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The Narcissist Society


Narcissism holds the key to the consciousness movement and to the moral climate of contemporary society, as Hougan, Wolfe, and Schur in various ways suggest. Unless we are content merely to moralize under the cover of psychiatric jargon, however, we need to use this concept more rigorously than it is used in popular social criticism, and with an awareness of its clinical implications.

Narcissism is more than a metaphorical term for self-absorption. In modern psychiatric practice, it has come to be recognized as an important element in the so-called character disorders that have absorbed much of the clinical attention once given to hysteria and obsessional neuroses. Psychoanalysis, a therapy that grew out of experience with these classical neuroses, often finds itself today confronted with a “chaotic and impulse-ridden character,” as Dr. Otto Kernberg observes in his new book. It must deal with patients who “act out” their conflicts instead of repressing or sublimating them. These patients, though often ingratiating and successful, tend to cultivate a protective shallowness in emotional relations. Promiscuous, they avoid close involvements, which might release intense feelings of rage. Their personalities consist largely of defenses against this rage and against feelings of moral deprivation that originate, as many psychoanalysts believe, in the pre-Oedipal stage of psychic development.

Often these patients suffer from hypochondria and complain of a sense of inner emptiness. At the same time they entertain fantasies of omnipotence and a strong belief in their right to exploit others and be gratified. “Archaic,” punitive, and sadistic elements predominate in the superegos of these patients, and they conform to social rules more out of the fear of punishment than from a sense of guilt. What analysts call “primary process” thinking, which relies on magic and symbolism rather than linear causality and has little tolerance of ambiguity or doubt, plays a prominent part in their mental lives.

On the principle that pathology frequently represents a heightened version of normality, the “pathological narcissism” found in character disorders of this type should tell us something about narcissism as a social phenomenon. Kernberg’s study of personality disorders that occupy the “borderline” between neurosis and psychosis, though written for clinicians and making no claims to shed light on social or cultural issues, depicts a type of personality that ought to be immediately recognizable, in a more subdued form, to observers of the contemporary cultural scene: facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it; unappeasably hungry for emotional experiences with which to fill an inner void; terrified of aging and death.

In his effort to explain the psychic origins of this borderline syndrome, Kernberg draws on the theoretical tradition established by Melanie Klein, who found that early feelings of overpowering rage, directed especially against the mother and secondarily against the internalized image of the mother as a ravenous monster, make it impossible for the child to synthesize “good” and “bad” parental images. In his fear of aggression from the bad parents—projections of his own rage—he idealizes the good parents who will come to his rescue.

Internalized images of others, buried in the unconscious mind at an early age, become self-images as well. If later experience fails to qualify or to introduce elements of reality into the child’s archaic fantasies about his parents, he finds it difficult to distinguish between images of self and of the objects of his feelings that are outside the self. These images fuse to form a defense against the bad representations of the self and of objects; while such bad representations become similarly fused in the form (among others) of a harsh, punishing superego. Melanie Klein analyzed a ten-year-old boy who unconsciously thought of his mother as a “vampire” or “horrid bird” and internalized this fear as hypochondria. He was afraid that the bad presences inside him would devour the good ones. The rigid separation of good and bad images of the self and of objects, on the one hand, and the fusion of self and object images on the other, arose from the boy’s inability to tolerate ambivalence or anxiety. Because his anger was so intense, he could not admit that he harbored aggressive feelings toward those he loved. “The fear and guilt relating to his destructive phantasies moulded his whole emotional life.”3

A child who feels so gravely threatened by his own aggressive feelings (projected onto others and then internalized again as inner “monsters”) attempts to compensate himself for his experiences of rage and envy with fantasies of wealth, beauty, and omnipotence. These fantasies, together with the internalized images of the good parents with which he attempts to defend himself, become the core of a “grandiose conception of the self.” A kind of “blind optimism,” according to Kernberg, protects the narcissistic child from the dangers around and within him—and particularly from dependence on others, who are perceived as without exception undependable. “Constant projection of ‘all bad’ self and object images perpetuates a world of dangerous, threatening objects, against which the ‘all good’ self images are used defensively, and megalomanic ideal self images are built up.”

The splitting of images determined by aggressive feelings from images that derive from libidinal impulses makes it impossible for the child to acknowledge his own aggression, to experience guilt or concern for objects invested simultaneously with aggression and libido, or to mourn for lost objects. Depression in narcissistic patients takes the form not of mourning with its admixture of guilt, which Freud described in “Mourning and Melancholia,” but of impotent rage and “feelings of defeat by external forces.”

Because the intrapsychic world of these patients is so thinly populated—consisting only of the “grandiose self,” in Kernberg’s words, “the devalued, shadowy images of self and others, and potential persecutors”—they experience intense feelings of emptiness and inauthenticity. Although the narcissist can function in the everyday world and often charms other people (not least with his “pseudo-insight into his personality”), his devaluation of others, together with his lack of curiosity about them, impoverishes his personal life and reinforces the “subjective experience of emptiness.” Lacking any real intellectual engagement with the world—notwithstanding a frequently inflated estimate of his own intellectual abilities—he has little capacity for sublimation. He therefore depends on others for constant infusions of approval and admiration. At the same time, his fear emotional dependence, together with his manipulative, exploitative approach to personal relations, makes these relations bland, superficial, and deeply unsatisfying.

Chronically bored, restlessly in search of instantaneous intimacy—of emotional titillation without involvement and dependence—he is promiscuous and often pansexual as well, since the fusion of pregenital and Oedipal impulses in the service of aggression encourages polymorphous perversity. The bad images he has internalized also make him chronically uneasy about his health, and hypochondria in turn gives him a special affinity for therapy and for therapeutic groups and movements.

As a psychiatric patient, the narcissist is a prime candidate for interminable analysis. He seeks in analysis a religion or way of life and hopes to find in the therapeutic relationship external support for his fantasies of omnipotence and eternal youth. The strength of his defenses, however, makes him resistant to successful analysis. According to Kernberg, the great argument for making the attempt at all, in the face of the many difficulties presented by narcissistic patients, is the devastating effect of narcissism on the second half of their lives—the certainty of the terrible suffering that lies in store. In a society that dreads old age and death, aging holds a special terror for those who fear dependence and whose self-esteem requires the admiration usually reserved for youth, beauty, celebrity, or charm. The usual defenses against the ravages of age—identification with ethical or artistic values beyond one’s immediate interests, intellectual curiosity, the consoling emotional warmth derived from happy relationships in the past—can do nothing for the narcissist. Unable to derive whatever comfort comes from identification with historical continuity, he finds it impossible, on the contrary,

to accept the fact that a younger generation now possesses many of the previously cherished gratifications of beauty, wealth, power and, particularly, creativity. To be able to enjoy life in a process involving a growing identification with other people’s happiness and achievements is tragically beyond the capacity of narcissistic personalities.4

The point of this résumé of recent theories of narcissism is not to provide a psychological interpretation of the consciousness movement or to psychoanalyze its leaders as if they represented so many case studies in pathology. I wish to argue just the reverse, that the awareness movement embodies experiences and perceptions that have become increasingly common, and that its appeal lies precisely in its capacity to address experiences that many people share. The only reason to raise the question of pathological narcissism is to shed light on the narcissism that now seems to pervade “normal” everyday life.

Every age develops its own peculiar forms of pathology, which express in exaggerated form its underlying character structure. In Freud’s time, hysteria and obsessional neurosis carried to extremes the personality traits associated with the capitalist order at an earlier stage in its development—acquisitiveness, fanatical devotion to work, and a fierce repression of sexuality. In our time, the “preschizophrenic,” “borderline,” or personality disorders have attracted increasing attention, along with schizophrenia itself; and this development seems to signify an underlying change in the organization of personality, from what has been called inner-direction to narcissism.

The determinants of this shift are social, not psychological: the increasingly dangerous and warlike character of the social environment, the fragility of friendship and family ties, the social emphasis on the consumption rather than the production of commodities, the rise of the mass media with their cult of glamor and celebrity, the disruption of the sense of historical continuity. Social changes, however, manifest themselves also at the psychological level. New social forms require new forms of personality, new modes of socialization, new ways of organizing experience.

The concept of narcissism provides us not with a ready-made psychological determinism but with a way of understanding the psychological impact of recent social changes—assuming that we bear in mind not only its clinical origins but the continuum between pathology and normality. It provides us, in other words, with a tolerably accurate portrait of the “liberated” personality of our time: of his charm, his pseudo-awareness of his own condition, his promiscuous pansexuality, his fascination with oral sex, his fear of the castrating mother (Mrs. Portnoy), his hypochondria, his protective shallowness, his avoidance of dependence, his inability to mourn, his dread of old age and death.

It might be asked what is gained by labeling as narcissism aspects of behavior with which we are already familiar as part of the current cultural scene. What is gained is the ability to see them as part of a recurrent pattern, on which personality in our society is typically organized; and thus to advance beyond cultural criticism to a theory (or the beginnings of a theory) of contemporary society.

It is not merely that narcissism appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with a dangerous world, and that the prevailing social conditions therefore tend to bring out narcissistic traits that are present, in varying degrees, in everyone. These conditions have also transformed the family, which in turn shapes the underlying structure of personality. A society that fears it has no future is not likely to give much attention to the needs of the next generation, and the ever-present sense of historical discontinuity, the blight of our society, falls with particularly devastating effect on the family.

Whereas parents formerly sought to live vicariously through their offspring, now they tend to resent them as intrusions and to envy their youth. Formerly the young sought to escape the smothering embrace of the older generation, but for the last several decades they have been more likely to complain of emotional neglect. The modern parent’s attempt to make children feel loved and wanted does not conceal an underlying coolness—the remoteness of those who have little to pass on to the next generation and who in any case give priority to their own right to self-fulfillment. The combination of emotional detachment with attempts to convince a child of his favored position in the family is a good prescription for a narcissistic personality structure.

Through the intermediary of the family, social patterns reproduce themselves in personality. Social arrangements live on in the individual, buried in the mind below the level of consciousness, even after they have become objectively undesirable and unnecessary—as many of our present arrangements are now widely acknowledged to have become. The perception of the world as a dangerous and forbidding place, though it originates in a realistic awareness of the insecurity of contemporary social life, receives reinforcement from the narcissistic projection of aggressive impulses outward. The belief that society has no future, while it rests on a certain realism about the dangers ahead, also incorporates a narcissistic inability to identify with posterity or to feel oneself part of a historical stream.

The weakening of social ties, which originates in the prevailing state of social warfare, at the same time reflects a narcissistic defense against dependence. A warlike society tends to produce men and women who are at heart antisocial. It should therefore not surprise us to find that the narcissist, although he conforms to social norms for fear of external retribution, often thinks of himself as an outlaw and sees others in the same way, “as basically dishonest and unreliable, or only reliable because of external pressures.” “The value systems of narcissistic personalities are generally corruptible,” writes Kernberg, “in contrast to the rigid morality of the obsessive personality.”

The ethic of self-preservation and psychic survival is rooted, then, not merely in objective conditions of economic warfare, rising rates of crime, and social chaos, but in the subjective experience of emptiness and isolation. It reflects the conviction—as much a projection of inner anxieties as a perception of the way things are—that envy and exploitation dominate even the most intimate relations. The cult of personal relations, which becomes increasingly intense as the hope of political solutions recedes, conceals a thoroughgoing disenchantment with personal relations, just as the cult of sensuality implies a repudiation of sensuality in all but its most primitive forms. The ideology of personal growth, superficially optimistic about the power of positive thinking, radiates pessimism. It is the world view of the resigned.

  1. 3

    Melanie Klein, “The Oedipus Complex in the Light of Early Anxieties” (1945), in her Contributions to Psychoanalysis (McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 346. See also Melanie Klein, “Notes on Some Schizoid Mechanisms” (1946), in Joan Riviere, ed., Developments in Psychoanalysis (Hogarth Press, 1952); Paula Heimann, “A Contribution to the Re-evaluation of the Oedipus Complex: The Early Stages,” in Melanie Klein et al., eds., New Directions in Psychoanalysis (Basic Books, 1955); H.G. Van der Waals, “Problems of Narcissism,” Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, v. 29 (1965); and H. Kohut, “Forms and Transformations of Narcissism,” Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, v. 14 (1966). On psychoanalysis as a way of life, see Gilbert J. Rose, “Some Misuses of Analysis as a Way of Life: Analysis Interminable and Interminable ‘Analysts,’ ” International Review of Psychoanalysis, v. 1 (1974).

  2. 4

    Kernberg, p. 312.

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