Another key moment from Sexual Personae, by Camille Paglia (1990):
Quote: from “Speed and Space,”
“Perfect narcissism is fascinating and therefore demoralizing.”
“Demoralizing” carries two meanings here in my analysis. First, Paglia means literally de-moralizing, taking away morality. Her example is Byron. His narcissism gives him rare hedonistic power on a cultural scale. England recognizes his very presence as a destabilizing force morally. Thus they keep sending him away.
But I ask myself: what is “perfect” narcissism? For many of the lower order, such a phrase would not compute. How could it be perfect? Isn’t all narcissism flawed narcissism? To love yourself and only yourself is disgusting. “Perfect” does not apply.
Maybe so. But consider: By “perfect,” Paglia means narcissism that makes sense -- lovely people loving themselves, as opposed to hideous people loving themselves. Like a perfect murder, perfect narcissism is narcissism you get away with. Byron, as both a hugely talented and physically beautiful man, expresses a self-love that is both understandable and acceptable. We think: if I were him, I’d love myself too. Perfect narcissism is narcissism that does not seem wrong.
On the contrary nothing could be more repulsive than the thought of some ugly slob drooling over himself -- imperfect narcissism. Nothing could be more boringly nonsensical than that. I recall in Crumb (1994), that fabulous documentary, the older brother, a decaying putrid sore on humanity, referring publicly to his “wounded” narcissism. What a grotesque spectacle.
Second, Paglia means the effect of perfect narcissism on the individual. Instead of “moral,” think “morale.” Think de-morale-ization, the undermining of positive attitudes, the creation of malaise. Think what happens when we look into the eyes of the perfect narcissist.
So many of us aspire to greatness, and so many do not fully realize how integral those aspirations are to our whole personality until we stand face to face with a Byron and sink inside. That sinking is the demoralization Paglia writes of. Byron’s personality is a sermon of superior genes. We see him and know instantly he is miles above us. We are down in the hell of having to try. We are sunk. Byron is forbidden knowledge. When we touch him, we know we are nothing. Everywhere he goes, he creates a wake of humanity.
In that wake, the whole attitude of the country becomes affected. The de-morale becomes the de-moral. The dashing of individual spirits becomes the culture-wide reappraisal of good and bad. How? Byron proves the power of a born star, one whose personality reverberates. In Paglia’s syllogism, whatever fascinates demoralizes, because fascination is an atheistic state of mind. We can sin at will and it won’t matter because nothing matters while Byron is God.