A memoir isn’t worth reading if it doesn’t include at least one glorious cavalry charge or some gross act of sexual indecency. Unhappily, Jeremy Vine’s own effort fails entirely. His confessions, an extract of which was recently published in the Daily Mail, are certainly striking insofar as they surpass the accepted limits of banality. In a fit of unflagging self-absorption, Vine recalls the scare of spying an ostensibly cancerous spot by his left collarbone; a freckle that later turned out to be a residual speck of fake tan (a memento left over from his time on Strictly Come Dancing). Vine’s account is not, rather cheatingly, a posthumous record.
Modern autobiography is exceedingly tedious. What’s more, hypochondria, much like fake tan, is really just another form of narcissism. Still, I can forgive an egoist. After all, history consists of a long line of perennial show-offs. But that’s exactly the point. An egoist must be able to justify his egoism.
Horatio Nelson was certainly a narcissist. And why not? Here was a man who dedicated his life to irritating the French – a wholly noble pursuit. He lost an eye and an arm in the line of duty before being slain in the moment of his triumph. Vine, on the other hand, regales us with the grand tale of when undersized underpants made his cock and balls ache.
Nelson has two great achievements to his name. Trafalgar, of course, we know well. He also bedded Emma Hamilton, apparently the loveliest woman in Europe. Nelson’s Column is, in this regard, an entirely fitting tribute, in more ways than one, to the man who would not be defeated. The fact that Nelson, the nation’s saviour, was also an utter egomaniac is completely understandable. What’s Vine’s excuse?
This brings me to the subject of social justice, which is undoubtedly the result of a rising vanity amongst the young in particular. As Jean M Twenge and W Keith Campbell have illustrated, in The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement (2009), such factors as bad parenting, celebrity culture, the internet, and the self-esteem movement, have engendered a culture of ‘excessive self-admiration’. Part of this construction which Twenge and Campbell neglect to mention, however, is the emergence of an imagined set of evils that the modern-day narcissist has set about combating in order to validate his or her own sense of self-worth. Strangely, this relates to Nelson himself.
Narcissism is, I think, what accounted for Afua Hirsch’s recent suggestion in The Guardian that Nelson’s Column should be dismantled. The apparent justification for such unwarranted vandalism was that Nelson was an exponent of white supremacism. But Hirsch’s sorry attempt at iconoclasm is itself a monument to her own over-inflated ego. Unlike Nelson, however, she grapples with an enemy that is essentially a fabrication of the mind.
Having grown up in a time of unparalleled wealth and comfort, it might appear to some that we have reached the end of history. This mistaken conception must terrify Hirsch. What battles are there left to fight? The ego demands its own place in history. Perhaps this urge was first felt by the baby boomers who had just missed out on the greatest ‘happening’ of the twentieth century. That great event was the Second World War. But the ‘68-ers’, it has been said, had their moment: in the form of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s. It is a mark of that victory that all their children have left to rail against is a statue.
Vanity is a very great problem in our society. The paradox, of course, is that narcissists today generally have very little to congratulate themselves about. Vine is a prime example of this. We have gone soft. Instead of replaying the gallantry of the past, which is perhaps too much to live up to, those such as Hirsch participate in a game of mock heroics that requires little, if any, effort or sacrifice, allowing them to play the hero without being exposed to any of the inherent risk. It is an intoxicating mixture that has come to define the Leftist ethic.
Feminism also shares this mode of operation, appealing to the vanity of women by remaking them into a uniquely oppressed class. This has the effect of conferring on women a counterfeit heroism, one railing against an equally imaginary abuse of power called the ‘patriarchy’. This game of make-believe is played out repeatedly as part of the broader culture, where such myths as the gender pay gap continue to defy reality. Women are typically seen as heroic simply for being women. While men must actually prove themselves, on the battlefield or through some manner of moral resistance, women merely have to turn up to work.
The problem with the narcissistic impulse, which has many manifestations, is that it obscures vital realities. And one such reality is that narcissism is itself the enemy. Feminism, for example, is a particularly corrosive philosophy because motherhood is necessarily seen as a betrayal of its ‘heroic’ ideal. If there is a war to be waged, then, it must be against the conceit of our own age, not the supposed deficiencies of the past. Far from representing the evils of yesteryear, Nelson stands for some of its most impressive ideals. If Hirsch had any humility she would have recognised this.
Vine is a bore, but he is at least a harmless bore. Hirsch, however, is rather different. Her narcissism seeks a definite consummation in history itself. This is what makes the Leftist ethic of narcissism so pernicious. Self-conceit will have no master other than itself. Ultimately, it is a symptom of a broader spiritual crisis in the West, from fake tan to fake news, appealing not to truth, but to the vainglorious aspirations of a generation that must have its ‘moment’.