- The Americanization of Narcissism by Elizabeth Lunbeck
In The Americanization of Narcissism, Elizabeth Lunbeck charts the intellectual history of narcissism—from its early twentieth-century Freudian origins to its place in the searing condemnations of the “Me Decade” in the 1970s. The work offers an intriguing look at the history of a psychoanalytic concept; it also offers an extended critique of Christopher Lasch’s use and misuse of that concept in his 1978 book, The Culture of Narcissism.
Lunbeck argues that when Freud first wrote about narcissism in 1914, he portrayed it as “pathology and perversion. Yet at the same time it also referred to normality” (33). However, this dual assessment—that narcissism and its constitutive elements, including self love and self gratification, vanity, and independence, could be positive personality traits as well as pathological ones—was lost to many later analysts of the psyche, and of the larger culture. As Freud first articulated his theory, he described a person (usually female) without needs. She was emotionally inaccessible to others, self-sufficient, and self-satisfied. By the 1970s, Lasch and an array of similarly inclined social critics focused not on the excessive independence and asceticism of the narcissist but instead on what they saw as her neediness and greedy vanity. In an ironic twist, then, the very traits that Lasch believed were endangered by narcissism (independence and asceticism foremost among them) were traits that were embedded in Freud’s definition of the narcissist. As she traces this shift and misinterpretation, Lunbeck mourns the loss of nuance in [End Page 252] discussions about narcissism—suggesting that this loss has constrained conversations about human need, pleasure, assertion, and development.
Lunbeck traces narcissism’s changing contours, meanings, and place in psychoanalytic literature by focusing on the works and lives of Freud and his many disciples, probing the letters and diaries of Sándor Ferenczi, Ernest Jones, Carl Jung, Joan Riviere, Otto Kernberg, and Heinz Kohut, among others. She pays particular attention to these last two, for they introduced America to narcissism in the 1960s and 1970s. Kohut and Kernberg were both refugees from Vienna, who settled in America (Kohut in Chicago, Kernberg is Topeka). Despite their common origins, their visions of narcissism differed greatly. Kohut, who would eventually wander too far from the Freudian fold and become an apostate, offered a largely positive evaluation of the trait, arguing it was essential to healthy self-esteem. In fact, some people suffered from a deficit of narcissism. He described it “as necessary for the upkeep of life, for happiness, for living with other people, for being successful and appropriate in the world” (46). Kohut made narcissism appear normal and even beneficial, finding it a source of ambition, creativity, and serenity.
In contrast, Otto Kernberg pathologized it. While there was some normal narcissism, he focused on “malignant narcissists,” who were destructive to themselves and those around them. These were attractive individuals who drew people to them, and fed off their adoration. Such adulation did not make them happy however; they were filled with anger and envy. While some of Kohut’s positive assessments of narcissism gradually took hold in the psychoanalytic community, it was Kernberg’s more negative portrait that won the day among American social critics.
Lunbeck devotes time and attention to the constitutive elements of narcissism in chapters on self-love, independence, gratification, inaccessibility, vanity, and identity. She grounds these explorations in the lives and relationships of Freud and his followers, tracing how they debated and defined those various psychological instincts, drives, and needs, as they simultaneously worked through them in their often highly fraught personal relationships with one another. She then turns to examine how modern American social commentators altered these ideas.
For instance, early psychoanalysts thought vanity and the desire for adornment were necessary parts of the female psyche, a compensatory response to the absence of a phallus. They believed that vanity (and the clothing purchases it might prompt) could bring legitimate pleasure. Later assessments of vanity omitted this positive nuance and saw only wasteful, meaningless indulgence. Likewise gratification: while...