Here are a few words on vanity from pages 22-23 of David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System – a novel that developed from one of his undergrad theses:
“A story, please.”
“You want a story.”
“Did get a rather interesting one today.”
“Go for it.”
“I want to hear it.”
“Concerned a man who suffered from second-order vanity.”
“You don’t know what second-order vanity is?”
“So what is it?”
“Well, a second-order vain person is first of all a vain person. He’s vain about his intelligence, and wants people to think he’s smart. Or his appearance, and wants people to think he’s attractive. Or, say, his sense of humor, and wants people to think he’s amusing and witty. Or his talent, and wants people to think he’s talented. Et cetera. You know what a vain person is.”
“A vain person is concerned that people not perceive him as stupid, or dull, or ugly, et cetera et cetera.”
“Now a second-order vain person is a vain person who’s also vain about appearing to have an utter lack of vanity. Who’s enormously afraid that other people will perceive him as vain. A second-order vain person will sit up late learning jokes in order to appear funny and charming, but will deny he sits up late learning jokes. Or he’ll perhaps even try to give the impression that he doesn’t regard himself as funny at all.”
“A second-order vain person will be washing his hands in a public restroom, and will be unable to resist the temptation to admire himself in the mirror, to scrutinize himself, but he’ll pretend he’s fixing a contact lens or getting something out of his eye while he does so, so that people won’t perceive him as the sort of person who admires himself in mirrors, but rather as the sort of person who uses mirrors only to attend to reasonable, un-vain business.”
So first of all yes, David Foster Wallace is good with words and ideas. I highly recommend checking out his novels and short story collections. They’re never lacking on thought-kindling or entertainment.
But the reason I wanted to share this passage is because I identify, unfortunately, with the second-order vain person. Reading this for the first time was pretty awesome for me, because I had recognized this deceitful pattern, but not had the wherewithal to fully understand it. In a way, I may have been approaching a state of third-order vanity wherein I was convincing myself that trying to not appear vain was itself a lack of vanity. So this short piece of “Broom” really stuck out in a way that was like, “Hey, idiot, this is you.”
But I also wonder about its universality.
Vanity has always interested me as a behavioral and mental pattern because it seems unavoidable, and yet it’s supposed to be repulsive. I mean it really can be repulsive when someone is obsessed with themselves to a point where others have no import.
But I have to think a certain measure of vanity is totally natural. And I would believe that, given the negativity surrounding the concept of vanity, not wanting to appear vain is also natural.
Something else that often graces my mental stage is the idea of self-centeredness. In the past few years I have become increasingly convinced that being self-centered is the natural state of being, despite its negative connotation. How can I be me, and be the only person who is me, and simultaneously be no one else, without being self-centered? DFW touches on this himself (I like this dude) in his commencement address to the Kenyon College class of 2005, which can be heard here and read here.
And so, given that self-centeredness is simply the state of being one person and having one perspective, and thus receiving immediately and directly all of one’s own thoughts, feelings, and desires and only receiving those of others indirectly and with delay, I find vanity a natural extension of that state.
I want people to appreciate my perspective. I want people to like my person. This is my person, my singular insertion into being – I like it and I think others should like it.
Can’t fault that. I think vanity only becomes an issue when the less favorable type of vanity is executed.
I think there are two types of vanity – I’ll call them “other-respective vanity” and “other-ignorant vanity.”
Other-respective vanity is perhaps a recognition, subconscious or otherwise, that we occupy only one body and have only one perspective. Due to this deficiency of perspective, we require the input of others. We yearn for the other bodies, with their respective perspectives, to corroborate our impressions of ourselves. And we want those impressions to be good… because good is better than bad.
I don’t see any problem with this at base. Acceptance is desirable and can be stimulating for self-development. However, this urge for feedback can be problematic when it becomes the impetus for action or thought. As in, when you act a certain way simply to win positive feedback and acceptance, in betrayal of your personal feelings and thoughts. You would actually be sacrificing some self-centeredness in a way that degrades your unique being.¹
Other-ignorant vanity is that type of vanity that is so fricking annoying. It’s what’s happening when someone is talking at you instead of to you. They go on and on and on and on about how they did this or that and it was so cool and they’re going to do this or that and it’s going to be so cool and they have the best boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife (for reasons that will be elucidated and turn out to be really insignificant and superficial) and they have all these expensive things and they’re going to keep doing these super cool things and just be awesome forever.
They don’t even want to hear you say anything. They’re not looking for feedback, they just want to proclaim their awesomeness. It almost seems as if the person has created an entire internal universe in which they are supreme and no one else exists.
What’s funny about this “other-ignorant vanity”, as I’m calling it, is that it almost isn’t vanity. It’s more like narcissism or megalomania – a kind of solipsistic self infatuation. It’s still vanity because, if others didn’t exist, or if there weren’t concepts such as “cool” or “elite” or “important,” this type of self-supremacy would likely not exist.
What separates it from what I call “other-respective vanity” is the utter devaluation of other people. Other-ignorant vain people just want to be known as the best. The desire for acceptance takes backseat to the desire to be in a class of one’s own.
I guess I’m advocating self-centeredness and other-consciousness:
Be your own person.
Want others to like you.
Just don’t sacrifice your unique perspective or the perspectives of others. Both make for truer navigation.
Back to second-order vanity…
Second-order vanity is a cancerous extension of “other-respective vanity.” It’s a counterpoint to the acceptance-grubbing I spoke of – distorting yourself for the sole aim of approval. With second-order vanity you are instead acting to avoid criticism or derision.
The reason this is stupid is that most everyday criticism and derision is superficial, fear-based, and basically inconsequential. It’s a waste of effort to try to avoid useless criticism. You use your effort to protect a superficial self-esteem instead of developing your true internal character.
Likewise, trying to avoid meaningful criticism – the kind that would speak to your true character – is stupid because firstly, this requires hiding or misrepresenting yourself, and secondly, criticism is useful for growth.
You don’t want to subjugate yourself to criticism, but since we are inserted into a world of others, it’s good to know how your self is influencing the whole.
Anyway, this is turning into a book, so I’ll wrap it up.
I’m trying to ignore the desire to conceal my vanity. I am vain in the sense that I want my individual character to be liked and appreciated by others, and there’s really no way to prevent that while others exist. But trying to conceal my vanity is only taking away from the chance to become myself more fully. I’m also trying to understand that any vanity I perceive in others is simply a projection of their desire to be recognized and appreciated as a valuable human individual.
We all want to be loved.
Yes, that was a footnote marker earlier. I’m an ass.
¹ I wanted to split my classification of other-respective vanity even further. Where one would hope to be accepted for acting according their true personal directives, I’d like to call that “retroactive other-respective vanity” because the hoped-for approval follows honest expression. “Proactive other-respective vanity” then is the application of vanity that leads one to act for acceptance. The desire for acceptance comes before action or expression, distorting the expression to meet that end.
Ok, that’s it.
Also published on Medium.