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Number 1: Spring 2008

Review: The Temptations of Narcissism

Kirsty Hall

Narcissism: A Critical Reader Ed. Anastasios Gaitanidis with Polona Curk, London: Karnac 231pp. £19.99 ISBN-13: 978-1-85575-453-9

This is a stylishly presented and well-edited collection of papers about one of the most notoriously difficult topics in psychoanalysis. The concept of narcissism cannot be understood without differentiating and disentangling it from other key concepts in the Freudian vocabulary, the id and the ego in particular.

Anastasios Gaitanidis, the main editor and author of the first paper does not duck the theoretical difficulties but rather seems to relish the challenge. He quickly moves from a brief account of the theorising of the ego, the unification of the auto-erotic drives in primary narcissism and the constantly shifting pseudopodia-like mechanism of investment and withdrawal characterised by Freud as ‘secondary narcissism’ to the nub of his discussion.

This is the dilemma of distinguishing subject and object in Freud’s theory of narcissism. Gaitanidis discusses the following quotation:

 Why … is there any necessity for further distinguishing a sexual libido from a nonsexual energy of the ego-instincts? Would not the postulation of a single kind of psychical energy save us all the difficulties …? (Freud 1914c, p.76).

For Freud, the problem arises that, with the unification of instincts (better referred to as drives), there is the loss of his essentially conflictual account of the operation of the agencies of the unconscious. To put matters very simply, the ego is the jam in the sandwich between the conflicting demands of the id and superego. This will not work if everything turns into jam.