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The Americanization of Narcissism.

The Americanization of Narcissism, by Elizabeth Lunbeck. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2014. 367 pp. $35.00 US (hardcover).

Elizabeth Lunbeck's The Americanization of Narcissism is an intellectual history of a psychological concept. In contrast to journalists who reduce the diagnostic category to "good copy," Lunbeck presents narcissism as an idea with depth (p. 57).

Lunbeck grounds her analysis of each of narcissism's dimensions-self-love, independence, vanity, gratification, inaccessibility, and identity--in the psychoanalytic and cultural debates of the 1970s. Psychoanalytic concepts were common parlance in the mid-twentieth century, Lunbeck notes; cultural critics such as Tom Wolfe, Peter Marin, and Christopher Lasch adapted the scholarship about narcissism for a readership already primed by decades of pop Freudianism. Of all the cultural critiques, Lasch's Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (W.W. Norton, 1979) was arguably the most influential. Although Lunbeck is critical of most popular writers, Lasch becomes her book's central villain. Lunbeck argues that Lasch distorted the psychoanalytic literature to suit his argument and, ultimately, helped drain the concept of narcissism of its nuance and clinical utility.

In brief, Lasch argued that the average American is a narcissist, obsessed with external approval, material acquisition, and power. The narcissist's outer charms disguise a vacuous and somewhat desperate inner life. America's "culture of narcissism" nurtures this orientation, as narcissism's never-ending cycle of need and fulfillment fuels the consumer economy.

To make his case, Lasch drew heavily on psychoanalytic literature, particularly the work of Otto Kemberg. Kemberg viewed narcissism as a pathological condition that arose from dangerous, negative emotions rather than a benign lack of self-esteem. According to Kernberg, "malignant" narcissists charmed, exploited, and abused others in an attempt to resolve their intense inner feelings of envy or resentment. Although Kemberg rejected Lasch's claim that American culture produced narcissism, his negative interpretation of the diagnosis carried over to Lasch's trenchant cultural criticism.

The popularization of "negative" narcissism, Lunbeck argues, all but erased the competing interpretation of narcissism as a positive and potentially generative condition. Heinz Kohut, a psychoanalytic celebrity in the 1970s, was the founder of "self psychology" and an early champion of the self-esteem movement. He believed that psychological treatment could bolster the narcissist's feelings of inadequacy and help him achieve a healthy balance between external gratification and self-sufficiency.

The notions of narcissism advanced by Lasch, Kohut, and Kemberg in the 1970s US make up the first section of The Americanization of Narcissism. The remaining 191 pages explore the diagnostic category in greater historical detail, tracing the psychoanalytic and cultural debates about each of narcissism's dimensions from Freud's essays to David Brooks's op-eds. Along the way, Lunbeck offers fascinating observations about narcissism's relationship to a variety of topics, including corporate culture, the fashion industry, the analytic encounter, and the quest for personal authenticity. The cast of psychoanalytic characters expands accordingly: Kohut and Kemberg are joined by Ernest Jones, Sandor Ferenczi, Joan Riviere, D.W. Winnicott, and Erik Erikson, among others.

For readers unfamiliar with that list of names, the second half of The Americanization of Narcissism may prove challenging. But advanced scholars of English, psychoanalysis, and the history of psychiatry will find Narcissism a joy to behold.

Claire D. Clark

University of Texas at Houston
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Author:Clark, Claire D.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2014
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