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.