In defense of individuality

In Sophocles’ tragedy “Antigone,” the title character buries a beloved slain brother, an enemy of the state, in violation of civil law. But Antigone argues before the king, her uncle, that the laws of the gods are greater than those of man and so goes off to be buried alive. Here, Aenne Schwarz in a 2015 production at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Photograph by Christian Michelins.

What does it mean to be an individual in the age of Selfie Nation amid the new culture of narcissism?

What, after all, could be more individual than the digital age, with everyone tweeting, Facebooking, Instagramming, posting, blogging and being LinkedIn – expressing and, thus, seemingly validating every millisecond of his unique, singular existence with words, if not exactly cogent sentences, acronyms (LOL) and, above all, the ubiquitous selfie?

Except that the more individual means of expression we have, the less individual we seem. We don’t know the often faceless posters with their colorful nicknames that would’ve been once worthy of CB radio handles, now do we? They have an identity, which is not the same as individuality — the idea of an indivisible person who has a right to his separate integrity, which came into focus in the 17th century and has haunted philosophers and the American mythic landscape ever since.

An identity is a part of an individual meant to stand for the whole. It’s an aspect — usually a public aspect – the person allows us to see. Whereas very few individuals are so completely in sync with their inner lives that they are the same with everyone everywhere at every time. These people have usually attained a certain spiritual grace. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, whom I covered when he came to Carmel to dedicate the Great Buddha Hall at the Chuang Yen Monastery/Buddhist Association of the United States in 1997, was the same addressing the throng and greeting his Tibetan countrymen in exile as he was chatting with us English-speaking journalists.

The Dalai Lama is, even online, entirely himself, while the anonymity of  many posters enables them to function oftentimes like a snarky, even brutal Greek chorus that gangs up on the subject who strays from their idea of appropriate behavior. This can be a good thing when someone does something offensive. But it doesn’t exactly celebrate individuality.

Nor does their chosen vehicle for expression – typing. In her new book “The History and Uncertain Future of Handwriting,” Anne Trubek writes off cursive writing as irrelevant in the digital age. Yet cursive gives you a signature as distinctive as your voice or fingerprints. Are you going to print your signature on every legal document?

The demise of cursive is another signpost of an individuality that’s under siege. But the greater assault may come from its evil twin, narcissism. It’s a buzzword on the campaign trail thanks to the presence of a certain presidential candidate – and in the zeitgeist. Jane E. Brody wrote about “How to Recognize a Narcissist” in her “Well” column for the July 19th edition of The New York Times. And it’s the subject of Kristin Dombek’s new book, “The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism.”

There is much if not to fear than at least to give us pause. Narcissism — which takes its name from the Greek myth about Narcissus, the proud hunter who fell in love with his own reflection — is a psychological disorder way beyond selfishness. The narcissist, crystallized by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s excoriating “Sunset Boulevard,”  is the star in everyone’s life, not merely his own. It may be your story, but he will spin it so that it becomes about his needs and desires. (The use of the male pronoun here is deliberate: Narcissists are usually men.)

Perhaps the greatest irony of narcissism is that the narcissist has no self-awareness. If he did, he would understand the corrosive effect he has on others and absent it. This is the opposite of the true individual, who is self-aware, self-possessed, self-reliant and self-motivated. The true individual is Antigone — daughter of Oedipus — defying the state to bury the beloved brother who was its enemy. It’s Private Robert E. Lee “Prew” Prewitt in “From Here to Eternity” refusing to box for his Army unit’s team after blinding his sparring partner, despite the sadistic treatment he receives from his commander as a result.

“A man don’t go his own way, he’s nothing,” he tells the wilier Sgt. Milt Warden. “Maybe back in the days of the pioneers, a man could go his own way,” Warden responds. “But today you got to play ball.”

The individual plays on his own terms, like Jacqueline Kennedy carving out a life for her family in the White House, Marlon Brando thumbing his nose at the Hollywood status quo and Muhammad Ali rejecting the Vietnam War draft on religious grounds.

One man’s self-possession is, of course, another’s selfishness. But without that self-centeredness, there would be no restored White House and Eternal Flame, no “Godfather” and political activism, no “Thrilla in Manila” and charity work. While the coach, the preacher and the statesman may exhort the individual to subjugate himself to the common good, there can be no love for others without first self-love.

The individual heeds the works of Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne, who advised:  “Lend yourself to others, but give yourself to yourself.”

He goes his way, owning the rewards of that choice — and the consequences.

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