Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The diversity of individuals

Some individuals are gregarious, and others are solitary. It is probably also the case that there is a group in-between these extremes – those people who are neither solitary nor gregarious, but are happy with their own company when alone, and comfortable among others at work, at play and on other social occasions. It is quite well known that Freud (see his Civilization and its Discontents) made a distinction between narcissistic and erotic personalities (he also frequently talks about obsessive personalities, who are recognisable by conscientiousness to the point of punctiliousness, as well as “adaptability” to circumstances). To a certain degree what I refer to as solitary and gregarious individuals, respectively, corresponds with Freud’s categories of narcissistic and erotic personalities, but only up to a point.

For him, an erotic personality is characterised by care for, and love of others (although this could develop into excessive neediness), while its narcissistic counterpart, while not necessarily being pathologically self-loving, is marked by strong self-directedness and a high degree of autonomy. It therefore seems to follow that, by and large, the erotic personality will be gregarious, and the narcissist solitary, except that it is not unimaginable that a narcissist would display self-directedness even in the preferred company of others, and an erotic personality’s caritas could conceivably be exercised from a social distance, from a position of solitariness, even.

In short, there are several possible permutations of these two diverse personality traits – solitariness and gregariousness – and it is a testimony to the complexity of the human species that such permutations do not exhaust the multifariousness of human personalities. Every one of us probably knows people who might fit the description of gregarious or solitary, and yet we have to admit that even those who would fall into the “same” category would simultaneously exhibit such (additional) differences of personality that it would make the homogenising implications of the category they share laughable.

In fact, despite Freud’s fundamental distinction between erotic and narcissistic personalities, it is not inconceivable that one of the two traits may be dominant in someone, while the other unexpectedly surfaces somewhere else in such a person’s behaviour. Consider, for example, the following insightful evocation, by Swedish crime novelist, Leif Persson (in his novel, Between Summer’s Longing and Winter’s End, Doubleday, 2010), of a unique instance of solitariness (resonating with Freud’s narcissism, with a touch of the erotic) in one of his characters (page 6-7):

“Lars Martin Johansson was a solitary man. In the legal sense he had been so since the day almost ten years ago when his first, and so far only, wife left him, took their two children with her, and moved in with a new man, to a new life in a new house. In a spiritual sense he had been solitary his entire life, in spite of the fact that he’d grown up with six siblings and two parents who had met more than fifty years ago, were still married to each other, and would remain so until death did them part. In Johansson’s case, loneliness was not something inherited. It wasn’t security, intimacy, and companionship that he lacked when he was growing up. Those had been there to excess and were still to be had, if that was what he wanted, but when as an adult he started to ransack his consciousness for happy memories from his childhood, the only ones he found were times when he’d been left entirely in peace. When he stood alone on the stage, the only actor in the piece, by himself.

“It would be quite an understatement to maintain that Johansson felt at home in his solitude. According to conventional models of human coexistence, it was considerably worse than that. Solitude was the necessary prerequisite for Johansson to function, in the ordinary human sense of shaping the days into a respectable life or in the purely professional sense of acquitting oneself well before other people without consideration for family and friends and feelings in the most general sense. In that respect, his wife’s having left him and taken the children with her made existence almost ideal.

“Two years after the divorce his then seven-year-old daughter had given him an LP record, A Single Man by Elton John, for Christmas. Apart from feeling his heart wrench as he read the words on the cover, he saw evidence of unusual human insight for someone her age. As an adult she would either become very strong and independent or else run the risk of being crushed under her own insight. [Recognise Freud’s narcissistic personality here? B.O.]

“What disturbed the whole equation – this secure, controlled, predictable life – was his interest in women: their scent, their soft skin, the hollow in the neck between the hairline and the slender throat. It sought him out in dreams at night when he couldn’t defend himself other than by rolling the sheets into a sweaty cord in the middle of the bed; it sought him out in broad daylight; awake, sober, and clearheaded, he would twist his neck out of its socket for a regal posture and a pair of tanned legs he would never see again.”

What Persson does here – and elaborates on in the rest of the book as far as Johansson’s role in the intriguing narrative goes – is to educe the contours of what is known, in psychoanalysis, as the “singularity” of a personality: the irreducibility or uniqueness of a human being, simply called one’s “character” by Arthur Schopenhauer (in The World as Will and Representation) in the 19th century. Just as the “characters” comprising one’s supposedly inimitable “signature”, in writing, mark the singularity of one’s legal personality, so, too, the less perceptible, but no less real constituents of one’s personality set one apart from other people.

Every human being therefore represents a radically singular combination of genetic as well as experiential-cultural “elements” – in the ancient Greek sense of “original components of being” – which cannot really be captured adequately by language, because of the generalising conceptual aspect of all languages. It can at best be evoked, as in the passage by Persson, above.

Few people, of course, would recognise the diversity of personalities among and around us. Political correctness usually strikes one with proverbial blindness where such radical diversity is concerned. Contemporary discourses of diversity focus mostly on gender, race and culture, as if there were not, within these categories, endless diversity of personalities such as that of Johansson, so discernfully elicited by Persson, above.

Perhaps one should constantly remind oneself, when confronted by all the oh-so-politically-correct exhortations, to “respect diversity”, that true diversity goes all the way down, to individual personality-level, and does not stop with culture, race, and gender. And finally, not all personal, individual diversity should be valorised – think of the diversity found in perversions, for example. Or who would celebrate the singularity of serial killers like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer?

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  • 5 Responses to “The diversity of individuals”

    1. Is it a stretch to see how such diversity would lead to income inequality?

      October 29, 2013 at 9:27 am
    2. Hameeda #

      I loved your article. Thanks.

      October 29, 2013 at 3:40 pm
    3. Maria #

      Great piece, Bert. Makes me think of Harold Bloom’s classes at Yale – do you recall his mind-blowing exploration of Freud’s metaphors, stressing the subject-constitutive function of language?

      October 30, 2013 at 8:11 am
    4. Richard #

      In modern times, the only diversity that is celebrated is that of groups. The simple explanation for that is that individuals do not vote in blocs, they vote in isolation. Similarly, individuals spend in isolation. On the other hand, it is possible to appeal to groups for various reasons, and tempt or cajole them to behave according to type (group-type, that is). Outward appearance is quite easy a dimension with which to identify, and so messages can easily be targeted and tailored. That is why all power structures are keen to retain group identity, because it makes control easier. The more unfettered societies are, the more important such elements of control become.

      October 31, 2013 at 12:24 am
    5. Gary Koekemoer #

      To my mind the mind the challenge is always balancing the embracement of diversity against the need to establish some framework within which a group can function effectively. There has to be a negotiating of those boundaries on an ongoing basis, with those that cannot fit either using power to overcome or moving to a new group that accommodates the same.
      The more interesting question is that of personality traits themselves and the stright jackets the create in understanding ourselves. If I recall correctly the psychometric “industry” have between 200 to 300 core personality traits they call upon. Fancy tools of measuring personality have been created and are sold as THE tool to understand self and others. Really? Our personalities are moving targets, always on the move, always adapting, at best the mirror captures only a moment in time, the reflection on the reflection is the real benefit of staring into the mirror. Personality traits are tools to uncover insight, unfortunately they become labels by which we bind both ourselves and others.
      So perhaps it’s not about embracing diversity as much as it’s about allowing identity to remain relatively fluid, of both ourselves and others?

      October 31, 2013 at 9:47 am

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