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A Review Essay on Narcissism

Two new books about narcissism are getting some play in the press of late. Jeffrey Kluger's THE NARCISSIST NEXT DOOR comes to us from Riverhead Books. The other, THE AMERICANIZATION OF NARCISSISM by Elizabeth Lunbeck, hails from Harvard Un. Press.

Kluger, a science writer with TIME, wants to warn and forearm readers about the potential "monsters" in their own lives -- families, workplaces, neighborhoods. He also invokes such pop-cult examples as Donald Trump, who he says has the "insatiable hunger to be the largest, loudest, most honkingly conspicuous presence in any room."

Lunbeck. a professor of history at Vanderbilt, seems to want to take Christopher Lasch down a peg. It was Lasch who wrote THE CULTURE OF NARCISSISM (1979), and Lunbeck says that Lasch's treatment of the term has made narcissism a cliché, "a highfalutin name for the old-fashioned complaint that modernity means a loosening of restraint."

I'm looking at this moment at a review essay by Laura Kipnis, whose black-and-white image adorns this blog post. Kipnis discusses both Lunbeck's and Kluger's book, in the August issue of HARPER'S. She discusses much else too, including a matter of Harvard dorm room assignment. [Christopher Lasch and future novelist John Updike roomed together at Harvard in the 1950s. Lasch gradually accepted the view that his roommate was the more talented writer of the room, and re-jiggered his own ambitions away from fiction toward history.]

Yet, Kipnis tells us, Lasch remained a novelist at heart, and the prototypical "narcissist" he discusses in his famous 1979 book is a literary character more than a diagnosis. It describes a narcissist as depression-prone, anxious, unable to maintain stable relationships with other human beings, an insomniac, and as a creature who must oscillate between a calculated pose of seduction and the nervous laughter of self deprecation. This makes him "one of the great characters of twentieth-century literature" [outdoing the characters invented by Lasch's old roommate?] but it doesn't make Lasch an accurate social critic.

Indeed, both Lunbeck and Kipnis believe that Lasch got a lot wrong, and that his influence has been baleful. But they make this point from different directions. Kipnis thinks the whole concept of narcissism is dangerously vague and needs reworking. Lunbeck believes on the other hand, that the concept as wielded for example by Austrian-born psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut in THE ANALYSIS OF THE SELF (1971)  is germane -- Lasch simply didn't understand it. Lasch wrote for example as if narcissism is necessarily a bad thing, editing out Kohut's views on the healthy aspects of narcissism, Lunbeck scores against him on this.

Kipnis, for her part, scores against Kluger for failing even to mention Lasch, although plainly laboring under his influence.


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