BELOW IS A VERSION OF THE TEXT FOR THE PRECEDING VIDEO:
A number of visitors to this site took issue with my earlier post and video about The Social Network — they felt that the fictional Mark Zuckerberg actually suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome instead of narcissistic personality disorder. In my view, those two labels from the DSM-IV actually represent two artificially distinct entities; they share a number of features and in truth exist along a spectrum. In this post, instead of trying to demonstrate the features of any particular label, I’d like to discuss two psychological traits that show up in a number of apparently distinct diagnostic entities, and I’ll use the main character from that classic film, Citizen Kane, to demonstrate them. The first of these features — a lack of empathy — is a diagnostic criterion of both narcissistic personality disorder and various disorders that feature autism symptoms. The second, narcissistic rage, features in both borderline and narcissistic personality disorders.
So … Charles Foster Kane, heir to a Colorado mining fortune — he grows up as the ward of a wealthy financier and when he comes of age, he decides to run a newspaper because it would be “fun”. His paper crusades on behalf of the underprivileged and Charlie views himself as their champion, using his generosity toward “the poor” as a kind of narcissistic feed. Charlie exemplifies the kind of narcissism you often see in people who make displays of their compassion and altruism, where the person wants to feel good about himself rather than having true empathy for others.
In a similar vein, when Charlie falls in love, he chooses a woman who reflects well upon him and feeds his own idealized self-image. Emily Norton is the niece of a president and an important socialite. Charlie adores her … that is, until her perfect admiration for him begins to wane. In a brilliant montage of scenes over the breakfast table, we see their mutual idealization slowly transform into alienation and contempt.
Charlie never truly cared about Emily or her feelings, any more than he cares about his second wife, Susan Alexander. In the scene when he first meets Susie, he seems most concerned with the fact that she “likes” him. Later, when he tries to make her an opera star against her own wishes – again as a narcissistic feed for his grandiose view of himself — he cares nothing about her feelings and proves himself incapable of empathy. She finally attempts suicide in order to escape his relentless narcissistic drive. Charlie experiences Susan’s failure to win over the public as both personal shame and narcissistic injury; he blames “the people” rather than himself, but he can’t empathize at all with his wife’s feelings.
In order to bolster his narcissistic view of himself, he then builds a monument to Charles Foster Kane — Xanadu, a grandiose castle and the largest private home ever built in America. He fills it with treasures and art works collected over a lifetime; he and Susie live imprisoned in this castle with little human contact, a perfect symbol for the beautiful false self the narcissist often erects to disguise the shame he feels about his internal “ugliness”. Trapped inside this gilded cage, Susie is miserable. She complains with growing shrillness about her unhappiness, and the fact that Charlie never gives her anything she actually wants or needs. It’s clear that Charlie is enraged by her remarks, experiencing her very accurate criticism as a narcissistic wound. When Susie walks out on him, he explodes with narcissistic rage and destroys her room.
As an old man, Jed gives the best summation of Charlie’s character, and one of the most insightful descriptions of the narcissistic personality you’ll ever find:
“I guess he had some private sort of greatness but he kept it to himself. He never gave himself away. He never gave anything away, he just left you a tip. He had a generous mind. I don’t suppose anybody ever had so many opinions! But he never believed in anything except Charlie Kane; he never had a conviction except Charlie Kane and his life. I suppose he died without one. Must have been pretty unpleasant.”
Charles Foster Kane believed in nothing but himself and his self-image; he spent a lifetime craving the narcissistic feed that would give him an inner sense of meaning and value, but in the end, he died a lonely, isolated man. Such is the ultimate fate of all narcissists, because they lack the ability to feel authentic love or empathy and thereby to form meaningful relationships. Most of what they do is geared toward earning praise and adoration, and when they fail to get it, they may erupt in rage. When he dies, Charlie’s final words –Rose Bud — imply that nothing has mattered in his life since he was a small child. He developed no personal relationships of any depth; he accomplished nothing that gave him a sense of meaning or purpose, and he dies dreaming wistfully of the sled he owned as a boy.
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