Humans like to say things like ‘the human spirit’. They like to think it means something, that it’s what’s special about them. That it separates them from other animals. There’s that new movie out, 127 Hours, starring James Fracno, about that guy, Aron Ralston, who got his arm caught under a big rock when he fell into a canyon, and he had to cut the arm off with a really dull multi-purpose knife. The movie’s about, like, ‘the human spirit’.

Humans like to say things like that: ‘the human spirit’. Like it’s something different from what other animals possess. Aron Ralston cut his arm off to survive, which is exactly what any other animal would do in that situation—they would chew it off, like, if their arm was caught in a trap some human laid out. When humans say ‘the human spirit’, they want to believe they are important.

When humans say ‘the human spirit’, what they should really say is ‘animal instinct’. They should say ‘survival mechanism’. They mistake the natural, primal urge to keep living (the biological imperative to protect the ‘self’ in order to reproduce and pass down one’s genetic material to continue the species, as well as the ego’s desire to continue obsessing over itself, thinking itself superior to all other animals—including other humans) for a supposed incorporeal, atemporal consciousness, an entity separate from the physical human body: a ‘soul’.

Religion (I refer mostly to the three major, monotheistic biggies) if not causes then certainly encourages people to think this way (as religion is most likely the result of people thinking themselves important while ultimately being afraid that they have no purpose—other than the purpose they invent), like they are special, like they have ‘souls’, that they have a ‘spirit’ which is superior to or ‘better’ than other animals. Though people seem (or claim) to enjoy life, the life they believe their [g]od has given them, they do all kinds of crazy, dangerous things which put that life in jeopardy (discounting the large number of people who do crazy, dangerous things because of their religion). It’s as if the only way humans can have fun while being alive is to come as close to death as possible.

Freud’s theory of humanity’s death drive, or “death instinct,” seems an accurate conclusion to draw from any observation of human behavior (especially when applied to Western Civilization, as Freud did in Civilization and Its Discontents). Some things humans do: they build 2-ton machines, put wheels on them and drive around in them really fast—race them, even. They construct really tall buildings. They build airplanes to fly around in. They jump out of those airplanes wearing parachutes. They climb mountains. They jump off cliffs wearing squirrel suits. They go skiing in wooded areas. They go hiking in the desert without telling anyone where they’re going. (These are just some of the things humans do for fun, not including the wars they wage.) When people get hurt they wonder why, how it could’ve possibly happened.

Their reasons for doing these things vary slightly, but for the most part they’re the same: 1) Humans want to prove to the opposite sex that they’re worth copulating with, that their offspring would, ironically, if supplied with their genes, have a better chance of survival (if, of course, they don’t fall into a canyon), 2) Humans want to conquer other humans to treat them like the soulless animals the believe they are (they invent guns, bombs, napalm, mustard gas, nuclear weapons, etc.), and 3) Humans want to prove they can conquer nature. So they build all these things to help make their lives easier, but they ultimately fail in horrible, disfiguring ways. Humans do these things to themselves, rarely thinking about what could actually happen. When what could happen actually happens, they wonder why, how.

A more essentialist or reductionist view is that humans only do things because they are addicted to the chemicals their brains produce. Humans are all on drugs all the time, as their experiences in and reactions to the external world are based on their brains’ chemical responses: the rush of adrenaline they get from jumping off or out of something or from driving really fast, the serotonin released when a writer gets an acceptance from a literary journal or press, the dopamine and endorphins squirted throughout the bodies of lovers and sadomasochists, etc.

Human emotions are all chemically induced, so emotions are basically just illusions—hallucinations. Eventually, as with all drugs humans put in their bodies, the effects wear off—their highs diminish as they build up a tolernace, and they need their brains to release more chemicals to get their fix. They can only do this by taking bigger risks: jumpers and skydivers leap off or out of taller or higher flying things, sadomasochists seek to inflict/receive more pain, etc. Just so they can feel something—anything.

As a human, watching this movie, you will maybe feel more special than ever before. You will enjoy this feeling. For a little while, at least. Going to see this movie might make you feel better about yourself because you are human and feel superior to everything else in the world. You are human and, subconsciously, you probably feel guilty about that, so you need to feel better about being human. But that’s not enough, is it—you need to feel better about being superior to everything else in the world.

Going to see 127 Hours is maybe a lot safer than falling down a canyon or jumping out of an airplane or enlisting in the armed services—physically safer, at least. Mentally, emotionally, it will further reinforce humanity’s narcissistic belief that it possesses the unique capacity for survival (or ‘triumph’) that no other lifeform on Earth possesses—that humans are, therefore, stronger, smarter, more deserving of life. Humans will find this ‘inspiring’ because humans feel better knowing they can always make the best of the tragedies they themselves cause, as they follow own their shadows to water, where their collective death drive is the wavering reflection they’re condemned to stare at with blind eyes.

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ERIC BEENY is the author of The Dying Bloom (Pangur Ban Party, 2009), Snowing Fireflies (Folded Word Press, 2010), Of Creatures (Gold Wake Press, 2011), Pseudo-Masochism (Medulla Publishing, 2011), Milk Like a Melted Ghost (Thumbscrews Press, 2011), and some other things. His writing has appeared in many journals, both in print and online. He blogs at Dead End on Progressive Ave.

5 responses to “You Can Lead a Narcissist to Water…”

  1. Richard Cox says:

    Yeah, but really all perceived stimuli are hallucinations as far as your mind is concerned. Every conscious moment of the day is a movie you’re watching about the very recent past. Amplifying those perceived experiences by manipulating neurotransmitters is like turning up the volume or getting HD. I don’t disagree with Freud’s reasoning but it seems he’s just giving a name and human framework to the chemical addiction idea.

    That’s sort of what we’re all doing, right, whether we call it religion or psychology or just plain ol’ narcissism? Or to borrow a phrase from a friend, holding the boredom at bay?

    • Eric Beeny says:

      Thank you for your comment, Richard. Yes, I agree totally. I was mainly speaking of internal reaction (emotion) to externally perceived stimuli, or hallucinations (which the brain doesn’t perceive as such), reactions (emotions) which are themselves hallucinations.

      And regarding Freud’s naming/frameworking: yes, indeed, but Freud’s not alone in the quest to name things. All humans taxonimize (starting from Adam, if that’s what they believe) their environment to help make sense of ‘the reality hallucination’, as they invent socially constructed dichotomies to differentiate between. There’s the theory that humans identify objects, themselves and others not by what they are but what they are not.

      And I agree with what you say about holding boredom at bay: your friend is absolutely right. We have nothing better to do, so we invent things to occupy ourselves and our time on Earth which coincide with an imagined purpose/meaning. That way we have things to do while we’re alive, to help explain why we’re alive while dying…

  2. Gregory Messina says:

    I like very much how you equate the human spirit with animal instinct. I had never quite thought of it like that before. Very insightful essay.

  3. Mike says:

    I love love love how you reference Greek mythology at the end of your article. Working in retail has exposed me to so many narcissists, that sometimes I forget that there are actually people who have this character trait under control (luckily I can talk to my loved ones after work to detox). I understand though, that it, like everything else, has its context, and, if nothing else, it may keep your precious self alive just as it may, ironically, lead you to fall into a desert canyon. Anyway, after reading this article, I think I can skip the movie and the book, I’ve got enough narcissists parading in front of me as it is.

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