Recent critics of the new narcissism not only confuse cause and effect, attributing to a cult of privatism developments that derive from the disintegration of public life; they use the term narcissism so loosely that it retains little of its psychological content. Erich Fromm, in The Heart of Man, drains the idea of its clinical meaning and expands it to cover all forms of “vanity,” “self-admiration,” “self-satisfaction,” and “self-glorification” in individuals and all forms of parochialism, ethnic or racial prejudice, and “fanaticism” in groups. In other words, Fromm uses the term as a synonym for the “asocial” individualism which, in his version of progressive and “humanistic” dogma, undermines cooperation, brotherly love, and the search for wider loyalties. Narcissism thus appears simply as the antithesis of that watery love for humanity (disinterested “love for the stranger”) advocated by Fromm under the name of socialism.
Fromm’s discussion of “individual and social narcissism,” appropriately published in a series of books devoted to “Religious Perspectives,” provides an excellent example of the inclination, in our therapeutic age, to dress up moralistic platitudes in psychiatric garb. (“We live in a historical period characterized by a sharp discrepancy between the intellectual development of man . . . and his mental-emotional development, which has left him still in a state of marked narcissism with all its pathological symptoms.”) Whereas Sennett reminds us that narcissism has more in common with self-hatred than with-self-admiration, Fromm loses sight even of this well-known clinical fact in his eagerness to sermonize about-the blessings of brotherly love.
As always in Fromm’s work, the trouble originates in his misguided and unnecessary attempt to rescue Freud’s thought from its “mechanistic” nineteenth-century basis and to press it into the service of “humanistic realism.” In practice, this means that theoretical rigor gives way to ethically uplifting slogans and sentiments. Fromm notes in passing that Freud’s original concept of narcissism assumed that libido begins in the ego, as a “great reservoir” of undifferentiated self-love, whereas in 1922 he decided, on the contrary, that “we must recognize the id as the great reservoir of the libido.” Fromm slides over this issue, however, by remarking, “The theoretical question whether the libido starts originally in the ego or in the id is of no substantial importance for the meaning of the concept [of narcissism] itself.” In fact, the structural theory of the mind, set forth by Freud in Group Psychology and in The Ego and the Id, required modifications of his earlier ideas that have a great deal of bearing on the theory of narcissism. Structural theory made Freud abandon the simple dichotomy between instinct and consciousness and recognize the unconscious elements of the ego and superego, the importance of nonsexual impulses (aggression or the “death instinct”), and the alliance between superego and id, superego and aggression. These discoveries in turn made possible an understanding of the role of object relations in the development of narcissism, thereby revealing narcissism as essentially a defense against aggressive impulses rather than self-love.
Theoretical precision about narcissism is important not only because the idea is so readily susceptible to moralistic inflation but because the practice of equating narcissism with everything selfish and disagreeable militates against historical specificity. Men have always been selfish, groups have always been ethnocentric; nothing is gained by giving these qualities a psychiatric label. The emergence of character disorders as the most prominent form of psychiatric pathology, however, together with the change in personality structure this development reflects, derives from quite specific changes in our society and culture – from bureaucracy, the proliferation of images, therapeutic ideologies, the rationalization of the inner life, the cult of consumption, and in the last analysis from changes in family life and from changing patterns of socialization. All this disappears from sight if narcissism becomes simply “the metaphor of the human condition,” as in another existential, humanistic interpretation, Shirley Sugerman’s Sin and Madness: Studies in Narcissism.