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America’s Long Holiday

When narcissism attacks

Elizabeth Lunbeck, The Americanization of Narcissism
Harvard University Press, $35

The twenty-first century, already rich with apocalyptic glimpses of America’s decline, has been a productive era for narcissism. The condition, originally diagnosed by psychologists as a blocked developmental phase in the psyche, has since been singled out as the cause of nearly every worrisome trend on the American scene: the financial crisis, John Edwards’s love affair, Barack Obama’s decision to reduce troops in Afghanistan, Lena Dunham, the misuse of phone cameras, the popularity of the Internet. “Narcissist” has replaced “commitment-phobe” as the worst thing you can say about the boyfriend who didn’t love you. The pope once accused Vatican leaders of being “Narcissus, flattered and sickeningly excited by their courtiers.” Everyone has an eye on the self.

Given this state of near ubiquity, it’s no surprise that narcissism has spawned a cottage industry of books with accusatory titles: The Narcissism Epidemic, Generation Me, The Mirror Effect, Why Is It Always About You? and The Narcissist Next Door, to name a few. Most of these are in the pop-psych or self-help vein; they inform us, among other things, that helicopter parenting has made our children vainer and more insufferable than ever before, that scores on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory are at all-time highs, and that if and when you spot a narcissist—the “monster in your family, in your office, in your bed, in your world,” as one subtitle puts it—you should shield your heart and keep your distance.

Every American has been immersed since birth in the reassurance that he or she is the most superior citizen on earth.

And then there’s Elizabeth Lunbeck’s The Americanization of Narcissism, an exhaustive history of the subject that acknowledges that narcissism is everywhere but insists that it’s been unfairly maligned. A professor of the history of psychiatry at Vanderbilt University, Lunbeck suggests that what we’ve come to call narcissism is, more often than not, a normal, self-sustaining part of human existence, the -ism that nurtures one’s fragile inner being, like a fur sleeping bag for the soul. In Lunbeck’s view, narcissism is a useful adaptive behavior, provided that it’s cultivated in moderation. “Among its ‘documented’ benefits,” she writes, quoting several recent newspaper articles, “are that it ‘makes you attractive, successful, lovable and good in bed. . . . Narcissism is necessary to feeling ‘that one’s life has meaning and importance’ as well as to sustaining ‘all forms of public life.’” Sure, there’s pathological narcissism, or “bad” narcissism, but the diagnosis of that, Lunbeck suggests, belongs on the shrink’s couch rather than in the wider ambit of cultural debate.

Admirers of The Americanization of Narcissism have readily seconded such sentiments. “The truth is that nobody knows how many people suffer from the disorder,” Joan Acocella writes in her New Yorker review of Lunbeck’s book, “or whether, indeed, the supposedly diagnostic features listed in the DSM add up to a disorder, as opposed to just a loud, self-important personality that has been recognized for millennia.” Narcissism isn’t, apparently, “the scourge it was cracked up to be,” New York Times writer Anna North notes with palpable relief. “It is time to stop invoking poor Narcissus,” concludes The Economist. Further, now that Lunbeck has given the go-ahead, pundits are free to revel in a favorite pastime: exalting our most grandiose titans of business, whose personality traits are, as Lunbeck has it, more necessary than terrifying. According to this view, luminaries in the Steve Jobs mold may well have to enter analysis to overcome some of their character flaws, but ultimately their bold egocentrism is vital to advancing the American knowledge sector’s tortured odyssey through the new global economic order.

As Lunbeck casts the narcissistic impulse as an indispensable entry in the toolkit of the entrepreneurial American self, she capitulates to what feels like an inevitable American intellectual trajectory—one that proceeds from radical to conservative, from bohemian to yuppie—as if any youthful rejection of the materialistic life must always evolve into a rational embrace of our nation’s excess. Narcissism, formerly a potent means of reckoning with a unique and potentially dangerous national character, has become another deft U-turn on the American road to self-acceptance and self-love.

Crisis? What Crisis?

In reducing narcissism to its narrowest definition of interpersonal relations, Lunbeck and her supporters dismiss the provocative ideas that popularized narcissism in the first place. Forty years ago, narcissism captured the imaginations of writers such as Daniel Bell, Richard Sennett, and Christopher Lasch not because they were eager to debate the science of personality disorders, but because America itself seemed to be in crisis. In their view, economic and cultural forces specific to American history had created a civilization that—despite its unprecedented wealth and power in the world—was too stunted by self-concern to sustain its economic health, behave responsibly in foreign relations, or confront the prospect of its own demise. Theirs was ultimately a critique of the country rather than a critique of the citizen.

By contrast, Lunbeck’s psychoanalytic heroes, Sigmund Freud, Heinz Kohut, and Otto Kernberg, rejected the “notion that society could produce narcissism.” In the 1930s Freud described narcissism in terms of libidinal development. He recognized both a normal narcissism, observable in infants and certain healthy personality types, and a pathological narcissism, which could be a hallmark of schizophrenia or hypochondria. Thirty years later, Kohut and Kernberg took Freud’s teachings in divergent directions. Kohut “boldly reframed narcissism as a desirable, even healthy, dimension of mature selfhood,” according to Lunbeck, and “underscored narcissism’s positive aspects, arguing that it fueled individuals’ ambitions, creativity, and fellow-feeling.” Kohut enjoyed the Age of Aquarius, the ’60s, the hippies. He was upbeat about the future. His moody colleague Kernberg was not. Kernberg focused on “narcissists’ destructiveness, rage, and aggression as well as the masterful ways they exploited and enslaved their hapless victims.”

The pioneering accomplishments of Kohut and Kernberg both “normalized and pathologized” narcissism, which, in Lunbeck’s view, was a good result—and by our own time, although Lunbeck might disagree, an uncontroversial and widely understood one. Most of us now can discern which people have a healthy sense of self (they run their own race), which have a weak sense of self (they don’t know how to stand up for themselves), and which have a weak sense of self but hide their self-loathing and fragility behind a charismatic, needy facade of deception, arrogance, envy-fueled ambition, overblown entitlement to fame and fortune, and the view that other people exist almost exclusively for their own benefit (i.e., bankers).

But Lunbeck thinks that Kohut and Kernberg have yet to receive their due. According to her, the sour social critics of the late twentieth century, unable to understand complex psychiatric theory, “impoverished” the contributions of Kohut and Kernberg by “slighting” healthy narcissism and reveling in narcissism’s ugly side, “shap[ing] it into a distinctively American malady associated with affluence and abundance.” Lunbeck’s particular adversary is the historian Christopher Lasch, whose book The Culture of Narcissism was a runaway bestseller in 1979. Lasch and others, Lunbeck suggests, seized upon the upheaval of the 1960s—including all movements black, antiwar, feminist, and gay—“to collectively warn of the unraveling of Western society and the undermining of its most cherished ideals.”

Lasch attacked psychic self-improvement and the quest for peace of mind; these were “the faith of those without faith.”

This is at best a caricature of Lasch and at worst a distortion more misleading than Lasch’s alleged misappropriation of clinical narcissism. Lasch, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, formulated a captivating, often infuriating, theory of what had gone wrong in the American promised land. For Lasch as for Freud, narcissism was a telltale weakening of the self and its basic coordinates. Only where Freud had detected the condition chiefly in developmental blockage arising from family traumas, Lasch saw it as the distressingly common side effect of the sensory onslaught of consumer capitalism, finding characteristic expression in everything from our image-obsessed media, the burgeoning therapeutic industry in human potential and self-help cures, and the fractured course of family life.

Lasch wrote of psychologists suddenly befuddled by the incurable thousands shuttling through their office doors, complaining of a hollowness of spirit, a deep self-hatred, an inability to love, and most disturbingly, a loss of memories and connection to the past. These people, the American people, were those for whom “to live for the moment is the prevailing passion” and who were “fast losing the sense of historical continuity, the sense of belonging to a succession of generations originating in the past and stretching into the future.” Most of all, Lasch, invoking Hobbes, argued that America’s increasingly consumerist society “in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self.”

In the process, Lasch condemned a wide battery of then-novel therapies, techniques, and informal cultural practices that are today considered perfectly acceptable. He attacked consciousness-raising groups, psychic self-improvement, and the quest for peace of mind; these were, he wrote, “the faith of those without faith.” He attacked confessional conversation, certain modes of confessional writing, sex without feeling, “pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, nervous, self-deprecatory humor,” and the “society of spectacle.” He attacked “the shifting emphasis from capitalist production to consumption,” the increasingly “dangerous and warlike conditions of social life,” and the competitive measurement of sexual performance and technique. He even attacked smiling. Americans “need no reminder to smile,” he wrote. “A smile is permanently graven on our features, and we already know from which of several angles it photographs to best advantage.” Most controversially, he lamented the plight of the family, which, had it been at full strength, might have served to combat the paternalism of the bureaucratic corporate state.

Lasch’s most fervent and articulate critics have always been women, among them the second-wave feminist writers Vivian Gornick and Ellen Willis, who contended that his defense of the family was nothing more than an assault on feminism. In her recent Boston Review essay on Lunbeck’s book, Gornick points out that the subtitle of Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism—“American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations”—“was the way the world looked to a white, middle-class man without the gift of empathy who found all the social tumult depressing rather than stimulating.”

Willis was no less fierce, but more nuanced. In 1997 she articulated a succinct rebuttal to Lasch’s ideas of self-sacrifice: “To experience selflessness you first have to feel entitled to a self that is yours to lose.” And in 1979’s “The Family: Love It or Leave It,” she identified Lasch as the leader of a conservative backlash against the ’60s revolutionaries—a “resurgence of family chauvinism, flanked by its close relatives, antifeminism and homophobia.” She went on:

The new consensus is that the family is our last refuge against universal predatory selfishness. . . . It defines the pursuit of individual freedom as selfish and irresponsible (“narcissistic” in the current jargon), the subordination of personal happiness to domestic obligations as the hallmark of adulthood and the basis of morals.

Willis agreed with Lasch that certain cataclysmic events had “diminished expectations” among people in America: its shameful war in Vietnam, the perceived decline of its global influence, and the corporate world’s ravenous drive for profits, which depressed wages and raised prices (an indictment that seems downright mild in today’s debt-ravaged, job-starved, overleveraged economy). But unlike him, Willis believed that the family was part of the problem, potentially as narcissistic an entity as the individual. “These days ‘my family first’ is only a slightly less insular version of the ‘me first’ psychology the insecurity of capitalism provokes,” she wrote. “Both are based on the dismaying knowledge that if you and your family are not first, they are all too likely to be last.” According to Willis, the overreliance on the family—and presumably fathers—prevented Americans from asking for more from the system.

Willis remains one of Lasch’s best critics because she engaged Lasch’s critique of American society on the level it was intended—both writers assailed the political and economic system that was alienating and draining its families, its individuals, its intimate life, its everything. Yet Lasch was suggesting that the decimation of the self by capitalism, and the protective turn inward toward extreme individualism, would lead not only to a withdrawal from domestic life, but also to a gradual (and equally ruinous) retreat from national life. In his view, the fight for individual or minority rights in the United States would be futile as long as the marketplace ruled basic social relations. Under the weight of the market’s monolithic influence, people would be reduced to caring about themselves alone in order to get by. They wouldn’t feel implicated in or responsible for a larger social order because they wouldn’t have the slightest chance of effecting change. The emerging ethos of an increasingly exhausted consumer capitalism was a chastened, pared-down survivalism—the condition that Lasch diagnosed in bleak and unsparing detail in The Minimal Self, his 1984 follow-up to The Culture of Narcissism.

This depopulation of the public sphere was the main preoccupation of Lasch’s work—and an awareness of it is what’s glaringly absent from Lunbeck’s book. Lasch may have been stodgily critiquing certain aspects of the hedonistic counterculture and lambasting the New Ageism that followed, but his complaint was less with the political movements themselves (many of which he had common cause with) than it was with the way they evolved into showmanship, were co-opted for personal self-improvement projects, or were abandoned entirely. In The Culture of Narcissism he singled out for derision not the age’s more principled and serious political advocates, like Gloria Steinem and Stokely Carmichael, but the self-dramatizing acolytes of the liberationist counterculture: Jerry Rubin, Bernardine Dohrn, and Susan Stern. He urged other thinkers to “distinguish between the corruption of radical politics in the late 1960s by the irrational elements in American culture and the validity of many radical goals.” Lasch wasn’t an Agnew-esque backlash critic of the New Left’s political agenda; he was, rather, a harsh detractor of the recursively consumerist style that undermined it. “The attempt to dramatize official repression,” he wrote, “imprisoned the left in a politics of theater, of dramatic gestures, of style without substance—a mirror-image of the politics of unreality which it should have been the purpose of the left to unmask.” Even Willis, as Emily Greenhouse notes in an excellent essay in Dissent, “lamented feminism’s half-benign turn to ‘a reformist politics, a countercultural community, and a network of self-help projects’ rather than a true liberation movement.”

Lasch and Willis, it should be obvious by now, were writing about an era that strikingly prefigured our own. The 1970s were marked by fiscal ruin, ecological catastrophe, and international defeat. Such conditions might have provoked a measure of introspection, even some national soul-searching. Instead, the excesses of consumer gratification were elevated into positive virtues during the conspicuously happy ’80s and ’90s. Ronald Reagan cruised into office in 1980 by campaigning aggressively against the Carter administration’s pusillanimous courtship of a “national malaise”—a phrase that Jimmy Carter himself never employed. (Carter drafted the “malaise speech,” as it’s come to be known, after extensive consultation with Lasch, which means that the actual conservative backlash in our national politics came to life via an assault on Lasch.) The new market-obsessed sensibility on the American right found its apotheosis in George W. Bush’s infamous call, just after the September 11 terrorist attacks, for Americans to demonstrate their core devotion to freedom and liberal democracy with a redoubled bout of shopping.

This three-decades-and-counting vacation from history is very much in line with the analysis Lasch offered up in The Culture of Narcissism. By the late ’70s, Lasch observed, “Americans seem[ed] to wish to forget not only the sixties, the riots, the new left, the disruptions on college campuses, Vietnam, Watergate, and the Nixon presidency, but their entire collective past.” The detachment from history was to Lasch “one of the most important symptoms of the cultural crisis.” Americans believed they “alone among the people of the world could escape the entangling influence of the past.” From the nation’s first colonial settlement, Americans had enjoyed an unprecedented opportunity for rebirth; their offspring constantly reenacted this experience by breaking from the past and starting anew. The immigrant experience enshrined a nearly ritual form of social amnesia among exiles from the Old World—one that pivoted on the regeneration of a perennially innocent (i.e., narcissistic) self.

European writers, who are drowning in the past, and oppressed writers, who don’t have the privilege of forgetting it, have been forever remarking on how weird this is. In 1840 Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that the prototypical American was

withdrawn into himself . . . almost unaware of the fate of the rest. Mankind, for him, consists in his children and his personal friends. As for the rest of his fellow citizens, they are near enough, but he does not notice them. He touches them but feels nothing. He exists in and for himself.

Curzio Malaparte, after watching the Allied invasion of Naples, wrote in his nightmarish 1952 novel The Skin that

the Americans believe that misery, hunger, pain and everything else can be combated, that men can recover from misery, hunger and pain, that there is a remedy for all evil.

And James Baldwin, exiled in Paris, wrote in Giovanni’s Room (1956) that to Americans

time always sounds like a parade chez vous—a triumphant parade, like armies with banners entering a town . . . as though with enough time and all that fearful energy and virtue you people have, everything will be settled, solved, put in its place. . . . I mean all the serious, dreadful things, like pain and death and love, in which you Americans do not believe.

Far from nostalgically pining for the old patriarchy and its unquestioned reign, American writers like Lasch could see that as America extended itself across the oceans in the postwar years, its people were themselves turning inward. Lasch and others voiced a shared, gnawing fear that this particular American detachment and self-regard would disastrously unite with the nation’s ravenously expansionist economic policies and its paranoia about economic and physical security to unleash terrible energies on the rest of the world. Their so-called happiness, in fact, depended on it. In his 2009 study of the Progressive Era, Rebirth of a Nation, historian Jackson Lears argued that “the power that undergirded [Americans’] dreams of personal and national regeneration” was “their dependence on empire for their prosperity, for their racial, social, and even moral identity as a people.”

Rarely do we connect the two, the self to the empire. With American social thinkers once more easing back into the warm bath of narcissism, we must again rely on foreign writers to supply the sharpest illustrations of just how we fail to apprehend the connection—while also bringing home the disastrous consequences of that failure for the rest of the world. In an extraordinary 2012 essay in Guernica, Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie remembers the moment she noticed that no American novelists of the post–Cold War era, “who started writing after the 1980s when Islam replaced Communism as the terrifying Other,” had included the imperial experience in their Great American novels. “But that would change, I told myself,” she writes. “The nation that had intervened militarily with more nations than any other in the latter half of the twentieth century but had itself come under attack infrequently would now see its stories bound up with the stories of other places.” Instead, she observes,

the American novel continued to look inward even as the American government looked increasingly outward. September 11 did nothing to change that. So in an America where fiction writers are so caught up in the Idea of America in a way that perhaps has no parallel with any other national fiction . . . why is it that the fiction writers of my generation are so little concerned with the history of their own nation once that history exits the fifty states?

This dogged refusal of history seems like the logical outcome of the uniquely solipsistic American character Lasch struggled to identify.

Narcissism, formerly a potent means of reckoning with a dangerous national character, has become another deft U-turn on the American road to self-love.

I’m not sure what is gained by exonerating Americans of their worst traits or, for that matter, by celebrating them, which is what Lunbeck does at the end of her book. In addition to her adoring gloss on Steve Jobs—a staple act of market canonization in today’s business advice genre—Lunbeck hails the bulk of today’s CEO class as model narcissists, while also singling out for special praise the jingoist social criticism of New York Times columnist David Brooks. It’s worth pausing here to note the broader costs of such faux-contrarian acquiescence within the tradition of American social criticism. Every American has been immersed since birth in the propagandistic reassurance that he or she is the most superior citizen on earth, simply by virtue of coming of age in this model capitalist democracy, the endpoint, in our eyes, of national and human evolution. This propaganda has produced a kind of nationalism so pervasive and misguided that most Americans wouldn’t even know to call it nationalism—it is, for us, simply the proper order of things. So, as is the case with other undiagnosed neurotic disorders, we lie to ourselves to sustain it, whether about the poverty of millions of our stateside neighbors, or the historic crimes committed against Native Americans and black Americans at home, or the casual mayhem we’ve visited upon Iraqis, Afghans, and everyone else abroad.

What’s more, that delusion ensures we’ll never have to consider what our history has to do with our selves—that we’ll remain in the condition of chronic pastlessness that was, for Lasch, the most troubling and foundational indicator of our national narcissism. When I moved abroad seven years ago, it wasn’t some new, bright beginning; instead, my relationship to the world felt suffused with a kind of melancholic amnesia, as if I should have known and recognized and understood the place, as if I, or someone like me, had been there before. Americans, expat and homebound alike, never really know how to make these connections between our imperial selves and the carelessly tended ruins kicked up in their wake. It’s what makes us, as they say, special.