- The Americanization of Narcissism by Elizabeth Lunbeck
When I picked up Elizabeth Lunbeck’s The Americanization of Narcissism, I thought I knew what narcissism was. For me, the term conjured up Caravaggio’s Narcissus, which portrays the self-obsessed youth staring intently at his reflection in a pool. So entranced by his own image, Narcissus contemplates nothing else, not even his mortality; as Ovid describes, his gaze remains unbroken as he crosses the River Styx. I distinctly recall learning about Narcissus—and first laying eyes on Caravaggio’s masterpiece—as a child, and to me, the moral was clear: the more you think you’re something special, the less likely you are. For Lunbeck and for generations of psychoanalysts, however, the meaning and value of narcissism have been anything but.
Lunbeck begins by hearkening back to the “Me Decade,” the 1970s, when social critics, such as Christopher Lasch, decried the predominance of narcissism in American culture and, in so doing, popularized the term itself. Self-infatuated, materialistic, and eager to indulge in endless carnal pleasures, Americans had cast aside the self-restraint and self-sufficiency that had made their country great. Characterizing Lasch’s critique as reactionary and myopic, Lunbeck first contrasts and compares it with those of two of his contemporaries, psychoanalysts Heinz Kohut, who saw narcissism more positively, and Otto Kernberg, who “focused on [End Page 825] narcissism’s darker side” (p. 3), before turning her gaze to her true subject: how Sigmund Freud and his followers interpreted the concept.
By dissecting narcissism into some of its component parts—self-love, independence, vanity, gratification, inaccessibility, and identity—Lunbeck demonstrates through insightful analysis of correspondences, case notes, and published documentary sources how it was central to many of the debates that enveloped psychoanalysis during the first half of the twentieth century. While orthodox Freudians perceived narcissistic patients fairly negatively, dissenters, ranging from London-based psychoanalyst and Freud translator Joan Riviere to the German-born American developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, envisioned narcissism differently.
Riviere had endured fraught and ultimately unsuccessful analyses with both Freud and Freud biographer Ernest Jones, both of whom had highlighted her own narcissistic tendencies. For Freud, the vanity inherent in narcissism was a particularly feminine characteristic that compensated for the lack of a male member and manifested itself in fetishes for clothes. Rejecting such phallic explanations, Riviere instead reclaimed female narcissism as a healthy—and necessary—state for women who sought independence and freedom in a male-dominated world. Erikson similarly reformulated narcissism in more constructive terms by emphasizing an individual’s need for positive self-esteem and a defined identity. Such attributes were particularly important for transplanted and troubled souls such as Erikson, who had immigrated to the United States as a youth and had not known his biological father.
By delving deeply into such biographical details, Lunbeck reveals how the “protean nature” (p. 6) of narcissism has been shaped by how theorists have seen themselves and their own psychological, emotional, and social development, the necessary narcissism of psychoanalysis and psychoanalysts, one might say. Indeed, Lunbeck’s use of narcissism as a lens through which to understand psychoanalysis, its proponents, and its turbulent history is the book’s strongest element. It is unfortunate, however, that she was not able to subject those responsible for “Americanizing” narcissism to the same degree of biographical scrutiny. Perhaps the biographical details concerning Lasch, Kohut, and Kernberg were unavailable, but it leaves the book unbalanced nonetheless. For a book titled The Americanization of Narcissism, the process of “Americanization” and the underlying rationale of the “Americanizers” are left somewhat unexplored. As such, the book is more an excellent intellectual history of psychoanalysis than a cultural history of narcissism.
So, what does Lunbeck conclude about narcissism? Ultimately, she sides with those who have presented it as an attribute, rather than a detriment. While there are good reasons for this, particularly with respect to its role in fostering a positive identity for women and other marginalized groups, overall, I disagree. I do not turn to the moralizing Lasch...