We maintain a difficult relationship with the term “vanity”. That is: the excessive pride in ones appearance or accomplishments as defined in many dictionaries. I say it is a difficult relationship because we in the western world are very quick to condemn it whilst struggling with the fact that much of what we do day to day is at least tinged and at worst fuelled by our own need to have others respond to us. The design of television shows such as TOWIE or Geordie Shore, I think highlight this very difficult relationship. There you are (if you can bare to watch it) observing people who are cringingly over obsessed with their appearance and how they are perceived by people of the same ilk. Our reaction may be one of amusement, even disgust perhaps but I wonder if that is only because we recognise ourselves in it. After all, as Niall Ferguson points out in his book “Civilisation”, western capitalism, on the saddle of the industrial revolution, roared into existence through the demand for textiles and increasing choice of clothing. This remains so alongside the unstoppable global craving for electronics.
I would argue, in fact, that even those people who proclaim or are proclaimed to be the opposite i.e. those who are deemed “humble” can often be so for the sake of their own vanity or for the sake of the body they represent. Without wishing to undermine the great work of the many recipients of the Nobel Prize, one might argue philosophically rather than ethically, whether someone who has dedicated their life to humility and service is then undermining that humility by receiving such a prize. It is beside the point that the prize itself was devised as a detraction from Nobel’s involvement as one of the fathers of the arms industry as we know it.
My point is that vanity is something we all have and cannot escape. Or rather all that what we do, wear, say and act out is very rarely altruistic and is almost always designed to bring about a desired reaction from the outside world to affirm our existence. In light of this I would like to perhaps suggest teasing “vainglory” out of the fingers of Pope Gregory, and revaluating it as a factor that goes at least some way to making up our sense of self. Vanity is actually a normal process and desire within humans and I’ll now try to explain why.
I was very fortunate to read recently Julian Baginnis’ book The Ego Trick. In it, Baginni gives a splendidly clear and accessible summing up of contemporary theories regarding what the “self” is alongside supplying his own apparently radical but actually responsible theory. What becomes clear from reading the book is the evidence to suggest that we do not possess a soul. We do not maintain a “core self” as a base of our existence. I was once very amused to hear the anthropologist Anthony Campolo blatantly ridicule the aspiration to go and “find yourself”. Much like Baginni, he said that people are like onions. If we begin to peel away the layers and continue to do so, we end up with nothing. Similarly Baginni agrees that rather than having a core “pearl” of self, we are a collection of bundles. The bundle theory suggests that everything from the matter we are made up of, the circumstances around us, the relationships we have, the neuroscience and physiology of our brain which acts as separate entities all contribute to what’s called an “ego trick”. This is an illusion whereby all these things add together to project our sense of self.
Now it is important to point out here that although Baginni suggests the process is an illusion, the end result is not. The sense of self is as real as it would be if there was a core pearl of self. Perhaps a good way of seeing the self is indeed by viewing it as an image thrown onto a screen by a projector. The projector is not in itself “the self”; it merely stores all the information and the equipment to provide the means of projection. The self is the image which is thrown onto the screen before us. It is both not made up of itself but it is nonetheless there.
Of course this is too simple an approach because we all know that this is not a one way conversation. A projector is not affected in any way shape or form by the reactions of those watching the image on the screen, unless of course, the image is so offensive that the onlooker takes a hammer to the projector! So what we have is an interactive projector designed to alter and shape the image according to what information is inside but what also is projected by others onto it. It is this factor which arguably creates a huge portion of our sense of being. It is kind of like using triangulation.
If I happen to find myself in the middle of Dartmoor and I have no idea where I am, there is a trick I can do, provided I have a map and compass, to ascertain my location. I need to find a prominent land mark . i.e. a tor or a building that I can visually see but also locate on the map. If I then get the compass bearing on that landmark I can then reflect that beating line on the map according to where I think I might be. Then if I find another landmark and so the same, the point where the two lines meet on the map should be my location. So my point is that whilst we project ourselves, we also need triangulation from others to identify our location or our self. It is something which closely resembles John Bowlby’s theory of attachment.
So how does this relate to vanity? Well, as Baginni also writes, there are numerous examples out there which reiterate just how tenuous and fragile our “self” really is. Take away one aspect of that which makes the self and you begin to run into identity problems. If we see that the self really is dependent on everything around us rather than being existent independently, then we begin to understand that nothing we do is truly altruistic or humble. From all this, it appears to me that in many ways we are all subconsciously aware of this which is why we are all subject to the need to some times make as much noise, motion, visual disturbance as we can; all to get a bearing on ourselves from someone or something else.
You may be at least vaguely familiar with the story of Griffin in H G Wells The invisible man. Blighted by an irreversible experiment and permanent invisibility, he becomes visible by dressing in clothes and bandaging his invisibility. I cannot help thinking therefore that vanity or the need to triangulate off others is the very same thing. Without it we are invisible. Or rather we are so afraid of invisibility that we are afraid to find out what happens if we don’t make ourselves known. The idea sheds light on some peoples need for art, religion, philanthropy and many other aspects of life which humanity is known to have sacrificed them selves for. It also perhaps provides an explanation as to why we are in the grip of the huge electronic revolution of computers and mobile phones and social networks. A large portion of humanity is making a loud noise at the moment through many media channels because we fear non existence.
So my point is that I wonder if there is such a thing as vanity? This is not a conclusive question. Perhaps another way of saying it is how much noise is too much noise? How much make up is too much make up? Surely accomplishment and beauty is a matter of taste and opinion. So where is the line to be drawn between vanity and justified pride? And if we swallow our pride, then do we threaten our very existence? I, of course do not have the answers to these questions but they are helpful, I think in keeping us grounded when we scoff at those who make the most noise.