The gospel of Mel Gib­son: Thou shalt have no other idol be­fore me

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

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 that. 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 self­mag­ni­fi­ca­tion and tried to go her own way. That act 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 con­ver­sa­tions be­cause she knows she’s 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 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 “The Nar­cis­sism Epi­demic,” Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Camp­bell cite data to sug­gest that at least since the 1970s, we’ve suf­fered from na­tional self-es­teem in­fla­tion. They cite my fa­vorite piece of so­ci­o­log­i­cal data: In 1950, thou­sands of teens 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 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.

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