Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Confine narcissism to those who can pay for it
The critics and claquers who habitually called him America’s greatest living architect no doubt meant it as a compliment. But Frank Lloyd Wright took it differently. What’s with “living”? What’s with “America’s”? Qualifiers be damned. He was the greatest architect, anywhere, ever. Nice mindset, if you can get it.
Wright, who died 50 years ago today, was gregarious, charming, funny and charismatic as well as intensely, obsessively creative. The hundreds of buildings that bear his name – the glorious ones like Falling Water (1935), Johnson Wax (1939) and the Taliesins, east and west – shifted (it is said) the way we relate to both nature and art.
But Wright was also, as biographers tirelessly note, a train wreck of a human being; feckless, reckless and impetuous, irredeemably profligate, perpetually in debt and intermittently in hiding from the law. In T. C. Boyle’s The Women, Wright emerges as a Toad figure; short, vain, bombastic, loveable, catastrophe-prone; entirely innocent of self-knowledge, limitlessly dependent on the goodwill (and deep pockets) of his friends and helplessly in thrall to fast, high-chroma roadsters.
He expressed virtually no interest, ever, in the first six (of seven) children and had only the slenderest grasp on truth, lying compulsively to the press, the sheriffs, his mentor Louis Sullivan and the various wives and lovers with which he furnished that long escapade, his life. Even well after death – when I visited Taliesin West circa 1976 – Wright’s storey-high face supervised a hall of students who paid handsomely to sleep in tents in the 100-degree desert and rise at dawn, just to breathe the spirit.
For, throughout it all, Wright sustained and was sustained by a transcendent vision; of a possible world that he alone was capable of creating, and of his own, heroic place within it. This vision, for which Wright repeatedly risked everything and everyone, is the main reason we remember him, even now, as great.
Call it fantasy, though, rather than vision, and you leap straight from genius into pathology. Describe Wright as having “a grandiose sense of self-importance;” as preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love; as arrogating special entitlements including a special right to admiration – all of which are demonstrably the case – and you have the American Psychiatric Association’s shortlist of indicators for narcissistic personality disorder. Right there. Admittedly, this makes Wright a lot like every child you know and a little like, well, most of us.
Double the dosage and you’ve got your regulation politician, from Clinton down, and quite a few other alpha types; gynaecologists, filmmakers, professorial silverbacks. You’ve met them. High-functioning sorts of great charm and greater need, adulation-addicts whose all-consuming self-centredness demands they retain a circle of head-patters, back-scratchers and succubi as mirrors for the all-important self.
The paradigm here is narcissism as a prerogative; a cocoon of infantilism that most of us shed, more or less willingly, as we grow, that geniuses alone may keep. It’s the old creative personality myth, where adult behaving badly is tolerated as the regrettable underside of greatness; the crooked legs that keep the great swan sailing on.
This gives the artist special dispensation to behave cretinously – so long as the goods keep coming. It also inclines us, the consuming public, to judge the goods pukka if and only if the accompanying behaviour is sufficiently vile or nutty, and remains so for sufficiently long. Think Picasso, Dali, Pollock, Warhol, Damien Hirst, Tracy Emin, Yayoi Kusama.
But this raises an interesting question. You’ve noticed how the above list progressively loses brilliance as it approaches the now? The question is not just whether narcissism is an unavoidable flip-side of creativity, but what happens when the narcissism prerogative gets democratised, sprayed around in a generic airbrush splatter.
A new book, The Narcissism Epidemic by Drs Twenge and Campbell, is controversial even pre-release due to its proposition that today’s young are more self-absorbed than ever. The last time this happened, argue the authors, was the 1920s, and they ended in tears. A combination of corporate me-ism, because-I-deserve-it marketing, self-esteem parenting and the universal acceptance that self-love is a prerequisite for other-love, has triggered, they say, an epidemic whose symptoms include Facebook, Twitter, climate change and global financial ruin.
So it seems narcissists, like geniuses, are as much made as born. Frank Lloyd Wright’s mother was so convinced of her foetus’s genius that, while he was still in utero, she plastered her bedroom (then, post-partum, his) with etchings of the great cathedrals.
Now, genius has become a kind of subprime; the ubiquitous post-modern presumption that we’re all brilliant, and all therefore narcissistically entitled. Perhaps, though, what the coincidence of epidemic narcissism with declining genius-quality implies is that it’s time we reverted to plan A. Time we restricted the narcissism prerogative to those who – like Wright – can actually pay for it, and keep paying, in true creative genius.