Narcissism. [from: Laplanche/Pontalis]

By reference to the myth of Narcissus, love directed towards the image of oneself.

I. The term 'narcissism' () appears in Freud's work for the first time in 1910, when it is called upon to account for object-choice in homosexuals, who 'take themselves as their sexual object. That is to say, they proceed from a narcissistic basis and look for a young man who resembles themselves and whom they may love as their mother loved them' (l a).

The discovery of narcissism leads Freud—in the Schreber case (19llc)—to posit the existence of a stage in sexual development between auto-erotism and object-love. The subject 'begins by taking himself, his own body, as his love-object' (2), which allows a first unification of the sexual instincts. This view of the matter is again put forward in Totem and Taboo (1912-13).

II. Thus Freud was already making use of the concept of narcissism before he 'introduced' it in a paper devoted to the topic: 'On Narcissism: An Introduction' (1914c). It is this text, nevertheless, which integrates the notion into the psyeho-analytic theory as a whole, particularly by relating it to libidinal cathexes. It now becomes clear that the possibility of the libido's recathecting the ego while withdrawing cathexis from the object is illustrated by psychosis ('narcissistie neurosis'); the implication of this is that 'an original libidinal cathexis of the ego [...] fundamentally persists and is related to the object-cathexes much as the body of an amoeba is related to the pseudopodia which it puts out' (3a). Basing himself on a sort of principle of conservation of libidinal energy, Freud postulates a seesaw balance between ego-libido (i.e. libido which cathects the ego) and object-libido: 'The more of the one is employed, the more the other becomes depleted' (3b). 'The ego is to be regarded as a great reservoir of libido from which libido is sent out to objects and which is always ready to absorb libido flowing back from objects' (4). /

In this way we are brought—in the context of an approach based on energy and asserting the permanence of a libidinal cathexis of the ego—to define narcissism structurally: instead of appearing as a developmental stage, narcissism now emerges as a damming up of the libido which no object-cathexis can completely overcome.

III. Such a process of withdrawal of cathexis from the object and its turning back on to the subject had already been identified in 1908 by Karl Abraham, who drew on the example of dementia praceox: 'The psychosexual characteristic of dementia praecox is the return of the patient to auto-erotism [...]. The mental patient transfers on to himself alone as his only sexual object the whole of the libido which the healthy person turns upon all living and inanimate objects in his environment' (5). Freud adopted these ideas of Abraham's, which 'have been accepted in psycho-analysis and have become the basis of our attitude to the psychoses' (6). But he added the idea—which facilitates a clear distinction between narcissism and auto-erotism—that the ego does not exist from the very first as a unity, and that 'a new psychical action' has to take place in order to bring about narcissism (3c).

If we are to preserve a distinction between a state on the one hand in which the sexual instincts attain satisfaction anarchically, independently of one another, and narcissism on the other hand, where it is the ego in its entirety which is taken as love-object, then we must inevitably make the period of infantile narcissism's dominance coincide with the formative moments of the ego.

On this point psycho-analytic theory is somewhat ambivalent. From the genetic point of view, the establishment of the ego can be conceived of as the formation of a psychical unit paralleling the constitution of the bodily schema. One may further suppose that this unification is precipitated by the subject's acquisition of an image of himself founded on the model furnished by the other person—this image being the ego itself. Narcissism then appears as the amorous captivation of the subject by this image. Jacques Lacan has related this first moment in the ego's formation to that fundamentally narcissistic experience which he calls the mirror stage (7). In this light, with the ego taking form by virtue of an identification with the other, narcissism—and even 'primary narcissism'—is no longer seen as a state independent of any intersubjective relationship, but rather as the internalisation of a relationship. There is no doubt that this approach is consistent with the conception of narcissism proposed in such a text as 'Mourning and Melancholia' (1917e [1915]), where Freud certainly appears to see nothing more in it than a 'narcissistic identification' with the object (8).

This attitude fades into the background, however, with the advent of the second theory of the psychical apparatus, by which time Freud has come to maintain an absolute opposition between a first (objectless) narcissistic state and object-relations. This primitive state, now called primary narcissism, is supposed to be characterised by the total absence of any relationship to the outside world, and by a lack of differentiation between ego and id; intra-uterine existence is taken to be its prototypical form, while sleep is deemed a more or less successful imitation of that ideal model (9).

The idea of a narcissism contemporaneous with the formation of the ego through identification with the other person does survive nevertheless. It is now known as 'secondary' rather than 'primary' narcissism: 'The libido which flows into the ego owing to the identifications [...] brings about its "secondary narcissism" ' (l0a). 'The narcissism of the ego is thus a secondary one which has been withdrawn from objects' (lOb).

This profound modification of Freud's views is correlated, in the first place, with the introduction of the notion of the id as a separate agency from which the other agencies derive through a process of differentiation; secondly, with an evolution of the concept of the ego which places the emphasis as much on its adaptive role qua differentiated agency as on the identifications of which it is a product; and lastly, with the fading of the distinction between auto-erotism and narcissism. lf we pursue this line of thought to the letter we incur two risks. First, there is a danger of running counter to experience by asserting that the newborn baby is without any perceptual outlet on to the external world. Secondly, we may find ourselves re-opening the door-and in the naivest way to a version of the idealist fallacy made all the more flagrant by being expressed in 'biological' language: just how are we supposed to picture the transition from a monad shut in upon itself to a progressive discovery of the object?


() Freud opens 'On Narcissism: An Introduction'(1914c) by stating that he has borrowed the term from Paul Nacke, who used it (in 1899) to describe a perversion. This statement was corrected, however, in a note added in 1920 to the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d). Freud now asserted that it was to Havelock Ellis that the introduction of the term should rightly be attributed (lb). In point of fact Nacke had indeed invented the actual word'Narzissmus', but in the course of commenting on Ellis's views; it was Ellis who, in his Autoerotism, a Psychological Study (1898), first invoked the myth of Narcissus to help describe a case of perverted behaviour.

(1) FREUD, S. Three lEssays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d): a) G.W., V, 44, n. 1; S.E., VII, 145, n. 1. b) Cf. G.W., V, 119, n. 3; S.E., VII, 218, n. 3.

(2) FREUD, S. 'Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)' (19llc), G.W., VIII, 296-97; S.E., XII, 60-61.

(3) FREUD, S. 'On Narcissism: An Introduction' (1914c): a) G.W., X, 141; S.E., XIV, 75-76. b) G.W., X, 141; S.E., XIV, 75-76. c) G.W., X, 142; S.E., XlV, 77.

(4) FREUD, S. 'Two Encyclopacdia Articles'(1923a [1922]), G.W., XI11, 231; S.E., XVIII, 257.

(5) ABRAHAM, K. 'The Psycho-Sexual Differences between Hysteria and Dementia Praecox' (1908), in Selected Papers (London: Hogarth, 1927), 73-75. ,~

(6) FREUD, S. Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (1916-17), G.W., XI, 430; S.E., _: XV1'415. 1.

(7) Cf. LACAN, J. 'Le stade du miroir comme formateur de la fonction du Je', R.F.P., 1949, XIII, 4, 449-55. Reprinted in his Ecrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 93-100. Trans.: 'The Mirror-Phase', New Left Review, 1968, 51, 71-77. ,4

(8) Cf. FREUD, S., G.W., X, 435-37; S.E., XIV, 249-51. ~_i

(9) Cf. FREUD, S. Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921c), G.W., XIII, 146; S.E., XVIII, 130-31. Z.

(10) FREUD, S. The Ego and the Id (1923b): a) G.W., XIII, 258n.; S.E., XIX, 30. b) G.W.,XIII, 275; S.E., XIX, 46.