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Freud's "On Narcissism

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On Narcissism: An Introduction is a densely packed essay dealing with ideas that are still being debated today - from the role of narcissism in normal and pathological development and the relationship of narcissism to homosexuality, libido, romantic love, and self-esteem to issues of therapeutic intervention. The contributors place the work in the context of Freud's evolving thinking, point out its innovations, review its problematic aspects, and examine how its theoretical concepts have been elaborated more recently by analysts of diverse theoretic persuasions. In addition, they use Freud's text to chart new developments in psychoanalysis and point toward still unresolved problems. An introduction by Joseph Sandler, Ethel Spector Person, and Peter Fonagy provides a succinct overview of the material.Contributors: Willy Baranger, David Bell, R. Horacio Etchegoyen, Peter Fonagy, Leon Grinberg, Bela Grunberger, Heinz Henseler, Otto F. Kernberg, Paul H. Ornstein, Ethel Spector Person, Joseph Sandler, Hanna Segal, Nikolaus Treurniet, Clifford Yorke

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PART ONE ON NARCISSISM: AN INTRODUCTION (1914)

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PART ONE

On Narcissism:
An Introduction (1914)

SIGMUND FREUD

ON NARCISSISM: AN INTRODUCTION

I

THE term narcissism is derived from clinical description and was chosen by Paul Nacke1 in 1899 to denote the attitude of a person who treats his own body in the same way in which the body of a sexual object is ordinarily treated—who looks at it, that is to say, strokes it and fondles it till he obtains complete satisfaction through these activities. Developed to this degree, narcissism has the significance of a perversion that has absorbed the whole of the subject’s sexual life, and it will consequently exhibit the characteristics which we expect to meet with in the study of all perversions.

Psycho-analytic observers were subsequently struck by the fact that individual features of the narcissistic attitude are found in many people who suffer from other disorders—for instance, as Sadger has pointed out, in homosexuals—and finally it seemed probable that an allocation of the libido such as deserved to be described as narcissism might be present far more extensively, and that it might claim a place in the regular course of human sexual development.2 Difficulties in psycho-analytic work upon neurotics led to the same supposition, for it seemed as though this kind of narcissistic attitude in them constituted one of the limits to their susceptibility to influence. Narcissism in this sense would not be a perversion, but the libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation, a measure of which may justifiably be attributed to every living creature.

 

Freud’s “On Narcissism”: A Teaching Text

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CLIFFORD YORKE

Anyone coming to Freud’s paper “On Narcissism” for the first time may find the going rough. For one thing, there is the sheer profusion of ideas, so densely packed as to make heavy demands on the reader. And the subject matter itself is not easy; there are many conceptual problems in the issues under discussion. It is difficult to be a student these days without realizing that a great deal of controversy surrounds the concepts of “narcissism,” “the self,” and “self-esteem.” These subjects bristle with complexities. This fact in itself may be a very good reason for going back to the first psychoanalytic attempts to grapple with some of them. It will probably come as no surprise to learn from Strachey’s introduction that Freud found the paper difficult to write and that he said in a letter to Abraham: “The ‘Narcissism’ had a difficult labor and bears all the marks of a corresponding deformation.”

For all that, it is easy to feel very involved in Freud’s explorations. As always with his developing ideas, it is helpful to relate any particular formulation to those that have gone before and to keep an eye on those that lie ahead. In reading the paper on narcissism, for example, you may find it useful to keep in mind that it already has the makings of a tripartite model of the mind, even if there is still a long way to go before the formulations of The Ego and the Id, which clarified so many problems and set up a major landmark. Here, for example, we are already dealing with an important development in the theory of the instinctual drives, with the “ego,” and with an internal self-observing agency that anticipates a more fully developed concept of the superego; and we are concerned with the relations of these agencies both to one another and to the outside world.

 

“On Narcissism: An Introduction”: Text and Context

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R. HORACIO ETCHECOYEN

“On Narcissism: An Introduction,” has always been regarded as one of the basic writings in the corpus of psychoanalytic theory, because Freud here deals with a number of important and complex problems. Many of these problems remain as valid as when the work was written, whereas others are no longer so relevant; however, I would venture to assert that the proposition of a primary narcissism as the starting point of psychic life is at the root of the fundamental controversies of psychoanalysis today. To understand Freud’s paper, a thorough and attentive reading is essential; one might even say that it should be read word by word. At the same time, it must be placed in its historical context, and due account must be taken not only of its theoretical determinants but also of the demands of the contemporary situation it was designed to satisfy. For this purpose, we must address ourselves to the major figures of that time, when the psychoanalytic establishment was forming and this newly created structure was in the process of breaking up through the defection of two important protagonists, Adler and Jung. This task must be performed as objectively and dispassionately as possible, and we must, of course, never forget that we, too, are a part of this history and that our judgments are delivered from the position we necessarily occupy—a position that is not only theoretical but also affective and political.

 

Introduction to “On Narcissism”

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NIKOLAAS TREURNIET

INTRODUCTION TO AN INTRODUCTION

It is difficult to understand Freud’s work without some idea of the scientific concepts on which he based his models. The physiologist Helmholtz had discovered that the laws of the conservation of energy apply to living organisms as well as to inorganic matter. Freud adopted Fechner’s constancy principle as a physiological analogue to Helmholtz’s discovery that the psychic apparatus tends to keep the quantity of excitation at the lowest possible level. The principle of constancy called for the discharge of quantities of energy if they became too large, as in the case of accumulated or “dammed-up” excitation from the outside (first phase) or the inside (second phase). Affects and impulses were conceived of as moving in a system of communicating vessels, a theory of affective and libidinal hydraulics.

Biology in the period of Freud’s intellectual development was heavily weighted in favor of “purity” in laboratory experiments, in which the object of investigation was isolated as completely as possible and environmental conditions were assumed to be constant. There was as yet no appreciation of the dynamic relationships between the organism and the environment. Another precondition for understanding the development of Freud’s thinking is acknowledgment of his indifference to the rules of semantics. He used language according to his needs, as an artist uses his materials. Precise use of a term had little meaning for Freud; it was the context that mattered. It is thus essential for those who wish to master the subject to tolerate the ambiguities rather than try to eliminate them.

 

Letter to Sigmund Freud

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LEÓN GRINBERC

Dear Sigmund Freud:

I have been asked to conduct a seminar on the subject of “On Narcissism: An Introduction,” the paper you wrote in 1914.1 realize that it may be presumptuous to invoke you personally for this purpose, but I am experiencing certain difficulties in approaching the task and believe I can make a better job of it if I can engage in a dialogue with you, as the interlocutor who can resolve my doubts, and with whom I can raise objections and offer alternative viewpoints.

My difficulties arise largely because I not only have to communicate concepts that continue to be fundamental to psychoanalytic theory but also feel bound to disagree with some of the considerations you put forward. Conscious of your love of truth and the honesty you have shown throughout your work, however, I shall proceed with these objections as homage to your scientific integrity and creative genius. Since only what could be measured and quantified was regarded as “scientific,” many of your brilliant discoveries had to be forced into a mold in order to conform to the established canons. I assume, too, that your emotional reaction to your disagreements with Jung and Adler influenced your approach to some aspects of your theme.

 

Narcissism in Freud

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WILLY BARANGER

In psychoanalytic theorizing, the concept of narcissism occupies a position similar to that of identification: both led to a profound restructuring of psychoanalytic theory. Identification gave rise to a radically different view of psychic structure when it was discovered that psychic structure stemmed largely from the vicissitudes of the object relation by way of the structuring role of identification. Once introduced, narcissism completely overturned the theory of instincts; the ultimate root of psychological conflict now became situated in the struggle between libido and destructiveness, Eros and Thanatos.

The concept of narcissism has another aspect, however, which is highly relevant to our present subject. The theory of narcissism directly affects the concept of an object and that of psychic agencies (the ego and even the superego). It also raises some extremely complex problems. Only the most scrupulous examination of Freud’s numerous references to narcissism can yield an idea of the multiplicity of meanings he assigned to the term, as well as the labyrinth of inherent theoretical problems. Even the exact sense in which he used the term is not simple. Freud introduced the concept into psychoanalytic theory in 1909 or 1910, but its use gradually increased until it eventually embraced phenomena apparently inconsistent with its original meaning. At the same time, as frequently occurs in the evolution of Freud’s thought, the new concepts coexisted with formulations that they should logically have supplanted. Two questions must therefore be answered prior to any theoretical study: What made it necessary for Freud to introduce the concept of narcissism? What are the major stages in the evolution of this concept?

 

A Contemporary Reading of “On Narcissism”

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OTTO F. KERN BERG

Freud’s extraordinarily rich essay reveals several new developments in his thinking and introduces some of his most fundamental and permanent ideas. He explores narcissism as a phase of psychic development, as a crucial aspect of normal love life, as a central dynamic of several types of psycho-pathology (schizophrenia, perversion, homosexuality, hypochondriasis), in terms of the regulation of self-esteem, as the origin of the ego-ideal, and—by way of the ego-ideal—as an aspect of mass psychology. The only significant subjects related to narcissism that occupy contemporary clinical psychoanalysis not dealt with in his essay are pathological narcissism considered as a specific type or spectrum of character pathology and narcissistic resistances as an important factor in psychoanalytic technique. The theoretical and clinical observations that made these two subjects possible, however, are already implicit in this seminal essay.

In what follows I offer a critical reading of Freud’s essay, focusing on the fate of the ideas it contains, especially on how these ideas have since been supplemented or modified.

 

The Theory of Narcissism in the Work of Freud and Klein

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HANNA SEGAL
&
DAVID BELL

FREUD’S THEORY OF NARCISSISM

Freud’s paper on narcissism marks a watershed in the development of his thought. By 1913 the theoretical model laid out in chapter 7 of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) had been steadily developed and expanded. The paper “On Narcissism,” however, caused a “disagreeable jolt” and “some bewilderment” (Jones, 1958). This paper saw the first revision of Freud’s instinct theory and marked the beginning of a major return to theoretical questions that received their fullest exposition in the “Papers on Metapsychology” (1915). Reading the paper, one has a palpable sense of Freud’s uneasiness with it. He wrote to Abraham, “The narcissism paper was a difficult labour and bears all the marks of a corresponding deformation” (Jones, 1955).

In the first phase of the development of his theory Freud’s principal object was to trace the vicissitudes of the libido through an examination of the perversions. But by the beginning of the next phase, ushered in by the narcissism paper, he was becoming increasingly preoccupied with the functioning of the ego. Only four years before the narcissism paper Freud had coined the term “self-preservative instincts” (1910b).

 

From Narcissism to Ego Psychology to Self Psychology

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PAUL H. ORNSTEIN

By the mid-1960s clinical practice in psychoanalysis had once more forced the issue of narcissism to center stage. This first happened in 1914, when, after several smaller but significant steps, Freud was compelled to introduce narcissism as a broader concept. In so doing he revised his libido theory —then the conceptual foundation of psychoanalysis—and prepared for major clinical and theoretical changes ahead, which gave this work its pivotal importance.

Both the original introduction of the concept and its more recent reemer-gence shook the foundations of psychoanalytic theory and practice, apparently for similar reasons. The new theories, Freud’s own and later Kohut’s, threatened the existing central conflict theory of psychoanalysis (Ornstein, 1983; Wallerstein, 1983). Narcissism thus became embroiled in heated controversy, both historically and more recently. No wonder Gay characterized the 1914 essay as “subversive” of Freud’s own previous theories (Gay, 1988, 338). Subversive it was. According to a careful and incisive study of the literature of that period (1914-22) by May-Tolzmann (1988), it was for this very reason that most analysts of the time reacted to it negatively, with bewilderment and confusion. Few could embrace even some elements enthusiastically, and most disregarded it, not knowing how to integrate these new ideas within the existing conflict theory. We also leam from Jones (1955, 302-06) that he and some of the others around Freud found the essay “disturbing.” Jones’s explanation is worth recounting: “It gave a disagreeable jolt to the theory of instincts on which psychoanalysis had hitherto worked. The observations on which the new conception of narcissism was founded were so unmistakable and easily confirmed that we had to accept it unreservedly, but it was at once plain that something would have to be done about the theory to which we were accustomed” (1955, 303; italics added).

 

Narcissism as a Form of Relationship

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HEINZ HENSELER

INTRODUCTION AND THESIS

The title of Freud’s paper is confusing. Why “Introduction”? We know from Jones that Freud, following a suggestion of Sadger, had introduced the term “narcissism” as early as 1909 at a meeting of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society on November 10. It first appears in writing in 1910 in a note added to the second edition of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, in which Freud states, in connection with homosexuality, “the future inverts, in the earliest years of their childhood, pass through a phase of very intense but short-lived fixation to a woman (usually their mother), and … after leaving this behind, they identify themselves with a woman and take themselves as their sexual object. That is to say, proceeding from a basis of narcissism, they look for a young man who resembles them and whom they may love as their mother loved them” (145 n.).

Similar ideas are to be found in his study of Leonardo da Vinci (1910) and in the case of Schreber (1911). Here, however, as in Totem and Taboo (1912-13), he sees narcissism as deriving from a different source: he considered that sexual component instincts already existed at an early stage when there were still no objects. He called this the stage of autoerotism. Freud now assumed that the individual, in his development, “begins by taking himself, his own body, as his love-object, and only subsequently proceeds from this to the choice of some person other than himself as his object” (60). The self would then be the first object. He called this the stage of narcissism. (He subsequently abandoned the idea of a phase of autoerotism.) Finally, in 1914, he introduced narcissism as the original stage of development. He concedes, “we are bound to suppose that a unity comparable to the ego cannot exist in the individual from the start; the ego has to be developed. The auto-erotic instincts, however, are there from the very first; so there must be something added to auto-erotism—a new psychical action—in order to bring about narcissism” (1914, 76-77). But there is no further mention of autoerotism in this paper, and narcissism is seen as primary.

 

Narcissism and the Analytic Situation

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BÉLA GRÜNBERGER

This contribution is not intended as a commentary on the whole of Freud’s paper. For that one would need to place it in the context of the total body of his work, noting the earlier writings in which the term “narcissism” had been mentioned or where Freud had actually begun to conceptualize it.1 It should be noted that Freud’s interest in narcissism (homosexuality, paranoia, and so on) stemmed from his clinical experience with mental disorders. This is the key to understanding why Freud had to introduce narcissism into psychoanalytic theory and how he did so. The 1914 paper should also be seen alongside another paper dating from the same year— “On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement”—in which Freud discusses the dissident views of Jung and Adler. In “On Narcissism,” Freud refers directly to these two authors, but his controversy with them can in fact be felt as a presence throughout the text. Like many of his writings. this paper is the fruit of his confrontation with the “dissidents,” who indirectly enriched psychoanalysis by inducing Freud to deepen and refine his ideas.2

 

List of Contributors

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WILLY BARANGER is training and supervising analyst of the Instituto de Psicoandlisis, Buenos Aires. He is honorary president of the Uruguayan Psychoanalytic Association, former president of COPAL (now FEPAL), and an honorary member of the Peru Psychoanalytic Society.

DAVID BELL is consultant at the Cassel Hospital, Richmond, London, and a member of the British Psychoanalytical Society.

R. HORACIO ETCHEGOYEN is training and supervising analyst of the Buenos Aires Psychoanalytic Association. He previously served as chairman of psychiatry and medical psychology (U.N.C.), president of the Buenos Aires Psychoanalytic Association, and vice-president of the IPA.

PETER FONAGY is senior lecturer in psychology, University College London; coordinator of research at the Anna Freud Centre, Hampstead; the Freud Memorial Professor Designate, University of London, and a member of the British Psychoanalytical Society.

LEÓN GRINBERG is training and supervising analyst of the Madrid Psychoanalytical Association. He holds the Chair of Psychoanalysis in the Ateneo de Madrid.

 

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