Since many of us could use a shot of humor these days, here’s a passage from Douglas Adams’s comic sci-fi masterpiece Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that can be used to describe your favorite narcissist. Of course, I’m thinking of the man in the White House, but you may have your own favorite example.
Adams gives us a character, Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is full of himself. I focus on the scene where Beeblebrox has been captured by the fiendish Gargravarr, a Frogstar prison warden whose mind and body are undergoing “a trial separation likely to end in divorce.” Beeblebrox appears to have unlimited self-confidence, but “unlimited” only goes so far as a descriptor when one is subjected to Gargravaar’s “Total Perspective Vortex.”
Adams describes out the Vortex works:
The Total Perspective Vortex derives its picture of the whole Universe on the principle of extrapolated matter analyses.
To explain — since every piece of matter in the Universe is in some way affected by every other piece of matter in the Universe, it is in theory possible to extrapolate the whole of creation — every sun, every planet, their orbits, their composition and their economic and social history from, say, one small piece of fairy cake.
The man who invented the Total Perspective Vortex did so basically in order to annoy his wife.
Trin Tragula — for that was his name — was a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.
And she would nag him incessantly about the utterly inordinate amount of time he spent staring out into space, or mulling over the mechanics of safety pins, or doing spectrographic analyses of pieces of fairy cake.
“Have some sense of proportion!” she would say, sometimes as often as thirty-eight times in a single day.
And so he built the Total Perspective Vortex — just to show her.
And into one end he plugged the whole of reality as extrapolated from a piece of fairy cake, and into the other end he plugged his wife: so that when he turned it on she saw in one instant the whole infinity of creation and herself in relation to it.
We have here the classic death-of-god existential horror show. If humans are merely a random biochemical event that occurred on an infinitesimally tiny pebble hurtling through the vast reaches of interstellar space, then our lives are meaningless. Some existentialists cushion themselves against this demoralizing truth by counseling us to live as though our lives have meaning, even if they don’t. This, however, can be seen as no more than a cowardly coping mechanism. The Total Perspective Vortex is designed to cut through such rationalizations and show us what we truly are.
This is in fact how the Vortex works with Mrs. Trin Tragula:
To Trin Tragula’s horror, the shock completely annihilated her brain; but to his satisfaction he realized that he had proved conclusively that if life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a “sense of proportion.”
Mrs. Tragula would have survived, however, had she an ego the size of Beeblebrox’s. Think about it this way: if we see ourselves as more or less on a par with our immediate surroundings, then we feel neither too big nor too small. It is a perspective we are familiar with. If, on the other hand, we were suddenly shown the entire universe, the only way we could hold on to a sense of proportion would be (drumroll!) if we had an ego as big as the universe.
This proves to be the case with Zaphod Beeblebrox. Gargravarr is stunned to see what emerges from the Total Perspective Vortex:
He waited for him to flop forward out of the box, as they all did.
Instead, he stepped out.
“Hi!” he said.
“Beeblebrox…” gasped Gargravarr’s mind in amazement.
“Could I have a drink please?” said Zaphod.
“You…you…have been in the Vortex?” stammered Gargravarr.
“You saw me, kid.”
“And it was working?”
“And you saw the whole infinity of creation?”
“Sure. Really neat place, you know that?”
Gargravarr’s mind was reeling in astonishment. Had his body been with him it would have sat down heavily with its mouth hanging open.
“And you saw yourself,” said Gargravarr, “in relation to it all?”
“Oh, yeah yeah.”
“But…what did you experience?”
Zaphod shrugged smugly.
“It just told me what I knew all the time. I’m a really terrific and great guy. Didn’t I tell you, baby. I’m Zaphod Beeblebrox!”
So if you know someone with an inflated ego—inflated, that is, to the size of the universe—then think of him or her as a Beeblebrox. And pray that he/she never becomes president.