Elizabeth LunbeckThe Americanization of Narcissism

Harvard University Press, 2014

by Tracy Morgan on August 21, 2014

Elizabeth Lunbeck

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Elizabeth Lunbeck has made a major contribution to the historical study of psychoanalysis with the publication of The Americanization of Narcissism (Harvard University Press, 2014). Exploring the concept of narcissism and how it is deployed at the level of culture, she has produced a multi-textured book that is one part history of ideas, one part history of psychoanalysis and one part cultural history.  The admixture yields a good read and, in this interview, Lunbeck reveals herself to be quick on her feet and sturdy in her thinking in all three realms.  It was easy to imagine being in one of the history classes she teaches at Vanderbilt, perched on the edge of the seat, endeavoring to keep apace of a mind that is comfortable with small details and large concepts all at once.

She argues that at mid-century, critics of American culture, including the man who hired her for her first teaching job at University of Rochester, Christopher Lasch, made much of the idea that narcissism was ruining the American character.  Lunbeck questions his understanding of narcissism–wherein a person is soft, weak, needy and seeking salvation through consumerism–and the book unfolds from there.  Relying largely on the thinking of the psychoanalysts, Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut, who both wrote volumes about narcissistic personalities and their treatment, we come to see that just as the culture critics were using the idea of narcissism to make their point, psychoanalysts were in deep discussion as to how to treat and understand the narcissists that lay on their couches.

Lunbeck sets out to explore key concepts in the history of this term and offers up chapters on “self-love”, “independence”, “vanity”, “gratification”, “inaccessibility”, and “identity.”  Each term reveals something about the interaction between culture and psychoanalysis, and as such each chapter offers a particular prism through which to think more fully about narcissism and the many shapes it has taken.  Questions emerge: Are narcissists grandiose individuals who need no one?  Are people who reject dependency truly strong?  Were people who lacked good feelings about themselves and so used others to get “the narcissistic supplies” in need of tough love or of gratification on the couch?  Is the quest for pleasure the end of the social contract?

In this interview these and other topics are covered, leaving one with the lasting impression that the idea of narcissism has served many purposes both within the culture and within the profession of psychoanalysis.  Mining this quite malleable concept, Lunbeck may have given it a proper container, a way in which it can, at last, take a clearer shape.

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