Thursday, August 26, 2010

Losing the Fear of Ghosts

I feel ghostly unreal until I become somebody else again on the screen.~ Peter Sellers

We're taught in schools of psychology, medicine, and ministry that empathy entails using elements from our own lives to enable us to identify with persons in distress. If Sellers had been talking about losing himself in a character, I could try relate by recalling the months my life that revolved around writing and editing a book with a best friend. When I wasn't doing either one, I thought, and sometimes dreamed, about them.

But that isn't what he said. He described his life off-screen as ghost-like in comparison to how he felt inhabiting a character. He didn't call it "fictitious," but I wonder if that doesn't apply. It's as though he was saying, I am what has been written and I speak when given words. Not mine, but those of another, and I utter them with passion, humor, and persuasion. Still, I have none of my own, for spirits speak not.

I don't think this represents the typical actor's experience, though not being one, I can only rely on what I've seen and been told by those who are. Nevertheless, most regard the roles they play as interludes of fantasy punctuated by a return to real life. For Sellers, it was the other way around. There was a substance lacking in "Peter Sellers" that he found more readily in Inspector Clouseau or Dr. Strangelove.

I'm not trying to psychoanalyze the man because, for one thing, he's not around to defend himself. But what he said about himself reminds me of what I've observed in narcissistic persons who are between partners. They're less solid, for want of a better term, and certainly less self-assured then when they have a consistent source of admiration. In the absence of someone to mirror or reflect the image of a self -- any self at all -- back to them, they seem anemic, kind of like a vampire on a diet of iron-poor blood.

I think this helps explain why we see a lot of depression, especially in older narcissists who've failed to establish meaningful and long-term relationships. If there's little or no genuine "person-ness" present, it stands to reason that interpersonal dry spells are going to feel rather bleak. It also helps explain why partners often do better when these relationships dissolve. Since they actually possess the resources narcissists value but cannot provide for themselves, partners can function independently; they don't need the affirmation provided by constant mirroring to be real. Perhaps, that's what Sellers was driving at. When filming was over and the cast had gone home, there was no one left to remind him who he was.
(Collective Commons image of "Ghosts of Lake Hume 2" by heritagefutures via Flickr)
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