Interview Babel Magazine - Excerpts Part 38
Q: I have a highly intelligent buddy (1580 & 1590 out of 1600 on his SAT tests years ago), and his favourite saying is, "The closer you are to the top, the closer you are to the edge." He was implying that the closer you are to being a genius, the closer you also are to insanity. What are your views on this subject?
Sam: All geniuses are madmen, in the sense that both deconstruct reality.
Both are unable to assimilate conventional modes of interaction: "seeing", ":feeling", or "thinking". To both the genius and the madman, the world is a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of potentials and shattered actualities, a monstrously colourful place, replete with delectable secrets and penumbral threats. Still, there is a difference. We revere genius and recoil from insanity. Why is that? It is because the genius is adept at finding new organizing principles underlying the chaos. To the madman, the world dissolves into an incomprehensible and ominously unpredictable barrage of stimuli. In his efforts to re-impose order on his disintegrating psyche, the madman resorts to paranoia or delusions.
The genius faces the same emotional needs but instead of succumbing to the irrational, he invents science and music - new patterns which infuse his no less capricious universe with patterns and beauty.
Q: You write passionately about narcissism. Could you give us the definitive definition of narcissism?
Sam: My favourite is this one:
"A pattern of traits and behaviours which signify infatuation and obsession with one's self to the exclusion of all others and the egotistic and ruthless pursuit of one's gratification, dominance and ambition."
But I should hasten to add that I write passionately about PATHOLOGICAL narcissism. Narcissism is healthy. Self-love enables us to love others, to achieve, to strive, to dream, to heal, to have children. It is only when it is pathologized that it becomes a menace to oneself and to others.
Q: You've written about a hellish childhood, especially the treatment received at your parents hands. Please elaborate.
Sam: I am much more forgiving now, at the age of 41. I understand them better. They were young, they were poor, they were scared, they were over-worked, trying to make ends meet, they were uneducated. And here I was, a freak of nature, a local sensation, an insufferably haughty and spoiled brat, a challenge to their parental authority in a very conservative society. They freaked out. They communicated with me through physical violence and verbal abuse because that is how they were treated by their own parents and because abuse was common where and when I grew up.
But they gave me my life, and my love of reading, and the memories from which I mold my poetry and short fiction. These are great gifts. I can never repay them enough.
Q: If you were chosen as "Ambassador for the Earth" and had to describe what a "human being" was to an alien from Planet 2537X, what would you tell them?
Sam: I must be careful to use only terms which are likely to be universally recognized and applicable. Exobiology and exo- communication are in their infancy.
This is what I would say, progressing from the more general to the more unique:
Self-correcting, self-motivated, networking, Carbon-based entity endowed with a central data processing unit (product specs provided). Multiplies through sexual reproduction (mathematical explanation of sexual reproduction follows). Communicates with other entities and with things produced by other entities by exchanging patterns of energy. Conserves information both internally and externally. Has the property of constructing self-recursive, hierarchical, models of the world in which it is included (known in humanspeak as "introspection"). Responds to organizing principles by connecting with other entities on a permanent or temporary basis in fostering coherent cross-entity modes of behaviour.
Q: If women as a whole were a glass of wine, and you drank from this collective glass, what would you taste?
Sam: Resentment, pain, fear, disdain, envy, humiliation. I would have felt these if I were a woman - having been suppressed for millennia by others (males), whose only advantage is their brawn.
Q: Tell us about your tale of riches to rags to prison and back.
Sam: I was born in a slum. I read. I burnt the midnight oil. I bluffed.
Knowledge and the pretence to knowledge were my tickets out of what seemed to be claustrophobically inescapable drabness. I became known as a wunderkind, caught the eye of a Jewish billionaire, and was catapulted to corporate stardom. I made millions, I lost millions, I fell in love with the second woman I had sex with at the age of 25. I then manipulated stocks and had the temerity to sue the government for my losses. I lost. I was sentenced to three years in jail, spent 11 months there. Amidst the squalor, I found human solidarity - and myself.
I wrote five books in prison. One of these tomes won the Israeli Ministry of Education 1997 Prose Award. The other is "Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited". I am glad I did time. I re-discovered my true calling: to write. Released on parole, I emigrated to Macedonia, prospered there but became a fugitive after I fostered dissidence against the government.
When the opposition parties came to power, I was called back to serve as the Economic Advisor to the Government. The Minister of Finance, a former student of mine, put up with my temper tantrums and growing cantankerousness - but finally gave up and we parted ways. Now I write business stories for United Press International (UPI).
Q: Touching upon your own personal experiences, what does one need to do to overcome mental illness?
Sam: I have not overcome my personality disorder, so I would not know. But judging by the literature, two things:
Confront one's past, re-interpreting it, putting it in the appropriate context, assimilate the new insights, and re-building one's soul and one's life on these healthier, more proportional, foundations. This is the approach of most psychodynamic therapies.
Re-interpretation away obstructive and inhibitive cognitive and emotional messages and principles which govern our affect, cognition, and daily conduct (i.e., functioning). Cognitive-Behavioural Therapies help one do this.
Q: In your Babel entries, you don't shy away in the least from writing about your "less than noble" traits and qualities. What would you say are the most disturbing aspects of your personality and being?
Sam: You can find here an adaptation of the criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder based on the DSM IV-TR (the psychologists' bible).
Q: Which famous philosopher comes closest to being in sync with your views?
Sam: Kant. A divine, all-encompassing, all-pervasive mind. Clear, accessible style of writing. Down to earth, common sense philosophy which underlies most modern thought. And he was reasonably social, too.
Q: Tell us about living dangerously in Israel, Yugoslavia, Macedonia and Russia.
Sam: It is a strange thing: I am an incorrigible coward, yet I keep finding myself in the most god-awful places, in the midst of warfare and conflict, often at personal risk. In my political and economic commentaries, I keep attacking unsavory regimes whose guest I am. I committed crimes (no longer), I gambled professionally (no longer), I put myself at grave hazard more than once (and still do). I was threatened, imprisoned, exiled, bombed. Yet, I keep coming back for more. How can this intrepid behaviour be reconciled with my pusillanimity and meekness, with my cowardice and reticence? It can't.
Maybe I feel magically immune to retribution. Maybe there is the imaginary Sam the dauntless romantic hero and the real Sam the easily intimidated. I simply choose to live in my imagination, oblivious to the potentially dire consequences.
Q: What are your views on reincarnation and karma?
Sam: I am agnostic about them (as I am about God). In other words, I don't know. Moreover, I don't know if it would ever be possible to know (in the rigorous, scientific sense). There are so many things I can get to know - why waste my limited allotment of time on this earth on things I don't know and, perhaps, cannot know?
Q: I know it's difficult to choose just one, but what would be your favourite:
Sam: a) author - Kafka; b) novel - August; c) non-fiction book - The Psychopathology of Everyday Life; d) movie - Eraserhead and Repulsion (can't choose between these two); e) play - Of Mice and Men; f) artist - Canaletto; g) musician or band - Mozart.
Q: What would be the top 5 things you'd change about the world?
There are too many people on this planet. It is not a question of resources. The planet can support many more. It is a question of statistics. Consider aggression, for instance. Aggression is often the outcome of over-crowding. Consider mental illness: the more people there are - the more dangerously mentally sick people there are (a fixed percent of the population). This applies to other defects and diseases. By multiplying as we have we are playing genetic roulette.
I would license parents. One needs a license to drive a car or to use a cellular phone. But anyone can make children and bring them up. Bringing up a child is a task thousands of times more complicated (and requires a thousand times more knowledge) than driving a car. Yet, there are no selection criteria and licensing process. Procreating is perceived to be the inalienable right of the parent. What about the right of the child not to be born to an unfit parent?
I would get rid of the dangerous illusion that social engineering is possible. No social or economic model has succeeded to ameliorate all social ills (let alone solve them) simultaneously. Communism failed - but so did Capitalism. Materialism combined with individualism leads to extremes of poverty, depredation, deprivation, and crime. Materialism combined with collectivism led to extremes of poverty, depredation, deprivation, and crime.
Corruption and venality corrode the social fabric. Given the will and determination, it should be possible to eradicate both effectively. This is not done because the ostensible enforcers and upholders of justice and probity are themselves entangled in webs of corruption and crime.
Universal suffrage has often led to mob rule. The pernicious (and patently absurd) assumption that everyone is equal has led to a dumbing down of the education system and the media, to the marginalization of the political system, to disenchantment with democracy, and to cultural narcissism. A meritocratic (I emphasize: meritocratic - not genetic or historical) class system must be established, with certain rights reserved to the upper classes only.
Q: Being that you reside in Europe, what are your overall impressions of America?
Sam: I wrote this a few days ago (it was published by The Idler and Yahoo!):
America is either hated or, at best, derided by well over three fifths of the world's population (suffice it to mention China, Russia, Iran, and Iraq). It is intensely disliked by many others (need I mention the French?). What is the source of this blanket repulsion?
There is no doubt that United States of America reifies and embodies the noblest, loftiest, and worthiest values, ideals, and causes. It is a dream in the throes of coming true: a dream of liberty, peace, justice, prosperity, and progress. Its system, despite its social flaws, is far superior - both morally and functionally - to any other ever conceived by Man.
Yet, the USA maintains one standard at home and flouts it abroad. A double standard was the hallmark of apartheid South Africa and is the nature of post-1967 colonial Israel. But while these two countries discriminated only against their own citizens and residents - the USA discriminates also against the entire world. Even as it never ceases to hector, preach, chastise, and instruct - it does not recoil from violating its own edicts and ignoring its own teachings. It is, therefore, not the USA's internal character or self perception that is controversial to liberals like I (though I beg to differ with its social model). Its actions are - and especially its foreign policy.
This manifest hypocrisy, America's moral talk and often immoral walk, its persistent application of double standards, irks and grates. This champion of human rights has aided and abetted countless murderous dictatorships. This sponsor of free trade - is the most protectionist of rich nations. This beacon of charity - contributes less than 0.1% of its GDP to foreign aid (compared to Scandinavia's 0.6%). This proponent of international law (under whose aegis it bombed and invaded half a dozen countries in a dozen years) - refuses to sign on to international treaties, which deal with mines, chemical and biological weapons, air pollution, and the International Criminal Court. It also ignores the rulings of the WTO.
America's enemies are envious of its might and wealth. But its haughtiness, lack of humility, and obtuse refusal to engage in soul searching and house cleaning - only aggravate this natural reaction.
America's sustained support for regimes with scant regard for human rights does not help either. To the peoples of the poor world, it is both a colonial power and a mercantilist exploiter. In cahoots with corrupt (and barbarous) domestic politicians, it furthers its military and geopolitical goals. And it drains the developing world of its brains, its labour, and its raw materials without giving much in return.
It is thus seen by its detractors not merely as a self-interested power (all powers are) - but as a narcissistic civilization, bent on exploiting and, having exploited, on discarding. America pays dearly now for its "use and dump" policies in places like Afghanistan and Macedonia. It is a Dr. Frankenstein, haunted and threatened by its own creations. Its kaleidoscopically shifting alliances and allegiances - the dazzling outcomes of expedience - tend to support this diagnosis of the Ugly American as a Narcissist. Pakistan and Libya were transformed from foes to allies in a fortnight. Milosevic - from friend to foe, in less.
This capricious inconsistency casts in grave doubt America's sincerity - and in sharp relief its unreliability and disloyalty, its short term thinking, truncated attention span, sound-byte mentality, and dangerous, "black and white", simplism. To outside observers it seems as though America uses - and thus, perforce, abuses - the international system for its own, ever changing, ends. International law is invoked when convenient - ignored when importune.
In its heartland, America is isolationist. Americans erroneously believe that America is an economically self-sufficient and self-contained continent. Yet, it is not what Americans believe or wish that matters to others. It is what they do. And what they do is intervene, often unilaterally, always ignorantly, sometimes forcefully.
Unilateralism is mitigated by cosmopolitanism. It is exacerbated by provincialism. American decision-makers are mostly provincials, popularly elected by provincials. As opposed to Rome, America is ill-suited and ill-equipped to manage the world. It is too young, too abrasive, too arrogant - and it has a lot to learn. Its refusal to acknowledge its shortcomings, its confusion of brain with brawn (i.e., money or bombs), its legalistic-litigious character, its culture of instant gratification and over-simplification - are detrimental to world peace.
America is often called by others to intervene. Many initiate conflicts or prolong them with the express purpose of dragging America into the quagmire. It then is either castigated for not having responded to such calls - or reprimanded for having responded. It seems that it cannot win. Abstention and involvement alike win it only ill-will.
But people call upon America to get involved because they know it does involve itself at times. America should make it unequivocally and unambiguously clear that - with the exception of the Americas - it is interested in commerce only (the Japanese model). It should make it equally known that it will protect its citizens and defend its assets - if needed by force. America's - and the world's - best bet are a reversion to the Monroe and (technologically updated) Mahan doctrines.
Wilson's Fourteen Points brought the USA nothing but two World Wars and a Cold War thereafter.
Q: What was your most terrifying experience while in prison?
Sam: The first day. I will never forget those indelible moments. It is the closest I ever felt to being an animal, trapped in the headlights of an oncoming semi-trailer. Israeli jails are notorious for being overcrowded and violent. I was under the illusion that army life prepared me for the forthcoming ordeal. It didn't. I was thrust, shackled wrists and ankles, into a tiny room, overflowing with more than 20 unkempt, raging, fearsome prisoners in transit - junkies, murderers, swindlers, hustlers, petty thieves, burglars. Their language was foreign, their customs alien, their codes mysterious, their intentions (so I thought) sinister - and I was surely doomed. They were verbally abusive, they threatened, they stank, they listened to loud Arabic music, they did drugs, they cooked, they defecated in a shattered toilet in the corner. It was Hyeronimus Bosch come alive. I froze, speechless, leaning heavily on a metal bed frame. And then someone tapped on my shoulder and said: "Just do what I say and you will be alright". I did and I was. I learned the most important lesson: there is more humanity in jail than outside it. You are treated the way you treat people. Reciprocity is king.
Q: Do you have any wild sex stories that'd knock our socks off?
Sam: Many years (and kilograms) ago, I was into orgies and group sex.
There are three types of orgies.
There is the "we are so intimate" group sex. People are so drawn to each other intellectually and emotionally that they cannot contain the flow of empathy, compassion - love, really. So, they express their unity through sex. In such group sex, all boundaries are blurred. The participants flow into one another, they feel as extensions of a much larger organism, eruptions of protoplasmic desire to be within each other. It is absolute, unmitigated, uninhibited immersion and enmeshment.
Then there is the "we are such strangers". This is the most promiscuous, wild, ecstatic, insane type of orgy. A kaleidoscope of flesh and semen and pubic hair and sweat and feet and wild eyes and penises and orifices of all measure. Until it is all over in an orgiastic cry. Usually, following the initial frenzy of devouring each other, small groups (twosomes, threesomes) retire and proceed to make love. They get intoxicated by the smells and the fluids and the bizarreness of it all.
It slowly peters out in a benign sort of way.
Lastly, there is the "we couldn't help it" thing. Aided by alcohol or drugs, the right music or videos - the participants, mostly unwilling but fascinated - slip into sex. They tumble in fits and starts. They withdraw only to return forced to by a mighty curiosity. They make love hesitantly, shyly, fearfully, almost clandestinely (though in full view of all the others). This is the sweetest kind. It is depraved and perverted, it is painfully arousing, it heightens one's sensation of oneself. It is a trip.
Group sex is NOT an extrapolation of pair sex. It is not normal sex multiplied. It is like living in three dimensions after being confined to a bi-dimensional, flat existence. It is like finally seeing in colour. The number of physical, emotional, and psychosexual permutations is mind boggling and it does boggle the mind. It is addictive. It permeates one's consciousness and consumes one's memory and one's desires. Thereafter one finds it hard to engage in one-on-one sex. It looks so boring, so lacking, so partial, so asymptotically craving for perfection...
Sometimes (not always) there is a "moderator". His/her (usually his) function is to "arrange" the bodies in "compositions" (very much like old quadrille dances).
Q: Of all the famous women in popular culture (either living or deceased), who would you consider the most beautiful of all- time?
Sam: I can see her face, but I don't remember her name. She is a contemporary young actress. And the second one would be Elizabeth Taylor.
Q: Why are women so afraid of you?
Sam: Women have suffered subjugation and abuse at the hands of men for millennia. Their only weapons have been their charm, their beauty, their sexuality, their mystique, their submissiveness, their wisdom. They had been transformed by the male-dominated, patriarchal, culture into manipulators. Women take for granted their ability - by tantalizingly offering sex and emotional succor to them - to sway men, attract them, coerce them, or convince them to do their bidding.
With the exception of narcissistic supply (i.e., attention), I am totally resistant to anything another person - man or woman - has to offer. I am completely self-sufficient and self-contained. I am a-sexual, schizoid, paranoid, misogynist, and misanthropic. Women - no matter how sexy, how willing, how determined, or how skillful - have absolutely no effect on me. This sudden helplessness and acquired transparency frightens women. Fear is a normal reaction to the dawning realization that one's coping mechanisms and survival strategies are useless.
Q: In "The Narcissist," you write, "I always think of myself as a machine." Could you elaborate?
Sam: At the risk of sounding narcissistic, allow me to quote myself:
"I always think of myself as a machine. I say to myself things like "you have an amazing brain" or "you are not functioning today, your efficiency is low". I measure things, I constantly compare performance.
I am acutely aware of time and how it is utilized. There is a meter in my head, it ticks and tocks, a metronome of self-reproach and grandiose assertions. I talk to myself in third person singular. It lends objectivity to what I think, as though it comes from an external source, from someone else. That low is my self-esteem that, to be trusted, I have to disguise myself, to hide myself from myself. It is the pernicious and all-pervasive art of un-being.
I like to think about myself in terms of automata. There is something so aesthetically compelling in their precision, in their impartiality, in their harmonious embodiment of the abstract. Machines are so powerful and so emotionless, not prone to be hurting weaklings like me. Machines don't bleed. Often I find myself agonizing over the destruction of a laptop in a movie, as its owner is blown to smithereens as well.
Machines are my folk and kin. They are my family. They allow me the tranquil luxury of un-being.
And then there is data. My childhood dream of unlimited access to information has come true and I am the happiest for it. I have been blessed by the Internet. Information was power and not only figuratively.
Information was the dream, reality the nightmare. My knowledge was my flying info-carpet. It took me away from the slums of my childhood, from the atavistic social milieu of my adolescence, from the sweat and stench of the army - and into the perfumed existence of international finance and media exposure.
So, even in the darkness of my deepest valleys I was not afraid. I carried with me my metal constitution, my robot countenance, my superhuman knowledge, my inner timekeeper, my theory of morality and my very own divinity - myself."
Q: Which well-known criminal most fascinates you?
Sam: Adolf Hitler. He was the reification of evil -banal, pathologically narcissistic, a consummate actor, a perfect mirror. This is how evil is born - when we are no longer ourselves. When we derive our sense of self-worth (actually, our sense of existence) exclusively from others, we seek to subjugate them in order to secure our own gratification. To do so, we often invent "grand schemes" - history, the nation, God, religion, freedom, justice - and then proceed to impose these concocted structures on others, if need be by force.
Q: If you could be a fictional character - whether it be from a novel, movie, TV show, play, or mythology, etc. - who would it be?
Sam: Hercule Poirot, of course. I always admired his cryogenically cool brain, his penetrating intellect, his astuteness, his erudition, his sense of drama, his sadism, his narcissism, not to mention his Dali moustache!
Q: Which historical figure do you most respect?
Sam: Winston Churchill. The man was the ultimate polymath. I doubt if such a confluence of outstanding talents will ever recur.
Q: How crazy are you?
Sam: Mad as a hare (laughing).
I am not crazy at all. I am not psychotic or delusional. I suffer from a personality disorder (as do 15% of the population). It is not considered a mental illness.
Q: Give us your thoughts on these two words: a) chameleon; b) mirror.
Sam: a) I; b) You.
Q: What is the key to understanding Sam Vaknin? In other words, what makes you tick?
Sam: You do. This interview. Attention, I crave attention. It is never enough. I want more. And I want it now.
Staff, H. (2008, December 15). Interview Babel Magazine - Excerpts Part 38, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2022, May 29 from https://www.healthyplace.com/personality-disorders/malignant-self-love/excerpts-from-the-archives-of-the-narcissism-list-part-38