Notes from genre author Stephen Palmer

Category: The Human Condition: Essays

Speculation SF Got Wrong Part 1

In this series of four daily posts to accompany my novel ‘The Autist’ I’m going to look at a few interesting bits of speculation that in my opinion SF got wrong. In fantasy you can suspend disbelief without worries, but I feel SF has a different foundation; and, while it’s a truism that SF futures are really about the present (e.g. William Gibson’s eighties-with-knobs-on Sprawl trilogy), we should perhaps expect a higher bar than in fantasy, where, delightfully, anything goes. My focus here in on themes of AI, the mind and consciousness.


Is human consciousness a consequence of processing power or other technical/biological power factors?

In his classic 1984 novel Neuromancer, William Gibson presents the reader with a plot that involves two AIs merging to create a conscious whole – a so-called superconsciousness: “… the sum total of the works, the whole show…” as it is put at the novel’s end. Almost universally SF has assumed that consciousness is a consequence of brain power, computing power, or some other variety of power, and most likely the fact that men have written the overwhelming majority of such SF accounts for some of this assumption. But that isn’t the whole reason. SF has dealt poorly with themes of AI and consciousness because of the difficulty of the topic, the weight of Descartes’ influence, and the spread of religion.

Since the beginning of the last century psychologists have used the most advanced technology they knew of as a metaphor for the conscious mind. In the 1920s for instance it was common for them to picture the mind as a telephone exchange. Our use of the computer metaphor – e.g. the notion that the brain is composed of modules all linking together – is just the latest in a long series of inappropriate metaphors.

Consciousness is not a consequence of any kind of power. Consciousness is a consequence of the evolution of physically separate primates living in highly complex social groups. Consciousness is an emergent property of such groups. It could not exist in any one brain nor could it ever exist as an isolated entity, such as the merged Wintermute/Neuromancer pair. Consciousness is the evolutionary response to the difficulty individuals have in grasping and understanding the behaviour of others who exhibit highly complex social behaviour. It employs a method of empathy, by allowing the conscious individual to use themselves as an exemplar. In other words, if you see somebody crying, you know they are likely to be sad because you have cried before when you were sad. This is the social intelligence theory of consciousness, first put forward by the brilliant Nicholas Humphrey.

Neither Wintermute nor Neuromancer could be conscious individuals. They were connected electronically – not separate – and they existed in isolation, not in social groups. Now, no human being has direct access to the private mental model of another person. We do have indirect access however, for example via language, and that led to consciousness during the period of human evolution. Neither Wintermute nor Neuromancer had, or needed, such indirect access. They may have been powerful intelligences in the way some AIs are today, but they were not and never could be conscious like us. (I deal with this theme in The Autist.)

Therefore, no amount of computer upgrades, changes from electronic to quantum computing, nor any other sort of power or intelligence changes in entities which exist outside a social group of equivalents could lead to artificial consciousness. Those two preconditions must be met: existence in a social group in which evolutionary change occurs, and indirect access to the private mental models – the minds – of others.

These ideas are the thematic material of my novels Beautiful Intelligence and No Grave For A Fox. In them, Manfred Klee takes the Nicholas Humphrey route, electronically separating the nine BIs in his opening scene, when he realises that their connection is limiting them since they have no need to develop what these days we call a theory of mind. Once disconnected, they do have that need. Leonora Klee takes the AI route, attempting through computing power alone to develop a sentient machine. But she is doomed to fail. She creates an unstable entity with certain autistic characteristics.

In fact I found it quite difficult to judge the evolutionary development of the BIs, as I didn’t want to anthropomorphise them, a point made by certain characters during the novel. This leads me to another problem in SF, which is for authors to assume the equivalence of human and artificial consciousness. In earlier days I might have emphasised similarities and equivalences, but these days I do take a fuzzier line. Although we human beings faced during our evolutionary history a number of situations which led to the human condition – for instance the need for emotion to convey, to the self and to others, unmissable knowledge of high value experiences – those situations would not necessarily be faced by artificial beings. I think the chances are high that similar things would emerge – emotion and its equivalent, a sense of time and its equivalent, creativity and its equivalent – but I’m not sure they would definitely appear. It would depend on their artificial evolutionary histories.

I don’t know of any SF novels which takes the social intelligence/Nicholas Humphrey route. It would be good to see more realistic speculation in this area, as AIs are already a hot topic, and can only get hotter as their development proceeds.

The Autist front cover

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.