narcissism of the learned

The narcissism of humankind

In his Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Freud noted:

‘Mankind had to endure two injuries to its self love brought about by science in the course of time. The first was when it learned that the earth was not the center of the universe, but a tiny little corner in an unimaginably vast universe. This is attached to the name of Copernicus, although Alexandrian science had already expressed something similar. Then came the second, when biological research denied man’s supposed creaturely privilege, showing that he was descended from the animal kingdom and was ineradicably of an animal nature. This transvaluation occurred in our time under the influence of Charles Darwin, Wallace and their successors, but not without the strongest resistance of contemporaries. The third and most sensible wound to the human quest for grandeur has been experienced through today’s psychological research, which shows the ego that it is not even the master in its own house, but merely depends on messages from what occurs in unconsciously in the mental life.”

Freud recurs in other passages in his work to this historical insight, which, by a ruse that he understood well, posits a monumental injury to the narcissism of mankind whiles at the same time aggrandizing the narcissism of the scientist, and especially, in this case, of that ‘psychological’ investigator named Freud. The gesture that both maims and names is, in fact, always monumental: narcissism is an affair of compromised erections of just this sort.

The trope, it must be said, is certainly not original with Freud. In fact, it was already part of the repertory of early modern natural philosophy. Pascal’s thinking reed has been bent by the wind that blows from the infinite spaces upon this all too cornerpocket world; and in Fontenelle’s Dialogues on the Plurality of Worlds, the moral derived from both Copernicus and Colombus’s discovery of whole worlds unknown to Europeans (for Freud’s “mankind” is eminently European) is neatly presented to Fontenelle’s student, the Marquise – who at first rejects it with the charming hauteur (more charming, perhaps, in a dialogue such as this than when she ordered about the servants, as Marguerite de la Mésangêre no doubt did) of one who lives in full possession of her ancien regime rank and privileges.

On the fifth evening, however, infinity enters the drama, for it is on this evening that Fontenelle explains the system of vortices that are grossly presented by solar systems without measure, and planets and hypothetically inhabitants of planets without measure, until the Marquise feels the world shrinking under her, under the pleasant night sky of Normandy. The dialogue at this point does something interesting. “But, she took it up again, here we have made the universe so large that I lose myself in it, I don’t know where I am, I am no longer anything. What! Everything is divided into vortices, thrown confusedly one among the other? Each star would be the center of a vortices perhaps as great as that where we are?” As the Marquise expresses it, Fontenelle’s vision gives her a ‘perspective’ that is ‘so long that vision cannot make out the end of it”. Such a vision of infinity reduces all her ambitions and sense of herself, while providing her with an excellent excuse to be lazy: “I imagine that my laziness will profit from my new lights, and when someone reproaches my indolence, I will respond, oh, but if you only knew about the fixed stars!”

Fontenelle, however, sees this infinitely as freeing:

“As for me, I said, all this puts me at my ease. When the heaven was only this blue vault, where the stars were nailed, the universe seemed to me to be small and narrow. I felt something like an oppression. Now that we have given infinitely more extension and depth to that vault, in dividing it up among thousand and thousands of vortices, it seems to me that I breath with more liberty, and that I am entered into a more extensive atmosphere; and assuredly the universe has a completely other magnificence.”

And yet, what does this freedom amount to? To the Marquise’s jest, Fontenelle replies that the problem isn’t about human glory: rather, “for myself, … I am frustrated that I can’t derive any use from the knowledge that I have.”

There is a music here – a counterpoint between the meditation on vanity that runs through the moralist tradition and the new idea of utility that is beginning to run through the Enlightened order as people like Fontenelle conceived it. We can here, under the banter in Fontenelle’s dialogue, the rustle of a whole new, but as yet unborn, system. That order requires the abasement of the ego of the old order. Sooner or later the Marquise must be stripped of her superstitions in order to be clothed with the cold glory of philosophy – which, in Fontenelle’s sense, applies both to the method of discovery and the development of the instruments that make it possible. This is more than the displacement of the ancients – by making the world small and the mind large, a certain social perspective opens up: one in which science, commerce and politics will emerge as the inevitable institutions of ordinary life.