Freud’s Concept of Narcissism

“Zur Einführung des Narzissmus” (1) is a particularly fascinating text, but this fascination is a symptom. This text charms precisely because it is itself narcissistic, and seductive in the way that some beautiful women or Persian cats were for Freud (though in reality we know that, because they are sexual beings, they cannot be so). For this reason, Freud was always uncomfortable with his text (that is, with the narcissistic side of his theory), and later attempted to reject it. He was so uneasy with it that, just before sending an early copy to Karl Abraham, he wrote: “Tomorrow I will send you Narcissism, which was a very difficult birth… Of course, I don’t particularly like it, but it’s the best I can do at the moment.” (2)Abraham’s reply was praise for the text, to which Freud responded: “Your acceptance of my Narcissism affected me deeply and binds us still more closely together. I have a strong feeling of its serious inadequacy.” (3) The reasons for his embarrassment were complex, and no doubt linked to the narcissistic relation the text establishes with the reader-and probably its author.

Despite its seductive roundness, Freud’s text is complex, ambiguous and embarrassing. In response to this, you could be amused and say: “We Americans do not care about Freud’s personal opinions on narcissism. Thanks to analysts like Mahler, Kohut and Kernberg, we can now identify a narcissistic patient. Analysis of the roots of our concept of narcissism is an erudite waste of time.” Be that as it may, Latin analysts often reject the American conception of narcissism. (4) Latin or romance analysts usually do not describe their patients in the same way as Americans. Though they work with the Freudian concept of narcissism , they do no t give it the same value or meaning as their American colleagues. Here we have an anthropological gap, and not a difference in patients’ personalities or between “right” and “wrong” epistemologies. It would be instructive for us, on both sides of the Atlantic , to attempt a deep mutual understanding. Latin and American analysts have different paradigms: Latin analysts think all neurotic forms of life have a narcissistic side.

Freud talked about secondary gains of neurosis. But to Latin Europeans, neurosis often has a gain: narcissism-because neurosis involves a special pleasure (for example, when complaining or lamenting). Being neurotic has narcissistic side benefits.

Freud spoke of narcissism as a tactic, a libidinal position taken, for example, when a human being is in physical pain. A severe toothache will make anyone narcissistic, because drives will be concentrated on the hurting part of the body. Classical (“structural,” Kohut would say) neurotic suffering drags narcissism along, because being neurotic in Freudian terms means not knowing what one desires. This uncertainty, or puzzling state of gaping desire, hauls along narcissistic constellations. A neurotic state disposes a subject to narcissistic disorders, just as poor, socially marginal people are more apt to commit crimes. We do not mean that criminal personalities tend to become homeless, just as Latin analysts do not infer that narcissistic personalities tend to develop a special kind of neurosis.

But I should like to maintain some distance from both American and Latin certainties, and return to the roots of the very successful Freudian concept of narcissism.


The ambiguity of Freudian narcissism is evident from Freud’s first use of the word in 1910: “[Homosexuals] identify themselves with a woman and take themselves as their sexual object (…) they proceed from a narcissistic basis and look for a young man who resembles themselves and whom they may love as their mother loved them.” (5)So from the beginning Freud does not equate narcissism exclusively with love for oneself , but sees in narcissism that “the self” (das Ich) is loved by the subject as the object loved by the mother or the father-by the Other, in Lacanian terminology. Narcissism is just “I love my own image as the object loved by the Other.” Thus, for Freud, our narcissistic love for ourselves is never natural, or primary.” He sometimes describes narcissism as an automatic reaction rooted in a primitive libidinal position: when we feel physical pain, we quickly regress to baby selfishness. But at the same time, and from the very beginning, Freud describes this narcissistic reaction as an alienation of the human being in the Other’s love and desire: we do not love ourselves to protect our bodies from injury, but because we re from the beginning “corrupted” by the love of the Other, who does not want us to be injured. We take care of ourselves because an “other” loves us.
But it is even more complicated than that. The answer to the question of what “”being the Other’s love object” means is problematic, because the object of love, interest, desire, is never the same-according to Freud as well as many philosophers-as the real external thing.

To the question as to why the Other loves us-if we are to be consistent with Freud’s theory-we must answer, “Because the Other, the parent, loves His/Her mirror image in the children.” The narcissistic subject loves himself in the same measure as his parent loves him, but this parent in his/her child loves him/herself. Narcissism is always narcissism of narcissism, a second degree narcissism-never primary (except in the myth of primary narcissism, a pure speculation). We will see that narcissism is a relation, a social link, more than a type of personality, which is why Freud often describes as narcissistic those who are charmed by narcissists or, vice versa, those who are loved narcissistically by others. The Freudian concept of narcissism is embarrassing because it inevitably shifts from the logical subject to the logical object, from the lover to the beloved.


Among post-Freudians, Freud’s insistence that the narcissist loves the object loved by his mother is generally interpreted as an urge to analyze more deeply the early relations between mother and infant. This is why most post-Freudian debate concerned the development of child sexuality or personality. What those theorists forget is that when Freud talks about early childhood stages he is referring to suppositions taken from adult analysis. When he says, “My analysand regressed to an oral phase, when he was fed by his mother,” we deceive ourselves if we interpret this essentially as an historical hypothesis. Freud often misunderstood his own conception, saying that the analyst had to reconstruct an historical reality-early traumas, the primal scene and other coup de théâtre-but this takes for granted the most fragile part of psychoanalysis: its claim to tell true stories. When Freud talks about early childhood, he talks about a narration (in Lyotard’s terms), about a myth capable of moving the subject away from the fixed fascination for his self.

Freud is not proposing a scientific hypothesis when he says to his homosexual analysand, “When you are attracted by this young man, you love the beautiful child that you were for your mother.” He is suggesting a myth which may be of value to the analysand, but is of no use whatsoever to behavioral scientists. This is a hermeneutic, not causal, psychological explanation.

The analysand usually says, “This is just the way I am, I am just that, and how can you change that?” But the smart analyst has a way out: “What you consider ‘that’ your self, is the object of your father, your mother-your Other.”
Nevertheless, when the savvy analyst starts to theorize, he often finds himself in Achilles’ long race behind the turtle. Entering the endless (and boring!) debate between Self-Psychology and Object-relations psychology, the analyst acts as if he were saying to the analysand: “I really know-scientifically, rigorously, medically-what you are, your Self.” But the theorizing analyst commits the same mistake his client did by saying, “I am just that, something, just my… self”: the analyst believes that a subject is something. Psychological theory-the psychological interpretation of Freud’s theory-is the narcissism of the psychoanalyst.


The real difficulty in Freud’s text does not lie in the ingenious way he links together, in the crucible of narcissism, such different phenomena as organic pain, sleep, hypochondria, schizophrenia, humor, great criminals, homosexuality, fascination with beautiful women, predators, cats, children, self-esteem, being in love. The difficulty lies in the fact that his different notions of narcissism do not coincide or overlap in a logically consistent manner. (My aim is not the usual disciple’s aim to render the Master’s theory consistent, complete, respectable. On the contrary, the aim of my work is deconstruction. I mean to show Freud’s unending labor, inconsistencies and contradictions, the living tensions.)
Trying to complete the puzzle of Freudian theory, I availed myself of some simple mathematical functions. A function, in mathematics, is when the semantic dimension of a term varies proportionally to the variations of the semantic dimension of the term connected to the former. A functional concept is not absolute identity, but a variable: something that varies insofar as the complementary variable varies. In Latin Europe many prefer structural descriptions to developmental or historical ones. Reconstructions of childhood, in which human beings shift step by step from one position to another, give consistency to the strange Freudian conception of mind. Genetic descriptions are like narratives, myths; they hide the logical riddles of theory behind a charming story of stages. According to the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss,(6) myths and tales, like mathematical structures, try to solve contradictions. But myths and developmental explanations obscure in a narrative of origins problems which can be faced in naked, mathematical form. History and myth dress nude mathematical forms in seductive clothing. In Europe, some of us prefer nudity.

In “Zur Einführung des Narzissmus,” Freud played with three major concepts: Ich (I translate it as I, not as Ego or Self), Ideal (Ideal) and Objekt (Object). When Freud uses these concepts, my impression is that each term is meaningful in relation to the other two. Therefore, he was talking about functions (fig. 1)

I have written to Ideal and Object their equivalents in the Lacanian vocabulary: Other (with a big O) occupies the place of the Freudian I-Ideal; other (with a small o) occupies the place of the Freudian object (and Lacan himself generally calls it objet a, “small-other object”).

By I-Libido, Freud means a mental relation between I and my Ideal. The richer my ideal is, the poorer my I is, and vice versa.

In Freud’s conception there is an ambiguity about Ich, the “I”: this is at the same time the whole, the subject and part of it. Even before having drawn the second topography (the Ego/Super-ego/Es triad), Freud’s “I” is a set of instances and, at the same time, one of these instances. The elaboration, in English-speaking psychoanalysis, of the concept of Self is one way of resolving this ambiguity. But we have to respect it if we are to truly understand Freud.

Conversely, by Object-Libido Freud means a functional relation between “I” and my Objects. But of course there is also a relation between my Ideal and my Object.: the more my object is idealized, the less it is an object. The more my ideal is objecticized, the less it is an ideal. The arrows going in both directions indicate that the relation is always reciprocal and contrary: that is why I-Libido can mean “I-Libido myself,” but also “My Self libidos me.” And also, Object-libido can mean both “I love it” and “It loves me.” What is puzzling in Freud’s paper is that he apparently placed narcissism in the I-libido space, in the relations between I and Ideal. But elsewhere he defines narcissism as not specific to the I libido, defining it as the passive mode of Libido, even of Object-Libido. Narcissism is just “Ideal loves me” and “It loves me,” it is always when “I” am/ is in a passive position, as my-Self. Indeed, in English we never say “I-self loves me”, but always “I love myself.” The “self” is never in the “I” position. It is always a reflection, an image, of I.

I express the active relation both of objectal desire and of idealization in my diagram with two vectors going from left to right. That is because in Freud the “I” is the source both of desire and of the idealizing force. As the source of Object-libido I am essentially an erotogenic body: excited organs, a male erection or a female vaginal secretion, mouth, anus, muscles. As the source of the I-libido I am just… eye. (7) The “I” of the I-libido is essentially vision and thinking about Ideals, mental eye or spiritual body. Are we sure that these two “I”s coincide? Freud sometimes takes for granted that the “I” desiring his mother’s breast, to touch and to caress, and the “I” realizing that he is loved by this breast are the same. But can we be so sure? Sometimes the two “I”s can reveal themselves as different, or as opposed. There is some gap here.
In passive relations-expressed in my diagram by arrows going from right to left-“I” occupies the place of the object. Here I give space completely to the ambiguity of the Freudian concept of Ich-besetzung, “Ego-cathexis,” or better, “I-investment.” In this case there is a swinging back and forth from the objective sense (“I am invested by drives”) to the subjective sense (“I invest objects with my drives”). This ambiguity in Freud is essential because, in narcissism, we always have a shifting, a switching, from passive to active, from subjective to objective senses of investments.

I want to stress here (fig. 2) the relations-or overlappings-between Object and Ideal (when I-libido and Object-Libido overlap each other), exploiting a distinction used by Lacan. He noticed that Freud often writes Ich-Ideal (in my reformed terminology: I-Ideal), yet sometimes he writes Idealich (Ideal I). Is this just a rhetoric difference, or is there a deep conceptual distinction? Lacan believed that Freud meant to distinguish between two different concepts. For example, dreaming of a Rolls Royce is dreaming of an ideal car. But as an engineer designing a car, I follow a model of a car, something that no real car can be; I am thinking about the ideal of a car. Freud’s I-Ideal refers to the pure ideal of oneself, in our example, to an ideal of a car. He uses “ideal I” to pint out an idealized object, something half way between the pure object and the pure ideal. In this case, “ideal I” is a borderline, designating a border between I-Libido and Object-Libido, a point where Ideal and object fuse.

Freud interprets manic states in terms close to this “ideal I.” In mania, the subject “I,” is described as very rich, not leaning towards the inside but very extroverted towards the outside, towards a point where external objects and self-idealizations touch. Melancholia, described as the opposite of mania on the same axis, coincides with a poor “I”: I am overwhelmed by my Ideal and by my Object simultaneously, because here again Ideal and Object coalesce. “Thus [in melancholia], according to Freud, the shadow of the [idealized] object fell upon the ‘I’.” (8) When Kohut distinguishes between the idealizing object and the mirror object, he approaches this distinction between I-Ideal and ideal I.
What happens when objects and ideals overlap (vertical axis in the diagram)? For Freud, the movement of objects towards ideals is very different from the movement of ideals towards objects: these two movements produce two different phenomena. When the object is put in an idealized position, we have something Freud describes in Group Psychology and Analysis of Ego as the leader syndrome. I prefer to translate the German Mass into the English crowd rather than group. According to Freud, we have a structured crowd when an external object-the rising leader-replaces “my” libidinal object and is placed in the position of “my” I-Ideal.

Freud’s figure (fig. 3) characterizing this dynamic is similar to my diagram: (9)

IN THIS FIGURE Freud also represents an external object, while in mine only the libidinal object appears, because only this kind of object can be functional, that is, can be described in relation to all the other functions. I should add that when Freud described crowds in this way, he included “a crowd of two persons”-hypnosis. Any psychoanalyst always ethically balances between a “crowd of two persons” and something else. Psychoanalysis is challenged to create a social link similar to the crowd, to being in love, and to mania, but essentially different from them all.

Crowds and hypnosis (as public loves) are just the opposite of what he calls “being in love” (private love). In the former case, the Ideal is pushed towards the desired object: in the leader-organized crowd an ideal is objectified. In love between a man and a woman, or between two men or two women, an object is idealized. “Being in love,” writes Freud, “consists in a flowing-over of I-Libido on to the object (…) It exalts the sexual object into a sexual ideal. Since being in love either of an object type or of an attachment type [Anlehnungstypus: sustentative type, or supporting type] occurs on the ground of the fulfillment of infantile conditions for loving, we may say that whatever fulfills that condition is idealized (…). The object which possesses the excellence which the ‘I’ lacks for making its Ideal, is loved.” (10)

Crowds, whether church, army or hypnosis on the one hand, or the idealized love between two sexual partners on the other, occupy the same axis but are inverted, as in a mirror: when I, as part of the American crowd, love the President, I make my ideal poorer, identifying it with a “strong and wise” man; I let the object invade my I-ideal. But when I love my woman, away from the rowdy crowd, in our sweet home, she is idealized, and no longer just a female sexual partner; her objectness is overwhelmed by my idealization. That is why, in this idealized love, the loved object as object has to be lost or erased: Dante could never have sex with Beatrice. She had to die young.


To better understand my diagram, I replace (fig. 4) these purely theoretical terms with well known heroes and heroines. In real life, except in psychosis, we meet modest proportions of relations between I, Ideal and objects. Literature and philosophy provide us with clear-cut extreme cases.

Don Juan , a product of 17th century Catholic theater, embodies the pure limits of active objectal libido: “I am all libido towards objects (women), but they are never my ideal; I count them merely as conquered objects.” In Donjuanism, stylized by Tirso de Molina, Molière and Mozart, we see an asymmetric expansion of the I as absolute objectal libido, which reduces all women-young or old, rich or poor, beautiful or ugly-to just “1003 objects.”11(11) Don Juan represents the blind innocence of a pure libidinal I. But it is a terrible innocence, because the I-Ideal enters this libidinal orgy in the terrifying figure of the “Stone Guest,” the statue that eventually kills Don Juan. This theater introduces the I-Ideal at its most anti-subjective as a ghost, a machine outside a living libidinal relation.

The inverted relation-where “I,” in a passive position, is desired by objects-has also been represented theatrically, as in Franz Wedekind’s cynical and beautiful Lulu.(12) Lulu is the “fatal woman,” even though somehow she has no “I”-Don Juan has too much “I,” Lulu none. She is only loved, by men or by women, she does not love. It is not coincidental that her lovers are generally artists, theater or entertainment people-in short, image makers. Lulu is their artifact, their pure “love image.” Note that Lulu essentially seduces through her own portrait. She is the semblance, her lovers’ chimera, a mystery for others because her essence is only to be loved by them.

If we jump from object-libido to the relation between I and Ideal, we meet incarnations of a pure I-libido at the boundaries of mystical experience. Don Juan and Lulu are representatives of object-libido without a shadow of an idealization; there are also representatives of pure I-libido without a shadow of an object. In these extreme cases, we find instead of the I-Ideal the typical metaphor of every supreme idealization: God. But the mystic’s “normal” relation with the supreme I-Ideal, God, is generally personalized, because God met by the mystic is always in some way objectified. He becomes the personal “god of Abraham and Isaac,” or Christ, “God become man.” God in monotheistic religions is the supreme leader of crowds, an ideal of crowded churches, which implies that he is an Object.

In Schreber’s mystical delirium,(13) we find the pure incarnation of a subject, “I,” completely overwhelmed by its ideal, by its lustful and perverse god. Schreber’s “I” is reduced to being the girlfriend of this extremely intrusive god, or better still, to being God’s whore. Schreber’s paranoia displays an extreme possibility: “I” is completely and passively invested by its ideal, which now takes the uncanny form of a ruthless god. This omnipotent Ideal absorbs object-libido.

The opposite of Schreber’s experience is that described by Nietzsche, who was himself not far from psychosis. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Zarathustra, prophet of Super-Man [better: Beyond-Man], is a subject, an “I,” who has taken God’s place: he has killed God, every I-Ideal, and has placed himself as his own Ideal. This is the extreme prophecy of a radical revolt of human subjectivity against any theological idealization. Zarathustra idealizes this killing of the Super-Ego, and the divinization of man.

On the middle line-what I call the thymic line (from thymos, mood) dividing I-libido from Object-Libido, the line going from melancholia to mania-we find two poles, described by myth of Narcissus and Echo. Narcissus embodies the “ideal I” position, the fragile point where Ideal and objects are equidistant from the “I,” where idealization and objectalization are in unstable equilibrium. At the opposite end we find Echo, the nymph who loves Narcissus but who cannot be loved in return because she is just… Narcissus’ echo. She represents subjective annihilation, when the lover is reduced to being the fading shadow of the loved one. The eternal shy spinster, rejected at the same time by the Ideal and by any male partner.

Along this same line between the disappearing nymph Echo and the over-appearing Narcissus we can place the contrasting heroes created by Goethe. At the melancholic end of this continuum, the sad and suicidal Werther, and at the manic end the triumph of the super-human Faust, who transcends the laws of gods and men. Generally in Goethe’s world we find the poetic incarnations of a kind of subjectivity balanced between idealization and crude libidinal drives.

When the I-Ideal moves towards objects, towards these “minor” lovable objects which are women and men, we find the famous loving couples of Western literature. On this line I have placed a couple of well-known to Italians: Dante and Beatrice. Beatrice was to Dante the shadow of the I-Ideal falling on his object: as symbolizing theology (in La Divina Commedia), Beatrice drives Dante towards God, the ideal Other.

On the other hand, we find the typical group mechanism in the psychoanalytic crowd-that is, in psychoanalytic institutions and schools. Here I refer to the lethal relation (lethal according to Roazen’s reconstruction) between Freud and his clever disciple Tausk-because the disciple committed suicide. (14) In idealized sexual love, the beloved object must die, and in the objectified ideal love for the Master, often it is the follower, the pupil, who must die. Here we touch upon a striking reversal: every institution tends to resemble an army in which the generals survive and the followers die, and every sublime love tends towards mourning, where the lover survives and the beloved remains just a memory.


I hope my literary references will be of help in negotiating the labyrinth of Freudian theory. However, I confess that, after having worked through my graph, I realize it is inadequate, a failure.

I am aware of trying your patience by rejecting the very schema for which I asked your attention. But I reject it because… it is too clever. Freudian narcissism escapes the net I threw to impose a rational order. Narcissism is everywhere and yet nowhere in my graphs. It is everywhere insofar as my diagram is a picture of the Self, and we picture ourselves always in a narcissistic position. It is nowhere because the diagram fails to set down the narcissistic mode or structure in a limited place. Narcissism circulates through every relation inside the self, it cannot be locked into a single place. Perhaps the awareness of my failure is also my success-or Freud’s success.

Freud is unable to circumscribe his concept of narcissism with his basic concepts of I, Ideal and object, because in his theory there is more than one meaning of narcissism: 1) narcissism as the field of I-libido, a space clearly distinct from Object-libido (this is essentially the meaning accepted by Kohut,(15) for example; 2) narcissism as the modality of a passive relation where “I” is the passive object, either of the Ideal or of the object; 3) narcissism as a mirroring experience (as accepted by Lacan in his theory of the mirror stage and imaginary register). My model shows indirectly that these meanings do not coincide. There is a conceptual fluctuation in Freud’s theory. His theory is neither round, complete nor self-sufficient, but this is not a good reason to reject his theory out of hand; all major Freudian concepts are fluctuating and inconsistent. To go one step further, let us shift from functional reconstruction to the deconstruction of Freud’s ideas.


Freud’s focal thought-the generative axiom of his system, the assumption ruling his entire theory of subjectivity-concerns what he has called Lust: the fact that human beings are ruled by something he called Lustprinzip, the Princ(ipl)e-why not prince?-of Lust. The German Lust is generally translated as “pleasure”, not English “lust,” with Lustprinzip translated as “pleasure principle”-but that is not a faithful translation. As Bruno Bettelheim stressed, (16) English translations of Freud’s texts are often misleading.

Those English words most charged with meaningful echoes often have German roots (the four-letter words, for example), and conversely, words with Latin roots are intellectual, slightly hypocritical and lacking deep feeling. The standard English edition of the works of Freud systematically gives priority to the Latin-based words, and thus betrays the meaningful and concrete grounds of Freudian concepts. Es, for example, is translated with the erudite Id, and not with the more eloquent That or It. I prefer the English four-letter word lust, because German Lust is ambiguous: it means “pleasure,” or, as Lacan put it, jouissance, but also “drive,” “desire,” “wish.” This ambiguity is fundamental, because desire and pleasure are opposites: desire for Freud is unpleasure. The German word Lust is, in itself, dialectical and puzzling. All ambiguity of psychoanalytic theory derives from this initial generative ambiguity, which I call the “Lust principle.”

Upon closer examination, there is a key to all major Freudian theories-the interpretation of all significant human productions as the work of this principle, this Prince, of Lust. Lust is for Freud the truth of human beings, a truth which can assume different faces: libido, drives, instincts, Es. The unconscious is the place where the naked countenance of Lust can freely display its power.

According to Freud’s metaphysics, human beings are not programmed by God or Nature to learn from experience-they are ruled, essentially and profoundly, by the Lust princ(ipl)e. For Freud, there is only one way to have access to reality: to take external things as the objects of hatred and love. Freud uses the German word Objekt, not Gegenstand, which can also be translated as “object.” Gegenstand means literally “to stand against (the subject)”; it is the object of knowledge. On the contrary, Objekt, from the Latin word ob-jectum, etymologically means “thrown out.” In fact, for Freud, human beings deal essentially not with things but with their own objects which are basically pieces of food, or breasts, spit out by a disgusted child. That is why Freud wrote that “at the very beginning (…) the external world, objects, what is hated are identical.” (17) Later we have to make the effort to get back in touch with the external world, to reintroject this “shit” we have rejected. We must succeed in forgiving the world for being precisely what it is, which is, as from the Christian point of view, garbage for the spirit.

For Freud, all this means that to love an object is never to love just a thing or a person: we perceive the real thing just as we perceive the light at the end of the tunnel of our desire-through our libido-objects. When we love an “ob-ject,” in Freudian terms, we put back into ourselves something “ab-ject,” which we previously re-jected.

I am not forcing Freud’s theory into the darkness of pure philosophical speculation. The split between objects-for-me and things-in-themselves is a concrete problem-not only for metaphysicians, but for ordinary human beings as well. How often has a woman said to her lover: “But what is it you love in me? Who is it you’re loving when you’re making love to me? When you say you love me, is it just me?” This pathetic question is also one of the most Freudian.: we have the uneasy, sad feeling that even love cannot miraculously make the real thing and our self-object coincide, which is why we often make the real person who is the object of our love suffer. Even in a successful love relation we are unable to overcome the narcissistic nature of our relation with the world and with our beloved. According to Freud, we live continuously in a narcissistic dream: our world is always that of our objects.

The essence of psychoanalysis is the idea of a gap, a difference, between whom we love or hate and what we love or hate. The art of psychoanalytic interpretation lies in this disconnection between whom and what. When Freud writes that “(the melancholic) knows whom he has lost, but not what it is he has lost in them,”(18) he touches on that gap wherein all psychoanalytic action resides. I do not think a psychoanalyst’s real aim consists of saying what is who, the real object, because “what” cannot be represented as such. “What” is a value, a rule an interpretation, not somebody or something. As we shall see, narcissism is probably the attempt to love or hate the real object-what has really been loved-but it is an attempt which inevitably fails.

The very Freudian mess is that, beyond all this, our self is always alienated: we have access trough love and hate to our self, because this self was already the object of the Other (primarily our mother) who either accepted it as part of itself or rejected it. Our world is a narcissistic dream, but this dream we live in is the dream of an Other. The skill of psychoanalytic interpretation lies in showing a subject this other (or Other’s) dream, that one in which he is not aware of living.


When we talk about the “I”-or Self, to use the English word-there exists a parallel doubt: are we talking about the Self in itself, or about its representations? About what I am, or about what I see of my-self?

Perhaps the Self is the set of its representations, but this does not solve the problem, because we could then ask whether this Self, being the set of its representations, is still a representation for the Self. This comes dangerously close to Bertrand Russell’s famous paradox about sets of all sets containing or not containing themselves as members of themselves.

The “Latin” solution is to always consider the Self as its own representation, its Ideal. And who is this subject to have itself as its own representation? Nobody. In Romance psychoanalysis it is impossible to go back to the first, real, original, basic Self. No subjective truth can consolidate a psychoanalytic truth, because for Latins a psychoanalyst always deals with representations, not selves.

For a Latin psychoanalyst, being a self means that one has Ideals, and that my Self is my own Ideal. When I attempt to idealize myself, the result is that I idealize somebody else; and when I idealize another, I am always idealizing myself. There is never any ground, any consistency, to narcissistic interpretations.

This ambiguity is the theoretical image of the analytic practice, which theories too often try to beautify rather than describe. When an analysand says, “This is myself” (read: “It is impossible to change anything in myself”), the analyst will probably reply, “This is not your-self, this is your Ideal.” But when an analysand, talking about an unhappy love affair, says, “He is my Ideal,” the smart analyst will say: “No, it is the other’s self.”


Wherein lies the real difference between the Latin and American approach to the narcissistic riddle?
When an American friend of mine goes to an Italian restaurant, he doesn’t ask for pasta, but for carbohydrates. We Europeans laugh at this because it plays on a widespread bias in Europe about Americans, to the effect: “We enjoy pasta, but American eat carbohydrates just to survive, they don’t know jouissance.” In fact there is no English equivalent to the French word jouissance (the Italian godimento, or Spanish gozar); it is neither pleasure , nor enjoyment, nor orgasm.
“American narcissism” has much in common with carbohydrates: the subject of American theory is the self as a mental body to be taken care of, and not as a manifestation of Lust. The American approach to narcissism is inseparable from the idea of Self as the mental equivalent of a personal body. This “American” Self-unlike Freud’s machine with which to achieve pleasure-is something to be kept in good working order, a tool for achievement.

Take psychoanalytic studies on depression, which always involve some assumptions about narcissism. Reduced to its core, Freud’s theory of melancholia is clear. “In spite of the fact that a melancholic seems to refute my Lust-principle, I maintain that melancholy is a jouissance: it is the lust of complaining, of attacking an object in herself/himself-a lust so great that the melancholic is ready to sacrifice life and limb, committing suicide for it.”

I do not believe American melancholics are so different from their Austrian counterparts (though melancholics are certainly also influenced by the psychiatry of their own country). However, American psychoanalysts shifted their interest to self-esteem, and then to “hopelessness,” “despair,” “helplessness,” and so on. In America, depression became more and more a reaction against the failures of life-failures to live up to what is essential in life according to American “philosophy”: to achieve, to overcome difficulties, to be positive.

The result of this American ethic is that the analyst tries to render the patient’s self more fit for his tasks, as a mental organism. The analytic process is conceived as a second childhood, a process of maturation, of growing-up. Many American analysts’ stress on empathy shows their reliance on parental tools and feelings. This is not the ethic of Latin psychoanalysis, because a Latin psychoanalyst does not see himself as a second-chance parent. For him, the analyst is not the ally of the instinct of self-preservation, but the ally of desire. He believes in acquainting the subject with his own Lust, but not because he thinks it possible to improve or change it. The Latin psychoanalyst is disenchanted with the possibility of changing people’s unconscious. Of course, this recognition of one’s own Lust will often eliminate neurotic symptoms for which the subject had sought a cure: symptoms disappear not as the result of maturation, but because they were a rebellion of the subject against his own desire or lust. Neurosis is a lack of resignation, a refusal to acknowledge that our own Lust is not ruled by ourselves, but is always the Other’s Lust. The end of a cure, in the Latin sense, is submission to the law of Lust, because the law is never the law of my lust. This is closer to what is called Freudian pessimism. Freud was a pessimist, because he believed we are the product of our parents’ desire, and there is no adult desire fit to be our own. We can occasionally choose whom to love, but not what to love.

Why all this stress in the US on Ego, Self, and narcissistic syndromes? I explain to my proud European colleagues, who have a certain mistrust of American psychoanalysis, that what is at play between supporters of Ego-psychology or Self-psychology is something deeply rooted in English-speaking cultures. Self is a four-letter word with German roots, and ego is not. In this sense, the advent of Self-psychology was a resurgence of a repressed side in American theory. Thinking in terms of Self, rather than Ego or Objects, was an interesting attempt to Americanize psychoanalysis, to restore common speech and culturally-shared assumptions.(19)

Kohut bases his whole theory about narcissistic patients on a particular kind of transference. As widespread drug abuse was necessary to have a psychiatric category for addiction, so was psychoanalytic treatment a precondition to defining a narcissistic personality. Kohut, however, forgets his starting point-that narcissism describes a particular type of transference – when he talks about the narcissistic personality as an objective psychological feature, completely independent from psychoanalytic ethics and technique. This shifting might seem unimportant, but it is actually of capital importance for Latin psychoanalysis. Transference is a particular subjective relation, somewhere between sexual love and crowd-psychology. American psychoanalysts call a narcissist that type of patient who establishes a psychological crowd link with the analyst, and nothing more. This could mean that narcissism describes a culturally induced kind of subjectivity, a new way in which modern subjects secularize Ideals, sex objects, and knowledge, a culture in which people believe less and less in psychoanalysis.


Why, in both America and Europe, have narcissistic patients become the most typical? A Catholic priest, well read in psychoanalytic literature, told a psychoanalyst friend of mine that the latter lacked religious convictions because he was narcissistic. I would agree with him if I were Kohutian. The priest was right in thinking that a lack of faith is a narcissistic feature. We can depict a narcissist essentially as someone who no longer believes in anything. (If someone were to say, “I believe in Marxism” or “I love my wife,” and to add, “… because Marxism is my personal irrational passion” or “…because in my wife I found the features of my beloved little sister,” we might think that he “believed,” we might think that he “believed” in Marxism or “loved” a woman… between quotes. As Kohut and others demonstrated, the narcissist “believes” only in his self: he believes and loves as everybody else but “between quotes.” Only because our man talks like a psychoanalyst about his beliefs and loves, do we suspect he is narcissistic ; and that he neither loves Marxism nor believes in his wife.) A narcissist does not believe in speech, and for this reason challenges psychoanalysis, which is based on the power of speech. This is why Freud relates narcissism to the “ideal I” and to mirrors: where faith in speech has been eliminate, only images remain. When it is no longer possible to believe in what the Other says, all that is left is to believe in what others see of us.

This priest was wrong, though, when he said my friend’s lack of faith in the Christian God was linked to his own personality. He does not believe in religion simply because he belongs to a society in which faith is no longer idealized. In our culture, we are allowed to believe only in what is superficial, in what can be seen, as on television-God cannot be shown, and therefore is not worthy of belief. Our culture has a narcissistic ideal, not my friend’s self. The priest believed that he did not believe because he was a narcissist: on the contrary, he can be a narcissist because he can no longer believe in religion.

In other words, the average patient today is the product of democratic, secularized, anti-dogmatic social ideals. Each of us has to find in himself the rule of law not only of his behavior, but also of his wishes and lust. This is tantamount to saying that our culture declares “Find in your-self the rule of your wishes and your pleasures.” But this is a paradoxical ideal which is difficult to sustain, because assuming my own image as my ideal is ultimately not my rule, but a cultural one. Following “my” ideal is to obey the other’s ideal. This is a diabolical paradox. Essentially, a person with a narcissistic disorder has a self-esteem which depends strongly on others’ opinions: freed from the Other, he falls prisoner of others. For this reason “personality disorders” are on the increase: it is impossible to live up to this demanding narcissistic ideal. Consequently, we find narcissistic disorders in people who are insufficiently narcissistic, who are unable to sustain the highly narcissistic ideal of our time.


In T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, is visited by three tempters: the first is the sensual, pleasure-loving man; the second is the man who loves political power; the third is the man who wishes to use the power of the church in a secular way. There comes also a fourth, unexpected tempter, who does not advise Becket, but instead praises him for his heroic resistance to temptations. “I always precede expectation,” (20) says the fourth tempter. “Who are you,” asks Becket, “tempting with my own desires? (…) What do you offer?” And the fourth tempter responds: “I offer what you desire. I ask what you have to give.”(21) In other words, he offers pride-the worst of all temptations, because it is a mirror of the subject himself. Narcissism, in the Freudian sense, is like the fourth tempter. The pride of being somebody is narcissistic because it is an idealizing mirror of whatever the subject is doing, even if he is behaving in the least narcissistic way, for example lie a martyr. Narcissism-the unexpected tempter-comes at a moment of interval, when a subject abruptly finds himself watching himself as though he were a show. Pathological narcissism, according to Freud, is not linked to a failure of the grandiose Self, because the Self is always grandiose. The fourth tempter tells the martyr that he is grandiose-thus giving him a Self. Winnicott distinguished between a false Self and a true Self: but for Latin psychoanalysis only Es, That, is always true; Self is always false. My discomfort upon reading “On Narcissism: An Introduction” was due to Freud’s referring to narcissism as coming from a subject. It later became clear, however, that Freudian narcissism comes from another: the one placing a mirror before us. Narcissism is that unexpected moment when the last tempter appears-when a subject is seduced by the glamour of his qualities or actions, as though they belonged to someone else. That is why Freud considered narcissism as always passive (feminine, as he suggested in his misogynist way). Becket has to overcome that moment of weakness when he is being observed and praised by himself: when he becomes a personality, a religious VIP. “Narcissistic personality” is a strange term, because a personality can only be narcissistic.

Freud says that narcissists are seduced by some beautiful women, happy children, and cats, but what do these all have in common? Is the narcissist the seducer or the seduced? It is difficult to answer, because narcissism implies a mazed splitting between subject and object, lover and beloved. Some nice girls, children and cats, like some very seductive narcissists, appear uninterested in seducing us, and therein lies their charm-they make no effort, they seem satisfied in just being themselves. But by not showing their desire for us they put themselves on show, they become “selves.” They “are” narcissistic, not because they “have” a narcissistic personality, but because they are objects of love. When we shift from the godlike position of being loved, to the uneasy position of loving to be loved, narcissism fails, and we talk of pathology. In this sense, real narcissism is always a relation-unlike the transferential one-rather than a personality: narcissism exists when I am seduced by the other as my reflection, my ideal image.


Christians consider pride an attempt to love not a valuable thing, but the value itself: a subject’s attempt to make coherent his desire by making this desire the object of his love. For example, a proud king is he who loves his royalty, and not his subjects. Becket is tempted by pride, that is to love the value itself: to make the love (the value) his own object of love. And pride is narcissism because here the proud subject loves his subjectivity, and not true objects.

Narcissists make an effort to love what is essential-the value itself of life. But we cannot love real love itself, we cannot give value to value itself. Narcissism-the fourth and worst tempter-as the same passion for coherence as does theory. The narcissist wants to love what gives value to love: his satisfaction. But this is impossible. Of course, we can be more or less selfish, but the paradox is that the only real way to love ourselves is to love others. If we seriously accept the task of loving ourselves just because ourselves give value to our lovable objects, we will be depressed and unhappy, as Freud pointed out. Melancholy is the only consistent way of loving ourselves, of loving value itself. But in loving only ourselves, we will find we are hating ourselves.


* Text of a lecture held at the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis (NPAP) in New York on December 6, 1991. Special thanks to Raymond Barglow, Jules Freemond , Sarina Meones and Claudia Vaughn, for their suggestions, as well as to Michael Eigen for having sponsored the lecture.

1. “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” S.E., Vol XIV, (1914), PP. 67-102.
2. A Psychoanlytic Dialogue. The Letters of S. Freud and K. Abraham (1907-1926) (London: The Hogarth Press, 1965), p. 167.
3. Ibid., pp. 170-171
4. I prefer the term Latin, and not European, analysts. Those trained in Frenche Freudianism are often arrogant enough to cal themselves “European Analysts.” Nonetheless, French Freudianism is influential in Romance language speaking countries, including South America.
5. S.E., Vol. VII, p.145, note 1.
6. See Claude Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (New York: Anchor Books, 1967); Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropology and Myth: Lectures 1951-82 (Oxford and New York: Blackwell, 1987).
7. Forgive me this pun taken from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet: “Hath Romeo slain himself? Say thou but ‘I,’ and that bare vowel ‘I’ shall poison more than the death-darting eye of cockatrice: I am non I, if there be such an I; Or those eyes shut that makes thee answer ‘I'” (Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene 2).
8. See Sigmund Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” S.E., Vol. XIV, p. 249 (Collected Papers, 4, p. 159) (“thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego”).
9. Sigmund Freud, “Group Psychology and Analysis of Ego,” S.E. Vol. XVIII, p. 116.
10. My modified English translation. See Freud, “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” op. cit., pp. 100-01.
11. “Ma in Spagna… in Spagna son mille e tre.” Never to find an ideal, Mozart’s Don Giovanni must make love with no less than a thousand and three women in Spain alone.
12. In Pandora’s Box and Earth Spirit (Franz Wedekind, Tthe Lulu Plays & Other Sex Tragedies [London: J. Calder, 1981]); also set to music by Alban Berg and made into a film by George Wilhelm Pabst.
13. See Daniel P. Schreber, Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (London: W. Dawson, 1955). About the Schreber Case, see Zvi Lothane, In Defense of Schreber. Soul Murder and Psychiatry (Hillsdale, NY: Analytic Press, 1992), reviewed in this issue.
14. Read the account of this relation in Paul Roazen, Brother Animal. The Story of Freud and Tausk (New York: Knopf, 1969).
15. Heinz Kohut Analysis of the Self (New York: International University Press, 1971); Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self (New York: International University Press, 1977).
16. Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Knopf, 1982).
17. Freud, S.E., Vol. XIV, p. 136.
18. Freud, “Mourning and Melancholia,” op. cit, p. 244 (Collected Papers, 4, p. 155).
19. To Americanize does not exclude a too literal faithfulness to Freud. Many post-Freudians are too entangled in Freud’s theoretical net. They propose what may seem to be alternatives to the Freudian paradigm, but these alternatives are literally taken from it. For example, Kohut stresses the I-libido field as opposed to the Object-libido field. He believes that his insistence on the former lis completely outside the Freudian paradigm, but in fact, it is completely inscribed in it and its prejudices. This is the usual destiny of followers who try to surpass their masters: they end up emphasiing one side of the master’s coin, and in so doing, believe they offer a different coin. It is difficult for followers to be truly unfaithful. To deconstruct the thought of the master is a hard challenge.
20. Thomas S. Eliot, Murder in the Cathedral, (London, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1965), line 480.
21. Ibid., lines 574-78.

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