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Eros in a Narcissistic Culture by Ralph D. Ellis

Some books loaded with weak arguments are nevertheless worth looking at because they contain a huge number of thought provoking ideas. Eros In a Narcissistic Culture is one.

Eros contains dozens of flawed leftist economic, psychological, and sociological ideas. Many of its statistics are flat out false. Its claims that 95 percent of welfare recipients are children and that one percent of the population is homeless are concocted out of almost nothing. It is also among the most repetitive books I have read.

Nevertheless Ralph D. Ellis believes eros is a two phase process. The first phase requires a paradoxical mixture of extreme admiration and compassion. (The compassion element should not drift into pity, however.) Ellis means not only compassion for specific misfortunes, but compassion for beings facing the hostility and indifference of the universe, beings conscious of their lack of power and the shortness of their lives. We need this mixture of admiration and compassion to intensely value others. This mixture also reduces arrogance and narcissism, and develops a sense of "life-encompassing awe." The second phase requires adventures for both individuals, preferably moral adventures.

The second phase is required, not a mere useful addition. If partners attempt to remain the the first phase, the relationship stagnates and whithers. Though different from falling in love, the second phase (also called the adventure phase) can and should be as meaningful and rewarding. Love fails to move into or remain in the adventure phase for several reasons, writes Ellis. First, most societies have a shortage of fulfilling adventurous activities. Institutions make life passive. Second, and more important, belief systems orient toward hedonic getting what you can rather than contributing. Third, players and "romance addicts" prefer only the first phase. Fourth, the empathy and admiration disappear. Fifth, eros makes one vulnerable and narcissists cannot stand much vulnerability in love, though life contains many dangerous vulnerabilities we block from consciousness.

Ellis argues that consciousness wants and needs dynamism, expansion, and transformation rather than hedonic satisfaction and "drive reduction." Without transcendence, consciousness does not simply remain the same but withers.

Eros, he writes, excels at ransforming and awakening consciousness. Consciousness cannot be fully alive without interacting with other conscious beings. Self-love and self-pity are inherently bad, stultifying and less intensely alive than love and compassion for others. Self-love makes us complacent or arrogant.

Among the ways cultures wreck eros: Promoting the ideals of invulnerability and hip cynicism. Maintaining invulerability requires that difficult nonmonetary goals (e.g. eros) having a sufficient probability of failure be devalued. In addition, when vulnerability cannot be seen, a love that does develop is not fully felt.

Ellis argues that eros requires an erotic dimension and that love making should be treated as a expressive rather than a consummatory activity. Conscious beings require acts such as love making both to intensify feeling and to make bonds stronger by aligning actions with attitudes. Ellis condemns promiscuous sex. Promiscuous sex lacks full empathy and is existentially unfullfilling. Unfortunately, many individuals think the problem is the wrong partner or technique rather than the promiscuous sex itself. Lack of fulfillment makes those individuals feel inadequate, which makes them even easier to manipulate by Hollywood and Madison Avenue who promote even more promiscuous sex in a vicious spiral. "[A] person or culture steeped in a philosophy of simplistic hedonism will very likely approach the opportunity for eros by interpreting it as a means to 'happiness' or 'pleasure'... rather than to be pulled out of oneself into a radical transformation of the structure of one's consciousness."

Feelings of eros can remain strong for a lifetime, provided that both individuals continue to find worthy adventures, and the short-sighted, ultra-competitive influences of culture are fought. Eros is important not only for obvious reasons, but also for preventing the fragmentation of consciousness, and for being struck with the earthshaking importance of other beings.


Book review article by J.T. Fournier, last updated July 26, 2009


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