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Number 1: Spring 2008

Review: The Temptations of Narcissism

Kirsty Hall

As Gaitanidis shows, Freud suggests one elegant solution after another to this knotty problem. Firstly, Freud avers that perhaps the essential (for him) element of conflict can be retained by proposing that narcissism is a state where the ego loves itself too much. Thus in order to avoid the trap of endless narcissistic self-reference, the ego has to ‘learn’ to lean on others.

Gaitanidis detects a Hegelian dialectical argument implicit in Freud:

Psychoanalysis, in this respect, pushes the ego to the path of maximum resistance as it invites it to work hard so as to negate (in the Hegelian sense of transcending by simultaneously destroying and preserving) its narcissistic boundaries that prevent it from investing its libido in others, that is to say, it enables the ego to move from narcissism to object-love. Therefore, if narcissism represents the negation (in the Hegelian sense again) of the original state of autoerotic existence, object-love represents the negation of this negation. Pathological narcissism, therefore, signifies the ego’s inability to engage with the systematic and continuous (psychoanalytic) work of dialectical negation. (Gaitanidis & Curk 2007, p.16)

Almost a decade later, Freud pushes this argument even further. In The Ego and the Id he suggests that, instead of the concept of primary narcissism, the ego is founded by means of identifications. As Gaitanidis says, ‘Specifically, it [the ego] originates in identifications with objects that were cathected by the id and then lost.’

In the following pages Gaitanidis clearly describes Freud’s reluctance to come down either on the side of the ego being at the mercy of the id or vice versa. Despite the many temptations detailed in papers such as Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety (1926), Freud refuses to depart from his ambivalent stance, thus keeping the door open for negative dialectics. The latter is an extremely useful body of ideas that can be applied in the clinic on a daily basis. The thoughts of the majority of our patients move endlessly between one set of unacceptable/untenable/contradictory ideas and another. Freud’s theory allows us to grasp what is going on and intervene by disrupting the dialectical oscillations.