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The Americanization of Narcissism

The Americanization of Narcissism

Elizabeth Lunbeck

ISBN 9780674724860

Publication date: 03/10/2014

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American social critics in the 1970s, convinced that their nation was in decline, turned to psychoanalysis for answers and seized on narcissism as the sickness of the age. Books indicting Americans as greedy, shallow, and self-indulgent appeared, none more influential than Christopher Lasch’s famous 1978 jeremiad The Culture of Narcissism. This line of critique reached a crescendo the following year in Jimmy Carter’s “malaise speech” and has endured to this day.

But as Elizabeth Lunbeck reveals, the American critics missed altogether the breakthrough in psychoanalytic thinking that was championing narcissism’s positive aspects. Psychoanalysts had clashed over narcissism from the moment Freud introduced it in 1914, and they had long been split on its defining aspects: How much self-love, self-esteem, and self-indulgence was normal and desirable? While Freud’s orthodox followers sided with asceticism, analytic dissenters argued for gratification. Fifty years later, the Viennese émigré Heinz Kohut led a psychoanalytic revolution centered on a “normal narcissism” that he claimed was the wellspring of human ambition, creativity, and empathy. But critics saw only pathology in narcissism. The result was the loss of a vital way to understand ourselves, our needs, and our desires.

Narcissism’s rich and complex history is also the history of the shifting fortunes and powerful influence of psychoanalysis in American thought and culture. Telling this story, The Americanization of Narcissism ultimately opens a new view on the central questions faced by the self struggling amid the tumultuous crosscurrents of modernity.

Praise

  • Lunbeck’s primary interest here is the intellectual history of narcissism and, as such, her book is mainly devoted to a taxonomy of its various definitional twists and turns among psychoanalysts through the decades since Freud first addressed the subject in 1914. But for this reader it is her rehearsal of the use and misuse of the term in the 1970s that is the richest part of her book. Not only is it immensely evocative of the times themselves, but it also traces beautifully the way a valuable concept that includes a necessary stage of human development became permanently identified as a personality disorder that swallowed whole the larger, far more generous idea of the self that had been developing in the West for fifty years and more, into which narcissism should only have been enfolded… A time, like a human being, can never be the sum of its disabilities, and the business of the historian is to place those disabilities in illuminating perspective. Elizabeth Lunbeck’s book does this beautifully.

    —Vivian Gornick, Boston Review

Author

  • Elizabeth Lunbeck is Professor of the History of Science in Residence at Harvard University.

Book Details

  • 384 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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