narcissus Had a Blog

Narcissicats from I Can Has Cheezburger?

The confession is an old, old literary genre, going back at least to Augustine and his Confessions (which he wrote after he'd committed enough fun sins to be worth confessing, of course). Narcissism is probably even older. At least, it was a big enough deal for the ancient Greeks that they gave it a name and its very own myth.

But the Internet has taken these ancient impulses and not just modernized but amplified them. Most blogs - apart from the big political blogs - have a confessional element. Even the large feminist blogs (Feministing, Pandagon, Shakesville) give us glimpses of the writers' lives, whether it's their pets or relationships or just non-blogging activities.

In moderation, these dollops of the personal make blogging way more fun than conventional journalism for readers and writers alike. And sharing some well-chosen personal details is only rarely narcissistic. Even outright navel-gazing isn't necessarily narcissistic. But blogging crosses that line when the writer exposes other people's personal lives.

Lately, narcissistic confessionalism seems to be mounting a takeover of print journalism, too. This is troubling insofar as it represents further degradation of journalistic standards. It's also compelling in ways much like a full pint of Ben and Jerry's. You can't help opening it; you can't stop yourself from taking just one more spoonful. And when you hit the bottom of the carton, you realize you're feeling just mildly queasy.

Case in point #1: Emily Gould's piece in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, in which she confesses to previous sins of "oversharing" through an 8000-word exercise in, well, oversharing. Gould used to work for Gawker, which I've never really followed since it's such a New York insider thing, but that hardly matters; oversharing has a universal fascination. And this is oversharing on a grand, epic scale.

Within the first dozen paragraphs, we already know why Gould's ex-boyfriend Henry will have to break up with her:
As Henry and I fought, I kept coming back to the idea that I had a right to say whatever I wanted. I don’t think I understood then that I could be right about being free to express myself but wrong about my right to make that self-expression public in a permanent way. I described my feelings in the language of empowerment: I was being creative, and Henry wanted to shut me up.
That's Gould "reflecting" now on how she disrespected Henry's privacy on her personal blog. But see, even as Gould pillories her own past behavior - even as she seems to be confessing to her own prior lack of judgment and discretion - she doesn't acknowledge that she's dragging poor, private Henry into the public arena once again, this time not in a small-potatoes personal blog but in The New York Times Magazine! Even though Gould does seem to be assuming most of the blame for their break-up, millions of people now know that Henry would "sulk" about her blogging. That line between personal oversharing and encroachment on others' privacy? Guess what - you just crossed it again.

We learn, too, about Henry's successor, Josh Stein, and the courtship he and Gould conducted mostly via IM while sitting next to each other at the office. We hear about how they finally became a couple while on a weekend retreat:
Josh and I sat together on the couch, and I put my head on his shoulder in a completely friendly, professional way. The next day, I let him apply sunscreen to the spot in the middle of my back that I couldn’t reach. As a joke, we walked down the wood-plank paths that crisscross the island holding hands. I also remember joking, via I.M. as we worked, about us wanting to cross the hallway that separated our bedrooms and crawl into bed with each other at night when we couldn’t sleep. On our last day, I congratulated myself on having made it through the trip without letting these jokes turn into real betrayal. And then, 20 minutes outside the city on the Long Island Railroad on the way home, Josh kissed me.
We hear about how Gould chronicled their relationship on her blog, Heartbreak Soup, and how when things unraveled between the lovebirds, Gould blogged about those details as well:
A few weeks later, I arrived home in the early morning hours after abruptly extricating myself from Josh’s bed — he had suddenly revealed plans for a European vacation with another girl — and immediately sat down at my computer to write a post about what had happened. On Heartbreak Soup, I wrote a long rant about the day’s events, including a recipe for the chicken soup I made the previous afternoon and the sex that I’d been somehow suckered into even after finding out about how serious things were with the other girl.
Gould lets one of her best girlfriends pronounce the verdict on Stein after he cools it with her: "Emily, he’s so evil." Of course, this is as good a way as any to let all of us, too, know that he's evil, without Gould taking any ownership of the word.

But maybe she's right. Stein actually launched the first volley in their mass-media post-breakup oversharing contest, publishing a long piece of his own called "The Dangers of Blogger Love" in Page Six magazine. (You can read it here, along with Alex Carnevale's sarcastic take-down of it.) Stein tells us that he learned from Gould's blog that she was in love with him; that she used her blog to slam his former girlfriend's taste in magazines; that she routinely read his email.

Eew. If you have any Ben and Jerry's in the freezer, you should haul it out now, at the very latest, if you're clicking on any of these links.

Reading both Stein's and Gould's pieces - and heaven help me, I read every word - it's hard not to wonder if maybe they're both a little bit evil. Or at least deeply amoral, creepy, and, well, narcissistic.

Case in point #2: Narcissism just oozes from Philip Weiss's essay in last week's New York Magazine. Entitled - and I mean entitled! - "The Affairs of Men," Weiss's piece purports to examine the reasons men cheat on their wives. Mostly, though, he gives us an embarrassing yet irresistible glimpse into his own wretched psyche. Picture Philip Roth - minus much of the literary talent and masturbation - but plus TMI on his own marriage.

Weiss lets us know why he's so frantically tempted to sleep with women who aren't his wife. And it's not just that they're younger, tattooed waitresses whom he imagines - delusionally! - might be interested in his man-meat. No, he makes abundantly clear how he views his own wife: as a sexless middle-aged secretary-cum-organizer who mocks him and refuses to grant him the freedom that any French wife would give her husband.
I ... suggested [to my friend] that we could change sexual norms to, say, encourage New York waitresses to look on being mistresses as a cool option. “That’s fringe,” my friend said dismissively. Wives weren’t going to allow it, and we men grant them a lot of power; they’re all as dominant as Yoko Ono. “Look, we’re the weaker animal,” he said. “They commandeer the situation.” He and I love our wives and depend on them. In each of our cases, they make our homes, manage our social calendar, bind up our wounds and finish our thoughts, and are stitched into our extended families more intimately than we are. They seem emotionally better equipped than we are. If my marriage broke up, my wife could easily move in with a sister. I’d be as lost as plankton.
Yeah. Look, Mr. Weiss, if your wife is all that keeps you from reverting to the bottom of the food chain, your marriage has got bigger issues, starting with your own insecurity and incompetence and ending with your inability to view your wife as a sexual being. Feel free to expose your own pathetic douchebaggery. But none of this gives you the right to portray her - and all your friends' wives, too - as castrating scolds, especially when you seem to believe that what's sauce for the gander isn't sauce for the goose. When Weiss proclaims the beauty of non-monogamy to his wife, she gets "agitated," then says:
"Okay. Let’s have an open marriage. And I have to be out Wednesday night."

I said, No thanks.
So why should those of us lucky enough not to be Mrs. Weiss give a rat's ass about any of this foolishness? I mean, I didn't have to read past their first few lines of these essays, which give ample warning of the wreckage ahead.

Responding to Gould's essay, Jonathan V. at Galley Slaves observes:
... there is a difference between expression and exhibitionism. To the extent that blogs encourage the latter--even in thoughtful, professional writers--they are a pernicious force in the culture.
But as Gould's and Weiss's essays show, narcissism isn't just for blogs anymore. Print publications dangle pieces like theirs in front of the blogosphere, knowing they'll drive up traffic to their online incarnations. As we watch bloggy narcissism and exhibitionism bleed into the supposedly respectable press, we're going to see more "articles" like these. If this becomes a larger trend, it will become a race to the bottom. (And yep, I realize that I just did my part to encourage this by first reading this tripe and then linking to it.)

These essays also raise questions for the rest of us who might not want to emulate their oversharing. How much personal information is too much? I've been fairly frank in my own blog about a couple of recent medical experiences - my "deep throat" exam and my UTI-related caffeine deprivation - and at least one long-ago lousy sexual encounter. I've got academic/personal interests in medicine, sexuality, and embodied experience, and so - since these really were my stories to tell, as long as I preserved the anonymity of my partner in bad sex - I didn't see any reason to protect my own privacy. Even though all of these episodes could be construed as oversharing, I wanted to explore those larger issues through them.

The real danger of amoral narcissism lies in violating other people's privacy. I write a little bit about my family here, but when I talk about my kids, it's mostly either very innocuous (like yesterday's post about making more persons) or focused on my own experiences of parenting. I don't want them to be mortified by me later - at least, not above and beyond the normal baseline of adolescent embarrassment. You also won't learn much about my husband and my marriage. If I ever take part in, say, TMI Tuesday (which is often pretty amusing on other people's blogs), you can be sure I'll keep it focused on me.

I'm not condemning people who put a lot more of their lives online than I ever will. I do think, though, that if what they write impinges substantially on other people's private lives, they're ethically obligated to write pseudonymously. And they'd better be careful not to blow their cover.

Augustine famously wrote, "Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet." Were Augustine reborn today as a confessional journalist, he'd have to rephrase it: "Grant me discretion and empathy, but not yet." At least not until he'd bagged a major article deal in a national magazine.


SunflowerP said...

The whole time I was reading this, Aretha Franklin was reprising her cameo from The Blues Brothers in my head.


Sungold said...

Well, this dang post is so long, you'd have time to re-run the whole movie in your head. :-)

And you just inspired me to go to YouTube, which just has the music, but still so cool!

Jenny B said...

This is really fabulous. I'm so glad I stumbled upon your blog. The thing is, people wouldn't write it if people didn't read it. And people eat this stuff up. My question is, why? Has life just gotten too hard? Too boring? Too tedious? Too painful? Or are we just looking to connect? I write memoir and I often wonder if it's just TMI. But I get so many amazing emails thanking me for sharing my story and telling me that they feel the same way, I have to think it's a good thing. Still, a girl wonders...

Jenny Block
Author of "Open: Love, Sex, and Life in an Open Marriage"

Sungold said...

Hi Jenny! I know your work and I'm pleased you came by. Your questions really got me thinking, so I responded to them in a whole 'nother post. Thanks for pushing me harder on this. And best of luck with your new book!

J.B. Kochanie said...


Thank you for this well-written, thoughtful post. I would recommend that Ms. Gould copy it out by hand, word-for-word. Perhaps not, since she may be moved to blog about the experience of copying word-for-word.

A few observations.

We rarely love another person for his/her true self. What we really love is the image of our own self that another person reflects back to us. And that image -- be it young, sexy, smart-- may have little semblance to our real self, who is insecure and anxious. In this regard Ms. Gould may not be that different from most human beings, and I say may because I have not read every word of the article or her blog. Personally, I don't think that the ability to truly love another is developed until we are well past our twenties. It takes a few more decades of life and learning from our experience before we reach that stage of emotional development.

The web journal has allowed Ms. Gould and others to create a snapshot of their emotional immaturity, which is accessible to all. Unlike Mr. Keats' famous urn, the blog is not the foster-child of silence and slow time. It is protean, like our desired self-image. Mercifully, it can be overwritten. I hope that Ms. Gould will return to her self-portrait after adding compassion and wisdom to the palette.

Lately, narcissistic confessionalism seems to be mounting a takeover of print journalism, too. This is troubling insofar as it represents further degradation of journalistic standards.

Interestingly, one commenter at Writes Like She Talks offered this reason why The New York Times focused so much attention on this story:

...that MSM (especially major MSM like the NYT) _want_ to make bloggers look silly, because they see bloggers as such a threat to them. Bloggers are daily gaining credibility with the public. We are a threat, not only to them, but to the neat, tidy, undemocratic, elite-driven society they want to foist upon us. It is in insult to everyone’s intelligence, but so far, they have been getting away with it...Obviously, Emily advanced their agenda very nicely.

Very nicely, indeed.

Sungold said...

Kochanie, you are absolutely right about our capacity for love. I wonder if we *ever* get past that need for our own reflection. I do think we become less insecure with time (if we're lucky, and if we work on it), but I doubt that most of us ever completely surmount that basic neediness.

Yes, blogs are protean. And so are our selves. We change at least as much as we stay the same - or I believe that's what happens if we don't just stagnate. So if we're blogging about any aspects of our lives, it *ought* to reflect our shifting selves.

And that's a *very* interesting observation regarding the MSM's interest in portraying us all as silly! I think that's all too accurate.

Thanks for a wonderfully thoughtful comment, Kochanie.