The Americanization of Narcissism, by Elizabeth Lunbeck

Robert Reynolds on how US cultural critics in the 1970s ignored the upside of championing oneself

June 5, 2014

Who would have thought that narcissism in the US needed defending? From afar, it seems alive and well. Daytime television is saturated in the language of self-esteem, bookshops’ shelves groan under the weight of self-improvement manuals, and the narrative of personal redemption inflects countless public accounts of Americans, famous and otherwise. An Australian is said to have coined the term “selfie”, but it is the US that most enthusiastically champions the self.

Elizabeth Lunbeck might well take issue with this diagnosis. Counter-intuitively, she has written an impressively researched history of the idea of narcissism in US intellectual and cultural life and found the concept unfairly maligned. Post-war US psychoanalysis and critics on the Right and Left have paraded narcissism as an affliction gnawing at America’s national character. Lunbeck suggests that this critique robbed the phenomenon of complexity. Moreover, by the late 1970s, it ignored a revolution in thinking about narcissism that was remaking American psychoanalysis.

The 1970s are at the heart of this book, and Lunbeck’s imagined interlocutors are cultural critics such as Christopher Lasch and Philip Rieff, the former in particular. Rieff’s 1966 work The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud helped to pave the way for Lasch’s classic excoriation of 1970s US society, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (1978). Lunbeck in effect casts Lasch as the commander-in-chief of critics whose jeremiads bemoaned the rise of narcissism in America.

Previous discussions of narcissism had seldom escaped the rarefied confines of psychoanalysis. But by the early 1970s, “the term was suddenly everywhere”. Lasch gave intellectual heft to this discovery, marshalling finely wrought prose and psychoanalytic references to paint a woeful picture of Americans obsessed with physical beauty, youth and fitness, self-expression and the baubles of consumer capitalism. These sorry but increasingly common specimens lacked the solid values of yesteryear: deferred gratification, thrift, fortitude, rigorous learning and community spirit. Lunbeck believes such charges against narcissism continue to resonate, and she cites Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) as one influential expression.

Running a historical and psychoanalytic ruler over these jeremiads, Lunbeck finds them wanting. There is nothing particularly new in an ageing cohort denouncing the young as selfish and lacking in moral fibre, and she has delightful quotes to prove it. Under the tutelage of Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg, American psychoanalysis in the 1970s re-engaged and rehabilitated the concept of narcissism. Kohut stressed the importance of healthy narcissism to a resilient sense of self and meaningful relationships, while Kernberg calibrated pathological narcissism as a distinct personality type rather than a universal one. Lasch and his fellow critics misread or ignored this psychoanalytic reconsideration, and Lunbeck argues persuasively that their cultural critiques are the poorer for it.

And yet by making Lasch central to her account, Lunbeck misses the opportunity to range more critically over the expression of narcissism in America. She is right to point out the narcissism implicit in the cultural critics’ position – they wanted an ascetic America that looked suspiciously like an intellectual’s life, all books, solitude and no fun. But there is a danger in remaining enthralled to a narcissist: you end up constricted, playing on their terms.

The Americanization of Narcissism

By Elizabeth Lunbeck
Harvard University Press, 384pp, £25.95
ISBN 9780674724860
Published March 2014

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