War of ego
imperial narcissism & its response online
Much has been said of the tendency for hardship to reveal the true nature of a person. Political turmoil, economic strife, war—times when the precarity of life, or at least the precarity of life as we know it, hangs in the balance tend to foster the honesty of urgency, stripping away pretense and affectation, neutralizing the will to dissimulation, exposing who we are at the core. As an old dog once observed: adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which in prosperous circumstances would have lain dormant. The same might be said of eliciting cowardice and monstrosity. The broader point is rather that whatever lies beneath becomes more difficult to mask.
I have spilled a lot of ink on narcissism, but in witnessing such a breathtaking display of it over the past few days, I’m gonna spill a bit more. That Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is deeply precedented and likely predictable doesn’t detract from its horrific surprise; I’d argue that the extremely precedented nature of egoic war is actually a contributing factor to its horror. We know better, and we do it anyway—and we get NICUs in bomb shelters and terrified people packed into subway stations and useless suffering and death. While I generally hold up uselessness as a virtue, in war it is clearly not. I’m not sure war has any virtues at all.
It is tempting in the face of such atrocity to demonize the perpetrators and sanctify the victims, but both are no more or less than human. Hence the uselessness of narcissistic war: no matter how much land Putin conquers, no matter how many other people he kills, one of the very few certainties here is that eventually, in some way or another, Vladimir Putin is going die, too. He is not, and will not become a god. The best he can do is play one for a while.
I’ve noted in the past that novelists uncomfortably share this impulse with fascist dictators. Maybe we all do. There are moments when playing god feels tantalizingly promising, and I wonder if part of what this brand of war takes away is any hope of the illusion of apotheosis for a great many in its relentless perpetuation for a few. I’d venture it’s also why you don’t have to be in physical danger to internalize war’s effects, and we get this anxious meta-battle of morals online: outpourings of well-intentioned grief, backlash against the expression of them from a position of personal comfort; attempts to sit outside this cycle with jokes in poor taste, outrage and backlash against them in turn. Detached anti-bad-post type posts that vaguely convey victim solidarity without risking first-order sentimentalism provide the safest route, conveying an anti-war position without ever directly addressing it, providing maximal insulation from criticism, including that of silence.
These shadow disputes online seem to boil down to a desire to socially distance ourselves from the narcissistic impulses so grossly overdeveloped in figures like Putin, but the roots of which, the potential, we share in small ways, our very impulse toward performing empathy online—even genuine empathy—not least among them. I think of War and Peace, how the social dynamics of the battlefield and the ballroom are set in contrast and yet come to mirror each other. Technology, and in particular social media, is ever collapsing the space between them, and as we find ourselves privy to atrocity in between, say, idyllic runs on the ski slope, we become caught in the egoic webs of war and peace at once, uncomfortably conscious of our true faces, even as we continue to reach for our masks.