In Lake Wobegon, that most American of towns, we have learned that all the men are good-looking, all the women are strong, and all the children are above average. Is this an example of healthy self-esteem or of pathologic grandiosity emerging out of feelings of inferiority? In the Americanization of Narcissism Elizabeth Lunbeck attempts to answer the question by revisiting the conceptual history of narcissism, from its early formulation by Freud, through later elaborations of healthy narcissism by Heinz Kohut, to the more malignant form portrayed by Otto Kernberg. In the late 1970s, in Lunbeck’s view, social critics, most prominently Christopher Lasch in his book The Culture of Narcissism, wrongfully applied the term to a generation of Americans that was portrayed as greedy, selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed, individuals obsessed with pleasure seeking and mindless material consumption. Echoing Lasch, Jimmy Carter, in his pivotal although mistitled “malaise” speech, chastised Americans for their embracing of these activities and their abandonment of involvement in the community and a commitment to hard work and spirituality. Lunbeck suggests that the cultural criticism was overblown and dependent on an inaccurate reading of the theorists involved. The argument is cogently put forth and well referenced, but the question of its present currency and relevance remains moot. All the principals (Lasch, Kohut, Kernberg) are deceased, and the concept of “healthy narcissism,” which Lunbeck seeks to nurture, has survived its 1978 attack and seems firmly embedded in the communal psyche. Despite this, the term often continues to be used perjoratively, as in psychiatrist and media pundit Charles Krauthammer’s recent denunciation of President Obama for his perceived excessive usage of the pronoun “I” in his description of the raid on Bin Laden.
The structure of the book is a curious one and seems more closely to model transcriptions of seminar discussions at a psychoanalytic institute than that of a work intended for a lay audience. After an introductory chapter, Heinz Kohut’s career and beliefs are presented and analyzed, followed by a similar treatment of Otto Kernberg and his “narcissistic dystopia” (p. 59). Kohut, for many years the most ardent and orthodox interpreter of Freud, the master he never met, eventually transformed himself into an avatar for self psychology, someone who could bring Freud’s concepts into the modern age by diminishing the emphasis on the pathology of primal forces and focusing instead on their transformation in the development of the healthy self. His contributions, acknowledged as perhaps not as original as he himself claimed, were, by Lunbeck’s reckoning, more influential within psychoanalysis than they were in the society at large. Otto Kernberg, in contrast, focused on pathologic narcissism, a state of disturbed inner object and outer interpersonal relations, characterized by inner emptiness, external rage, a lack of empathy, and insecurity, coexisting with superficial self-regard and fragile self-confidence. Lunbeck adeptly describes their areas of agreement and Kernberg’s acceptance of normal narcissism and illustrates how the ideas of both were selectively appropriated by Lasch in his assault on the sexual revolution and other proclivities of the so-called “me” generation.
These chapters in turn are followed by six chapters focused on specific component parts of narcissism, including self-love, independence, vanity, gratification, inaccessibility, and identity, each of which draws upon a specific writing or event associated with Freud. Included are detailed descriptions of Freud’s accounting of the life of Leonardo and his homosexuality; his somewhat prickly relations with Ferenczi, Fenichel, Fleiss, Jones, and Flugel; his views on female vanity and the psychology of clothes; the “devoted domesticity”(p. 120) of his wife Martha; and the failed analysis by both Jones and himself of the influential psychoanalytic translator Joan Riviere. Only the chapter on Identity attempts to step a few feet outside the tent, presenting the views of Erik Erikson, D.W. Winnicott, and Betty Friedan, circa 1963.
At the end, conflictual feelings emerge. One appreciates the scholarship and the historical perspective and yet might question what our present formulation of the concept is. The book title’s suggestion that narcissism is somehow a particularly American obsession is inexplicably left unexamined and unsupported, as most followers of Jacques Lacan, who goes uncited, could protest. Even the last chapter, Narcissism Today, seems a somewhat belated and perhaps editorially advised attempt to corral all the previous musings into a brief essay summarizing what it all might mean for our life now. Recent books, such as The Narcissistic Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement and the biographies of Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, are briefly alluded to, as are several books on the traits of effective leaders, but the question of what to make of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, reality TV, selfies, and the growing desire to document and share every minute of one’s thoughts and experiences goes unasked and unanswered.
Victor I. Reus, MD
Department of Psychiatry
San Francisco School of Medicine
University of California
The author declares no conflict of interest.