The Sussicran complex

Mallory Wober on 'the reverse Narcissus'.

A little-known (but admired by Ted Hughes and Allen Ginsberg) British-American poet was Harry Fainlight. In his short life he had a book of verse published by his sister Ruth (herself a noted poet), and there is also a rare, slim pamphlet Harry called Sussicran. It needs to be pointed out that this is Narcissus, backwards. I do not know if anyone has followed the trail of Harry’s thought in naming his condition, so here are a couple of steps along the way, following which may lead to filling a not inconsiderable empty niche in the dramatis personae of psychology. The first clue in the review above is its reference to Harry’s ‘complex [i.e. possibly unliveable with] Jewish sensibility’.

The Ancient Greeks had recognised and labelled a mythic youth named Narcissus – whose foible was an undue love of himself; but did they identify an opposite state of being – that of one who unduly disparages one’s self? Such a ‘syndrome’ surely invites identification and Harry did the deed.

How widespread might a ‘Sussicran complex’ be, and how might it arise? I knew Harry somewhat and he did not emerge as a well-grounded person either in his Jewish paternity or in his possibly bisexual identity. Studies of healthy self-esteem suggest that it is built on combining a perception of others’ high regard for oneself and one’s own recognition that such perceptions are valid and mirrored internally. Discussions with therapists indicate that at the other extreme self-disparagement is widespread and takes many forms. Two of these can be hypothesised here.

Writing at a time of post-election upheaval intensified by grief and anger over the loss of life in Grenfell Tower, one may suggest that some amongst the most deeply affected have an element of rejecting a simply ‘British’ heritage, and those who want to conserve it outside a European State. A related discomfort, which might come to be recognised as a polar opposite of narcissism and may develop among those who deplore Britain’s colonial record, runs: ‘I hate what my ancestors did, and any attempt to develop a dignified identity in their shadow.’

An institution likely to generate perceptions that others think poorly of oneself, and that percolate into how one regards oneself, is that of caste in Hindu society. At the bottom of – or indeed outside – the hierarchy are people widely called Dalits, who number around one in six of the world’s second most populous nation, and who are, despite well-intentioned governmental policies, still widely discriminated against. Studies of esteem amongst Dalits have suggested there will be a substantial number who disparage themselves to a marked degree [see also]. While the matter is very little discussed as concerning the Hindu diasporas in Western nations, it would appear to deserve more attention in terms of research, policy and social action.

These two examples should be enough to indicate that sussicranism is likely to be a diverse complex and important ‘syndrome’.

Mallory Wober
London NW3

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber