Whom would you rather have round to dinner, an idealist radiating purity and hope, or a narcissist wallowing in self-importance and tales of personal glory? “Neither”, I hear you groan impatiently. But wait. Life is about making choices, and it might be worth reflecting on the personality of your putative dinner guest before showering them with your hospitality.
That said, I must confess that, regardless of the number of person hours I have spent in the company of people who like to talk, I am still undecided as to which of the two devils I would prefer to devote an evening of my precious time to. I still do not know whether it is better to be preached at by a stern idealist who has a plan to counter the woes of the world or to brace myself to listen to a recital by the happy narcissist of his (and it is usually ‘his’) amazing achievements.
The story goes that George Bernard Shaw was once holding forth at length to a lady at the dinner table. Eventually, he checked himself, paused and fixed his gaze upon his mesmerized companion. “That’s enough about me”, he said. “Now tell me about yourself. What do you think of me?” This captures the dilemma for me. On reflection, who would not want to be entertained over dinner by the likes of GBS?
‘Entertainment’ is the operative word here. If my ideal dinner companion is to deserve my culinary tour de force of chicken soup followed by roast beef and potatoes, they must be prepared to entertain me. But there is another requirement which must be met, namely the ability, during the course of the conversation, to acknowledge me as someone with a mind of my own and not just as a gawping audience, a tabula rasa, grateful to be endlessly scribbled upon.
Entertainment, therefore, is not enough, otherwise one might as well invite the television set to share one’s dinner. My hypothetical guest should be able to move intrepidly between amusingly self-referent anecdotes, bandwagons and genuine curiosity about my own views. I should certainly not be seen merely as a spellbound audience or a congregation of disciples.
Frankly, most of us have something of the narcissist about us, as well as something of the idealist. Indeed, a degree of narcissism is healthy, and so is a degree of idealism. It is the extreme forms of these conditions which trouble me. Take the extreme idealist. This is the person who embraces a cause beyond the self, who invests all their energy in a particular population, ideology, philosophy or vision of the future. The humble individual is of no account in this scenario. There is not a jot of selfishness about such characters. They are paragons of modesty, virtue and dedication to the cause. In previous encounters with them I have found myself sinking into a state of gloomy inattention, worrying about whether I might be bored to death or inflamed into murderous rage. After all, there would be plenty of carving implements to hand with which to inflict the fatal wound. The extreme narcissist, on the other hand, materializes at the table like a swollen bullfrog. Anyone else’s attempt at conversation is deftly bypassed or appropriated, perhaps prefaced by a remark to the effect of, “That reminds me of the time when I ….” Readers will recognize a kind of psychic blindness in both these types, which renders them incapable of dialogue.
A third type of dinner guest, exemplified by the persona of the dedicated politician, sits down to the meal infused with massive doses of both idealism and narcissism. In this case, the dinner table is transformed into a platform on which our guest holds forth at length about a program for changing the system and the indispensability of the speaker in executing said program.
In guiding me towards a decision, I draw inspiration from the legends and myths surrounding those who have trodden the path of extreme virtue, and their counterparts, those who have surrounded themselves with an aura of extreme self-admiration. The journey of the former invariably ends in painful self-sacrifice and great holiness, while that of the latter has an equally unhappy ending of disappearing into a quagmire of stagnation and oblivion.
Let me illustrate what I mean with the story of Narcissus, the young man who has given his name to the condition of excessive self-admiration. He was so entranced by his image when he caught sight of his reflection in lake by which he had stopped to refresh himself that he forgot to eat or drink and wasted away in a state of hypnotic fascination. He did not even hear the voice of the beautiful nymph, Echo, who was repeatedly calling for him to come to her.
The journey of the extreme idealist can be exemplified by any story taken from a religious text which tells of a saintly figure who has consistently put the needs of others before his own and has ultimately found himself taking leave of this world in circumstances of great pain and suffering. Both of these examples provide cautionary tales for the would-be host. In both instances, the dinner is likely to get cold on the platter and you, dear host, are likely to get hot under the collar.