Reviews — From the August 2014 issue

Me, Myself, and Id

The invention of the narcissist

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Discussed in this essay:

The Americanization of Narcissism, by Elizabeth Lunbeck. Harvard University Press. 384 pages. $35.

The Narcissist Next Door: Understanding the Monster in Your Family, in Your Office, in Your Bed — in Your World, by Jeffrey Kluger. Riverhead. 288 pages. $27.95.

Imagine yourself a talented, ambitious 1950s Midwestern high school boy who wants nothing more than to become a novelist. You’ve already had a few heady successes as a writer, including first prize in a statewide essay contest, which gave you the confidence to submit your fiction to elite magazines such as The New Yorker and Harper’s, which rejected them (though one rejection, from The Saturday Evening Post, commended your “free-ranging inventiveness”). You’ve gotten yourself accepted to Harvard. But when you arrive, you discover that of all the lousy fates that might befall an ambitious young writer, yours is to be assigned, as your freshman roommate, another ambitious young writer — one who will soon take his place among the most acclaimed novelists and literary stylists of the twentieth century and is already showing signs of genius. It’s a situation that might dissuade even the most confident of kids — some would call it a narcissistic injury.

Narcissus at the Pool, fresco, House of Marcus Lucretius, Pompeii, Italy © Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City

Narcissus at the Pool, fresco, House of Marcus Lucretius, Pompeii, Italy © Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, New York City

Christopher Lasch, author of the 1979 best-selling rant The Culture of Narcissism, has always struck me as a poignant figure. His capacities for creative defensiveness were already in fine form when he wrote to his parents that his roommate, John Updike, was “a very intelligent kid, and more industrious than I,” but that “his stuff lacks perception and doesn’t go very deep. He is primarily a humorist. As he himself admits he is probably a hack. At least he has more of a hack in him than a profound artist.” For his part, Updike regarded Lasch as sensitive and intelligent but also sulky, with the latter often overshadowing the former.

Still, Lasch and Updike got on well and roomed together until their junior year. Lasch, carefully monitoring everything his roommate wrote, was soon forced to admit that Updike was the more talented. This helped steer his attentions toward history, he later acknowledged, though his ambitions as a fiction writer resulted in an ornate writing style, distressing his professors, who thought he was sabotaging his professional prospects as a historian.

Unwilling to abandon fiction altogether, Lasch kept plugging away at a novel, a bildungsroman “about the author as a sensitive young man, that sort of thing,” as he reminisced in an interview a few months before his death from cancer, in 1994, at age sixty-one. It was never published, though there was a nibble of interest from an editor soon after he graduated. Note that he was still savoring that nibble forty years later, and kept writing novels throughout his life, though he never got one published.

I’ve sometimes wondered about the lasting effects on Lasch of that freshman rooming assignment. Which writer’s signature character, Updike’s Rabbit or Lasch’s narcissist, has had a more robust cultural afterlife? Or, as Elizabeth Lunbeck renders the question in her new book The Americanization of Narcissism: What made Lasch so persuasive that his ideas continue to shape our views of narcissism today, even for those who’ve never heard of him? Her answer is that Lasch skillfully appropriated the language and theory of psychoanalysis. Mine is that The Culture of Narcissism was the Great American Novel Lasch could never write disguised as social theory and that his narcissist is a creature every bit as invented as Rabbit Angstrom — who shares many of the same traits, by the way.

Narcissism was a dubiously mythological concept from the start, and remains a conceptual mishmash to this day. The disagreements over what defines it have been nasty and legion. Lunbeck emphasizes the “protean nature” of narcissism, but this understates the situation. No one — clinicians, theorists, the DSM (the American psychiatric diagnostic handbook, which has redefined “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” in each of four successive editions since the diagnosis was introduced, in 1980) — agrees on the etiology, symptoms, or treatment, and some claim it’s not treatable at all. Do narcissists suffer from excess self-regard or insufficient self-love? Does the condition derive from parents’ insisting their children are “special” or not reinforcing their self-esteem?

No one knows, and yet countless conversations take place these days in which someone deploys the word as a social diagnostic. In the past twelve or so hours I’ve read a book review that opens, “We Americans are a narcissistic bunch,” and an article in the New York Times about “hipster narcissism.” Entire categories of persons are routinely impugned — baby boomers, reality-TV stars, adulterous politicians. Everyone’s ex is, of course, a narcissist: a recently divorced friend reported to me that while he and his wife were on the road to Splitsville she took to leaving books with titles like Freeing Yourself from the Narcissist in Your Life conspicuously placed on her bedside table. It turned out her shrink had pronounced him one, sight unseen. Other mental-health diagnoses — “neurotic,” “compulsive,” “bipolar” — don’t come weighted with nearly as much moralism. Or as much self-exoneration: the one defining trait of the narcissist is that it’s always someone else.

When the sex researcher Havelock Ellis coined the term, in 1898 — his actual formulation was “narcissus-like,” borrowing from Ovid’s myth about the beautiful young lad who falls in love with his reflection in a pool — he was referring to a female patient who masturbated too much. How much is too much, one would like to inquire of Ellis, someone not exactly minus sexual hang-ups himself — impotent until the age of sixty, among other difficulties, about which he was surprisingly voluble in his 676-page autobiography, My Life, a proud forerunner of today’s compulsive self-disclosers.

When Freud took up the concept in his highly speculative 1914 essay “On Narcissism,” he left out Ellis and only briefly mentioned his owlish disciple Otto Rank, who in 1911 had published the first psychoanalytic paper on the subject, “A Contribution to the Study of Narcissism,” though he gets little credit for it in the literature today. Rank’s narcissist was another overly self-reliant woman, one for whom combing her own hair in a mirror was apparently a sexual turn-on, leaving Rank to fret that her self-admiration was so powerful that no one else’s love would ever be sufficient.

Freud expanded the concept by positing two kinds of narcissism: “primary narcissism,” the happy state in which the baby thinks it’s the “center and core of creation,” and “secondary narcissism,” the problematic kind, where instead of developing the capacity to direct your libido outward, you reinvest it in yourself, where it coagulates and festers. The primary-secondary division would eventually translate into the more normative division between “healthy” and “unhealthy” types of narcissism. Healthy narcissism creates ego strength; unhealthy narcissism makes you an asshole.

The 1970s brought growing doctrinal debates among psychoanalysts, which broke down mostly along the healthy-unhealthy fault line. Social theorists, too, started taking up the narcissism cudgel, among them Peter Marin, who published an influential 1975 article in these pages, “The New Narcissism,” in which he lamented the inward turn of the recently developed self-help therapies — encounter groups, primal screaming — and accused those who retreat into self-absorption of “a kind of soft fascism.”

Tough words, yet it wasn’t Marin who brought narcissism to the broad awareness it enjoys today. Lasch’s innovation was to merge two often incompatible strands of twentieth-century thought — the individualizing bent of psychoanalytic therapies and the collective diagnoses of social theory — and to repurpose the fuzzy clinical label as an indictment of affluence, individualism, consumerism, bureaucratization, and other modern ills. Then he dumped the whole contradictory mess on an individualistic, consumption-mad culture, which, surprisingly enough, heaped him with acclaim.

Lasch’s narcissist is one of the great characters of twentieth-century literature. Depression-prone and anxious, plagued by relationship problems and insomnia, he vacillates between, in the words of Lasch, “calculating seductiveness and nervous, self-deprecating humor.” Chaotic, impulse-ridden, and sexually promiscuous, Lasch’s narcissist comes off as so annoyingly self-involved because he has such a thin sense of self. He’s terrified of old age and death; excessively fascinated by celebrities, wealth, and beauty; and full of boundless repressed rage. Though outwardly bland and sociable, inwardly he’s seething. (Lasch was writing before antidepressants became a $10 billion industry in this country, back when people were forced to actually experience their depression.) The narcissist cultivates a protective shallowness; he overestimates his intellect yet lets experts define his needs for him, then wonders why he isn’t satisfied. He lives as though surrounded by mirrors, but he doesn’t like what he sees. He wants what he can’t have — namely, peace of mind. In short, Lasch gives us . . . ourselves.

Even now it’s hard to read the book without feeling defensive and vaguely shame-ridden as you recognize yourself and your least-loved traits page after page. Despite the gloomy social picture and hectoring tone, the book made Lasch an instant celebrity: featured in Time, invited by Jimmy Carter to sup at the White House and confer about why Americans had lost faith in government. (He was seated next to Rosalynn Carter and found the conversation “heavy going.”) None of which seems to have improved his mood: in television appearances from the period (a few are available online), he looks fidgety and ill at ease, someone not entirely comfortable in his own skin.

The surprising thing about The Culture of Narcissism wasn’t just that a culture of alleged narcissists would voluntarily sign up for this protracted scolding but also that Lasch assumed he could inveigh against modern character as though he alone were immune to the forces he was fulminating against. He flings himself around the page with overwrought stylistics, all the while indicting writerly flamboyance — Norman Mailer, author of the presciently titled Advertisements for Myself, was naturally first on his shit list. (Freud’s phrase “the narcissism of small differences” comes to mind.) Yet Lasch also recognized, at some level, that it was practitioners of the Mailerian “garrulous monologue” who, disrespecting the boundaries between cultural criticism and autobiography, were most adeptly registering the transformations in modern selfhood that Lasch was also attempting to chronicle. That recognition is clear in the anguished ambitions of his prose, whether he was conscious of it or not.

That “or not” accounts for the fundamental tension in The Culture of Narcissism. It can be hard to track, at any moment, whether Lasch is describing a social type or just ranting about self-indulgence. Often labeled a left conservative, Lasch certainly has the conservative’s inclination to blame individuals for collective fates. He was a critic of capitalism who hated the Sixties, social movements, multiculturalism, and all loose talk of liberation. Even antiwar protesters weren’t exempt from his ire (not that he was pro-war) — their leaders were self-promoting, he accused. The women’s movement hit him especially hard. Feminists were shrill; he took their demands as a personal affront. The Culture of Narcissism is basically a cornucopia of affronts, with Lasch raging, wounded, and arbitrary, bleeding all over the page and calling it social critique.

So where does Lasch’s brilliant and deranged book leave us? Mired in a lot of reflexive finger-pointing, to begin with, since, as Lunbeck makes clear, it’s Lasch’s conception of narcissism that’s most decisively shaped how we think about it at the moment.

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’s Men: Notes from an On­going Investigation will be published by Metropolitan Books in November. Her last article for Harper’s Magazine, “School for Scandal,” appeared in the March 2009 issue.

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