The Americanization of Narcissism by Elizabeth Lunbeck

The Americanization of Narcissism BY Elizabeth Lunbeck. Harvard University Press. Hardcover, 384 pages. $35.
Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love BY Simon Blackburn. Princeton University Press. Hardcover, 248 pages. $24.
The cover of The Americanization of Narcissism The cover of Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love

SIGMUND FREUD THOUGHT most narcissists were either homosexuals or women. Attractive female narcissists were the “purest and truest feminine type.” “Such women have the greatest fascination for men,” he wrote. According to Freud, infants are total narcissists, because they can’t get inside anybody else’s head. They demand everything and are outraged when it doesn’t arrive. Freud used the phrase “His Majesty the Baby.” (It’s in English in the original.) Parents put up with these demands because they are sad they can no longer make them. They shield their children from the truth: Life is frustrating. You’ll never get all you want. Your unmet needs will give you strange dreams and cause you to say “orgasm” instead of “oregano.” The only way out is to not grow up at all. This is the path of the narcissist, who looks in the mirror and falls in love. He isn’t frustrated by life. He’s frustrating to live with.

“On Narcissism,” which Freud wrote in 1914, is a good example of why its author isn’t read as much as he used to be. Among psychoanalysts, it was awkward from the start—it seemed to confuse the basic terms of drive theory. These state that the ego keeps the libido in check, which is what Freud meant by repression. To turn around and fall in love with your ego, as a narcissist was supposed to, would be like falling in love with a valve. It made no sense. And if it did make sense, it was even stranger, because it implied that a select group of vain and childish people got to have everything they wanted and find true fulfillment in themselves while the rest of humanity suffered. This part of Freud’s theory spoke to Americans in the second half of the twentieth century. In those babies, they saw themselves. Were they spoiled—like, say, Americans raised at the height of the postwar boom? Or were they so demanding because—like, say, Americans in the thick of the Cold War terror—they might lose all they had at any second, and wanted to get what they could while they could? Does demanding everything at once mean expecting more from life, or less?

Freud died in 1939, and in the decades after his heirs debated these questions. Those debates were read, in turn, by popularizers, whose popularizations were read, piecemeal and inattentively, by the public. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter gave his “malaise” speech. It was the biggest of his presidency. Carter said, “Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but what one owns.” These words were widely known to have been inspired by the social critic Christopher Lasch, whose book of that year, The Culture of Narcissism, had used Freud to diagnose narcissism as the “underlying character structure of the age.” According to Lasch, the symptoms of this were virtually unqualified: “charm,” “promiscuous pansexuality,” “fascination with oral sex,” “protective shallowness,” “inability to mourn,” “dread of old age and death,” “pseudo-understanding of [one’s] own condition.” Readers were meant to feel under attack. He described his book as “forbidding.”

But pseudo-understanding is a funny thing. The Culture of Narcissism went on the best-seller list and stayed there for six weeks. Within four months, it sold 60,000 copies, and an interview with Lasch appeared in People magazine. Olivia Newton John, on roller skates, was on the cover.

In her new book, The Americanization of Narcissism, the Vanderbilt historian Elizabeth Lunbeck tells this story several times, from different angles. She attempts to understand the pseudo-understanding. According to her, not only did Lasch get Freud wrong, Freud got himself wrong. Her heroes are the later generations of psychoanalysts who reinterpreted narcissism for Anglo-Americans. Their efforts to retrieve what was good in Freud’s theory from his unattractive worldview came, in the short term, to little, a failure Lunbeck blames in general on American intellectuals and in particular on Lasch. The psychoanalysts Sandor Ferenczi, D.W. Winnicott, Joan Riviere, and, especially, Otto Kernberg, the object-relations theorist, all have important roles in her version of history, but it is Heinz Kohut who is her leading man. Lunbeck calls him a “forgotten innovator.”

Kohut was born in 1913, in Vienna. A Jewish neurology student, he escaped Europe and the Nazis for Chicago, where he trained as a psychoanalyst and became a Freudian. In 1964, he was elected president of the American Psychoanalytic Association. But Kohut fell out with the Freudians, and, in 1971, he wrote The Analysis of the Self—a 400-page heresy, from the perspective of some of his old colleagues. In time, a faction of psychoanalysts formed around Kohut and his book. What they did came to be known as self-psychology.

Self-psychology is therapy aimed at the inner you. It says that personal fulfillment is a goal worth pursuing, and it redescribes in flattering terms many of the frailties that classical psychoanalysis (and the larger world) censures, such as grandiosity, vanity, and dependency. At the center of all this is the idea that narcissism is a condition worth aspiring to—“necessary for the upkeep of life, for happiness, for living with other people.” Lunbeck quotes a 1979 interview in which Kohut stated that the problem with one depressed American (Fred, an alcoholic) was that he was “not narcissistic enough.”

As a diagnosis, this is not inherently more strange than (for instance) the Oedipus complex, though it is certainly more upbeat. Kohut did not assert, with Freud, that civilization was a tragic compromise. He thought it was pretty good, and improving. He encouraged the young to search their souls. He was cheered by the spectacle of the hippies. He was, as Lunbeck, writes, the “luminary purveyor of an optimistic creed.” His mission was to make Americans “acknowledge what lay within, not to deny it.” But Kohut underestimated the role that denial plays in American life. As Lunbeck writes, his “healthy narcissist was completely ignored.” Americans expected a psychoanalyst to tell them their minds were sick, so they refashioned him in the image of their assumptions, as yet another Viennese naysayer. Only his fellow analysts recognized that Kohut was trying to start a revolution.

WHY DID READERS resist, ignore, and (in some cases) willfully misread Kohut? In another recent book, Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love, Simon Blackburn suggests an answer: “ ‘Get in touch with your inner self,’ urges the therapist, perhaps unconscious that the inner self may be a pretty nasty piece of work.” Only Blackburn isn’t discussing Kohut. He’s discussing Polonius.

Blackburn used to teach philosophy at Oxford, and he runs through what he considers to be the classical arguments, riffing on the thinkers that move him and being hard on those that don’t. Hume he likes. Jean-Paul Sartre, not so much. He is skeptical of theories of authenticity, that assume the existence of a “Real Me” as opposed to an “Everyday Me.” He’s also skeptical of our times, which he denounces: smartphones, Twitter, “young men in underwear advertisements,” “Tony Blair and George Bush,” “the smoke-tinted limousines and gate communities,” and, above all, Wall Street. “How can they look at themselves in the mirror?” Blackburn asks of the bankers. He coins the phrase “kleptoparasitic leapfrog”: the way the very rich chase after the very, very rich, meanwhile ignoring the poor.

Blackburn turns to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who distinguished between amour de soi and amour propre. Amour de soi is why you brush your teeth in the morning, the mild self-interest that keeps existence humming—what Immanuel Kant meant, approximately, by “dignity.” By contrast, amour propre is jealous. It treats love (for you, for me, for anybody) as zero-sum, and tries to hoard it all to itself. According to Rousseau, only compassion prevents this greed from overcoming us. Rousseau quotes The Aeneid: Non ignara mali, miseris succurere disco, which Blackburn translates as “Not unacquainted with misfortune, I am learning to help those who are miserable.” The analogy with fiscal inequality comes naturally to Blackburn. The bankers, he writes, “cannot actually comprehend the position of others.” They are too stuck inside their own heads.

WHEN KOHUT PRAISED narcissism, he was not praising the kleptoparasitic leapfrog. Lunbeck writes, “In his hands, narcissism referred not only to pathology but to ambition, creativity, and, most expansively, one’s feelings about oneself as a person.” Kohut’s insistence on using words in his own way, against the grain of their definition, is a big reason why he was overshadowed by Lasch, who was a far less subtle or uplifting thinker, but wrote memorably. He once described sports as “the utmost concentration of purpose, on behalf of activities utterly useless.” When you can throw a bomb like that, where it lands is beside the point. This is why self-psychology didn’t take off. The right opinions aren’t the same as the right stuff. As Lunbeck writes, “Decline-and-fall jeremiads made for good copy.” Positive thinking made for less-good copy—in particular, when it was expressed in the densely technical register of post-Freudian psychotherapy.

This problem is also Lunbeck’s. The narrative component of her book is over in 70 pages. The next 200 explain how Kohut, Kernberg, and their cohorts took Freud’s theory apart and rehabilitated it. This entailed major surgery, which Lunbeck recounts operation by operation.

The chapter called “Independence” addresses this concept. It mattered a lot to Freud, who held self-sufficiency to be the foundation of psychic health. That’s why Freudians have, notoriously, sometimes characterized women as “a parasitical sex.” It’s what Lasch had in mind, roughly, when he pined for an America where men were men. But Lunbeck finds it undesirable. When Freud wrote of independence, she says, he was describing aloofness—and that is narcissism: the bad kind. This distinction was made by Kohut. Real maturity is healthy narcissism, narcissism 2.0: “the capacity to rely on others.” The subtleties keep on proliferating. An interesting if downbeat essay, notable for its homophobia, misogyny, and anti-baby rhetoric, turns out to hold the keys to political correctness. As Freud is supposed to have said, to one of his really clever disciples, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

Kohut once dismissed the unconscious as a “fancy idea.” He was a critic of the Oedipus complex, “reminding his colleagues,” as Lunbeck puts it, “that Oedipus was in the first instance a ‘rejected child.’” Overall, he found Freud to be “not ‘exuberant enough.’ ” To which an honest reader can only reply, True. But psychoanalysis without the unconscious is a theory with a hole in it. Take away the gloom of incest and the fancy ideas and you take away the poetry. You are left with platitudes of critical theory: Gender is performance. To love others, I must love myself. There is, really, a “real me.” Kohut and co. redeem Freudianism as life advice, but they do it at the expense of Freud the writer. And this is a great loss; it was as a writer that Freud saw himself. The analysand was, he said, his “material.”

The question in the background of all of this is whether psychoanalysis has any business as therapy. Lunbeck tells the story of Ferenczi, “the wise baby of psychoanalysis,” who was one of Freud’s protégés. Ferenczi believed in helping people. He did what it took to win their trust, and in his practice tried to be “openly a human being with feelings.” He described his demeanor as resembling “an affectionate mother.” Freud wasn’t like that. Neurotics repulsed him. He insisted on being cold to his patients, whom he described as “a rabble”—“levitating,” as Ferenczi put it, “like some kind of divinity over them.” Freud didn’t take well to unorthodoxy, and he and Ferenczi had a falling out. This makes Freud look like an unpleasant man, and Ferenczi like a better therapist. But it also shows that Freud, for all his ugly opinions, was prescient. In the world after Prozac, psychoanalysis is not a practical measure for the unwell mind. It is stimulation for a curious one—as Freud once put it, a contribution “to the world of literature.” Time has reduced the talking cure to talk.

In 1960, Ernst Dichter, the Austrian adman who brought the unconscious to the attention of Madison Avenue, wrote: “We steadfastly refuse to accept ourselves the way we actually are.” Lunbeck writes that this is “as apt today as it was more than fifty years ago.” Her book suggests otherwise. Its final pages go to an analysis of the same bankers Blackburn decries—the “visionary executives” (Steve Jobs, Jack Welch) who are elevated by the same drives that so often bring them down. “Jerks” they may be, Lunbeck concedes, but “we cannot do without them.” She quotes the New York Times columnist David Brooks. She writes, “it is hard not to feel that Kohut has achieved his goal.” The truth is that Lasch and the social critics were a blip. Between 1950 and the end of the ’80s, the percentage of teenagers who thought they were “important” rose from 12 to 80. It was still 1979 when the man who beat Carter in 1980, forty-six states to four, announced his candidacy for the nomination of the Republican Party. “I find no national malaise,” said Ronald Reagan, the former Hollywood actor. “I find nothing wrong with the American people.” In his speech, Carter hadn’t used the word “malaise,” but that was beside the point. If you want to feel certain about the world outside your head, stay inside your head.

James Camp is a writer living in New York.