Once a clinical term in psychoanalysis, “narcissism” has become one of the flashier pejoratives in the American moral vernacular. Now used routinely as a synonym for “selfishness,” it entered social criticism in the 1970s, when an array of intellectuals—especially the historian Christopher Lasch, who indicted “the culture of narcissism” in an acerbic 1978 bestseller of the same name—turned it into a polemical weapon against what Tom Wolfe had called the “Me Decade,” characterized by new license for self-indulgence and immediate gratification, an obsession with therapy and self-improvement, and the instability and disintegration of marriages and families in the wake of sexual liberation. Emerging from the rubble of traditional morality, the “narcissistic personality of our time” augured an era, Lasch lamented, of “profound despair and resignation.”
In her impressive if not entirely convincing new book, Elizabeth Lunbeck, the Nelson Tyrone, Jr., Professor of History at Vanderbilt University, seeks to redeem narcissism, both the concept and the trait, from the abuse of the social critics. A specialist in the history of psychoanalysis, she deploys her considerable erudition with an elegant combination of grace and pugnacity, contending that Lasch and other writers mishandled the clinical and theoretical literature on narcissism, turning a complicated account of the psyche into a cudgel with which to beat everything they deplored about contemporary American life. At the same time, while surveying the history of “narcissism,” Lunbeck herself becomes a prophet to the times. Conceding the pathological potential of narcissism, she affirms that it can also be a “wellspring of human ambition and creativity, values and ideals, empathy and fellow feeling.”
Narrating the changing meaning of narcissism from the earliest years of psychoanalysis, Lunbeck provides an absorbing intellectual history. She observes that Sigmund Freud described “primary narcissism” as the infant’s original condition of unbounded self-love, inseparable from illusions of grandiosity and omnipotence. Assuming a model of libidinal scarcity in which love of self and love of others are perpetually at odds, Freud theorized that in the course of “normal” development, cast in resolutely masculine terms, the child transferred some of this narcissistic libido from the self to people and objects in the external world. In what became the orthodox view, women and homosexuals were more inclined to narcissism, less able to outgrow infantile self-love and develop true attachments to external objects. Hence, the reasoning went, their greater proclivity toward vanity and exhibitionism in fashion.