The Americanization of Narcissism

Americanization coverAmerican 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 (Harvard UP, 2014), winner of the 2015 Courage to Dream Book Prize of the American Psychoanalytic Association, ultimately opens a new view on the central questions faced by the self struggling amid the tumultuous crosscurrents of modernity.

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“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 (full review)

“[A] prodigiously researched reconstruction of the story of narcissism… Lunbeck is exceptionally good at disentangling these often arcane psychoanalytic arguments and their reverberations in postwar social theory; she’s also very good on the intersections of saving, spending, and desiring in both psychoanalysis and consumer culture. What [Christopher] Lasch got wrong, she says, was imagining that [psychoanalyst Heinz] Kohut, who invariably sided with gratification over renunciation, was a compatriot; he was anything but. The consequence, she thinks, has been the popularization of the malignant narcissist and the overall neglect of the positive aspects of narcissism in our current conceptions.”—Laura Kipnis, Harper’s (full review, PDF)

“Energetic and rigorously researched…highly engaging.”—Helen Tyson, Literary Review

“[Lunbeck] has written an impressively researched history of the idea of narcissism in U.S. intellectual and cultural life and found the concept unfairly maligned.”—Robert Reynolds, Times Higher Education Supplement (full review, PDF)

“Offers a fascinating, in-depth intellectual history of narcissism and how it has informed the public discussion of what Americans have valued… For the reader who reads in order to develop their own insights into American culture, this resource is an indispensable treasure. Like all the best histories there is enough material here to keep anyone who finds herself wondering how America became associated with concepts like identity politics, counterculture, self-esteem and gratification—or anyone curious about the ubiquitous and slippery concept of narcissism—busy for days.”—Anita Felicelli, PopMatters (full review)

“A tour de force. Lunbeck brilliantly tracks the decades-long transformation of narcissism from a complex Freudian concept to a master term of 1970s social critique. Along the way, she masterfully delineates the ways narcissism has been used to explain such culturally freighted phenomena as homosexuality, women’s fashion, consumer culture, and youth revolt. This is social criticism at its best.”—George Chauncey, Yale University

“A penetrating intellectual history of perhaps the most important decade of American psychoanalysis. Lunbeck reveals the basic machinery of psychoanalytic discourse in the context of historical and cultural movements of the fin de siècle. It is a highly entertaining and deeply edifying read.”—Peter Fonagy, University College London

“Lunbeck brilliantly conveys the ins and outs of narcissism in the past century. With a historian’s insight, she marshals sources from the popular press to the academic and psychoanalytic literature to produce a highly readable book that will be of very great interest to a broad range of readers.”—Anton O. Kris, Harvard Medical School