One of the great risks the Greek hero Ulysses faced during his homeward voyage after the Trojan war was having to sail by a strange island that was the citadel of Siren, half-woman and half-bird. He had been warned of the danger—the music the intriguing creature produced was literally irresistible. One who heard it neither enjoyed it in the normal sense of the term nor was transported to any sublime mood, but lay dazed and helpless. He forgot everything including his need for food, and slowly succumbed to its spell.
As the island neared, Ulysses sealed the ears of his companions with wax and got himself tightly tied to the mast. But as soon as the music kissed his ears he madly tried to free himself, though he luckily failed. He asked his men to untie him only after his ship moved far enough for the last strain of the music to fade away.
Homer’s narration of the episode indicates how death could lurk even in a most desirable thing, material or immaterial, unless we exercise a sensible restraint—symbolised in Ulysses tying himself to the mast.
It is high time we—our youth in particular—question if the concept of restraint was not fading away rapidly, if restraint in physical indulgence, restraint in written and spoken words, restraint in the use of collective resources, restraint in exploitation of Nature’s gracious bounty—restraints on which the civilisation rests and any further progress could be deemed possible—are not becoming a fairy-tale past.
This is a purely gross question devoid of any sentimentality. And its grossness is glaringly evident in the fact that India is far ahead of other countries in sacrificing its young lives to the latest incarnation of Siren, that is the Selfie. It became the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2013 and is lately nicknamed Killfie.
Psychological studies made on this trend point at the obvious—the youth in the grip of narcissism. But that is too general and this author believes the phenomenon may fall into narcissistic personality disorder. According to its exponent Heinz Kohut (1913-81), it is characterised by “grandiose ideas or actions, beginning at early adulthood, indicated by such signs and symptoms as self-importance and boastfulness”, etc.
But this author also believes the selfie-craze is not an independent disorder, but a symptom of the disordered and degraded state of our collective life—a condition earlier analysed by Christopher Lasch in his The Culture of Narcissism. The trust and allegiance to ideals and institutions that marked life in the 19th century speedily disappeared, but no dependable substitutes or alternatives emerged. Narrow self-concern and self-love crept into the emptiness thus created. Promoters of the so-called self-help literature exploited the situation. They taught the technique of appearing charming without being so.
All this is true. But there are also causes beyond narcissism that bring about tragedies of the kind where someone stands on the roof of a running train taking a selfie or does so amidst a surging wave in the sea. There is that natural urge for adventure in the youth. In a normal society, that manifests in a young man risking his life in an effort to save somebody in danger, in organising trekking and similar activities. In the atmosphere that prevails today this creative urge is distorted into self-projecting daredevilry. Alas, the atmosphere itself is narcissistic—an achievement by politicos.
There are towns and bazaars in our country splashed with colourful pictures of anyone in politics from A to Z and some are hideously megalomaniac—little men projected as mighty, laughing like potential conquerors of continents or radiating deity-like aura. Bizarre and silly, sometimes with fake combinations, the pictures tickle the vague ambition dormant in the unguarded, setting him on a spree of snapping selfies as if in competition with those proud faces looking down upon him.
If you are at one of the tourist destinations during a weekend and observe the multitude of youth descending on a promenade or a park, you will wonder in how many imaginative ways the commercial world is trying to appease the desires of these newly affluent boys and girls, from packing up their bodies in fantastic varieties of jolting attires to offering them charmingly packed handfuls of happiness.
The youths divide their time between self-absorbed snapping and patronising the vendors. But rarely at the end of the day you see any glow of happiness on their faces, the simple reason being, while happiness cannot be bought, hedonism is not the way to happiness either. Well, India, according to many surveys, is already among the most depressed nations in the world. It will go farther down that chart as disillusionment will overpower this selfie-intoxicated humanity.
It is too late for the older generation to change the situation. The only hope lies in this new generation itself, so lively with expectations, realising that they had a second self beneath their glittering surface self. Intelligent as they are, they can turn their curiosity towards the former and try a selfie with it. A little inward thought, a little introspection will convince them that through taking selfies endlessly one is only trying to find oneself, albeit unconsciously and ignorantly. This self will keep on changing. But deep within there is a self that is not only unchanging, but also is that very stuff one is seeking through pursuing selfies.