Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: The Human Condition: Essays

Karl Marx @ 200

We are alienated from our essential human selves. Marx in my opinion was wrong on many counts, not least his analysis of the historical arc of capitalism, but on one point he was not only correct but got the heart of cultural and psychological progress. If we are alienated from ourselves there must be an “essence” to be alienated from. We – workers, bourgeoise and all – are not living authentic human lives. As I’ve argued in my novels and elsewhere, what humanity needs above all now is a complete scientific description of the human condition (which by the way I think is different to human nature). In a non-fiction book that I expect to write this autumn, I’ll be offering my own scientific description of the human condition. In the meantime, happy 200thbirthday Mr Marx!


On Imagination: Part 3

3. How is imagination?

My experience of writing the Factory Girl trilogy was different to that of my other novels, with the exception of Memory Seed and Hairy London. In the case of The Girl With Two Souls in particular, the book seemed fully formed before I began writing, emerging at 5,000 words per day as if all I had to do was take dictation from my unconscious mind.

I think that is likely how it happened, albeit with some conscious editing along the way. I’ve long thought that much of the work of the author is done without them realising it. In the case of the Factory Girl trilogy the entire scenario came together in a two hour burst of inspiration, and little changed afterwards in the structure and plotting. The first volume was written similarly, in about twenty days. This kind of inspiration is great when it happens, and is an indication that a lot of work is happening behind the scenes.

Human beings have an unconscious for a reason. It would be impossible to live and remain sane if we remembered all our experiences; the amount of information would soon become overwhelming. Instead we lay down long-term memories, we generalise, and we use the model of the world created in our minds, a model which can be very sophisticated (if you are lucky enough to live a life that allows you to grow). In my case, that mental model included the structure, characters, plot and style of the entire trilogy. It was in my mind, waiting to be written.

While I don’t think there is much individual authors can do to make significant changes to their imaginative powers, that being dependent upon genetics and upbringing, I do think there are many tactics which can be used to improve what creativity an author already has.

The first tactic is essentially what I have written so far – let your unconscious do its work. Did a novel scenario burst forth as if already formed? That means it was lurking in your mind, waiting to come out, and you will benefit from following its lead. Is there a previously overlooked character who is clamouring to become more significant? Many authors experience the odd sensation of a minor character becoming much more important than they had planned – it means something in the author’s unconscious is at work, signalling to the conscious mind. I had this happen to me in The Girl With One Friend, when Pastor Richardson emerged as a foil to Kora and Erasmus. I’m not sure he was even in the original conception, in fact. But he turned out to be significant for the development of Erasmus as a character.

Bertrand Russell dispensed this advice to authors about to begin a novel: go to Canada and be a lumberjack for three months. What he meant was, give your unconscious time to sort out the structure of the work.

The second tactic is to trust yourself. This applies more to experienced authors, but novices too can learn to work with their unconscious, and should do. I think however that it is more difficult in this latter case, since the less experienced author is bombarded with advice about writing technique and so on. But, as I’m suggesting in this trio of blog posts, I think it is more important to focus on imagination. Amongst the best advice from an author that I read when I was a tyro was: “If you’re stuck, don’t think about words. Imagine it better.” That advice is a cornerstone of my own writing life.

Trusting yourself also includes allowing yourself the freedom to make mistakes. Actually I think mistakes are more rare than authors realise. We live in a society where there is constant scrutiny of work and an atmosphere of mild anxiety, not helped by the pressure to succeed if you ‘out yourself’ as an author, for example on writing forums. It could be argued that Gwyneth Jones’ notion to use acronyms and an oblique writing style was a mistake in Escape Plans (a few commentators have suggested this), but I think it is more a feature of her unique vision, which she had the good sense to follow. Being an author is a solo activity, not a group activity informed by the tenets of social media. Following the lead of your unconscious means letting yourself say “bollocks to public opinion, this is the way the book had to be written.” My novel Woodland Revolution is written in a particular style, an unusual style perhaps, but I know it could not have been written any other way. It is what it is.

A third tactic is another author staple, but it bears repeating. Although many of my novels are written quickly in a burst of inspiration I do get stuck along the way, usually as a result of minor plot details. In such cases I allow my unconscious to work by going out for a walk. Because I live on the edge of a small town in the middle of the Shropshire countryside this is easy, and relaxing, but it doesn’t have to be a walk. It could be any analogous activity that takes you away from the problem and allows your unconscious mind some freedom: cooking, gardening, listening to music. I have to admit though, I’m still amazed at the efficacy of this tactic. It works for me every time.

So, if you are stuck, it’s best not to think about the problem in front of your computer screen. Take yourself away, allow yourself some freedom, let your unconscious flex its muscles.

A fourth tactic, which again works for me but which I haven’t seen elsewhere in online discussions, is to read more non-fiction. These days I read fiction far less often than non-fiction. I find that my interest in the real world is an inspiration for much of what I write, for instance my thirty year fascination in the mysteries of consciousness and the human condition, which led me to write Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox, although the former of those two books was also inspired by the appalling record SF has when dealing with AI and the human mind. The novel I’m working on at the moment – The Autist, a novel of AGI and Big Data – is similarly inspired by the real world. And if I had not read Karen Armstrong’s A Short History Of Myth, Woodland Revolution would have been a very different book. Non-fiction allows the mental models we all carry in our mind to expand and develop. In the long term, this is a powerful aid to imagination. For me, fiction less often has this effect.

So the best stance to take is one of experiencing. As I said earlier, reality needs to be seen very clearly. The clearer reality is seen and the more vividly it is experienced, the more intense the desire to transcend; in other words, the more creative you are. It isn’t that being creative allows you to see more clearly, in some special human way, rather that seeing and experiencing in a special way, in a human way, brings creativity as a consequence.

And this stance is one of union with reality, not of separation via reductionism. It is a delusion to believe that observation-at-a-distance is the best way of experiencing the world, a delusion created by centuries of male scientists and philosophers. “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom” – Gandalf the Grey.

Amy noticed that the garden was being enjoyed by people; but there was a grey mist upon the garden that meant she could not see them, except as the kind of blurs one sees through spectacles (when spectacles are not needed). To the Parrot she said, “I wonder who all these people are? They seem to be enjoying this garden.” And she looked at the late afternoon sun, whose warmth she still felt upon her skin.

“How will you discover who they are?” asked the Parrot. Amy glanced up to see that the Parrot also was a grey blur, which – because they had become acquaintances – she found quite disturbing.

“I do not know,” Amy replied. “Nor do I know how to discover who you are, since you also are a blur.”

“Perhaps your best course of action would be to mingle with these people,” said the Parrot, “as you did in the first walled garden that you visited.”

“Very well,” Amy replied – for she truly admired the courage of the Parrot, and knew that its remark concerning her timidity approached the truth.

So saying, Amy walked along gravel paths and down moss-covered steps to reach the central sections of the garden, where she could see most of the blurs. Though she knew them to be people – because of the way they walked, from the snatches of conversation that she could hear, and from the fact that the parasols she observed must surely be carried by ladies – she did not know who they were.

Amy began to feel terribly alone. She enjoyed company, and did not like to feel left out of society; not in any shape or form! She particularly liked fairs, musical concerts, and long evening conversations before a log fire with her family. In this garden, however, she felt ostracised, because she knew the people only as blurs.

As she wandered amongst the crowd however she began to notice small details: a pleasant expression on a face, a golden ring on an index finger, a way of walking, a gesture, a laugh, all of which she recognised.

“In fact,” said the Parrot, “you do know some of these people!”

“Why, yes!” Amy replied, delighted. “There is my sister Alice.” And at once she rushed over to Alice to give her a great big hug, whereupon Alice changed from being half blur, half girl into the little sister that she knew so well.

“Hello, Amy!” said Alice.

Amy grinned, then studied the rest of the crowd of blurs, to see also her papa and her mama, who she also gave a hug; and as she hugged them they resolved from grey blurs into real people, enjoying the sunlit garden as much as she was.

Let’s allow Amy to have the final word on creativity and imagination.

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“And thus the volume acquired its name,” remarked the Parrot.

“Why,” Amy said, taking her book of aphorisms from her pocket, “I do believe King George the Fourth had something to say on that subject. And here it is!” – There are no natural laws that cannot be broken in your imagination.

And that’s the great advantage of daydreaming.


The Girl With One Friend

On Imagination: Part 2

2. Where is imagination?

Obviously, imagination is in the brain. Or is it?

Well, yes it is. But we need to be careful about the terms we use to discuss imagination. Creativity and imagination come from the fact that human beings are conscious, but we are conscious as a species in society rather than as a collection of individuals. In my opinion it is a category error to say a person is conscious (even though, for all practical purposes, they definitely are), just as it is a category error to call one bird a flock. The important thing however is: in society – which every human being ever born lived, lives and will live in – we experience ourselves as self-aware. A similar debate could be enjoyed about “where” in the brain consciousness is, though many modern philosophers have pointed out the fallacies there. As Dirk Ngma observed in Beautiful Intelligence, consciousness, if anywhere, is somewhere in the space between people. But I digress…

The human brain is constructed in two halves linked by a bundle of neural fibres, the corpus callosum. In general, the left half of the brain tends to specialise in analytical, logical thought; it is consciously symbolic, abstracting, taking small pieces of information for analysis; it is temporal, and thus tends to think sequentially, in a defined order; it is rational, verbal, and digital. The right half tends to be more synthetic, thinking intuitively; it is nonverbal; it tends to experience in wholes, in real-time, without the need for symbol and conscious thought, and in this it is more direct; it tends to see relationships, nuances, resonances; it is intuitive, relying on unconscious pattern-fitting and recognition as the basis for understanding. In other words the left hemisphere tends towards reductionist thought, while the right tends toward holistic.

There may be a good reason for this arrangement. As Douglas Hofstadter pointed out, the two modes of thought are mutually exclusive; they cannot exist in the same symbolic system. Thus, two linked hemispheres, one ‘looking downward’ to parts, and one ‘looking upward’ to wholes, may have evolved, each with a certain amount of specialisation. Although our minds do not experience these halves as separate – all is a seamless whole – the brain does nonetheless use different parts of its physical arrangement for different types of thought. It’s also worth pointing out that “logical, analytical” people are not all right handed while “creative, intuitive” people are not all left handed. There is a difference between brain lateralisation and hemisphere dominance, with the latter now an often discredited description.

But because the two halves of the brain control the opposite side of the body, this means that should the left hemisphere be favoured a right handed person results, whereas right hemisphere favour brings a left hander. Human beings have a profound and genetically rooted bias towards one side of the brain, the left side, where language centres usually reside. This bias to one side is not unique in the animal kingdom, but its origin and evolutionary mechanism remains unclear, though for humans it must have something to do with language acquisition and associated modes of thought.

It has been noticed for a long time that left-handers tend to be more creative, and this may be a consequence of them tending to experience life holistically and intuitively, rather than logically or analytically. Their particular kind of experience tends to bring enhanced creativity. Brain surgeons talk of the brains of right handed people as being “like chocolate soldiers,” whereas the brains of left handers are far more varied. Well, you only have to think of Paul McCartney or Jimi Hendrix.

The mental model of reality built up by a human mind has one momentous advantage over reality itself: it is not subject to the laws of physics. It is non-physical; an emergent, symbolic model transcending the real neurons on which it is based. Such a model can bring into being variations of reality, thus allowing the mind to experience both reality and its myriad of metaphors; in other words, the mind acquires imagination.

The experience of reality by a human mind means it is endowed with reason, imagination and productive ability. The mind transcends the animal state, becoming fully alive, involving itself with reality. But to transcend reality, reality has to be seen; it has to be experienced. In fact, reality has to be seen very clearly. The clearer reality is seen and the more vividly it is experienced, the more intense the desire to transcend; in other words, the more creative the mind is. So it is not that being creative allows a person to see more clearly, in some special human way, rather that seeing and experiencing in a special way, in a human way, brings creativity as a consequence.

Creativity is the result of the human mind transcending reality through its ability to make a model, experiencing reality through emotions and through the holistic view (as well as in other modes), then imagining unrestrained variations. Emotional involvement in reality is profound involvement, the knowledge imparted being of a deep and realistic nature; it is not intellectual appreciation, though that does have some part of the experience. Thus, many of the characteristics of creativity, such as intuition, spontaneity, a sense of timelessness, a heightened awareness, are not rooted in the intellect but in more fundamental emotional understanding. Such sensations cannot be controlled as the intellect can; they well up from the roots of human understanding. This is why emotions often accompany creativity, for it is essential that the human mind tell itself, and others, of the importance of the creative act.

The holistic view is also vital. Such a view takes in the whole of reality, and is a clearer overall view than the analytical. Experiencing life holistically – that is, experiencing sensations and the self as a whole, while at the same time having the ability to see some parts – is a more profound way of experiencing reality on the human scale, and so this too makes the urge for creativity more intense. Reductionism has its uses, but we don’t live on those scales.

So, creative human beings can solve problems. The experience of difficulties in life forces us to fall back on our mental models, which can, by virtue of the non-physical state, change and alter reality in the imagination, and hence allow us to arrive at new understandings, which in turn bring new solutions. Such insights are often flashes of creativity, emotional and holistic understandings which are the fitting together in the imagination of the relevant parts of the problem, producing a new whole never seen before. Creativity is very much an unconscious phenomenon.

Part 3 tomorrow.


On Imagination: Part 1

  1. What is imagination?

On the various SFF forums which I enjoy contributing to there’s a huge amount of advice and debate on the technical issues of writing – rules, whether rules should be broken, whether rules exist, writing better characters, writing better action, writing better words. I almost never see discussion of imagination however, which is a shame, as to me this is a more important aspect of writing than any technical issue. So in this and the next couple of posts I’m going to ramble on a bit about imagination and creativity. We’ll take Amy with us, plucking her from the Factory Girl trilogy. I’m sure the Reverend Carolus Dodgson won’t mind.


Amy entered the walled garden with some trepidation, since some of the gardens that so far she had visited had been rather frightening. “But at least I have a parrot as a guide,” she thought. This garden however was unlike any other that she had seen, since its walls were arranged with shelves on which hundreds of books lay.

The Parrot said, “This is the Old Queen’s library garden.”

“Do you think I will meet the Old Queen?” Amy asked.

“If you ask nicely.”

“Oh, but I am always polite. My mama says it is a lady’s finest grace.”

In reply the Parrot said, “There is the librarian!”

Amy looked across a bed of lilies to see a most peculiar creature – hunch-backed, with large fin-like feet and a big face with eyes at the side. It wore a frock coat of scallop shells and smoked a clay pipe.

“Good afternoon!” this strange librarian said.

Amy curtseyed, replying, “And good afternoon to you, Mr…”

“I am the Land Whale,” the librarian replied.

“Whatever is a land whale?” Amy thought. After a few moments she said, “Are you perchance related to ocean whales?”

“Why indeed I am,” the librarian replied. “In one of these many books…” (and here he gestured at the tomes around him) “… it is said that whales once lived upon the land, before deciding to live in the sea. I am one of those sea whales who decided to return to the land.”

Amy thought this tale to be quite extraordinary, but she had heard of a book that made similar claims about the origins of various species, so she did not question the librarian further. “For that would indeed be forthright,” she thought, with a smile.

“Have you come here for a specific volume, child?” asked the librarian.

“Yes, we have,” the Parrot replied. “We seek the Book Of Imaginary Beings.”

At this the librarian gasped, sending a jet of water up from the back of his neck. “That book requires a considerable amount of respect!” he declared.


But what is the Book Of Imaginary Beings? And is it an entirely human construction?


The Land Whale lumbered across the garden to one of the shelves, removing a book then returning. Amy took it, but at once the Land Whale spoke, saying, “Beware, child! The creatures mentioned in this book will excite your mind into a fervour of creation.”

“Whatever does he mean?” Amy thought, before thinking further – “I wish he would stop rattling his frock coat when he speaks!”

Then Amy opened the book to its first page, to observe there the most gorgeous cat she had ever seen – jet black, with shiny fur, an elegant tail, and the greenest pair of green eyes possible. In fact, to her astonishment, she was able to touch the cat, and stroke it, whereupon it narrowed its eyes and began purring. “But this is a real cat,” she said, “and not imaginary at all.”

“So it is,” said the librarian.

Amy turned to the next page, to see a gorgeous antelope, with fawn coloured hide, white stripes, and two curly antler prongs. “Why, this antelope also is real,” she said.

“I think you are correct,” the librarian said.

Amy was so entranced by the beauty of the antelope that quite without realising it she took a pencil from the pocket of her dress and began sketching it on the blank page opposite. “This is the imaginary antelope,” she thought, as she continued to sketch. “I shall give it extra-twirly prongs!”

When she finished her picture she showed it to the Land Whale and to the Parrot, eliciting their approval. “I did tell you the book required respect,” said the Land Whale, “for the beings within it are real. They themselves inspire the imaginary ones.”

“And thus the volume acquired its name,” remarked the Parrot.


If we are to draw any conclusion from Amy’s adventure it is that creativity is a response to something rather than a thing in its own right. But a response to what?

I’ve always thought the musings of artists significant in this respect, and of them Henri Matisse stands out. He understood what approach to take if he was to make great art:

If my works are of any interest, it is first and foremost because I observe Nature with awe and very closely. This is far more important than that virtuosity which constant, dedicated work will almost invariably lead to. I cannot emphasize sufficiently the need for an artist to be honest in his work.

About his late work he wrote:

Abstraction rooted in reality.

Matisse felt that he had to lose all learned sophistication and be innocent and fresh, like a child not yet socialised:

What it seems we must learn is to leave experience behind… The painter must have no preconceived notion of the model – his spirit must be open and receive everything, just as in a landscape he would take in every one of the scents of the air.

And Matisse knew that merely copying reality was not part of human art; all the possibilities created in the mind by reality were the artist’s inner vision:

I am incapable of making a slavish copy of Nature. Instead I feel compelled to interpret it…

Paul Cezanne also wrote with insight:

The artist… learns to see from Nature… Nature – I wanted to copy it. I did not succeed, but I was satisfied with myself when I discovered that, for example, the sun cannot simply be reproduced, that one has to express it more through something else… through colour.

Using the religious metaphor of divinity for nature and the world around him, Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

The divine elements painting comprises cause the painter’s mind to reflect the divine spirit itself; thus, before the eyes of the rising generations and of his own independent and powerful accord, the painter begins to create diverse living beings… landscapes…

Da Vinci advised others:

…if you do not start by becoming thoroughly familiar with the objects in Nature, you will not achieve anything worthy of note.

It would seem that ‘Nature’ is the source – by which the above artists mean the real world. Artistic merit, then, comes from a response to the real world. Is reality the source of human creativity?

I think it is. I think there is a directly proportional relationship between intensity of sensory experience of the real world and intensity (and amount) of creative response. In Amy’s case, it was because she saw a particularly fine cat that she felt compelled to create a response, drawing on the blank page opposite it. Likewise, with the antelope, she didn’t merely draw it, she gave it ‘extra-twirly prongs’; in other words she augmented the source imaginatively, creating a new image.

Imagination is depth of creativity. Experience more of the real world and you boost your imaginative potential.

Part 2 follows tomorrow.


The Girl With Two Souls

Narcissism Week, Day 5

To paraphrase Douglas Adams: “Who can be trusted with power, when all those who want it are least suited to it?”

There have been many narcissistic “leaders” through millennia past, but a few recent ones are worth highlighting – with all their dangers. In recent months Donald Trump, long known as an intensely narcissistic man, has become American President, to the horror of most of the rest of the world. As I’ve written elsewhere (Part I & Part II), Donald Trump shows all the symptoms of the narcissistic person, and is very dangerous as a consequence. Napoleon also exhibited intense narcissism. Erich Fromm, in his ground-breaking book The Anatomy Of Human Destructiveness, devoted the last quarter of his work to a full character analysis of Hitler, showing the intense, malignant narcissism of the man, a malignancy that could just as easily, albeit in different mode and circumstances, be applied to Thatcher and Trump.

Thatcher, Napoleon and Hitler also had the curious addition of the phenomenal “semi-autistic” memory, examined in depth by the noted American psychiatrist and writer Darrold Treffert as part of his work with Savant Syndrome. There is no room in Narcissism Week to explore that curiosity, but I think it may be more than a curiosity…

Narcissistic people are always dangerous. They are destroyers – destroyers of reality. Thatcher was a destroyer, Hitler was a destroyer, Napoleon was a destroyer, Stalin was a destroyer, Mao was a destroyer. Donald Trump, given the opportunity, will be the same. Unfortunately the patriarchal mode of society encourages such people to strive for, use and abuse controlling power through hierarchies. For as long as we retain this archaic, narcissistic, inhumane mode of power wielding we will be vulnerable to madmen taking control and using it to try to alter reality to fit their idiotic fantasies.

Alas, a humane utopia seems a very long way away.

Narcissism Week, Day 4

Other consequences of narcissism

There come times in every narcissist’s life when, despite the withdrawal from or changing of reality, the real world does intrude into the self. The reaction is rage, founded in intense, existential frustration.

So much anger and violence comes from puncturing unreal, narcissistic bubbles. When such an event occurs, the frustration felt at the threat or threatened change to the narcissist’s world is experienced in terms of anger. Rage is the consequence of the truth, of reality circumventing the narcissist’s self-deception. Such threats to the narcissist’s mental model require a strong emotional reaction to convey frustration at reality trying to change – even to deny and thus deconstruct – that mental model.

It’s not all carpet-biting fury however. One alternative to rage, for example if the narcissist finds emotion difficult to express, or cannot confront the source of their rage, is revenge. All revenge has its source in narcissism. For the narcissist, revenge is the great leveller, the mechanism by which real or imagined insults are reversed or neutralised. In the mind of the narcissist any personal slight, any criticism or remark, or any perceived attack on the narcissist or their group or world must have a response. To leave be or turn the other cheek is to experience an unwelcome truth. Any insult, remark or comment which seems to lessen the narcissist, to make them unworthy or inferior, has to have a reversing response, a vengeance. In revenging themselves the narcissist changes the perceived alteration of self and reality, returning, in their own mind, the sense of importance that previously existed. To turn away from vengeance is for the narcissist to mentally collapse.

As a corollary of this, narcissistic people are hyper-sensitive to the possibility of insult. Frequently such slights exist only in their imagination; or the narcissist will twist what really happened to make it an insult in order that their self be confirmed as important. Over-sensitivity to criticism and the inability to accept that something wrong has been done are two of the more obvious signs of narcissism. In severe cases, for example at the top of the American political hierarchy, a person will be unable to admit that anything they have done might have been wrong.

As Frank Herbert observed: “Revenge is for children.”

Another classic symptom of narcissism is voyeurism; vicarious experience through the actions of others. Narcissism and voyeurism are related because of the narcissist’s inability to participate fully in the real world. This inability, the felt abyss between the self and the real world, combined with the realisation that events do happen in the world, means that vicarious experience is the only option. Salvador Dali is a good example of the voyeuristic narcissist.

Sexual voyeurism is far from being the only form. Emotional voyeurs feel there is something wrong with being emotional because this is what they have grown up to believe. The huge popularity of soap operas reflects the inability of some modern societies in a mass-media age to express and to accept emotions – the classic patriarchal dilemma. Soap operas are undiluted emotional voyeurism. Their exceptionally high emotional content exists because television people know how attractive, how compulsive it is to experience the emotions and turmoil of others when often so little can be expressed and accepted in reality. It is through the lives of these screen others that an essential part of being human can vicariously be experienced. Related too is the American use (and increasing British use) of emotional manipulation in television. For the reserved British, this sometimes has to be seen to be believed! The reuniting of people long sundered on screen, people confessing to things on screen, people telling their terrible life-stories on screen, the confrontation of opposite sides on screen, the vicarious screening of court proceedings, Jeremy Kyle and Jerry Springer… all these variations have the common purpose of deliberately creating emotional scenes for viewers to voyeuristically consume.

Voyeurism is the result of an inability to fully participate in the real world owing to narcissism. Many of the most narcissistic of individuals were voyeurs: Josef Stalin for example. It was the rejection of reality, alongside the simultaneous control of and withdrawal from the real world that made them voyeuristic.

So far this week’s posts have been concerned with individual narcissism, but in many ways narcissists can form groups, and these groups have similar characteristics to individuals.

Group narcissism is like individual narcissism, but directed at a collection of people. A common consensus is substituted for reality – often taken on faith – however unlike reality that consensus happens to be. In the narcissistic group an individual can be even more extreme than otherwise possible, since so many other people share their point of view. The idea that the group’s dogma, ideas, or religion is the most fabulous and perfect in the world does not seem even slightly strange, since it is shared by so many others.

Various characteristics appear in typical narcissistic groups. Like the individual narcissist, their understanding of reality and their connection to it is tenuous. Thus, other groups will always seem external, unrelated, different and strange – often perceived as enemies. In group narcissism much of the world’s violence can be found. Because of the fractures separating narcissistic groups they are not averse to fanaticism as a means of compensating for their inner emptiness; and since the narcissistic group is separate, often fanatical, and with little or no root in the real world, a complete lack of empathy with others is another commonly found symptom.

As with individuals, the tiniest slight or insult, imagined or not, will be enough to provoke the narcissistic group into violence, for, like the individual, the group must wreak revenge to retain its precarious sense of self-worth and coherence. To leave be would be to invite the disaster of disintegration. Such reasons lie behind the elevation and glorification of the group and the utter dismissal on the basis of no evidence of all other groups.


Narcissism Week, Day 3

Further consequences of narcissism

Authoritarianism is another major consequence of narcissism. This social structure is the method by which power (the unreasonable power of the narcissist, not the reasonable capability of the human being) is exercised.

For the narcissist, controlling reality and the people in it is an essential procedure, and within patriarchal authoritarian structures this is made easy. The consequence however is acceptance of the power of others higher up the hierarchy. For the narcissist, there are various ways of coming to terms with this situation. The future can be considered, when the narcissist hopes to be in a higher position. Or the narcissist can be wholly immersed in the hierarchy’s philosophy and desires, accepting submission, which happens within the narcissistic group. Or the narcissist can be so lacking a core of human identity that submersion in another is required to stop the self falling apart – hero worship.

Authoritarian structures – operating by and large through hierarchies, though they can be simple, brutal domination – are based on narcissism. The wishes and needs of others, not perceived as worthy, or even real, are ignored by those at the top. The self and the self’s created world becomes everything at the dictatorial summit. Because of this, all authoritarian structures operate at the expense of reality, attempting to forge it into whatever the desired shape happens to be – fascism for example. And at the top of every authoritarian structure stands a figurehead, usually a lone person – king, leader, priest – though it can be a group, and it can sometimes be a concept.

In general, the more revered the figure the more intense the narcissism and the resulting authoritarianism, as evinced by the situation in North Korea. The reason for this comes again from the dynamics of narcissism. Placing less emphasis on individual humanity means placing more emphasis on the guiding figure, since that figure has so much more to achieve and to control. The amount of freedom lost by the controlled is proportional to the veneration of the figurehead and the intensity of the authoritarianism. As a result, weakly authoritarian systems tend to have less important, less revered leaders, or less dogmatic ideologies, whereas strongly authoritarian systems tend to have glorified, lone leaders and harsh, often fundamentalist ideologies, such as Communism.

As another example, it is noteworthy that during the 1980s the economic systems of Britain and America, both of which were markedly authoritarian and conservative, actually acquired names: Thatcherism and Reaganomics. This peculiar need to bestow a name suggests the strength of the authoritarianism embodied by those systems.

Figurehead status in an authoritarian system suits individual narcissists very well; it suits ordinary, humane people very poorly. For the narcissist, a world distinct from reality is created, in which a life can be led. There are opportunities for power and for exploitation. For humane people there are no opportunities, and, worse, such systems go some way to blocking the overcoming of their own narcissism. Humane freedom is required for that task.

Narcissism can also lead to isolation and remoteness. The rejection of, withdrawal from, or attempted moulding of reality means the narcissist does not fully exist in reality. From the point of view of others there is sometimes an emotional gap, which in human terms can be experienced as remoteness, or coldness. And it is sometimes the case that the narcissist has a reduced sense of humour, or even none. This is most often apparent when the humour concerns themselves. Narcissists have to be self-deceiving, since the truth of the self and of the real world would bring into focus the true relationship between those entities, and thus destroy the mechanism of narcissism. Humour, with its natural mechanism for deflecting pain that at the same time points to a truth, cannot be tolerated by the narcissist because they are so sensitive on the matter of their selves. The narcissist’s self, assembled by a force which has to disregard reality, is so fragile they cannot face the truth. Even the underhand truth of humour is too much.


Narcissism Week, Day 2

Consequences of narcissism

The main consequence of narcissism is the inability to understand that reality is independent and autonomous. For the narcissist, stimuli from the external world are filtered through the self until they become twisted, i.e. accommodating the narcissist’s needs, desires or thoughts. The real world is not experienced as an objective, independent entity, rather as a construct of the narcissist’s mind. The force holding together the fragmented and inauthentic self, narcissism, like the gravity holding together mutually repelling parts, directs all experience toward the self at the expense of reality.

Narkissos himself can be understood from this wider perspective. It was not so much that he thought he was lovely and wonderful, though he surely did, rather that he was only able to experience the real world through his reflection. He could experience it only in terms of himself. In his mental model of reality there existed one solid, real person: Narkissos. All others were ghosts, shadows of no importance, with the rest of the world merely a construction of his own thoughts and feelings. Thus he was never able to interact with the real world on its own terms, nor even through human terms. The real world contained many other people, but he was unable to tear his gaze away from the reflection.

So the prophesy of Teiresias implies this meaning: when Narkissos first experienced himself as an actual entity – in the myth analogy when he first saw himself – he cut short his life. It is almost as if in the myth his youth represented his pre-conscious life, with his first experience of consciousness arriving at the age of sixteen, by the lake. The analogy is that Narkissos was unable to understand the real world around him, remaining in a stupor because his own self had become the one and all of existence. As such, this Greek myth shows tremendous insight and has great relevance today.

This inability to comprehend reality, along with the overpowering need to place the self above all else, means that the narcissist, existing in reality and with no choice but to interact with it, must reach out to control reality. Since for the narcissist reality cannot be felt to be independent, it must come under their control in order that it fall into line with what they need. In other words, narcissism is the fundamental source of irrational human desire for power over reality: the fuel for control, for manipulation, for exploitation, for deceit.

The use of power – that is, the control of others and of the external world – is the main method of changing an independent reality to suit the desires of the narcissist. Through the mechanism of power (eg colonisation in patriarchal society) individual narcissists or narcissistic groups can try to mould reality according to their own wishes. But they all feel that they must do this. If reality is continually experienced as independent of the narcissist then the mechanism of keeping the fragmented self together, by ranking it above reality, is destroyed, and self-annihilation results. Control must therefore be exerted.

Forms of power-wielding at the expense of others and of reality are rooted in narcissism: dominion, colonialism, exploitation of others, exploitation of the environment. These are forms of therapy for the narcissist, required activities, keeping the fragile, incoherent self in one piece.

But, ultimately, reality can never be permanently changed. It is independent of the narcissist. Though it can be controlled by human action to a small extent, to a useful extent, it is in the main autonomous. We live in a world of chance whether we like it or not. So the narcissist will come up with all sorts of rationalisations and reactive behaviours to hide the truth. Again, this is essential therapy. Not lying or rationalising would expose the self to reality’s truth, and thus destroy the mechanism of narcissism. In other words, narcissism always acts to preserve itself by self-deception.

Another consequence of narcissism also derives from the inability to test, understand and accept reality, and this is the certainty in the self and the self’s schemes which all narcissists feel. Such a conviction is required. Since reality is filtered through the self, in the process becoming unreal and twisted to the narcissist’s desires, all actions and schemes acquire an overpowering sense of certainty. Without this certainty objective truth in relation to the world would become apparent, and the narcissist would be forced to see their own true character – an impossibility for the self-deceiver.

One aspect of narcissistic certainty which sets it aside from ‘normal’ certainty – eg that acquired via the scientific method of testing reality – is lack of an origin in the real world. A typical scientist will test their hypothesis in real world. The narcissist never tests reality. Narcissistic certainties can occupy the full range from real to unreal, but since they have no basis in reality they always tend to the unrealistic. Superstitious faith is one example of such certainties.

To protect themselves from reality, narcissists must deny truth. Internal certainty at the expense of reality means twisting what is experienced to suit personal needs. This is second nature to the narcissist.

There are other forms of self-directed behaviour. Because the narcissist has to put self above all else, selfishness follows; and grandiosity, arrogance, and the most commonly imagined type of narcissism (with its source in the Greek legend) that of obsession with appearance: vanity. Over-concern for the self, in whatever form, compensates for the inauthentic self held together in a fragile clump by the glue of narcissism. No narcissist can afford to be ordinary.

There is one other interesting concept illustrating the way narcissism puts the self at the centre of reality as a compensating mechanism, one that has existed for as long as civilisation, and that is the idea of destiny. Destiny is the ultimate in self-centred thinking. By imagining that some unique destiny awaits in the future, the narcissist reverses reality until it becomes a servant of the self. Without displacing the self from the centre of reality, destiny becomes the way narcissists account for the fact that the real world exists and consists of events. The narcissist imagines that the real world has some special place reserved for them. It is imagined that events revolve around them, small parts of some great plan in which the narcissist plays the chief role. Yet the opposite is true. To have any sense of personal destiny is to deny the real world’s autonomy.


Narcissism Week, Day 1

Narkissos was the son of the nymph Leiriope and the river-god Cephisus. Leiriope consulted the great seer Teiresias about her son, to be told mysteriously that ‘he would live to a ripe old age provided he never knows himself.’

As he grew up Narkissos made many young admirers unhappy, for he stubbornly refused to return their affections. One of his admirers, the nymph Echo, who had been doomed to repeat the words of others as a punishment for colluding with Zeus against Hera, followed him on a stag hunt, approaching him when he happened to distance himself from his companions. But roughly he spurned her advances; then strode away.

Narkissos was sixteen when, because he was keen on hunting, he wandered onto the divine mountain Helicon, in the Thespiai region of Boeotia. As he travelled he chanced upon a spring with a shaded lake that had no ripples upon its surface, and, as he threw himself down in exhaustion to quench his thirst, he saw his own reflection for the first time. He was entranced by the sight of the beautiful face, and fell in love, though only a little later did he realise that the face was himself. So he found himself unable to move, enraptured with his own reflection, pining away.

Echo, still following him, grieved as he took a knife and stabbed himself to death. But from his body and his blood sprang the white-and-red narcissus flower, from which unguents are prepared.


Narcissism is a normal feature of human development. All human beings are born narcissistic.

A general (not clinical) definition of narcissism is: living life in such a way that the real, external world is experienced as unreal, with the self alone as real. The narcissistic person does not accept that the real world has autonomous existence and is populated with real independent human beings; rather, all is some construction of their own mind, experienced only in terms of their own thoughts and feelings, hopes and desires. And when the real world demands some response, they either fail to respond, disconnecting themselves from it, or respond solely in terms of themselves.

Narcissism is universal in primitive cultures. Human social evolution could be represented as the gradual overcoming of narcissism.

The universality of narcissism as an aspect of psychological development is due to the fact that everyone is a conscious human being. The self, which is to a person the most important thing in existence, is not a fixed entity since it is created over time from millions of interactions with other people: in other words, it evolves. But consciousness is experienced very soon in a person’s life, beginning between the ages of one and two (before this time an infant is not separated from reality, experiencing no ‘I’). So, since consciousness is not first experienced at the end point of psychological development, it is experienced by a person during the creation of their self, when they are not yet authentic and whole. In this situation, of consciousness simultaneous with development of the mental model, the self is at first experienced as more real than reality – more important too, since it cannot be allowed to fall apart. If it did collapse, the person would die, becoming insane from self-annihilation. Narcissism can therefore be seen as an inevitable consequence of human consciousness, and an essential one in the early years of life.

It is the urgency of constructing a conscious self which gives rise to narcissism. Human narcissism is the experience of consciousness by the inauthentic, undeveloped self, one not complete, one with a less than whole understanding of itself.

Narcissism is therefore an inevitable and unavoidable part of psychological development. An evolving self is incomplete except at its full flowering (if it achieves such a thing), and is therefore more self-directed than reality-directed. Narcissism is both survival method and therapy for the fragile self. Narcissism is the force bringing fragmented parts of a conscious self together when they are not yet composed into a whole; and the more fragmented the parts the stronger the required force, and thus the more intense the narcissism. But the penalty – the necessary penalty – of making the self more real than reality is that reality is demoted.

Narcissism can therefore be envisaged as the ‘force of gravity’ holding together individually chaotic fragments which would otherwise drift apart, fragments which have not been synthesized into a whole by experience and natural development, and which, since they must somehow be made whole to create a coherent entity – a conscious self – have to be forced into union. This artificial conglomeration into an inauthentic, incomplete entity results in the narcissistic self.



This piece was first written in the mid 1990’s. It is presented here in edited form.


1. Biography

Born on 15 August 1769 in the Corsican town of Ajaccio, Napoleone Buonaparte was the second son of Carlo-Maria and Letizia Buonaparte. At that time, Corsica, which had Italian language, culture and history, had been ceded to France, risen in a war of independence and been put down again. The end of the war came just before Letizia gave birth. Carlo-Maria, who had fought in the war of independence and even been a leader in that conflict, was afterwards a retiring man, devoted to writing and books. He was ambitious in public life and even managed to meet French royalty; at this stage his affected manners and sugary charm became irritating to some. Little time was spent with his children, but when he was present he was rather indulgent.

Letizia was the real head of the house, a beautiful, imposing woman of great physical and moral power, whose influence could be discerned everywhere. In Napoleon and His Parents Dorothy Carrington writes:

{Letizia} was formidable in her role. Loved, respected and above all feared, she watched over her children with an inquisitorial eye, punishing the least fault, for this was her way of loving; her tenderness, said Napoleon, was “severe.”

Letizia, following Corsican custom, allowed what was a natural liking for authority to run unchecked. The relationship between her and Napoleone was troubled, a tie through which she strove to mould his character according to her own values. Dorothy Carrington comments that upon reading Letizia and Napoleone’s reminiscences of one another she felt “the impression of a constant duel between them.”

Napoleone was a strange youth. He displayed excessive narcissism even for a child (all of whom are narcissistic to some extent as an aspect of normal mental development). He was only concerned with himself, exhibiting great egotism, aggression, mischief, love of quarrelling and talent at lying. He continually bullied Giuseppe, his elder brother, and with other children would not be content with anything other than complete domination. His will was formidable and assertive. If denied, he would explode into sudden violence.

These qualities had the effect of confirming to Napoleone that he was the centre of the world. By controlling others, either through nostril-flared tantrums or by force of ‘will’ (here I mean a refusal to have things any other way than his own, a quality inaccurately refered to as ‘strength’ by many), he could continue to live in the world that he had created rather than the real one which did not conform to his fantasies – fantasies which were defences for his fragmented mind. Brother Giuseppe related a tale in which, at a school enactment of the Romans’ defeat of Carthage, he and Napoleone had been placed on opposing sides, with himself under the Roman banner. Napoleone could not rest until he had been transfered to the winning side and Giuseppe made a Carthaginian. At school he could not bear to be in any place other than top of the class.

Napoleone’s disconnection from reality had other symptoms. Letizia described how he would go out into the streets in the evening and absent-mindedly wander about, his clothes in a dishevelled state. The young Napoleone was often introspective, studying alone in a room specially constructed for him. A precocious gift for mathematics had already become apparent. Yet he was rather a solitary child.

When Napoleone was nine Carlo-Maria decided to move his sons to France. Giuseppe and Napoleone were placed on 1 January 1779 in Autun College, where they were to spend three months preparing for priesthood and for a place at Champagne’s ecole militaire respectively. The ecole militaire gave a basic education to noblemen’s sons, preparing them for the equivalent school in Paris; it was a grim establishment run by monks of the Order of St. Benedict, a place of harsh life, no comforts, long days, and constant taunting from the other boys. Napoleone had the disadvantages of being obviously Corsican, fiercely patriotic, egotistical and alone, all of which conspired to turn him against both religion and his colleagues.

Napoleone’s fellow inmates met a gloomy and savage boy, introverted, a solitary misfit, forever shut away with some book; Napoleone was a voracious reader. He could be violent when irritated and took on an aloof, taciturn manner. When his younger brother came to the ecole militaire in 1784 he discovered a hard, withdrawn Napoleone with no human tenderness.

In late 1784 Napoleone moved to the Ecole Militaire in Paris, where he wanted to join the Navy. However, it transpired that his mathematical excellence had already procured him a free place as a ‘gentleman cadet’, which he accepted. The military atmosphere was very different to that of the school in Champagne – uniforms everywhere, with military drums and martial music; and Napoleone could be sure he was receiving an education fit for a possible future officer. He revelled in his new school. In September 1785 he passed the examinations necessary for him to be posted into an artillery regiment at Valence in the Dauphine. In Valence he found lodgings and began his duties as a gunner.

His father had died two years earlier. When Napoleone was seventeen he was given leave to visit Corsica for the first time in eight years. He spent the last year before the Revolution in solitary study at Auxonne, Burgundy, where his regiment had been stationed.

The French Revolution was for him a time of change. His Corsican fervour was soon exchanged for Revolutionary fervour. He became a rebel leader in Corsica, then a Jacobin agitator and an enemy of noble society. Joining the Auxonne republican club he dominated its members and made himself secretary and librarian. By now he had taken over family affairs too, meddling in every detail, bossing his brothers and relatives, accepting no criticism or change of plan. For Napoleone, everything he thought or did was automatically correct; any opposition trodden down. But by now it was apparent to some that personal ambition, in the direction of any handy government, was his only urge…

By 1792 Napoleone’s continued absences from his regiment – despite various documents from the Corsican authorities and his elevation to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel – were enough to have his soldier’s pay stopped. Poverty forced him back to Paris. There he found chaos; the National Assembly was in turmoil, the streets were frequently convulsed with mobs and there was an atmosphere of panic. Rejoining his regiment he became involved in various actions and minor political affairs. Politicking in Corsica had now been dropped as a possible career, and instead he envisaged himself as a rising military leader. All that mattered was power.

In 1793 a chance cropped up. Now a Captain, Napoleone found himself involved in the recapture of France’s naval base at Toulon. Luck was with him, for not only were there no other officers around to dim the glory, he had a ramshackle army to deal with, thus allowing him to display his talents at analysis, organisation and attack. In addition he was able to use personal influence to force events leading up to the operation his way. After the successful recapture, army officers were ecstatic about “this rare officer’s virtues.”

It was now December 1793. At the age of twenty four, Napoleone was named a Brigadier. Two years of obscurity and stagnation followed in which Napoleone found no avenue for advancement, but in 1795 he was picked to become part of the bureau topographique, effectively a planning and intelligence network advising the by now highly unstable government. He took the opportunity to make friends whom he might later use for personal advancement. Soon a new Parisian uprising gave Napoleone a chance to prove his merit, success allowing him to be appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army of the Interior.

France was now governed by the Directory, a body in which one Paul Barras sat: patron of Napoleone. Napoleone had acquired real power at last. Later he would become commander of the Army of Italy, would find success against the Austrian army (exaggerated accounts were sent to Paris in order that his own legend might be created), and would astonish everyone with his victories and subsequent overtures of peace. Other adventures were not so fortunate, such as that in Egypt.

At the turn of the century France remained in chaos, with the Directory discredited and bankrupt. Napoleone was chosen to lead the interior army in a new government which was to take power by coup de etat. But the instigator of the affair, Sieyes, had not allowed for Napoleone’s driving ambition. With the army behind him, and with his formidable skill at manipulating people, Napoleone managed to have the new constitution written so that there was one First Consul rather than three equal ones. He had at last found the top job.

In 1807 France’s Code Civil was changed to the Code Napoleon and a new type of society was described therein – one of Napoleone’s own construction. Only three years earlier he had crowned himself Emperor…

2. Napoleon’s Narcissism

Erich Fromm wrote of narcissism:

 The narcissistic orientation is one in which a person experiences as real only that which exists within themself, while the phenomena in the outside world have no reality in themselves, but are experienced only from the viewpoint of their being useful or dangerous.

The clearest aspect of Napoleon’s character was his narcissism, which was intense right from the beginning. Its chief manifestation was his insatiable lust for power and dominance – he exhibited a driving need to impose his will on others. His narcissism meant the world was not a real place with existence of its own, rather it was a mental construction, a place he had created from twisted and distorted perceptions of reality. Because of this, other people, with needs, desires and lives of their own, could not be accepted. Napoleon had to dominate them so as to keep the real world in accordance with the one he had created. If he let dominance slip, the self he had created would fall to pieces; he would annihilate himself. Thus, Napoleon’s ruthless acquisition of power was essential if he was to live with sanity. The domination of others, by which his fantasy world (which of course seemed perfectly real to him) could be validated, was central to his survival as a human being. And the particular conditions of society at the time – patriarchal, hierarchical and militaristic – allowed him vast scope for domination.

By cultivating contacts, making friends, lying and acting, he took the opportunist route into power. His personal career took precedence over all other considerations. On more than one occasion he effectively abandoned his army in bad situations to return home with a sheaf of excuses; this happened at the end of the Egyptian debacle. Notions of duty were considered only within the framework of whatever situation he happened to be in, the final arbiter of action being his own safety and career.

But in 1799, during Sieyes’ coup de etat when Napoleon insisted there be a single First Consul, he was unable to hide the real reasons for his actions. At this point dictatorship was only a breath away. Instead of lying and manipulating, the lure of dominion was so close it made him desperate enough to reveal his real reasons for creating a First Consul. He threatened parliament that if he did not get his own way there would be bloodshed up to their knees…

A sense of omnipotence and omniscience stayed with him in various measures throughout his life. As a child he would throw tantrums and boss other children, success in these operations confirming that he was the master of his world. But as he grew, his mental model of reality became increasingly distorted in order to keep him placed centrally, controlling and seeing all around him. Yet in his teens, when it was still apparent that he might not be the centre of all things, he took the easy route away from recognising the obvious; he withdrew from reality into an isolating world of books.

When events in Paris conspired to push him into power he became convinced that a ‘lucky star’ was guiding him, one which would guarantee him dominion in the near future. This invented notion of the lucky star, through which he explained to himself the fact that he was doing so well, was a device intended to create personal meaning from real events. The lucky star, the Destiny which he had felt even as a child, was a symbol of the overwhelming importance which he had given himself, a selfish manifestation applying meaning to reality without acknowledging that reality operates by chance. In this way, Napoleon continued to think that reality revolved around him.

Later the sense of omnipotence was deepened by his military victories, and in the end by becoming First Consul and then Emperor. By this time mere conquest could not appease the lust for power; what seemed a lack of human fallibility was metamorphosed into a belief that he was a deity. Part of the Imperial Catechism ran:

Q. Why are we bound to show these duties {love, obedience, fidelity, service, &c.} to the Emperor?

A. Because God has established him as our Sovereign, and has rendered him His image here on earth, overwhelming him with gifts in peace and war. To honour and serve our Emperor is, therefore, to honour and serve God himself…

That Napoleon created a unique mental world of his own rather than developing an authentic self within reality (the independent reality which most people sense) left him with no authentic character. This meant he faced impossible identity problems, with the inability to form an authentic identity having many symptoms. When young he was a fervent Corsican patriot; the framework of patriotism allowed him to use Corsica-ness as if it were Napoleon-ness. Later, when that was useless, he became a obsessive revolutionary for precisely the same reason. At length French-ness was the essence of Napoleon. At no time did he draw on inner resources to form a sense of identity, since there were almost no such resources. His younger brother Lucien remarked on how he discerned a void in Napoloeon where human character and integrity should have been.

This emptiness meant sincerity was unknown to Napoleon. He lied, except in situations where he had no need to lie. In addition he was a superb actor, able to put on any mask to serve his needs. Wearing a mask was an essential part of his life, a symbol of his fundamental insincerity, and it came naturally to him. As a schoolboy in Corsica he would shamelessly manipulate the teaching nuns to get what he wanted, his acting good enough to convince them of his merit.

Much of Napoleon’s restlessness came from this inner void. When in exile at Elba, the commissioner Sir Neil Campbell noted his “restless perseverence” and “pleasure in perpetual movement.” In Bonaparte Correlli Barnett writes:

Action disguised the essential emptiness of his existence, the void in the heart.

Then again, action provided an answer to the most haunting of questions, that of identity: “I act, therefore I am.”

Napoleon also used others to create his identity. Domination not only served to make people do what he wanted, they confirmed to him an equivalence – other people in some way were him. Thus Napoleon could not bear the slightest intimation of independence in his minions. His secretary Meneval wrote that the price of Napoleon’s favour was high, even to the extent of self-negation.

Napoleon’s attitude to the real world was typical of the narcissist. He forged it into the shape he wanted yet remained divorced from it, since, to him, it had no independent existence. When he was in power society was transformed into the shape he desired, and so was the apparatus of government, the army, even of political and moral thought amongst his subjects. Becoming First Consul allowed him to indulge his most profound wishes without denial, increasing the horizons of domination until every aspect of the world was twisted according to his personal views. Eventually the internal world he had created became alike to the real one, closing the reality gap which had so driven him, to the enormous detriment of the real world… But this sense of self had to coincide with what existed in the external world, else the numerous defences and constructions of his mind collapse, and he with it. And thus do all narcissists operate, like malignant sculptors.

Napoleon’s lack of realism was sometimes gross. His campaigns were often hastily prepared and ill-timed, and he took risks on many occasions. When these risks came off they confirmed his sense of infallibility; when they failed he ignored them, or ran away from them into his romantic, fantasy world. There was slapdash under-estimation of potential difficulties. When Napoleon considered some problem he simply ignored anything which might thwart him, assuming that the operation would succeed. Excluding the unknown was standard procedure. In considering the operation to attack England, he simply assumed that the British Navy would not fight him and that he would sail through – it did not occur to him that they might want to stop his advance. In battle he similarly operated in a world of his own. The standard Bonaparte ploy was to swoop, fight one quick and decisive battle, make peace on his own terms then return to Parisian glory. It never occurred to him during the planning of the Russian campaign that such a ploy was pure fantasy. Actual considerations of terrain, geography and logistics were alien to his method of planning, which, although often brilliant, were brilliant only on their own terms.

When reality finally did intrude into Napoleon’s world there were two distinct responses. Usually he would slip away from the scene of the disaster and pretend to himself and to others that it had never happened, or that some force other than himself had been responsible. On other occasions he would retreat into his fantasy world and simply ignore what was happening.

But on at least three occasions the convergence of reality and fantasy was so intense that Napoleon’s inner world – his laboriously constructed self – was placed in jeopardy. When Napoleon was at the Champagne ecole militaire he was punished for an offence by being forced to eat his dinner upon his knees at the door of the refectory. The power wielded over him and the humiliation were so intense that he suffered a kind of fit; reality and his internal world became violently incompatible. A similar occurence took place in the weeks before Napoleon’s creation of the First Consul. Sieyes’ coup de etat involved much chicanery, and at one point the parliamentary opposition became heated, questioning Napoleon about the army surrounding Paris and the general state of leadership. Questions about personal ambitions and current events Napoleon deflected, but at one point the opposition’s hatred of him became obvious, and it seemed the plan might fail. Then Napoleon panicked: he stuttered answers, his face white, his powers of manipulation and self-deception departed. A third occasion was the Battle of Waterloo. When it became obvious that Wellington and Blucher were going to take the day Napoleon did not stay to see the result, instead riding from the scene weeping, terrified and speechless.

Napoleon’s sense of confidence was central to his character. He addressed the Palestinians in 1799:

It is well that you realise that all human efforts are useless against me, because everything I undertake must succeed.

Only at the end of his reign, after abdication, the subsequent escape from custody on Elba and attempted hijacking of French government, and then the Battle of Waterloo, did he consider failure, and even then, as he fretted in exile, he re-wrote his own past and his predicament, so that he was not at fault and never had been.

Another aspect of Napoleon’s narcissism was his thirst for revenge. In Corsica the vendetta had been an institution – one closely followed by him. Revenge for any slight was a way of retaining his sense of self-worth, which was desperately fragile. Revenge was a kind of therapy for any damage done to his over-inflated sense of self-importance. Like all narcissists, Napoleon was acutely sensitive to personal ridicule, and could not bear to be made a fool of. Summary shooting, imprisonment without trial and deportation were all forms of revenge, pursued with no regard for rights of liberty, equality or fraternity.

Napoleon also exhibited two other important, and related, narcissistic symptoms: self-sufficiency and atrophied emotions. The human connection which could have been his through emotion was denied even more than is usual for men; only on exceptional occasions, as when defeat at Wateroo shattered his illusions, did he weep. On almost all occasions he repressed emotion, though there remained the bursts of infantile anger. Self-sufficiency was also a characteristic, dependence hateful to him since that would mean relying on some other person.

Narcissism too powered his need for glory and worship, these being ways of convincing himself that he was wonderful and the centre of the world. As Emperor, his sense of grandiosity reached absurd dimensions, in coins, statues, buildings, in every kind of abject worship. He propagated his own legend wherever he could, in painting, report, book and rumour. His vanity was immeasurable. It was not enough merely to be Emperor, he had to have constant proof of his glory, and thus constant expansion. Sheer numbers had a heady effect upon him in whatever context. He wrote, “What is grand is always beautiful.”

And Napoleon, like all irredeemable narcissists, was also destructive. This was apparent at a very young age, and it stayed with him until death. Unable to find any sort of human creativity, he was led inexorably to destruction. As a youngster he wanted to be a soldier; war attracted him. But because he felt so separated from the world the only available response – a response he had to find because of the human need for meaning – was destruction. He could never act creatively in union within the world because of his intense narcissism, and so his only option was to destroy it, since it was usually so hateful to him. Destruction became his personal meaning. In his late teens he wrote with enormous perception:

Life is a burden to me because I feel no pleasure and because everything is affliction to me. It is a burden to me because the men with whom I have to live and will probably always live have ways as different from mine as the light of the moon from that of the sun. I cannot then pursue the only manner of living which could enable me to put up with existence, whence follows a disgust for everything.

Correlli Barnett quotes the memoirs of Marshal Marmont:

I have never understood his curiosity to see the dead and dying so cover the ground. He stopped in front of one officer grievously wounded in the knee, and had the strange idea of having the amputation performed before him by his surgeon Yvan.

Thus war was essential to the destructive and voyeuristic Bonaparte. When in conflict with other nations he rarely talked of surrender; more of perishing. No grey existed between the white of total victory and the black of total annihilation.

Yet even his very self was an object of possible destruction, which would have to go if the world could not:

What madness makes me desire my own destruction? Without doubt the problem of what to do in this world.


Always alone among other men, I come home to dream by myself and to give myself over to all the force of my melancholy. In what direction is it bent today? Towards death? If I must die, would it not be as well to kill myself?

Suicide was contemplated at those times when reality and fantasy were in their most severe conflict – in his teens at the Champagne ecole militaire, when he was penniless and rejected at the age of twenty-six, and after Waterloo (as reported by the government official Caulaincourt) on two separate occasions. He took poison, a substance he had kept on his person ever since the disaster in Russia. It failed – but the idea had been considered and executed.

“Weakness alone is inhumanity,” Napoleon declared. By this he meant that living in the world through the laws of nature was impossible for him, since they were not his laws. Only domination or destruction was acceptable.

3. Narcissism & Autistic Memory

Baron Meneval, Napoleon’s secretary, wrote in his memoirs that Napoleon’s memory was described as “astonishing.” Various biographers describe his memory as “very retentive,” “near-photographic,” “prodigious” and “phenomenal.” This memory was particularly keen on statistics.

Napoleon’s thinking too had a particular character. As a child he was outstanding at mathematics, and in youth was a voracious reader, but for Napoleon it was facts which were delightful – and only facts. He was able to take in immense amounts of detail, particularly in the field of mathematics, science, and military logistics, then remember and use them all. He thrived on the rational application of his knowledge.

When young he had the particular gift of summarising detail, a gift which made him a brilliant though unrealistic tactician. Rationality and logic were deeply attractive to him. But this type of thinking had the disadvantage of atrophied imagination. General ideas, theories and relationships were on the whole alien to him. Intuition was impossible. But it was Napoleon himself who gave the most significant insight into the workings of his own mind. He wrote:

Different subjects and different affairs are arranged in my head as in a cupboard. When I wish to interrupt one train of thought, I shut that drawer and open another. Do I wish to sleep? I simply close all the drawers, and there I am – asleep.

Here Napoleon describes the quality of unconnected detail which characterised his mind. Napoleon could never have been a holist. All things were separate entities, lacking connection, considered alone and in the abstract. But because his memory also had this quality there exists a tantalising link to the comment of Extraordinary People author Darold Treffert, that the inability to forget is crucial in the understanding of the autistic mind. If Napoleon found his myriad of individual memories hard to ignore he simply ‘closed all the drawers’ as a last resort, thereby turning his back on his own mind. Neurophysician Alexander Luria, treating his patient ‘S’, described a procedure of striking similarity. To take himself away from his world, which was dominated by perfectly remembered visual imagery, ‘S’ would bring to mind the image of a white wall which he had not seen, to which he could for a while turn away. Similarly Jorge Luis Borges’ fictional character Ireneo Funes found it very difficult to sleep, since he could not turn his back on the world; he tried to imagine a series of homogenous, black houses which he had never seen in order to escape his perfectly remembered world; or he tried to imagine himself rocked by the current at the bottom of a river.

Society Napoleon envisaged as a machine, constructed with perfectly rational precision and founded on absolute data. For Napoleon, society had no organic feel, no sense of relationship, no real groups other than a few clans in the Corsican mode. Within it he imagined a huge number of solitary competing egos – “there is no such thing as society,” to use Thatcher’s phrase. Napoleon’s view of society was deadly rational, blinkered, and lacking any sense of a connected whole.

Significant also was Napoleon’s ability to concentrate. Some autistic people have this ability. In Colin Blakemore’s The Mind Machine, Eddie, an autistic man who cycles to locations found on his maps in strict alphabetic order, is able to concentrate totally on the construction of a bike. Nothing distracts him. The autistic inability to synthesize brings about an over-concentration on isolated details. Similarly, Napoleon (like Thatcher) was able to concentrate on some problem or detail with total conviction.

There is another clue to some variety of autism in Napoleon, and that is his behaviour when it came to experiencing feelings. He himself felt few, and they only appeared on desperate or momentous occasions – iron self-control and dead emotionality are typical of the narcissistic person. Napoleon’s incomprehension of feelings and emotion was a significant symptom; he either ignored emotions or was baffled by them, as though (like many autistic people) he simply had no conceptual framework with which to deal with them. In Bonaparte Correlli Barnett writes of Napoleon in Paris:

{Josephine} hastened back to the capital and laid siege to him with tears and entreaties, supplementing her own with those of her childen. Bonaparte, always vulnerable to a woman’s tears, indeed flummoxed by any violent display of human feeling (was he, as his early writings suggest, afraid of it?) succumbed, {and} forgave.

4. Addendum

Both Adolf Hitler and Margaret Thatcher exhibited the above symptoms of a kind of autistic narcissisism. Hitler exhibited all the characteristics of an intensely narcissistic man, and his memory was phenomenal. In his groundbreaking work The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness Erich Fromm quotes biographer P. E. Schramm:

One capacity that astounded everybody again and again – including those who were not under his spell – was his stupendous memory; a memory that could exactly retain even unimportant details, like the characters in Karl May’s novels, the authors of books he had once read, even the make of the bicycle he had ridden in 1915. He remembered exactly the dates in his political career, the inns he had been to, the streets he had driven on.

Hitler was easily able to recall exact calibres of guns, the locations of military units, or of submarine positions. His memory was not the general, imaginative variety developed by the normal person, rather that perfect system of recall which characterises the autistic or savant mind, and which had profound effects on his thinking. For him, remembering was automatic, precise and absolute.

Hitler, like Napoleon, had a gift for simplifying vast amounts of data into what seemed like logical arguments, which he would string together when making speeches or decisions. (Also like Napoleon, he was a voracious reader, a gleaner of facts which he stored without error.) All these characteristics also apply to Thatcher, as revealed variously by her colleagues and by her biographers.