I was two days alone in the caravan and no signal or reception of any sort. It was like a Buddhist silent retreat, where you have to listen in horrified amazement to your own thoughts. During the day I walked the cliff path; in the evenings I sat on the caravan steps wishing I had a rook rifle. On my walks, I did acquire a book, however: Sigmund Freud’s essay On Narcissism. It was on a community book-swap shelf in a disused telephone box. I’ve been picking up Freud and putting him down again perplexed and defeated for most of my adult life. But when I opened this one and glanced inside, I thought here at last was something I might be able to get to grips with.
A narcissist, I read, standing outside the peeling kiosk, is ‘someone who treats his own body in the same way in which the body of a sexual object is ordinarily treated — who looks at it, that is to say, strokes it and fondles it until he obtains complete satisfaction through these activities’. Well, blow me down, old Sigmund had me down to a tee, the fella. So that’s what I am — a narcissist. I couldn’t wait to get the book back to the caravan, draw the curtains, and settle down to read in a calm and leisurely manner what is going on behind the scenes.
I started off well. I could understand successive sentences. Early in his career, says Freud, he had all us narcissists down as perverts. Then over time, he says, he kindly modified that view and now concedes that this kind of human behaviour is perhaps fairly normal. Pleased about that, but wondering about such a sheltered life as his must have been, I pressed on. But soon the road ran out and I was blundering hopelessly about in a dense and thorny thicket of object-cathexes, ego-instincts and transference neuroses. Before I flung the book aside, however, I stumbled, scratched and bleeding, into a clearing. Children, Freud says, are pure narcissists. That is why we imagine we love them. Their blithe narcissism revives and speaks to the narcissist in us that we as socially adjusted adults have been forced to repress. ‘Parental love,’ he concludes, ‘which is so moving and at bottom so childish, is nothing but the parents’ narcissism born again.’
What a bastard, I thought. He’s drawn the rug out from under our feet. But like an infection his idea took insidious hold in spite of my sergeant-majorly contempt for it. During my walks I saw dotard parents propelling their little ones about in their elaborate pushchair equivalents of the royal carriage, and deferring to them as though they were little emperors and empresses — or ‘His Majesty the baby’ as Freud puts it. Then my son drove down, deposited his four-and-a-half-year-old son with me, and drove away again. And for three days and nights my grandson and I — in Freudian terms two ‘primary’ narcissists — lived together in a static caravan.
Since his birth I have been entirely besotted with my grandson. It’s become a family joke. ‘How’s Oscar?’ they say to me, just to see my eyes light up with folly. It’s that innocently put cattle-prod question. I have often wondered how and why such a powerful feeling has come over me completely out of the blue. ‘Why did nobody warn me?’ I say in mock complaint.
And in four and a half years, we’ve never had a cross word.
But during those three days we had nothing but cross words. We were a pair of warring narcissists cooped up together in a three-bedroom Festival Super, because my grandson has recently added to his narcissism an ugly megalomania. He now wants to set the pace, decide the itinerary, and interpret the world for me. ‘Look, an aeroplane!’ he said, pointing to a giant wind turbine on a hillside. ‘That’s not an aeroplane, it’s a windmill.’ ‘It’s an aeroplane.’ ‘No, it’s a windmill. If it’s an aeroplane, why isn’t it moving?’ ‘It’s an aeroplane.’ And then a furious, pouting sulk. He could not be wrong on any subject. He was omnipotent and omniscient. He was indeed acting exactly like a Tudor monarch. But I was an argumentative courtier. The narcissist in me flatly refused to bow the knee. I argued the toss with him, I harangued him, I threatened to depose him. He put his fingers in his ears and smiled regally at me. But something changed between us in those three days. I think my defiant challenge to his divine authority has yet to be forgiven, and I’m no longer his court favourite. And now, thankfully, we can move on.