Fintan O’Toole: Pathological narcissism stymies Fianna Fáil support for Fine Gael

Party needs to convince itself that the beautiful reflection it sees in the mirror is a real, and utterly unique, self

Sigmund Freud had a name for the psychological mechanism that brings together visceral hatred and deep similarity. He called it “the narcissism of minor difference”. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

Sigmund Freud had a name for the psychological mechanism that brings together visceral hatred and deep similarity. He called it “the narcissism of minor difference”. (Photo by Imagno/Getty Images)

 

Frank O’Connor, who died 50 years ago this month, fought on the anti-Treaty side in the Civil War and his first stories were about that experience. One of them is called, with fully intended irony, Soiree Chez Une Belle Jeune Fille. A young, idealistic student, Helen, has her first mission as a Republican courier. She carries secret orders to a safe house, a fine comfortable bourgeois residence. It is presided over by an airy young creature nicknamed the Darling. The Darling shocks her by talking of a recent evening when the local Free State commandant, Vincent Kelly, came to the house while the Republican diehard Tommy Keogh was there.

Poor Helen is incredulous that the Darling, who is supposed to be on the Republican side, didn’t slam the door in the faces of the traitorous Free Stater. But the Darling puts her straight: “I’ve known Vincent Kelly since he was that high. Why the devil should I bang the door in his face? I remember when he and Tommy were as thick as thieves, when Vincent wouldn’t go to a dance unless Tommy went too. Tomorrow they’ll be as thick again – unless they shoot one another in the meantime. . .” They did, of course , shoot each other for a while, but the Darling was quite right. In the end they’d be thick as thieves again in the same respectable bourgeois house.

In the current political impasse many writers have pointed to the visceral nature of the enmity between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. And many others have pointed to the lack of real difference between them. But what’s easy to miss is that these two interpretations are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, Sigmund Freud had a name for the psychological mechanism that brings together visceral hatred and deep similarity. He called it “the narcissism of minor difference”.

We all try to maintain a sense of our own unique identity, and we feel that it is threatened most by people who are most like us. So we make a fetish of the little things that make us different.

The point is not than the minor differences are irrelevant – it’s that we have a powerful narcissistic desire to define ourselves through them. Jonathan Swift, who got there before Freud, has a vicious conflict in Gulliver’s Travels, between the Big-Endians, who break their boiled eggs at the larger point, and Little-Endians who break theirs at the smaller one.

History of animosity

And even those animosities diminished immensely: Seán Lemass, then taoiseach, tried to finish them off when he paid a handsome tribute to his old enemy WT Cosgrave on his death in 1965.

Even socially, the division became meaningless. It was once true that Fianna Fáil TDs were more lower-middle-class than those from Fine Gael, but this distinction disappeared during the 1960s.

The farmer/publican/auctioneer, the barrister, the solicitor, the doctor, the company director, the teacher, the professional politician from a political dynasty – all of these species have been as prominent in Fianna Fáil’s menagerie as in Fine Gael’s for 50 years now.

But as the actual differences have diminished, the narcissism becomes not less pronounced but more so. And we now have it in an almost pure form – not the narcissism of minor difference but the narcissism of no difference. And it is finally reaching pathological proportions. Fianna Fáil’s insistence on trying to foist on us a minority Fine Gael government is an undemocratic outrage – a government formed by a party with a quarter of the vote can have no legitimacy. The only function of such an arrangement would be to serve Fianna Fáil’s need to convince itself the beautiful reflection it sees in the mirror is a real, and utterly unique, self.

Fairest of them all

In the new political landscape Fianna Fáil’s options are limited. It can create genuine differences between itself and Fine Gael by moving sharply to the left. Micheál Martin might like to do this but he has little chance of being able to pull his party with him. Or it can accept the reality that Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have one functioning majority between them.

Either way, it should remember Seamus Heaney: “To stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring/ Is beneath all adult dignity.”

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