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Background

Two heavily abridged excerpts from journalist Bryan Appleyard and psychologist Linda Nicolosi that are keys to understanding the psychosocial make-up of our diva, Raquel Evita Saraswati.

We will refer to these passages in an upcoming analysis, and update this page with more helpful references at that time.


And so, after the second world war, with the defeat of Nazism and the exposure of the iniquities of Soviet communism, the message that there was no message slowly began to sink into the popular consciousness. Political absolutes had failed. In the liberal West the authority of church and state was waning. An uneasy global peace had come, but it seemed empty. There was nothing left worth living or fighting for.

In John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger, the definitive antihero, Jimmy Porter, announced angrily: “There aren’t any good brave causes left.” Marlon Brando’s Wild One, when asked what he was rebelling against, replied: “Whaddya got?” The heroes of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels found freedom only in the privacy of self-determination and death, and Sylvia Plath’s last poetic act was her own suicide. These were nihilistic identities created out of disbelief.

For, through the 1950s and 60s, though the wealth of the developed world rose exponentially, so did disbelief. Locked in a cold-war gamble in which human life was the bet, we told ourselves destructively consoling stories about the end of all stories. Sartre’s philosophy insisted that the very act of turning our lives into a story was an act of “bad faith”. There was nothing to be said or done beyond the lonely individual’s act of self-creation.

Yet we self-created in surroundings of unprecedented luxury. … Television beamed alternative lives into our homes. And, for most in the West and increasingly in the Far East, the necessities of survival were provided at the supermarket and the hospital. Mere survival could no longer give us a story. It had become consumption. All that was left to do was luxuriate in our own nihilism. Or we could, as Stanley Kubrick advised in his film Dr Strangelove, “learn to stop worrying and love the bomb”.

The human need for narrative, however, was irrepressible. People still had to explain themselves to themselves. New stories were created. They were tuned to the mood of the times and they are all still with us.

There was, most obviously, the story of youth that grew up to become the story of self. The youth culture that was born in the 1950s and came to maturity in the 1960s was a consoling myth of dissidence, freedom, self-definition and, ultimately, the subjugation of all communal moral injunctions to the authority of the self. “If it feels good,” they said, “do it.”

Going to the jungles of Vietnam did not feel good, and so, around resistance to that war, developed an entire youth ideology. Resistance provided solidarity, but it was a solidarity of atomistic selves. The young would get together to resist the wars of the old, but, otherwise, they would live for the satisfaction of their private pleasures and impulses. Drugs and rock music became instruments of escape from the meaningless life of bourgeois consumption. The Vietnam war symbolised the brutal poverty of that life. It provided a frame in which a generation painted a picture of itself.

Of course, the war ended, the young grew up, became middle-aged and acquired jobs and families, but the moral force of their myth of atomised solidarity survived the transition. In companies and government, the 1960s generation came to power, bringing with them their myth. The prevailing moral orthodoxy of the developed world is now that of the 1960s young – to believe in nothing but the development and pampering of the self.

But it has become a strangely besieged orthodoxy. As the American philosopher Christopher Lasch pointed out, the new concept of the self has become minimal rather than expansive. “The concern with the self,” he wrote, “which seems so characteristic of our time, takes the form of a concern with psychic survival.” …

The Woodstock nation became the therapeutic society. Deprived of an external cause, the people chose the internal cause of the atomised self. “I Will Survive” became the most popular song sung through the karaoke machines that were themselves technological expressions of a fantasy sublimation of the lonely self. Stress and other psychic traumas became the particular blights that threatened psychic survival; their treatment and control became urgent, expensive, profitable.

This lonely self, by definition, could have no past. It could only appear as a series of presents. Andy Warhol promised everybody 15 minutes of fame. Since fame was all that was worth having, this reduced the rest of life to a series of preparations for, or attempts at, that moment.

And so, even as the self was glorified, the concept of identity became increasingly fluid as it was more closely linked to the discrete social occasions at which the self was expressed, the moments at which it tried for fame. This led to the cosmetic society in which clothes, make-up and, most importantly, the cultivation of the body became the outward signs of the continued will to survival of the atomised self. The freedom of the self had led, inexorably, to the consumerisation of the self.

This was a crucial step, which Marx – who was, occasionally, right – had foreseen. In capitalism, he wrote: “all that is solid melts in air”. The material cult of consumption requires, paradoxically, that things be dematerialised. Nothing must last, everything must wear out and be replaced. An everlasting car or stereo would mean the end of General Motors and Sony, a computer that did everything you could ever want it to do would destroy Microsoft. The old must decay and the new must be better. So we became used to the idea that the material world was made of transient objects. And, because our selves had been consumerised, they too became changeable, temporary.

We could buy newer selves by going to the gym, changing our wardrobe, having a “makeover” on Rikki Lake or Oprah Winfrey, or perhaps, as the promises of biology became ever more extravagant, by altering our genes. …

So in work and in life there is no one clear story. Rather, there are many tales offered for our feverish consumption. Life stories are laid out in front of us like Walkmen in Dixons. How can we choose? What do we want? And why choose at all when what we buy might at any moment be superseded by something better? … In consumerism the subject becomes an object. We become what we consume. As the self is consumerised, it acquires the quality of obsolescence, and this loss of a stable, continuous identity reinforces the loss of a belief in anything larger than the self.

In fairness, there was, within this cult of youth and self, a new kind of morality. It was closely linked to the next two big stories of the post-war years – the story of America and the story of technology. Another philosopher, Charles Taylor, has called this the story of authenticity. It arises from “the individualism of self-fulfilment”, in which the central value is to be true to oneself. What counts is to follow your star, wherever it leads. If that means broken families, a fluid and incoherent social realm and a refusal to honour the ties that bound us in the past, then so be it. People are called to authenticity, it is a vocation. It has become the crucial moral orthodoxy of our time.

So when the Titanic, bearing Kenneth More and Honor Blackman, sank in the 1958 British film A Night to Remember, it was understood as a public disaster with public implications. At least, thanks to this disaster, no new ships, we were assured, would have too few lifeboats. But when it sank bearing Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio in the 1998 American movie Titanic, it could only be understood as a private, romantic tragedy. One love affair was more important than the loss of 1500 lives or the challenge to the accumulated wisdom of the shipbuilders. Between these two films, the public realm vanished, to be replaced by the private realm of the authentic self and its fulfilment.

…the cult of the self is vacuous, destructive and antisocial. But the phenomenon they and many other serious thinkers describe is the same – a culture of the survival of the self. It is no accident that the products described in those Rolling Stone ads tend to have a defensive air. In this car, in these clothes, you can survive. The ads offer the possibility of durability in a world in which “all that is solid melts in air”. They flatter the competence of the self, the better to hide its loneliness. One can sympathise with the impulse, but one can scarcely believe it.


And from psychologist Linda Nicolosi:

Clients from a classical/traditional religious background, for example, might envision personal growth through roughly the following principles:

  1. A valuing of self-restraint, with the potent awareness that man is inclined toward evil as well as good.
  2. The belief that the self (with its drives for power, sexual gratification, and violence) must be subordinate to transcendent moral law (as revealed in Torah, Koran or Bible). Self-actualization is seen not so much in terms of “being oneself,” as in developing one’s natural self toward a desired ideal.
  3. Feelings are recognized as expressions of one’s inner life, but they are understood as often transitory and unacceptable to act out. Critical judgment – guided by external moral authority – is given ultimate precedence. Personal responsibility (particularly to spouse and children) is afforded a higher ultimate value than self-gratification and self-expression.
  4. Self-esteem is seen less as a “right,” and more as a byproduct of good character and achievement.
  5. There is a strong belief in the reality of absolute truth.

Character was the concept by which people understood the individual in the classical paradigm…duty, work…honor, integrity. In his or her character, then, a person had a certain relationship, good or evil, to an encompassing and transcendent moral order. Aspiring to good character demanded self-discipline and self-sacrifice.

In the twentieth century, however, the moral concept of character began to be replaced by the narcissistic concept of personality, and self-sacrifice began to be replaced by self-realization…Having a good personality demanded no conformity to moral order, but instead fulfilled the desires of the self and achieved power over others…Self-growth meant realizing one’s potential, not living up to impersonal moral ideals. (Human potential, however, is as often bad as good.)

In contrast [to classical values], the values of modern psychology might be summarized roughly as the following:

  1. Self-actualization is generally held to be the goal of life. “The central values of the twentieth century [are]…being true to one’s ‘real’ self, expressing one’s ‘deepest’ feelings, ‘sharing’ one’s personality with a larger group.” Emphasis is on claiming self-esteem as an inherent right.
  2. Right and wrong, which are rarely acknowledged, are held to be subjective and relative (“What’s bad for me, may not be bad for you”), and thus outside the scope of professional discourse. People are taught to discern the morality of their life choices based on whether they “feel comfortable” about them.
  3. Feelings reign above external moral authority. As Leahey (1987) says, “Feeling good about yourself” has now become “the litmus test of good behavior, a sort of bastardized moral sense.”
  4. Moral relativism is the accepted philosophy, which holds that there is no transcendent, overriding truth–only “your truth” and “my truth”.
  5. Guilt is often held to be unnecessary and unhealthy. It is often judged best to erase the standards that engender the guilt, than to persist in feeling bad about oneself. “Feeling bad about oneself” is usually seen as a sign of psychological ill-health.
  6. Sexual restraint is rarely understood to be a healthy option, even if undertaken in pursuit of a long-term goal. It is considered unrealistic in light of human nature.

Dedication to transcendent ideals – such as the standard of one’s religious faith – is viewed much more skeptically as a therapeutic goal than self-expression, exploration of the self through feelings, and spontaneity.

See also Century of the Self

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