Category Narcissism and Its Discontents

Concluding remarks

In the Introduction to this book we considered Freud’s ‘three blows’ the­ory of scientific development where man was thrice deposed from his central station in the universe; once by Copernicus, twice by Darwin, and then, of course, by Freud himself with the revelation that ‘the ego […] is not even master in its own house’ (1917a, 285). Psychoanal­ysis’ knock-out punch to man’s narcissism, however, has had an unex­pected recoil – in many ways the subject of this book. In keeping with the discipline’s characteristic reflexivity, psychoanalysis demonstrates that wounds to man’s narcissism can only succeed in provoking fur­ther narcissistic illusion. Of course, it has not been my intention to say only that narcissism is inescapable (that much we can take for granted); rather, I have used narcissism’s circularity as a hermeneutic device to investigate the conditions of sociability, the productivity of illusion, and the importance of metapsychological formation to an understanding of social relations. Specifically, by returning to various sites of narcis­sistic investment – mythic, metapsychological, familial, discursive and social – we have repeatedly discerned the operation of narcissism’s double structure: the illusion of narcissistic self-sufficiency, and the corresponding precariousness of the narcissist’s environment of care.

The necessary fiction of narcissistic self-sufficiency is present in Freud’s choice of metaphor of a ‘bird’s egg with its food supply enclosed in its shell’; we saw how the illusion of a self-contained psychical system suggested by the enclosure of the egg can only be spoken of if one takes into account its wider environmental provision, minimally the warmth provided by mother hen (1911a, 219n). We can interpret this as Freud saying, in advance of Winnicott, that there’s no such thing as a baby;

by which is meant that wherever we see a baby – or indeed any other narcissist – we will also see an apparatus of care, whether in the form of the breast, the perambulator, the circulation of money, systems of state security, and so on. Whilst the ‘good-enough’ mother knows when to withdraw her care (and how to disillusion her infant of his narcissistic fantasies), I have preferred to emphasise a structuration of subjectivity in which the environment’s volatility is registered in advance of any empirical character that the environment may have. The potential of the mother leaving – the environment withdrawing – is akin to the prospective fantasy of loss, which we saw above designated an origi­nary lack in the subject. We might say that no matter how benevolent the empirical mother, the conceptual mother has already absconded according to the logic of narcissistic self-sufficiency. That the mother can always leave has stood as a refrain for this thought, connecting Freud’s nursery scene in ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ to various civilised accomplishments and cultured scenes of sociability including Sennett’s polis, Lasch’s sports arena, Simmel’s formal soirees, and Bersani’s cruis­ing sites. If such scenes share the ‘virtue’ of good sociability, they also, undeniably, share unequal and exclusionary conditions of possibility (where was the peasant in Sennett’s polis, where is the married woman in Bersani’s homosexual milieu?). On one level this is only to say that they share structures of narcissistic fantasy – mitigating against envi­ronmental disequilibrium – though clearly the manner in which this narcissism is acknowledged differs from case to case.

One version of the narcissistic paradox runs as follows: narcissis­tic illusions of self-sufficiency (the imaginary covering-over of priva­tion) will deny even those environments of care which appear to be entirely supportive. We saw this in Chapter 2 with the case of Little Hans whose parents were exemplary in constituting a supportive and binding environment of care. They provided the ideal conditions for the developmental achievements of intersubjective recognition which Hans obstinately resisted to the point of his own breakdown. Hans, we remember, was a subject whose imagination found ‘lack’ uncon­scionable, to the extent of insisting that his mother and little sister had ‘widdlers’ just like him. And yet, strangely, it was this very refusal to recognise the other (as his parents would have wished) that propelled his quasi-scientific investigations, and presented him as an object of attraction to the social world (he was admired by Freud for his sapere aude). We might say, then, that Hans embodied a constitutional over­statement of self, and that his was an illusion of self-sufficiency in a case where the conditions did not seem to require it. The excessiveness of his narcissistic fantasy is worth pondering, in the first place for the structural necessity of positing a self over an original privation; but per­haps more enigmatically, for the form of social relation it implies. Hans is attractive to those whose advice he ignores, and, by being so, he pro­vokes his environment into caring for him. This leads us to a second version of the narcissistic paradox noted above: the environment that the narcissist doesn’t recognise, is the environment that he is able to act upon. Narcissism, thus conceived, is more than a reactive principle. In fact it allows us to imagine a situation of corresponding powers: the power of the environment to withdraw its cooperation, and the corre­sponding power of the narcissist to act upon the environment by calling out to the narcissism of others.

But just what kind of conversation can take place between multiple narcissists? Throughout this book we have worked to undo the ossifica­tion of narcissism as a constitutional state of non-relationality. Of course Narcissus relates! The idea of a non-relational agent is always a fic­tion, after all; and a fiction, moreover, in which the narcissist and the critic of narcissism partake together. The question that guarantees nar­cissism’s relevance for contemporary psychosocial debate concerns the limitations of relating and, indeed, of recognition, implied by the very idea of a narcissistic sociability. The reading I have sought to bring for­ward is one in which narcissism speaks to the confused cohabitation of subject and object within the same breast, which then extends to the multiple boundary confusions in the social world beyond. As the archetypal subject-in-formation (indexed to Freud’s assertion that ‘the ego has to be developed’) Narcissus has to perform the original act of (mis)recognition. We encounter him at the poolside sitting suspended between possession and non-possession of his self; both recognising and failing to recognise himself in the image before him. As Lou Salome sug­gested, it may be that Narcissus sees the whole world when he looks into the pool; alternatively, it may be that he sees only a distorted face. His identifications range, therefore, from the grandiose to the fractured. To put it somewhat differently, in becoming himself he can only become more or less than himself.

Returned endlessly from self-possession to non-possession, Narcissus is also a figure possessed. Possessed, that is, by an otherness which pre­vents him from fixing his identity. As Butler – via Jean Laplanche – makes clear, the act of self-identification or self-possession is always an act of dissimulated sociality (2005, 75). This is explicated in the mythic scene through the figure of Echo. As we know, Narcissus turned away from those suitors who would claim to possess him and his beauty, yet

Echo, herself one such suitor, endures in spectral form. If, as is usually emphasised, she is witness to Narcissus’ self-absorption – a symbol there­fore of abject exclusion – she must also be read as an externalisation of that which haunts Narcissus from the beginning; the other which comes before any act of identification (without Echo there can be no Narcissus). Damned to repeat words not her own, Echo is also the cita – tional device through which words are taken away from their speaker, become ‘common’ property, and rebound with strange and distorted meanings in other contexts. Forever unrecognised, then, Echo also rep­resents the impossibility of Narcissus fully recognising himself, since his words – like his image – are returned to him inscribed with difference.

The mythic first picture of narcissistic sociability finds an instructive iteration in the encounter between Freud and his charming stray cat discussed in the last chapter. The attraction of the cat resided in its lim­ited susceptibility to influence. That Freud could not successfully court its affection, did not prevent the cat from relying on him for its crea­ture comforts; it was as if the cat derived its charm from its blindness to its own dependency. Although we might imagine Freud’s nurse-maid duties here to have made him the other, secreted and unrecognised, within the cat’s appearance of self-possession, we can also invert this designation so that the cat becomes the unaccounted for other within Freud’s action. Why does Freud continue to feed the cat who refuses to recognise him? If the relationship between Freud and his cat can be seen as a kind of love story, and certainly we can imagine it this way in light of Salome’s account, then, significantly, it is a love story lacking in mutual recognition. Freud and his cat are unrequited lovers together.

In being alert to such seductions of narcissism, we have considered its centrality to the structures of sociability; the act of self-possession draws the other in by seeming to turn away. It has been important to underscore that enfolded within the narcissist’s seductive power exists a vulnerability configured by its precarious environment of care. This has meant that any act of self-possession is always also an act that inscribes an original privation. Critically, within the performance of narcissistic self-possession resides the enigma of social action itself. To act – to self – posit – means to put yourself where you were not, and as such it entails a boundary confusion. Narcissistic action (or action as narcissistic) means a venturing forth into otherness figured as a turning back upon the self. If we detect here an appropriative strategy – where the other is taken to be the self – it is not without its reflexivity. Although narcissism has often been read as eliding difference through failure to recognise the other, recent psychoanalytically engaged critical work has suggested ways in which this failure might be transformed into an opening for an ethical encounter. Specifically by questioning the terms of recipro­cal recognition – in particular idealisations of intersubjectivity, and the implicit humanism of always being able to look the other in the face (and thus recognise their otherness) – critical debate has permitted us to imagine an ethical Narcissus (see Butler, 2005; Frosh, 2010).

If we are inclined to think of his constitutional failure to recognise otherness as mere carelessness or irresponsibility, then the idea that Narcissus models an impersonal virtue may prove difficult to accept. Granted, overcoming this difficulty requires that we think of politics as something beyond the public negotiation of different egoic interests, and consider instead of a politics of subjects-in-formation who translate themselves into the world through multiple identifications. Whether these identifications are with groups or with discrete qualities disso­ciable from a whole person or a complete object, they indicate the distortion of a strictly human and recognisable basis for giving an ethi­cal account. Although she does not propose it in the name of Narcissus, what Butler conceives of as an ethics ‘based on our shared, invariable, and partial blindness about ourselves’ could, as I have defined it here, be characterised as narcissistic (2005, 41). We have seen throughout that Narcissus is blind to his environment – attractively insusceptible to its influence – and yet narcissism must also be considered a theory of the environment, foregrounding, as it does, the question of how the self is (or is not) distinguished from its surroundings. This means, at least in part, that Narcissus is blind to himself. Such a theory is bound to com­plicate the ethics of recognition insofar as it calls into question what is recognisable as other: what shape must the other take in order to be recognisable, and where and how must it be found?

Throughout this book I have described various scenes of partial recognition: Narcissus at the poolside; the besotted parent with His – Majesty-the-Baby, the coquette in a formally convened gathering; and the horizons of sexual cruising in Bersani’s work. We might say that these sociable scenes all demonstrate the obliquity of effective social relations. To describe the social relation as oblique is to underscore the partiality of the gaze: Echo and Narcissus do not share a look, though they are in relation; the baby looks to the breast of the mother, the mother to her own reflection in the baby’s dewy eyes; the coquette is master of the sideways glance, and presents herself to the other through the part-object of her decolletage; whilst Bersani’s impersonal intimacies engage the backs of heads, and other body parts. Narcissistic sociability, then, describes the relations between subjects-in-formation who are both more and less than themselves, always trespassing the notional and imaginary boundary between self and other. The inevitable final scene to consider in this regard is that of the psychoanalytic consulting room. We might suggest that psychoanalysis as a social science was inaugu­rated along with the couch, for it is on the couch that the mutual gaze is interrupted, the obliquity of the social situation embodied, and Narcissus is encouraged to speak – of himself, and to himself. Echo, now the analyst, offers the occasional glance and listens on.

Re-turning to narcissism?

In her work of 1997, The Psychic Life of Power, Judith Butler foregrounds the figure of the ‘turn’ as the key to understanding the ‘becoming’ of the reflexive subject (30). In contrast to sociological framings of reflexivity (Chapter 4), Butler’s presentation helps us to think further about the conceptual difficulties inherent in what we recognised above as the ego’s dual status (i. e. ego as subject and object).

In order to curb desire, one makes of oneself an object for reflection; in the course of producing one’s alterity, one becomes established as a reflexive being, one who can take oneself as an object. Reflex – ivity becomes the means by which desire is regularly transmuted into the circuit of self-reflection. The doubling back of desire that culminates in reflexivity produces, however, another order of desire: the desire for that very circuit, for reflexivity, and, ultimately, for subjection. (22)

Among the various attachments, displacements and substitutions that the ‘doubling back’ of desire allows for, the prominent place given to self-objectification (as the desire for subjection) reminds us that acts of defining and maintaining a subject position will always entail a violence (as per Freud’s comment above regarding the consequences of a man’s attempt to control his aggressiveness). Butler’s engagement with Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ essay, which is critical to her exploration of how desiring subjects come to desire their own subjection, points up the unknown loss at the heart of melancholia which ultimately marks the limits of the subject’s reflexivity (23).

With particular focus on the trope of the turn, she develops the para­doxical thought that ‘a subject emerges only through the action of turning back on itself’ (68). The logical and grammatical contradictions raised by Freud’s figuration of the ego’s ‘turn back upon itself’ become the stage for Butler’s negotiation of an account of melancholy as that which ‘interiorizes’ the psyche:

The turn from object to ego is the movement that makes the distinc­tion between them possible, that marks the division, the separation or loss, that forms the ego to begin with. [… ] The turn thus produces the divide between ego and object, the internal and external world that it appears to presume. (170)

By suggesting that the ego is instituted through an act of identifica­tion with the lost object, Butler attributes to melancholia, which she calls a ‘compensatory form of negative narcissism’, a formative rather than occasional character (182). The reason melancholia does not sim­ply indicate an object-loss which has not been sufficiently mourned, is

that its object is doubly lost; it is lost to the world but also to conscious­ness, which means it cannot be mourned. Melancholia ‘withdrawn and preserved in the suspended time of psychic life’, effectuates the ‘splitting off’ of the ego-as-object from the critical agency of conscience, and thus produces the topography of the subject (183). Freud’s psychic topogra­phy, Butler suggests, is ‘symptomatic of what it seeks to explain’, namely how the ego comes to be subjected to itself (179). That the ego forever fails to compensate for the object it has lost is familiar, as Butler admits, from the first paragraphs of ‘On Narcissism’. The act of originary identi­fication with the doubly lost object which forms the ego also accounts for a melancholic self-berating in which the critical agency of the mind insistently communicates its dissatisfactions to itself. This speaking from where I am not (critical agency as subject) to berate what I am failing to be (ego-as-object) continues to communicate socially. Melancholia’s ostensible withdrawal from the world of objects, Butler suggests, per­forms in the theatre of its ambivalence the operation of social power within the subject.

The melancholic, then, despite her committed inwardness is not aso­cial. In this way she bears a family resemblance to our narcissistic infant whose myth of self-sufficiency continues to provoke the other in her environment of care. With this resemblance in mind, we may ask why Butler insists that ‘melancholia operates in a direction directly counter to narcissism’ (187). She goes on to explain:

Echoing the biblical cadence of ‘the shadow of death,’ a way in which death imposes its presence on life, Freud remarks that in melancholia ‘the shadow of the object fell upon the ego’ (249). In Lacan’s essays on narcissism, the formulation is importantly reversed: the shadow of the ego falls upon the object. Narcissism continues to control love, even when that narcissism appears to give way to object-love: it is still myself that I find there at the site of the object, my absence. In melancholia this formulation is reversed: in the place of the loss that the other comes to represent, I find myself to be that loss, impoverished, wanting. In narcissistic love, the other contracts my abundance. In melancholia, I contract the other’s absence. (187)

Butler is not alone in drawing such an opposition between narcis­sism and melancholia. For Margarita Palacios, for example, the two are ‘unmistakably different phenomena. The first [narcissism] is character­ized by the not letting go of certain imaginary identifications with an idealized experience of "fullness" (or omnipotence), whereas the second [melancholia] refers to the embracement of the void and the "resis­tance" to fill it with fantasy’ (10-11). For Frosh (2006), melancholia signals an emblematic recovery of ‘depth and meaning’ and the ‘inten­sity of relational ties’ from the pathological sense of ‘interchangeability’ of relations which characterises the surface play of narcissism (369; 371). There is a negotiation of registers to be mindful of here: Frosh’s distinction points both to the contrasting phenomenology of the two conditions, and to the movement between them at the level of cultural discourse. Perhaps we can allow that the politicisation of melancholia – a discursive advance in which Butler’s work has been paramount – has encouraged an over-emphatic division between our two terms; Freud, after all, leaves us in no doubt as to their proximity when he explains that melancholia ‘borrows some of its features from mourning, and the others from the process of regression from narcissistic object-choice to narcissism’ (1917b, 250). Butler acknowledges this when she notes that melancholia ‘must be understood, in part, as a narcissistic disturbance’ (188).

Leaving aside for the moment the particulars of the narcissism – melancholia distinction, we might productively focus on the effect of its discursive prominence. It is interesting to note, for example, that while the distinction between narcissism and melancholia is invested with a special importance, the distinction between narcissistic and ana – clitic object-choice recedes from view. It was the same year as he wrote ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ that Freud added his following explanatory footnote to his ‘Three Essays’ first published in 1905:

Psycho-analysis informs us that there are two methods of finding an object. The first […] is the ‘anaclitic’ or ‘attachment’ one, based on attachment to early infantile prototypes. The second is the narcissis­tic one, which seeks for the subject’s own ego and finds it again in other people. (1905, 222n [added 1915])

In Chapter 1 we made the case that this distinction between the ana – clitic and narcissistic is not so clear cut, especially in light of Freud’s formative claim that ‘[t]he finding of an object is in fact a refinding of it’ (1905, 222). Freud implies that there is a regressive aspect to every object-choice, either moving to a narcissistic prototype (i. e. the subject’s own ego), or to an anaclitic prototype (i. e. the providing parent figure). Recalling the fabric of primary narcissism, however, where the bound­aries of the subject’s ego do not necessarily exclude the mother’s breast, it is unclear whether we can preserve, alongside the regressive quality of object-choice, the categorical separateness of the anaclitic and narcissis­tic modes: If, in the place to which one regresses, there is a fundamental subject-object confusion, an ostensibly anaclitic choice can always mask a narcissistic attachment, and vice versa. That we can never be confident of distinguishing an object in the world from an object in the psyche is of course germane to Butler’s theorisation of melancholia. In fact she seems to tacitly support the idea that encountering objects in the world under the sign of love is characteristically narcissistic, at once eroding the distinctiveness of anaclitic object-choice, and replacing one kind of meaningful difference with another: instead of seeing the narcissistic – anaclitic distinction as most crucial to an understanding of how the subject relates to his world, she privileges a comparative evaluation of narcissism and melancholia, both of which, significantly, arrive at the object-world only through persistent ego-investiture.

Butler’s reading (via Lacan) that in narcissistic love ‘the shadow of the ego falls upon the object’, affirms Freud’s logic that the refinding of a psychic prototype occurs in every instance of love. The narcissist consistently (re)finds his ego in every object he encounters. The melan­cholic, though similar to the narcissist in her (re)turn to the ego, finds there not self-love, but love’s transformation into loss (she finds in her­self the shadow of an object which is lost). The ethical suggestion at work in Butler’s position runs as follows: The melancholic return which enacts an identification with a lost object – and in so doing spatialises melancholic subjectivity – creates the conditions for an ethical relation to the other (‘In melancholia, I contract the other’s absence’ (187)). The narcissistic return, on the other hand, is but the appearance of return fabricated by an endless series of identifications: refinding himself continually in the other gives the narcissist’s ‘regression’ the charac­ter of superficial promiscuity (‘In narcissistic love, the other contracts my abundance’ (187)). The most problematic implication of this dual perspective is how it gestures towards consigning narcissistic identifi­cation to the self-preservation instincts, and melancholic identification to the death instincts, such that the first is characterised as essentially conservative, the second as self-destructive and potentially subversive. Put in such stark terms we can see how this bifurcation significantly underplays the extent to which the ego, created through identification, concurrently entails a loss of self. We recall that when Bersani referred to the mode of ‘self-jouissance’ linked to the act of ‘being less than oneself’ in social situations, he did so under the aegis of narcissistic identification (Chapter 5). This is a thought inherited from Freud’s ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’ (1921).

Reading Gustave Le Bon on the psychology of crowds, Freud is particularly impressed by how the individual can have the paradoxi­cal experience of feeling at once omnipotent and self-divested within the narcissistic dynamics of homosocial identification: the individual is both self-inflated, and giving himself away through his identifica­tion with the group. What Freud’s paper shows, in the most general terms, is how narcissism operates at a social level well beyond the self­preservation of the individual ego. More specifically, by pointing to how an individual ego is left behind as the group ego is instituted via an act of identification, Freud reminds us of his conviction from his 1914 paper that the ego has to be developed. The group ego is developed through a process of agglomeration which always amounts to more than the sum of its parts; it is an ideal. Significantly, just as an individual can iden­tify himself with a crowd (that which is more than himself), so it must be possible to perform a partial identification with a ‘common quality’ dissociable from a whole person or a complete object (that which is less than himself). Freud gives the exceptional example of his patient Dora’s identification with her Father’s cough, but also suggests, more broadly, that narcissistic identifications with common qualities discerned in oth­ers are critical to the formation of social ties (106-108). To resume Bersani’s line of thought from the last chapter, then, the imaginative act of identifying with ‘qualities’ – parts rather than stable wholes – suggests a potential alliance between narcissistic identification and the loss of the self, when identification with fugitive parts rebounds as self-fracture.

If we are to offer an alternative to the conceptual split between conser­vative narcissism and subversive melancholia – with all its ethical and political ramifications – then we need to enquire after the reality status of identification itself. Freud is clear about the illusory quality of group identification, which we might easily read as a gigantic recapitulation of the infant’s illusion of self-sufficiency. In light of this admission we are encouraged to question whether melancholic self-dispossession shares a similar illusory foundation. Whilst some recent theorists of melancholy have inclined to honour the lost object – for acting as a redress to nar­cissistic fantasies of self-presence – it is not immediately clear that the lost object is any less potent a fantasy than the refound object.

Indeed, that a libidinal object-cathexis is transferred within the ego conforms to the order of fantasy, with the added twist that it is a fan­tasy of impoverishment. Further, that the object is not simply lost but preserved through the marking of its loss, signals the peculiar irony of melancholic fantasy. By acknowledging this fantasy structure we enact an important shift in temporal perspective: namely, the retrospect of having ‘lost’ an object in the past which is at the same time preserved for the future (though in negative outline only) is supplemented by the prospect of imagining a lost object in the future when there will have been no object to begin with. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben establishes this melancholic ingenuity as follows:

[… ] melancholia offers the paradox of an intention to mourn that precedes and anticipates the loss of the object. […] If the libido behaves as if a loss had occurred although nothing has in fact been lost, this is because the libido stages a simulation where what cannot be lost because it has never been possessed appears as lost, and what could never be possessed because it had never perhaps existed may be appropriated insofar as it is lost. (1993, 20)

In other words, the lost object is a form of semblance which does not correspond to an original. If melancholia, as Freud suggests, borrows from mourning and from narcissism, then the latter engages the former by transforming it into the originary performance of loss (1917b, 250). As Agamben refines the paradox, because the object has not existed in the past it can be more entirely appropriated for the present; the ‘funereal’ contours of its interminable non-presence open up an ‘unreal’ space inside the self in which the object is secured (20).

When Slavoj Zizek (2000) extends the political consequences of Agamben’s work on the fantasy of loss, he suggests that the melan­cholic’s fixation on the lost object is in danger of bad faith. Arguing that melancholy ‘obfuscates’ the fact that ‘the object is lacking from the very beginning’, he addresses this in terms of the ‘deceitful transla­tion of lack into loss’ (660). Mere object loss cannot fully account for the operation of desire which is determined by an original lack that no object can compensate for. For Zizek, fixating on the lost object inau­gurates a predictive series of dissatisfactions with objects in the world that must become lost in the process of their being appropriated. Thus, the melancholic enacts a parody of capitalist consumption, but without the philosophical means to address the original terms of her libidinal fantasy.2

By developing melancholia as a prospective fantasy – i. e. the fantasy of the object that can only be encountered as already lost – Agamben and Zizek reconnect us to Freud’s assertion that the finding of an object is a refinding. The trivial point to make here is that the act of refinding implies the prior act of losing. More significantly, however, narcissistic investments which return us from the world of objects to the prototype object in the self (the ego), find in the self a fundamental non-identity: what the self refinds in multiple objects is intermittently more or less than itself. In ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ Freud buries in an aside to do with ‘somatic factors’ a formidable question: he asks ‘whether a loss in the ego irrespectively of the object – a purely narcissistic blow to the ego – may not suffice to produce the picture of melancholia […]’ (1917b, 253 my emphasis). By speculatively dispensing with the lost object, Freud tantalisingly suggests a vision of melancholic subjectivity which is nar­cissistic without being mournful. If there is such a thing as a ‘purely narcissistic blow to the ego’ then strictly speaking one does not have to have lost in order to lack, and we find within the narcissistic economy the conditions for reflexivity and self-fracture.

Narcissism and melancholia

Written in 1915 (though not published until 1917), ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ extends the work of Freud’s paper ‘On Narcissism’ of the previous year. The translation of Freud’s 1914 title ‘Zur Einfuhrung Des Narzissmus’ as ‘On Narcissism: An Introduction’, suggests that the paper promises an introductory sketch of narcissism, whereas the German title indicates that the task of the paper is in fact to account for the intro­duction of narcissism to the broader psychoanalytic project (1914a, 69). This difference of inflection is important because it draws us back to the central problems that the theory of narcissism raises and which persist in Freud’s work on melancholia. Why, we must ask, does Freud ‘intro­duce’ narcissism to his metapsychological field; what research problem does this introduction attempt to solve, and how does it pertain to his subsequent theorisation of melancholia?

We recall from our reading of the 1914 paper, that a ‘new psychical action’ was posited as necessary to propel the transition from autoeroti­cism (an object-less state which exists from the outset) to the state of narcissism (a state in which the ego is libidinally cathected). The sup­position of a distinct psychical action, a catalyst of sorts, was deemed necessary by Freud because it was assumed that ‘a unity comparable to the ego cannot exist in the individual from the start’ (77). A fundamen­tal question persisted, however, when the reader of the 1914 paper did not learn what the ‘new psychical action’ is that instantiates the neces­sary development of the ego. It is not altogether surprising, then, that when Freud turns to his theorisation of melancholia the following year he takes the opportunity to stage a further reckoning with the problem of ‘the constitution of the human ego’ (1917b, 247). And yet a disquisi­tion on states of sadness may well strike us as an unusual location from which to pursue this aspect of metapsychological enquiry.

Mourning and melancholia contribute to the catalogue of common­place conditions, enumerated by Freud in his 1914 paper, that are characterised by a narcissistic withdrawal of libido on to the subject’s own self (e. g. organic illnesses, hypochondria, sleep, falling in love). When the sick man suffering from toothache, say, withdraws his libid – inal cathexes back into his own ego and temporarily neglects his most cherished objects in the external world, we do not find his behaviour alarming (1914a, 82). Likewise, says Freud, we are not taken aback when the loss of a loved one creates in the individual a state of ‘profoundly painful dejection, cessation of interest in the outside world, loss of the capacity to love, [and] inhibition of all activity’ – for the person in ques­tion will, of necessity, devote herself to the work of mourning until the point at which ‘respect for reality gains the day’ and investments beyond the ego can be afforded once more (1917b, 244). Such is the condition of so-called normal mourning. For the melancholic, however, the picture is a little more complex. In addition to exhibiting the painful symptoms of a subject in mourning, the melancholic manifests a curious ‘distur­bance of self-regard’ which finds expression in uninhibited self-criticism and self-reproach (244). It is only when one understands melancholia as a process through which an object-cathexis is replaced by an iden­tification, however, that the true target of the melancholic’s criticism is revealed to be the lost object rather than the individual’s own self. This confusion rebounds because the nature of the loss that gives rise to melancholia cannot be as directly apprehended as it can in so-called normal mourning: the melancholic might know ‘whom he has lost but not what he has lost in him’ (245). With this differentiation between the known whom and the unknown what, Freud underscores the opacity of melancholia commensurate with the withdrawal of the object-loss from consciousness. This leads Freud to articulate the distinction between the two states thus: ‘In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself’ (246). But just how does the lost object get ‘inside’, so to speak, and how might an understanding of this mechanism shed light on the residual question from the 1914 paper regarding the development of the ego? To answer these questions we need to go a little further in our explication of the melancholic’s impoverished ego-state.

In his 1914 paper Freud demonstrated the (narcissistic) difficulty of maintaining a conceptual distinction between the ego-as-subject, and the ego-as-object. When Freud claims that a unity comparable to the ego cannot exist from the start, we assume he is thinking of the ego as subject; which is to say, the ego as broadly coterminous with an agentic sense of self that a general usage of the term implies.1 But of course, the force of the paper resides in Freud’s provocation that the ego can be libidinally invested as can any other object. We can call this difficulty a narcissistic one in as much as Freud’s theoretical chal­lenge replicates the boundary confusion that we have seen to exemplify narcissistic states. In the 1914 paper the apparatus of the ego’s critical agency, in the form of the ego-ideal, went some way in articulating its dual status (i. e. the ego as subject and object). The clinical predominance of the melancholic’s ‘dissatisfaction with the ego on moral grounds’ – the melancholic’s shameless self-criticism – gives Freud further cause to investigate the critical ego-ideal in his subsequent paper (1917b, 248).

Freud explains that when, in melancholia, the surfeit of libido that the loss of the object releases is withdrawn into the ego it then binds the ego to the abandoned object in a narcissistic identification. In a much quoted passage, the mode of identification of the ego with the abandoned object is described as follows:

Thus the shadow of the object fell upon the ego, and the latter could henceforth be judged by a special agency, as though it were an object, the forsaken object. In this way an object-loss was transformed into an ego-loss and the conflict between the ego and the loved person into a cleavage between the critical activity of the ego and the ego as altered by identification. (249)

It is important to keep in mind here the inviolable psychoanalytic prin­ciple of ambivalence: With particular reference to narcissism, Freud tells us that in the oral/cannibalistic phase of sexual organisation, where love and hate are not yet in opposition, the desire to incorporate the object is an expression of ‘a type of love which is consistent with abolishing the object’s separate existence and which may therefore be described as ambivalent’ (1915c, 138). Hence in melancholia, a regressive narcissis­tic identification with the object enacts an incorporation which brings the melancholic’s ambivalence to the fore. In sustaining a narcissistic identification with the object, the melancholic does not have to give up the lost object wholesale (object-loss is transformed into ego-loss); how­ever, in the very act of safeguarding something of the object (through its transformation), the melancholic also preserves the conflict that was coincident with object-love. Now though, the ‘conflict due to ambiva­lence’ is a battle that rages entirely within one breast (1917b, 251). Freud continues:

If the love for the object – a love which cannot be given up though the object itself is given up – takes refuge in narcissistic identifica­tion, then the hate comes into operation on this substitutive object, abusing it, debasing it, making it suffer and deriving sadistic satis­faction from its suffering. The self-tormenting in melancholia, which is without doubt enjoyable, signifies […] a satisfaction of trends of sadism and hate which relate to an object, and which have been turned around upon the subject’s own self [… ] (251)

Presupposing that the ego can take itself as object (a substitute object), melancholia models a turning around of destructive trends back on the subject’s own self. We cannot overlook the violence inherent in this melancholic fantasy-scape with its intimate connection to the opera­tions of (moral) conscience. Freud offers the phenomenon of suicide (and suicidal thoughts) as operative under this schema where ‘the ego can kill itself only if, owing to the return of the object-cathexis, it can treat itself as an object’ (252). Some years later, by which time the ego’s critical agency was theorised as the superego, Freud asks how ‘in melancholia the super-ego can become a kind of gathering-place for the death instincts?’ With reference again to the figurative ‘turn’, he concludes that ‘the more a man controls his aggressiveness, the more intense becomes his ideal’s inclination to aggressiveness against his ego. It is like a displacement, a turning round upon his own ego’ (1923, 54). What is important to note is that this curious picture is generalised when Freud explains that melancholic ‘substitution^]’ (i. e. the replacement of an object-cathexis by an identification) should be understood as ‘com­mon’ and ‘typical’ in a theory of ‘character’ formation (28). With this formulation of a figurative turn, and the identification of the ego as object, we are returned to Freud’s unresolved statement from his 1914 paper, ‘the ego has to be developed’ (1914a, 77).

From Narcissism to Melancholia, and Back Again

I have been making the claim throughout this book that Narcissus can be raised from his recent history of negative attribution and brought centre-stage in the performance of sociability. Of course, some might argue that Narcissus should be left exactly where he is: they might say that it is simply not possible to relocate him in this way for he will refuse to be enticed from the imaginary enclosure he cohabits with his own self-image, and even if, hypothetically, we could lure him away from himself, it would be dangerous to do so (remember that Narcissus’ cer­tain fate was punishment for his disregard of others’ interests). But then again, if we believe the critics of ‘cultural narcissism’, Narcissus has long since broken free from his fixation at the poolside, and can be found circulating destructively in the economic and libidinal systems of late modern capitalism. With Narcissus’ entry into the market, the critical declinists perceived a threat to the impersonality of public culture and its opportunities for aesthetic forms of sociability. Contrariwise, I have been concerned to show Narcissus’ communicative side; his capacity for charm, and his active seduction of his self that inevitably leaves its mark on the other. Rather than banish Narcissus back into ‘splendid isola­tion’, I should like to see him feature more vitally within contemporary psychosocial discourse.

We have returned repeatedly to our mythic protagonist to interrogate his state of possession and non-possession. The dialectical reading of narcissism that I have pursued has been critical to our appreciation of Narcissus’ multifaceted qualities. Just as the figure of the child – e. g. inquisitive Little Hans – finds self-delight in the very questions that threaten to undo him, and just as the Narquette finds a fulsome sat­isfaction in becoming less than herself, so too does Narcissus’ ‘joy in torment’ indicate a curious double structure. There is a similar structure to be detected in Freud’s theorisation of the melancholic as someone who is entirely absorbed in his own grief and suffering, but nonetheless ‘displays […] an extraordinary diminution in his self-regard’ (1917b, 246). Indeed, in Freud’s depiction, the melancholic displays an attach­ment to his suffering that brings to mind the reading of Narcissus’ predicament offered by Salome in the previous chapter where the hero’s self-enchantment is accompanied always by his melancholy. Despite the numerous indications that Freud gives as to the shared contours of the narcissist and the melancholic, it is often the case that strong lines of demarcation are drawn between the two figures. Narcissism is taken to signify rigidity and fixedness symptomatic of a closed econ­omy of desire, whilst melancholia is readily associated with openness and not-knowing that correlates to expressions of ambivalence. On the basis of such minimal characterisations, it is not difficult to suggest that the latter provides the more attractive model of subjectivity. More inter­estingly, and not un-relatedly, melancholia has also proved the more attractive theoretical apparatus for contemporary analyses of the oper­ations of power constitutive of (political) subject-formation. Following the negative cultural narcissism discourse associated with the 1970s – 1980s (Chapter 4), there has been a discursive turn away from narcissism and towards melancholia as the more pertinent term for thinking about contemporary social relations. No doubt melancholia’s ascendancy in the critical literature attests to the desire for a lexical register that can attend to displacement and dispossession as principal constituents of a contemporary politics. In Freud’s formulation, what is lost remains dwelling within the melancholy subject because it cannot be grieved. We saw earlier how nostalgia keeps alive a past that was never a present (Chapter 3); correspondingly, we might say that melancholia invests in a lost object that refuses to go away. The reason it refuses to go away is because the melancholy subject incorporates the object which comes to provide the basis for an identification, the strength of which appears to (re)define the subject. As a conceptual model in Freud’s metapsychology, then, melancholia encourages us to ask whether loss is the neces­sary premise of identity. This question, resonating as it does beyond the realm of individual psychopathology, must surely go some way to explaining melancholia’s attraction from the perspective of theorising contemporary psychosocial formations.

However, if the rise of melancholia as a discursive term of conse­quence suggests something of a paradigm shift, then what becomes of Narcissus? Are we really content to restrict his critical import to the neg­ative portrayal associated with the cultural criticism of the mid-to-late twentieth century? Or, might we be able to keep open a space for narcissism on the social scene that could be attractive to projects of contemporary critique? In the concluding chapter of this book, I shall continue to make the case for narcissism’s ongoing value to current representations of the psychosocial by focussing on narcissism’s and melancholia’s proximate positioning. As will be anticipated, I shall resist a reading of Narcissus as entirely blind to his own loss (the loss implied in his intermittent possession and non-possession of himself) and ask instead what we might lose if we situate the narcissist against the melancholic, or abandon him altogether to the annals of criticism where he functioned as the sign of cultural decline. Our first task, how­ever, is to endeavour to understand the relation between narcissism and melancholia as they are situated in Freud’s work: As Freud explicates them, what exactly do the terms share, what is their common ground, so to speak, and along what lines, if any, do they begin to diverge?

The ‘woman question’ revisited

I suggested at the top of this chapter that the configuration of the Narquette promised a utopian release from the determinations of gen­dered identity. But perhaps my drawing of this figure whose strength and attraction is indexed to her mastery of play and illusion still bears too close a resemblance to a reading of feminine sexuality as that which dances to the master’s tune. Of course, one could simply say that if libido is conceived as masculine then this subordinate positioning is unavoidable (which, incidentally, is one explanatory context for Lacan’s confounding insistence on the non-existence of the category ‘woman’). Nonetheless, I should like to justify my presentation of the Narquette as one which is not blithely unconcerned with the psychoanalytic ten­dency to make woman’s intelligibility a secondary order question, and to consolidate my provocation that in good narcissistic play substantive identity claims are suspended.

Perhaps the most obvious starting point would be to question whether there is anything that distinguishes the Narquette from the general cat­egory of the hysteric; a figure who relies on imitation and mimicry to perform her (non-)’identity’. And, further, we might ask whether the performative stance of hysteria is necessarily feminine?8 The hys­teric’s very existence is established and sustained through fashioning herself as the object that would respond to the desire of the other – the consequence being that the contours of her own subjectivity diminish. Since Freud’s time of writing, psychoanalytic literature has been popu­lated by (more or less hysterical) feminine figures that have extended the alignment of femininity with the language of fakery, sham and mas­querade. It would seem that the sexual sociability that the Narquette embodies cannot escape these familiar coordinates for she too enacts a mode of self-reduction or self-objectification that coincides with her vanishing subjectivity (and the vanishing subjectivity of her interlocu­tor). We recall that, like Freud’s cat, the Narquette will look upon her interlocutor as she would any other object; she is indifferent to the sub­jectivity of the other so as to engender the free-moving play of form constitutive of good sociability. Furthermore, as much as the Narquette demands this of the other, so too does she demand it of herself: In the service of sociability she empties herself out, becomes less than her­self. If, as I have maintained, such characteristics can be positively highlighted, then we need to stress how the profile of the Narquette that I have put forward differs from versions of pseudo-femininity that abound in the literature. We shall consider briefly three influen­tial examples: Joan Riviere’s conception of womanliness as masquerade (1929); Helene Deutsch’s ‘as if’ personality (1942); and Enid Balint’s work on ‘being empty of oneself’ (1963).

Written in 1929, Joan Riviere’s paper ‘Womanliness as a Masquer­ade’ takes as its subject those women who ‘while mainly heterosexual in their development, plainly display strong features of the other sex’

(303) . Expressly following Ernest Jones’ work on female sexuality (1927), Riviere positions her patient type as an ‘intermediate’ type which poses a real ‘puzzle’ for classification. She proceeds with the thesis that ‘women who wish for masculinity may put on a mask of womanliness to avert anxiety and the retribution feared from men’ (303). The ‘masculinity’ that is both desired and in fact possessed by such women is manifest in their intellectual and practical prowess, their accomplishments in pre­dominantly male fields, their management of public audiences, and, most generally, their capacity to stand – albeit temporarily – on equal terms with men (303-308). The reason such equal standing is curtailed, however, is because this female type will subsequently deploy as a cover­ing strategy a ‘femininity’ that is characterised by flirtatious, coquettish, or perhaps flippant and jokey behaviour, and which is always driven by a need to ‘hide the possession of masculinity and to avert the reprisals expected if she was found to possess it’ (306). There is some ambiguity over the status of such women’s masculinity: is it a wished-for masculin­ity, or is it in some way actually possessed? Whilst Riviere suggests both, the latter prospect contains the stronger and more interesting thesis: namely that femininity becomes woman’s defence against man’s penis envy! This echoes a version of the paradox we saw above where, in Kofman’s words, woman ‘has preserved what man has lost’ (52).

Of greatest import here is the fact that the coquettish mode, situated as central to the performance of womanliness under consideration in Riviere’s paper, shifts from being of particular interest to the study of an ‘intermediate type’ to being of general interest to the condition of woman. Anticipating the question of how one might ‘draw the line between genuine womanliness and the "masquerade"’, Riviere suggests that there is no such difference: ‘whether radical or superficial,’ she says, ‘they are the same thing’ (306). Perhaps the most striking implication of this position is that the apparatus of the mask is given a renewed ontological significance. In response to a version of the longstanding psychoanalytic question, ‘what is the essential nature of fully developed femininity?’ Riviere, in 1929, offers a ‘conception of womanliness as a mask’ (312-313). It is less the case, then, that the mask conceals a feminine essence, but rather a case of masks all the way down. What is compelling – and potentially subversive – about Riviere’s paper also marks its limitations. In grappling with the notion of a female masculin­ity the author becomes subject to the ‘puzzle’ she sought to resolve; as Stephen Heath puts it, ‘to be a woman is to dissimulate a fundamental masculinity, femininity is that dissimulation’ (Heath, 49).

Whilst Riviere’s curiosity regarding a female masculinity productively disturbs a vision of bounded and singular gender positions, it also rein­forces a disavowal of psychical formations that do not conform to a presumed heteronormativity. By casting the masquerading woman as a ‘mainly heterosexual’ type, Riviere’s paper can no doubt be situated amongst the discursive accounts of gender in which libido is mas­culinised and desire conceptualised within a heterosexual matrix (Butler, 2006 [1990]). As Butler puts it:

[… ] the donning of femininity as mask may reveal a refusal of a female homosexuality and, at the same time, the hyperbolic incorpo­ration of that female Other who is refused – an odd form of preserving and protecting that love within the circle of the melancholic and negative narcissism that results from the psychic inculcation of compulsory heterosexuality. (72)

The implications of Riviere’s paper – not least its place in Lacan’s account of the feminine and the feminist engagements that followed – have been widely discussed. My concern here is only to put ‘womanliness as a mas­querade’ in dialogue with my presentation of the Narquette. On reading Riviere’s account, one cannot fail to note that both the ‘feminine’ and the ‘masculine’ manifestations in her lead clinical vignette – read by many as autobiographical – are performance-based. The patient in ques­tion was engaged in work which ‘consisted principally in speaking and writing’ and, although her ‘success and ability’ was ‘unquestionable’, she would suffer considerable anxiety following her public performances

(304) . It was her habit to seek-out explicit reassurance from the men in her company, in the form both of compliments regarding the perfor­mance she had just given, and of attempts to ‘obtain sexual advances’

(305) . What was remarkable about her ‘flirting and coquetting [… ] in a more or less veiled manner’ was its ‘extraordinary incongruity [… ] with her highly impersonal and objective attitude during her intellectual per­formance, which it succeeded so rapidly in time’ (305, my emphasis). Performance, then, is certainly key to the case, however its gendered guise shifts: when ‘impersonal and objective’ it is masculine and success­ful, when flirtatious and veiling it is feminine and destructive. Whilst this is in keeping with Riviere’s contention that the feminine mask of the masquerade is put on as a compensatory measure to avert anxiety and ward off retribution, it nonetheless leaves us unsatisfied with the representations of gender available in this polarised form. Why is it, we are inclined to ask, that the patient’s mastery of her public audi­ence is so much more compelling than her intimate seductions? And, more importantly, why is it that this display of strength has to be mas­culinised? On a large stage, as I imagine Riviere’s patient to be, it seems that this woman can peacock with the best of them, and she does so, we are told, with an attractive impersonality. But on Riviere’s reading, the mask in question is donned after this masculine performance, which leaves somewhat neglected the masquerade of the first performance: i. e. the mask adopted to permit the peacock – the exemplary male show – bird – to outshine the peahen. If Riviere were to have focussed here, then she might have approached an understanding of the freedom of the mask that Simmel made so central to his account.

There remains, however, a danger in identifying the Narquette as a successful representative of female masculinity. Namely, that in doing so we overlook the fact – borrowed wholesale from Simmel’s coquette – that, as a figure, the Narquette emphasises form at the expense of con­tent. The Narquette promises – and at the same time delights in the peculiar imaginary of the promise – a relief from content, whether this is the content of gender politics, or identity politics more broadly. We can turn now to two concepts that describe in psychopathological terms the absence of content – or modes of emptiness – and ask whether they can be re-imagined to support the thesis represented by the Narquette.

Helene Deutsch’s well-known concept of the ‘as if’ personality (1942) and Enid Balint’s notion of ‘being empty of oneself’ (1963) are promi­nent examples of the aforementioned alignment of femininity with an (hysterical) empty subjectivity.9 The ‘as if’ of Deutsch’s terminol­ogy immediately brings to mind the capacity for play and illusion that we have seen to be of central importance to the Narquette’s sociability. For Deutsch, however, this character-type is not typified by such posi­tive aptitudes but rather by ‘a relationship to life [… ] which is lacking in genuineness and yet outwardly runs along "as if" it were complete’ (302). The ‘as if’ individual exhibits an often extremely functional ‘pseudo affectivity’ correspondent with ‘a highly plastic readiness to pick up signals from the outer world and to mold oneself and one’s behaviour accordingly’ (312; 304). Reminiscent of the labile identifica­tions of the hysteric, the ‘as if’ personality’s capacity to mirror allows her to make a first impression of ‘complete normality’, and yet her successful mimicry can only take her so far. It is in the field of artistic endeavours or related pursuits where a degree of flair or originality is expected that her emptiness is exposed. The ‘as if’ individual will be able to ‘construct, in form, a good piece of work but it is always a spasmodic, if skilled, rep­etition of a prototype without the slightest trace of originality’; likewise in emotional life, ‘expressions of emotion are formal, [and] inner experi­ence is completely excluded’ (303, my emphasis). The ‘as if’ personality’s incapacity to generate her own content or emotional reality is of a piece with her ‘formal’ talents. Of the five cases reported in Deutsch’s paper, one is a case of manifest homosexuality in a seventeen-year-old boy which sits slightly to the side of the ‘as if’ personality-proper; the other four are women.

Enid Balint states early on in her paper ‘On Being Empty of Oneself’ that clinical experience leads her to the conclusion that ‘the feeling of being empty or of "being empty of herself" is more frequently found in women than in men’ (472). In keeping with Deutsch’s position that the ‘as if’ personality is produced by the failure of object cathexes, Balint regards the state of being empty of oneself as coming from a basic ‘disturbance in the [subject’s] relationship both to the self and to the environment’ (471). She describes her work with a severe case, Sarah, a twenty-four-year-old woman whose six-year analysis included peri­ods of hospitalisation. Sarah’s feelings of emptiness are configured by Balint through the lens of recognition, or rather the failure thereof.

A predictable though unavoidable focus is given to the patient’s early maternal environment in which the child needs to find an ‘Echo’ of himself. For Sarah, maternal recognition was severely flawed, and the mother could not play Echo to the infant’s Narcissus:

[M]othering was an enveloping manipulating activity, where the infant herself had no potential, but was a kind of empty object in which she [the mother] could or even must put herself, so as to gain satisfaction and reassurance; she could not see her child as an independent person in her own right. (478)

Clearly, such mothering defies what Winnicott calls ‘good enough’. This vision of the infant as an empty object, a container to be filled up by her environment, is without question rather terrifying. As per Deutsch’s presentation of the ‘as if’ individual, the capacity to generate emotional content – the filling in of the contours of subjectivity – is atrophied in the case Balint describes.

Of course, the danger in divorcing concepts from their original clin­ical frame is that we risk undermining the particular conditions that gave rise to their development, and, in this case, distorting the suffering that accompanied the types of emptiness that both Deutsch and Balint describe. The goal here, however, is to acknowledge that these clinical testimonies demonstrate the ways in which things can go wrong when what we are calling ‘content’ fails to be instantiated, without foreclos­ing the possibility that ‘as if-ness’ and ‘being empty of oneself’ can be read rather differently when taken beyond their particular clinical con­texts. For obvious reasons, Deutsch and Balint are not disposed to see the possible pleasures of a version of selfhood emptied of content; the Narquette, however, has allowed us to look in that very direction. Georg Simmel, the most important of the modernist sociologists to ground an aesthetic sociology, was critical to our discussion above because of the obvious turn to form that he invites us to take with his appreciation of flirtation as a pure mode of sociability. Critically, this formal turn moves us away from a specifically gendered reading of the Narquette and enacts a break from the conflation of ’emptiness’ with the ‘special psychology of women’ (Balint, 472).

In his late paper on ‘Femininity’ (1933), Freud warns the analyst that he may rightly be frightened by the ‘rigidity’ that a woman will display in the consulting room: ‘Her libido has taken up final posi­tions and seems incapable of exchanging them for others. There are no paths open to further development; it is as though the whole pro­cess had already run its course and remains thenceforward insusceptible to influence’ (135, my emphasis). There is a surface contradiction, here, between Freud’s depiction of feminine rigidity and those mobile char­acteristics of feminine pathology identified in the works of Riviere, Deutsch and Balint – such as unconvincing mimicry, masquerade, and the space of an empty subjectivity. The mobility of these latter charac­teristics, though seemingly at odds with the alarming ‘unchangeability’ of the women on Freud’s couch, shares its premise with Freud’s idea that the psychology of women is finally insusceptible to influence. What for Freud is ‘unchangeability’ (134), and for Deutsch ‘passive plasticity’ and ‘pseudo affectivity’ (304; 312), is a woman’s fundamental failure to offer an account of herself. However, we have seen through­out this chapter that the narcissist’s ‘inaccessibility’ – her illusions of self-sufficiency – is also the source of her attraction, and that which pro­vokes envy in the onlooker. In the 1914 paper the ‘narcissistic attitude’ which determines ‘the limits to [the patient’s] susceptibility to influ­ence’ (just as per the 1933 lecture on femininity), is continuous with the ‘charm and self-contentment’ of all those unfathomable figures, such as children, certain animals, and literary criminals, that merit Freud’s admiration (73; 89). It may be, then, that what Freud regards as the weakness of woman’s social interests (1933, 134) also points to the indirect accomplishment of narcissistic sociability.

There is no doubt that Freud displays his partial blindness when it comes to woman’s disengagement from the public sphere – which runs in parallel to her resistance on the couch. For Freud, female rigidity is a moral consequence attributable to an underdeveloped ‘sense of justice and the predominance of envy in [… ] mental life’ (134). This moralis­ing attitude is recapitulated by Deutsch when she suggests that, because of her ’emptiness’ and ‘lack of individuality’, the ‘as if’ character fails to develop her own autonomous moral convictions, and reflects instead only the positions of others (305). In this chapter I have sought to sug­gest – via Salome, Simmel and Bersani – how the apparent failure of object-love, of social binding, and even of moral accountability, can reveal new (albeit incongruous) possibilities for social relations. Here, then, an identifiable feminine pathology veils a more general and trans – gendered social form. Specifically this involves the suspension of the subject’s private interests, and indeed the suspension of the demand for full and content-ed subjectivity, in deference to the form of the social relation itself. For Simmel, the impersonal form of social par­ticipation derived from the rhythmic movement between consent and refusal. Of flirtation, he writes, ‘[…] the unwillingness to submit one­self that could be an indirect way to self-surrender; the surrender of the self behind which the withdrawal of the self stands as a back­ground, a possibility, and a threat’ (1984, 135-136). It is significant that the play of social form here contains both a possibility and a threat. In flirtation, the self confronts not a complementary other, nor a directly interrelating subject, but an other whose consistent refusal to reciprocate, or return recognition, can only, in the end, reflect and exacerbate a privation in the self. The threat glimpsed through such social erotics is the obliteration of selfhood. This is what we saw Bersani to emphasise with reference to the self-shattering implied within the excitement of the flirtatious relation. Every social relation infers the pos­sibility of non-relation, and affirms the precariousness of any amenable environment.


Impersonal narcissism

The contemporary theorist Leo Bersani has made the prospect of narcis­sism as an aesthetic social principle central to his work. In his seminal text The Culture of Redemption (1990), he locates the ‘aesthetic of narcis­sism’ as pivotal to his development of a ‘general ethical-erotic project’, identifying in Freud’s 1914 essay the possibility of reading narcissism as a mode of ‘self-jouissance that dissolves the person and thereby, at least temporarily, erases the sacrosanct value of selfhood’ (3-4). In his more recent collaborative work with Adam Phillips (2008), he develops an account of narcissism in line with the principle of ‘self-divestiture’; an undressing or undermining of the self that opens the door to impersonal modes of sexual sociability. Let us consider, then, two aspects of Bersani’s thought in order to return to the phenomenon of coquetry – and Simmel’s theory thereof – equipped with a working theory of impersonal narcissism.

The first aspect concerns Bersani’s treatment of the narcissistic turn inward as a form of asceticism. We saw briefly in Chapter 4 how Sennett associated the narcissistic ‘tendency to measure the world as a mirror of the self’ (1977, 177) to that of a Weberian asceticism where the mod­ern subject is seen to affirm himself by denying himself pleasure in the world: a disposition which, according to Sennett, ultimately leads ‘to an erosion of belief in experience external to the self’ (1993, 334). Bersani too allies narcissism and the ascetic; but whereas for Sennett it was important to position the destructive self-investments of ascetic narcissism against the values of aesthetic sociability, Bersani is adamant that ascetic negativity – a disciplinary reduction of self – is compati­ble with aesthetic and jubilant modes of sociability. In other words, reprising Salome’s intuition noted above that every cultural discipline has its ‘narcissistic accomplice’, Bersani capitalises on the paradox that the turn inwards can simultaneously create a new and productive rela­tion towards the other. Through narcissistic audacity, new forms and new relations can be forged which traverse the boundaries of demar­cated or recognisable selves. Bersani, of course, also has the advantage of a Foucauldian, rather than strictly Weberian, paradigm for consider­ing the compatibility of ascetic discipline with aesthetic formalism. The ascetic discipline is a technology of power, where power, as we know for Foucault, stands as more than a negative instance of repression: ‘In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth’ (Foucault, 1991 [1975], 194).

The second valuable aspect of Bersani’s work for our ongoing explo­ration of narcissistic sociability concerns his reading of Freud’s 1914 paper. ‘Freud’s most original speculative move was to deconstruct the sexual as a category of intersubjectivity, and to propose a definition of sexual excitement as both a turning away from others [asceticism] and a dying to the self [jouissance]’, writes Bersani, building on the premise that ‘the human subject is originally shattered into sexuality’ (1990, 45; 36). In his treatment of Freud’s metapsychology, he focuses on the difficult relation between autoeroticism and primary narcissism (considered in Chapter 1) to suggest that ‘the new psychical action’ added to autoeroticism to bring about primary narcissism is an act of sublimation. This action has an erotic inference: it infers both ‘some­thing added’, and something moving away from primary autoeroticism, an ego-in-development which will form itself only in anticipation of its self-shattering. To put it another way, the incipient ego is ‘a part’, or perhaps a shard, which imagines itself a whole, and in its illusory state of self-sufficient wholeness readies itself for disintegration. This, says Bersani, is the pulse of the erotic life of narcissism. The impersonal rhythms of narcissistic sociability come to ape this original pulsation where each act of identification implies a self-reduction. We might consider in this light, self-aggrandisement and self-chastisement as linked productions of the ego-ideal, or the imaginary moment of self­integration which necessarily implies a partition of the self from its other.

In his pursuit of concrete examples of impersonal intimacies – and narcissistic sociabilities – Bersani identifies certain practices that indicate the ‘pleasure of rhythmed being’ (2010a, 48). Specifically, in an essay entitled ‘Sociability and Cruising’, he returns us to Simmel’s coquette. He finds in Simmel’s essay on ‘The Sociology of Sociability’ the promise of a ‘more radical view of the relation between pleasure and negativity’ encapsulated in the sociologist’s reference to the social ideal that man might call ‘the freedom of bondage’ (quoted in Bersani, 47). Focussing on the passage from Simmel cited at the end of the last section, Bersani affirms that:

The pleasure of sociability would not be merely that of a restful inter­lude in social life. Instead, it would be the consequence of our being less than what we really are. Simmel speaks of a lady who, while avoid­ing ‘extreme decolletage in a really personal, intimate situation with one or two men,’ feels comfortable with it ‘in large company.’ ‘For she is,’ he adds, ‘in the larger company, herself, to be sure, but not quite completely herself, since she is only an element in a formally constituted gathering.’ It is as if there were a happiness inherent in not being entirely ourselves, in being ‘reduced’ to an impersonal rhythm. (47)

The convened formality of the social situation permits the coquette to enjoy an impersonal intimacy precisely because the pleasurable rhythms of the social encounter are not tethered to the ulterior motives of a whole personality. Identifying the prospect of ‘happiness’ as commensurate with self-reduction, rather than self-definition or self­aggrandisement, Bersani offers his characteristic counterpoint to the thought that sexuality comprises the site upon which the personally laden truth of the self is inscribed. His preferred modern example is gay cruising where the anonymity and partiality of the sexual encounter recapitulates the asceticism and jouissance of impersonal sociability. This reorientation of a sexual sociability is in line with a pleasurable ‘negativity’ that comes from the enjoyment of being less than ourselves.

We might ask how the re-reading of narcissism on offer in Bersani’s work plays out if we return again to Narcissus at the poolside. I suggested above that the waters in which Narcissus sees his reflection cannot hold it still; they compel the dissipation of his image and then permit its re-formation. Narcissus and his image – confused in their cohabitation as subject and object – do not come together in a stable union; rather they scatter on the surface of the water and are subject to the envi­ronmental undercurrents on which their movement rests. In relation with his surroundings (but not necessarily in harmony them), Narcissus is in perpetual motion; approaching and withdrawing from his image in turn. Herein lies the foundation of Narcissus’ erotic tension, or the jouissance of his possession and non-possession of himself: To desire in the mode of Narcissus is to take pleasure in losing oneself, in moving beyond a bounded vision of oneself, and then in finding oneself dis­placed – de-centered, certainly – only to begin the losing all over again. If we can position the mythic figure in line with a psychoanalytic under­standing of the sexual as ‘a turning away from others and a dying to the self’ (Bersani), so too can we recognise the legacy of this dynamic in the formal qualities of play that the coquette brings to the social encounter. As Simmel describes it, coquetry entails ‘the act of taking hold of some­thing only in order to let it fall again, of letting it fall only to take hold of it again, in what could be called the tentative turning toward something on which the shadow of its own denial already falls’ (1984, 151).

In this act of ‘taking hold’ of the object, and at the same time turn­ing away from it, Simmel emphasises the significance of the visual gaze. He explains that a ‘sidelong glance with the head half-turned is char­acteristic of flirtation in its most banal guise. [… ] Physiologically, this glance cannot last longer than a few seconds, so that the withdrawal of the glance is already prefigured as something unavoidable in the glance itself’ (134-135). We should remember that the scene of Narcissus’ pool­side retreat was that of a hunt. Narcissus turned his back on the deer in the woods, much as he turned his back on Echo, and found a new source of fascination most worthy of his pursuit. But as any seasoned hunter knows, the acquisition of the object kills the quest. So, like the coquette, Narcissus is not permitted the ‘full face-to-face glance’ that would cur­tail the pleasures of the chase (135). Carrying Narcissus’ image just out of reach, the ebb and flow of the waters ensure that the ‘withdrawal of the glance is already prefigured as something unavoidable in the glance itself’. Satisfaction, then, is promised and kept at bay as Narcissus learns that to desire is to demand the impossible.

Narcissus’ splendid isolation and the coquette’s insusceptibility to influence become modes of sociability once their environmental rela­tions are exposed. Simmel is quite clear about this: For coquetry to work, the coquette’s interlocutor has to equal her commitment to form over content: Good sociability will only occur when the other in the social relation also desires nothing more than the ‘free-moving play’ of form (1949, 258). The modernist sociologist is simultaneously evok­ing here an image of the harmonious community and underscoring the precariousness of this achievement. Flirtation is an inherently danger­ous mode of sociability because it endeavours to sustain an ‘unstable equilibrium’ between the two poles of having and not-having, or giv­ing and not-giving (1984, 147). And, just as we have recognised the subject’s utter dependency on his environment of care in the phase of primary narcissism (Chapter 1), so too is it the case that the social con­ditions for sustaining such ‘unstable equilibrium’ cannot be entirely of the coquette’s making.

Although closely related, the female narcissist of Freud’s presentation and the coquette of Simmel’s (and Bersani’s) are not altogether identical. It seems that whereas Simmel has emphasised his coquette’s capacity to take pleasure in leaving herself behind, Freud stresses the narcissist’s capacity – or perhaps the compulsion – to leave others behind. We recall that the point of attraction for Freud was ‘the consistency with which the narcissist manages to keep away from their ego anything that would diminish it’ (1914a, 89). This stands in stark contrast to the coquette who actively desires a particular diminution of her ego. To put it some­what differently, we could say that for Freud the narcissistic mode of object-choice shores up the ego, whereas for Simmel the commitment to flirtation suspends the ego. There is a definite note of egoic defence in Freud’s account which is absent in Simmel’s. In an attempt to reconcile this difference, we might venture that for Freud it is the apparatus of the mirror which structures the narcissist’s desire for her environment to reflect back her own image (I shall only engage with those who affirm my ego-ideal); whereas for Simmel it is the apparatus of the mask that per­mits the coquette to enter fully into the environment of the ‘Not-Me’ and embrace the impersonal rhythms of sociability (I shall only engage once private questions of ego are abandoned). However, it would be too simplistic to keep Freud’s mirror and Simmel’s mask in strict opposition here, for, as Narcissus himself poignantly demonstrates, the enigma of the mirror-image is its otherness. Hence, to keep faith with the dialectic conception that Simmel encourages, Narcissus’ reflection is masking and mirroring; concealing and revelatory in turn.

Moreover, we have seen both Freud and Simmel give a particular weight to the symbolic significance of ‘charm’ as an essentially social characteristic. By alloying the figure of the narcissist-coquette I hope to have underlined the basic premise that the ‘charm’ of self-sufficiency is received by an audience as an attractive and eminently social invi­tation. Another way of putting this would be to say that at some level the insusceptibility to influence, characteristic of narcissism, must work, not only as self-consolation, but also as a provocation to the other; the narcissist’s illusions of self-sufficiency are returned to the world that provoked them. With this reading of narcissism we can redress those accounts in which narcissistic illusions function as simple defence mechanisms against an abject dependency on the environment: such accounts cannot go on to explain narcissism’s enduring social power. Only by maintaining that narcissism calls out to narcissism – by insist­ing that narcissism communicates – can we remain engaged with the ways in which the illusions of narcissism come to have an impact on the very environment that appears to have been their catalyst. Thus, whilst Freud no doubt situates narcissism as a defensive reaction to a primary environment, he also allows us to imagine how the narcissist might co-create the conditions for a pleasurable environment of play. As is the case with all social relations, there are degrees of volatility to negotiate; whether it is the trespassing narcissistic cat who provokes the gesture of courtship in the form of Freud’s ‘ingenious enticement of his shoe-toe’, or the large beast of prey whose apparent wildness draws in and tames its onlookers, the reader is invited to imagine that some­times, with certain conditions permitting, the Narquette can succeed in making her environment amenable to play.

Narcissism and coquetry: an aesthetic alliance

The ‘Narquette’ of this chapter title, is a figure who now needs intro­duction. Because we would struggle to discuss this figure without the use of a gendered pronoun we shall assign the Narquette a feminine linguistic identity (in short, the Narquette becomes a she). However, as will become clear in due course, the he-ness or the she-ness of the Narquette is not quite the point, for what this figure attempts to formalise is mode of sociability in which such considerations can – however momentarily – be actively disregarded.

The Narquette’s obvious historical ancestor is the coquette; a figure defined by her flirtatiousness. The coquette receives her authoritative sociological treatment in Georg Simmel’s essay of 1909 ‘Flirtation’ which can be read as the companion piece to his development of a sociology of sociability undertaken the following year (‘The Sociology of Sociability’, 1910). Simmel’s presentation of the coquette proves an attractive sup­plement to the dynamic and communicative account of narcissism that we are in pursuit of in this book. The Narquette, then, emerges from a parallel reading of Simmel’s coquette and Freud’s (female) narcissist. Immediately, however, before we can even commence with our intro­ductions, and despite my early indication that the Narquette will take us away from a preoccupation with gender, we are distracted by an obvi­ous shift: whilst it was a beautiful young boy who arrested our attention in the Narcissus myth, it seems that the constellations of narcissism in this work keep returning us to ‘the woman question’. What are we to make of this?

Our starting point has to be the fact that the narcissist is for Freud ‘the purest and truest’ female type (1914a, 88).4 For some, this statement is sufficiently problematic to justify a dismissal of the psychoanalytic account of feminine psychology writ large, and a diagnosis of Freud’s vision of sexual difference as myopic and masculinist. It is true that Freud’s presentation of ‘feminine narcissism’ cannot be disentangled from the same charge that has sustained feminist debates with psy­choanalysis since the time of Freud’s writing, namely the assumption of ‘female lack’. However, it is not at all apparent that psychoanalysis’ early feminisation of narcissism equates to a denigration of the femi­nine as such. As we saw in our discussion above, the claim to special dispensation that Freud identifies as characteristic of the female type, functions in a compensatory manner (in that privileges are recompense for guiltless suffering). We can revisit the passage in Freud’s 1914 paper that provides the context for this position:

Complete object-love of the attachment type is, properly speaking, characteristic of the male. It displays the marked sexual overvalua­tion which is doubtless derived from the child’s original narcissism and thus corresponds to a transference of that narcissism to the sex­ual object. This sexual overvaluation is the origin of the peculiar state of being in love, a state suggestive of a neurotic compulsion, which is thus traceable to an impoverishment of the ego as regards libido in favour of the love-object. A different course is followed in the type of female most frequently met with, which is probably the purest and truest one. With the onset of puberty the maturing of the female sex­ual organs, which up till then have been in a condition of latency, seems to bring about an intensification of the original narcissism, and this is unfavourable to the development of a true object-choice with its accompanying sexual overvaluation. Women, especially if they grow up with good looks, develop a certain self-contentment which compensates them for the social restrictions that are imposed upon them in their choice of object. Strictly speaking, it is only them­selves that such women love with an intensity comparable to that of the man’s love for them. Nor does their need lie in the direction of loving, but of being loved; and the man who fulfils this condition is the one who finds favour with them. (88-89, my emphasis)

A woman in love is in love only with herself – Narcissus pure and true – whereas the complete object-love of the male brings to mind Echo’s diminished self that results from a marked sexual overvalua­tion of Narcissus. In Freud’s picture, then, Narcissus is feminised, and Echo masculinised. But rather than conclude that this wilful gender­bending simply reflects Freud’s mirroring of the prevailing ideological assumptions surrounding the position of the sexes in early twentieth – century Vienna, we can look more closely to the text to see what else might be going on. In fact, in this section of his ‘On Narcissism’ paper I think we can see Freud grappling with the modes of dualistic think­ing that underpin basic presentations of gender in ways that continue to be productive to our contemporary thinking on the subject. To begin with, the juxtaposition of the biological facticity of puberty and the con­structionist notion of ‘social restrictions’ keeps faith with the principle of overdetermination in the account of the development of the sexed subject. Likewise, Freud wants to insist that there are ‘fundamental dif­ferences’ between male and female types of object-choice, and he wants to insist that such differences are ‘of course not universal’; he wants to allow these differences – the complete object-love of the male, and the self-love of the female – to stand as representative, and he wants to pull back from concluding that ‘human beings are divided into two sharply differentiated groups’ (88). Notwithstanding the firmly drawn lines between the sexes, Freud gives greater weight to what is common in everyone – ‘we are postulating a primary narcissism in everyone’ – than the individual ‘preference’ or ‘fashion’ for a type of object-choice. In fact, when taken as pure types, it is not at all clear who comes off worse, the feminised Narcissus with her heightened self-regard, or the masculinised Echo and his self-disregard consequent on his overvalua­tion of his object-choice. In extremis neither figure is obviously attractive as a model in how to love.

Accepting that ideal types are better heuristic devices than they are representations of reality, there is a further point not to lose sight of as we consider the proposition that Freud’s theory of narcissism inevitably maligns the feminine. I have stressed throughout that a psychoanalytic appreciation of the structure of narcissism is one that recognises the dialectical positioning of fantasies of self-sufficiency (e. g. narcissistic omnipotence), and fantasies of self-dissolution through merging (e. g. the ‘oceanic feeling’ of oneness). Narcissus’ grandios­ity and Echo’s diminishment are likewise held in tension with each other; Echo’s silent withdrawal can only exist as the mythic corollary to Narcissus’ self-involvement. Strictly speaking, which is to say struc­turally speaking, there is nothing ‘oppositional’ in these presentations: the impoverished ego and the inflated ego are both responses to the relational challenges of recognition. A problem certainly arises, how­ever, if this dialectic is gendered in oppositional terms, with one term given a negative weight for the cultural sphere. As Stephanie Engel noted, in response to ‘the culture of narcissism’ debates considered in Chapter 4, when the dialectic of narcissism is distorted and its charac­teristically masculine pole (the radically autonomous ego) safeguarded from critique, then the term itself mutates to associate ‘decline, regres­sion and perversity with femininity’ (78). Engel maintains that this is of a piece with the values of ‘competitive capitalism’ which privilege ‘sep­aration and individuation over identification and attachment, anaclitic over narcissistic love, super-ego over ego-ideal, oedipal over pre-oedipal conflict, and castration fear (fear of the father) over fear of the desire for regressive merger (fear of the mother)’ (95). Thus, narcissism per se is not the problem but rather its one-sided presentation. The challenge becomes one of re-reading the second terms in these various pairings – e. g. identification rather than separation – in order to reconsider their cultural value. Whilst this has not been of concern exclusively to late twentieth-century feminisms, re-evaluating the ethical import of narcis­sistic identification has certainly been pivotal to feminist rethinking on questions of autonomy, morality, and political recognition in the last thirty years. But rather than chart the work that has been undertaken in this vein, I am more interested in establishing the question of whether the values of impersonality and detachment that the so-called culture of narcissism was said to corrode can be refound in an ostensibly ‘feminine’ mode of narcissism.

To begin to explore this terrain we can consider the contribution of a first generation psychoanalytic writer who was duly motivated to recon­figure the desire to recover a primary state of narcissism. Lou Andreas – Salome, writing on the topic almost in parallel with Freud, explains narcissism’s paradox as turning ‘on the one hand to self-assertion and on the other toward abandonment in the primal boundless state’ (1962 [1921], 11). As indicated by the title of her paper, ‘The Dual Orientation of Narcissism’, Salome warns against the collapse of the concept into egoistic self-love:

It is somewhat to the discredit of the godfather of our term, Narcissus, hero of the mirror, if its use brings to the fore only the erotism of self­enjoyment. Bear in mind that the Narcissus of legend gazed, not at a man-made mirror, but at the mirror of Nature. Perhaps it was not just himself that he beheld in the mirror, but himself as if he were still All: would he not otherwise have fled from the image, instead of lingering before it? And does not melancholy dwell next to enchantment upon his face? Only the poet can make a whole picture of this unity of joy and sorrow, departure from self and absorption in self, devotion and self-assertion. (8-9)

I would suggest that what is identified here as the poetic capacity required to make whole narcissism’s dual orientation is, in fact, written into the mythic scene itself. When we imagine Narcissus, captivated, leaning into his reflection and then withdrawing from it only to return and repeat the gesture again and again, we do so with a sense of the poetic rhythm that Salome is concerned to foreground. We should keep in mind this rhythmic oscillation as we go on to consider the ways in which the Narquette can be recast as the embodiment of an aesthetic social principle. Salome’s vision of narcissism is an expansive and, ultimately, non-conflictual one, putting it at odds with a Freudian account.5 However, her claim that to overlook narcissism’s ‘persistent feeling of identification with the totality’ would be to overlook its foun­dational force in the development of ethics and of artistic creativity, is noteworthy for its anticipation of subsequent attempts to foreground narcissism’s productive dimensions (5). This is evident in the quotation above where the signs of melancholic enchantment that are detected on Narcissus’ face are clearly not commensurate with the physiognomy of a vainglorious figure entirely alienated from the truth of his suffering. In fact, it could be suggested that Narcissus suffers precisely because he approaches the source of his suffering – which is conterminous with the object of his desire – only to fail in his attempt to fully grasp it. Criti­cally, as it is rendered here, this close approach to integration does not then abandon Narcissus to a state of ignorance or paralysis. The gen­erative capacities that are enfolded in the drive to return to the state of primary narcissism propel further movement and even a quest for knowledge. This is framed by Salome in terms of ‘the union of nar­cissism and objectivity’. As she explains it: ‘in truth, our narcissism is nothing other than that mysterious knowledge rooted in the emotional life, which posits the ultimate in subjectivity as the keystone of our objective experience’ (15). That the subject-object distinction is con­founded for Narcissus – as it is for us all – is critical to his experience of himself in the world. She continues: ‘There is no ascetic discipline, no strict observance, no final rejection of reality that does not hark back to its narcissistic accomplice, the very one who taught us the allur­ing audacious proclamation: "Disregard the world, it is naught!"’ (21, my emphasis). Reminding us of Freud’s insistence that ‘the highest and the lowest are always closest to each other in the sphere of sexuality’ (Freud, 1905: 161-162), Salome stresses that narcissism accompanies even those goals that look like they entail a turning away from the self. As we saw in Chapter 2 with the case of ‘Little Hans’, the Freudian foundations for Salome’s logic can be seen in the sexual research projects of childhood; the child’s narcissistic libidinal investments moti­vate his sexual theorisations and hence propel his baby steps into the world of intellectual research. To put it plainly, the psychoanalytic provocation is that impersonal knowledge cannot be divorced from self-involvement.

The French psychoanalyst Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, whose appre­ciation of narcissism echoes, some fifty years later, certain elements of Salome’s paper, remarks in a similar vein:

I am not sure if we ever completely rid ourselves of all traces of infan­tile megalomania. But perhaps this would be undesirable. I believe that scientific work combines an approach to reality (be it psychic or external) and a narcissistic cathexis of this same approach. ‘Show me the way and I shall move the world.’ This famous aphorism clearly illustrates that at the heart of all our activities, even those of a ‘secondary’ nature, there is to be found – transformed but always irreducible – our dream of omnipotence which ‘presses ever forward unsubdued’. (371)

Chasseguet-Smirgel is evoking here the language from ‘Beyond the Plea­sure Principle’ in which Freud disabuses his reader of the consoling belief in the existence of an internal instinct to self-perfection. Such an instinct, in sanctioning a teleological conception of human progress, would disavow the extent to which the desire to repeat a primary expe­rience of satisfaction presses ever forward (1920a, 42). In keeping with Salome’s notion of the ‘narcissistic accomplice’, then, we are reminded that in the fields of intellectual achievement and ethical sublimation, forward movements are always indebted to the pull of the repetition and the return.

Beyond the compelling case for narcissism advanced in her ‘Dual Ori­entation’ paper, there is a further reason why Salome is instructive to our figuration of the Narquette. As noted previously, Freud identifies the nar­cissist as the purest female type. The reason why such women hold ‘the greatest fascination for men’, Freud tells us, lies in their ‘inaccessibility’:

For it seems very evident that another person’s narcissism has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own narcis­sism and are in search of object-love. The charm of a child lies to a great extent in his narcissism, his self-contentment and inacces­sibility, just as does the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us, such as cats and the large beasts of prey. Indeed, even great criminals and humorists, as they are represented in literature, compel our interest by the narcissistic consistency with which they manage to keep away from their ego anything that would diminish it. It is as if we envied them for maintaining a blissful state of mind – an unassailable libidinal position which we ourselves have since abandoned. (1914a, 89)

In their discussion of Freud’s friendship with ‘Lou’, Lisa Appignanesi and John Forrester suggest that we can read this passage as Freud’s praise for the female narcissist ‘which has Lou as its original’ (2005, 260). They direct us to an entry in Salome’s journal from 1913 which recalls an exchange with Freud where he describes his attempt to cultivate the affections of a trespassing cat that had entered through an open window in his home and assumed a regular place on his sofa. After his initial resistance to the intruder – tied to his suspicion that his precious antique objects might be damaged – Lou writes in her journal that:

Freud’s heart melted and he ordered milk for it. From then on the cat claimed its rights daily to take a place on the sofa, inspect the antiques, and get its bowl of milk. However, despite Freud’s increas­ing affection and admiration, the cat paid him not a bit of attention and coldly turned its green eyes with their slanting pupils toward him as toward any other object. When for an instant he wanted more of the cat than its egoistic-narcissistic purring, he had to put his foot down from his comfortable chaise and court its attention with the ingenious enticement of his shoe-toe. Finally, after this unequal rela­tionship had lasted a long time without change, one day he found the cat feverish and gasping on the sofa. And although it was most painstakingly treated with hot fomentations and other remedies, it succumbed to pneumonia, leaving naught of itself behind but a sym­bolic picture of all the peaceful and playful charm of true egoism. (1987 [1913], 89)

Unconcerned to subject Freud’s story to great psychoanalytic scrutiny, this brief journal entry nonetheless clearly foreshadows the portrait of a positive feminine narcissism that Freud would go on to depict in his 1914 paper. That the cat would turn its eyes towards Freud as toward any other object comprises its narcissistic charm (i. e. ‘the charm of certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us’). It would be a considerable oversight to regard ‘charm’ as epiphenomenal, or mere social frivolity here. For Freud, ‘charm’ suggests the tactful manoeuvres of polite sociability, as well as the tact required in the psychoanalytic clinic. But, more interestingly, charm is placed in connection with a supposedly un-socialised class including children, cats and wild animals. That those who ‘seem not to concern themselves with us’ nonetheless practise a form of seduction upon our ‘civilised’ minds, demonstrates how a-cultural insignia are always culturally cathected. Hence ‘charm’ is indeed le mot juste because it exemplifies the double structure of narcissism that we have considered throughout: There is a direct rela­tion between the charm of the cat, say, and the efficacy of its illusion of self-sufficiency; it seems that the cat’s assertion of his singularity is the prerequisite for inducting it into a form of sociability, and ensur­ing the continuing provision of its environment of care (its place on the sofa and its bowl of milk). Narcissism’s activity, then – its active seduction – is also its sociable, communicative and, ultimately, desirable quality.

We might surmise that Freud’s admiration for Salome’s character suggests that feminine narcissism can be appreciated without con­descension; but perhaps more importantly, it suggests that feminine narcissism must also be appreciated without mastery. As is noted in Salome’s journal entry, Freud’s attraction to the cat’s ‘playful charm’ subjects him to a pleasurably ‘unequal relationship’. As Appignanesi and Forrester suggest, in sharing his story with ‘Lou’ ‘it is almost as if Freud is asking her to reflect on her similarity to the cat and ask­ing her what she, Lou, so like the cat in her narcissistic feline distance and self-containment, wants from him’ (259). The question that Freud is imagined to be asking of Salome allows his ultimate (and infamous) question to resound: ‘Was will das Weib?’ [what does woman want?].

Freud’s particular investment in his intimate friend permits a further comment on the general condition of his frustration with female psy­chology. His designation of the sexual life of the adult woman as a ‘dark continent’ – impervious to his enlightenment – attests to the fact that a question can only persist if something continues to be withheld. It is well documented that the question of female psychology became a point of increasing consternation for Freud as he sought to recognise an active element in his conception of femininity, and to acknowl­edge the importance of the pre-Oedipal life of the infant (including the little girl’s profound attachment to the Mother).6 Although it didn’t exactly solve the riddle for him, Freud is clearly pointing towards an ‘active’ component of feminine psychology when he recognises the ‘great attraction’ that the narcissist holds for those ‘in search of object-love’. By demonstrating the ways in which feminine ‘charm’ acts upon another, Freud’s admiration for the narcissistic creature trou­bles the very alignment of femininity with passivity and masculinity with activity. That the embodiment of a feminine narcissism with its self-satisfying completion attains man’s (envious) admiration suggests a phallic prowess resident in the figure whose very ‘femininity’ is sup­posedly defined by her castration (woman = always already castrated). Hence it begins to look like there may be something rather ‘masculine’ about feminine narcissism. Salome’s work on femininity, creativity and ethics never desists from its placement of narcissism as the grounds for woman’s ‘fullness’ and her capacity for voluptuous feeling with the ‘total unity’. Woman maintains that which man – man as object­ively) – is obliged to renounce. As Sarah Kofman recounts, ‘what is attractive in woman is that she has managed to preserve what man has lost, that original narcissism for which he is eternally nostalgic’ (1985, 52).7 In keeping with the account of narcissism advanced in this book, however, we would need to stress that what woman is preserving – and, in preserving, perhaps also mastering – is the illusion of fullness. We know that no-one can successfully refuse castration (not even the psychotic), and we also know that every narcissist – and every act of nar­cissism – is, to a greater or lesser extent, accompanied by a sanctioning environment.

So, how does the figure of the coquette fit into this picture of an active feminine charm, and how exactly does she represent the relation between narcissism and sociability that we are in pursuit of here? Because the coquette is not so firmly established in the cultural imagination, we can begin with a dictionary definition:

Coquette, n. A woman (more or less young), who uses arts to gain the admiration and affection of men, merely for the gratification of vanity or from a desire of conquest, and without any intention of responding to the feelings aroused; a woman who habitually trifles with the affections of men; a flirt. (Oxford English Dictionary)

As Freud said of the female narcissist, ‘strictly speaking, it is only them­selves that such women love’ (1914a, 89). This brief definition gives us a rudimentary sense of a woman whose choice of object serves her vanity and self-interest. Clearly, we will need to go elsewhere to find a more developed evaluation of coquetry. In his essay on ‘Flirtation’ of 1909, Georg Simmel offers just such an appraisal. The instrumental conception of the flirt evoked in the above definition – flirtation as an entirely ends-oriented behaviour – would have to be modified according to Simmel’s definition: although he allows that the flirt may be indiffer­ent to her object, just as is Freud’s female narcissist, Simmel recasts this indifference in terms of a formal aesthetic that is in keeping with good sociability. If, as Simmel argues, ‘flirtation completely relinquishes the role of an instrument or a mere provisional entity and assumes that of an ultimate value’ then it does so in much the same way as ‘Kant’s claim about the nature of art – that it is purposiveness without purpose’ (1984 [1909], 144-145).

Of upmost importance to Simmel’s appreciation of the aesthetic- psychological landscape of flirtation is its dialectical expression:

[… ] the distinctiveness of the flirt lies in the fact that she awakens delight and desire by means of a unique antithesis and synthe­sis: through the alternation or simultaneity of accommodation and denial; by a symbolic, allusive assent and dissent, acting ‘as if from a remote distance’; or, platonically expressed, through placing having and not-having in a state of polar tension even as she seems to make them felt concurrently. (134)

It will be noted that we are once more in the realm of illusion and sem­blance as the coquette effects her magic by holding ‘having’ and ‘not – having’ at opposite poles and making them felt concurrently (we shall return to this point below). More critically, the coquette’s vacillation between accommodation and denial – between ‘consent and refusal’; concession and withdrawal – founds the ‘playful rhythm’ of flirtation by refusing to settle on a note of resolve (135). The mode of sociability that the flirt embodies, Simmel goes on to state, ‘qualifies as a thor­oughly general, formal mode of conduct that does not exclude any content’ (151).

This privileging of form over content is further developed in Simmel’s essay on ‘The Sociology of Sociability’ published the year following his ‘Flirtation’ essay. Here, concerned with the formulation of an ethic of sociability, Simmel contends that a ‘residue of pure sociability’ exists in all human association which remains untainted by the ‘ulterior interests’ of personality (1949 [1910], 254). He explains that what is experienced as the pleasure of sociability – when ‘the most purely and deeply personal qualities [are] excluded (256)’ – is the ‘free-moving play’ of form (258). The coquette is once more exemplary:

The coquette brings her attractiveness to its climax by letting the man hang on the verge of getting what he wants without letting it become too serious for herself; her conduct swings between yes and no, without stopping at one or the other. She thus playfully shows the simple and pure form of erotic decision and can bring its polar opposites together in a quite integrated behavior, since the decisive and fateful content, which would bring it to one of the two decisions, by definition does not enter into coquetry. And this freedom from all the weight of firm content and residual reality gives coquetry that character of vacillation, of distance, of the ideal, which allows one to speak with some right of the ‘art’ [… ] of coquetry. (258)

Simmel’s proposal is that flirtation is not motivated by the ulterior interests of personality, or what we might today call the politics of identity. The coquette, because she is freed from ‘all the weight of firm content’, achieves the necessary suspension of private self-interest that Simmel deems requisite to the ‘special sociological structure’ of sociability. Her playful gift of indecision ensures the pendulum’s con­tinued swing between the yes and the no. Conclusiveness kills flirtation, as does too much ego. It is by now apparent that if, in search of a rep­resentative of an aesthetic social principle, we are to put forward the Narquette as an amalgam of the coquette and the female narcissist, we need, once again, to have moved beyond a blinkered formulation of narcissism as unfettered egoism.

‘Exceptional’ Woman and Exemplary Sociability: The Figure of the Narquette

Freud tells us that patients who suffer but also take pleasure in suffering their own exceptionality will make themselves known to the analyst via an explicit refusal to renounce any satisfaction, or submit to the tem­porary discomforts that therapy must entail: ‘They say that they have renounced enough and suffered enough, and have a claim to be spared any further demands; they will submit no longer to any disagreeable necessity, for they are the exceptions and, moreover, intend to remain so’ (1916b, 312). Accounting for these ‘Exceptions’ in his paper ‘Some Character-Types Met with in Psycho-Analytic Work’, Freud notes that their sense of suffering stems from experiences in early childhood over which they had no control. The ‘privileges’ claimed by the ‘Exceptions’ are a form of recompense or retribution for ‘an unjust disadvantage’ of which they know themselves to be ‘guiltless’ (313). To explore the con­sequences that this sense of injustice might have on the development of character, Freud takes as his lead example the eponymous protagonist of Shakespeare’s Richard III whose villainous intentions are bound up with his congenital deformity, or physical lack. Here is the excerpt from the soon-to-be King Richard’s complaint that Freud reproduces in his text:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,

Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;

I that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;

I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion.

Cheated of feature by dissembling Nature,

Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,

And that so lamely and unfashionable,

That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;

And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,

To entertain these fair well-spoken days,

I am determined to prove a villain,

And hate the idle pleasures of these days.

Freud insists that this opening soliloquy would fail – ‘the play would be psychologically impossible’ (314) – were it not for the fact that the audi­ence is able to admit a small identification with the complainant. The play works, so to speak, because Richard’s grand narcissism calls out to the more dormant narcissism in the audience and, in doing so, provokes a moment of ‘fellow-feeling’ (314). Such fellow-feeling is only possible because, like Richard, ‘we all demand reparation for early wounds to our narcissism’ (315). The location of the wound will of course vary; it may be in the region of good looks, physical prowess, higher intel­ligence, social status, or material privilege that we have suffered most keenly; indeed, it may also be the case – as Richard III testifies – that we suffer multiply. When Freud suggests that ‘Richard is an enormous magnification of something that we find in ourselves’, he is, as we have come to expect, gently provoking the narcissism of his readers – and we can safely assume that he would not expect to be exempt from his own provocations (315).

One of Freud’s pet writing projects, ‘planned only for fun’, was an autobiographical work, the first volume of which was to be called ‘Poverty’, the second, ‘Riches’. In a touching letter of 1884 to his fiancee Martha Bernays, Freud writes of an unexpected gift to come his way from a friend of private means (Joseph Paneth) which would endow his career and hasten their marriage; with this gift, he quips, ‘it seems that we have started on the second volume of our highly interesting family chronicle ("Riches")’ (Freud, 1884: 103-104). Freud’s clear jubilation at having a noteworthy sum invested in his name is met, unsurprisingly, with a degree of ambivalence regarding the sense of obligation that he will feel towards his benefactors.1 Moreover, the gesture of generosity that Freud is the recipient of incites in him a reflection which gives us cause to consider the association between guiltless affliction and nar­cissistic exceptionalism. Having shared with Martha the detail of the financial arrangement he is set to enjoy, and marvelled that ‘it really sounds like a chapter out of Dickens’, Freud then exclaims:

But isn’t it wonderful that normally parsimonious persons should be moved by the power of their and our true love to become warm and willing to make sacrifices? And isn’t it wonderful again that a wealthy man should mitigate the injustice of our poor origins and the unfairness of his own favored position? And think how much happier and more capable of work I shall be when I have you at my side! And then I will work and earn so much that I shall no longer need to feel ashamed. (104, my emphasis)

There is a curious mixture of sentiments to be discerned in these few lines. Freud’s exuberance, signalled by the on-rush of sentences – And isn’t it wonderful.. ./And think how much happier.. ./And then I will work… – is inspired by plain relief: it will all come good, the anxieties of poverty shall be alleviated and the dream of ‘Riches’ be realised. How­ever, that someone else is in a position to affect such a colossal change for Freud, to assure him a greater degree of happiness and to take away his source of shame, surely grates; perhaps the allusion to the parsi­monious (and cold) character of the wealthy man gives vent to this frustration. If Freud’s struggle with his own narcissism is on display here, it only reflects the tensions that surround his capacity to secure his own destiny. The question ‘why were we born in a middle class home instead of in a royal palace?’ features as an example of the nor­malcy of the narcissistic complaint in Freud’s discussion of Richard III, but perhaps it would sit just as well in a private confession to Martha. When Freud underscores the ‘injustice of our poor origins’ in his let­ter to his fiancee, we are reminded that the ‘Exceptions’ are driven by the conviction that they cannot be held accountable for the lot they’ve been dealt. But if the subject is unaccountable (or guiltless) for the afflic­tion he suffers, this is not the case for the redemption that will follow. Indeed, alongside Freud’s recognition that his circumstance was shaped not of his design, we also detect his desire to reassert his sovereign autonomy. Clearly Freud wants to commend the wealthy man for recog­nising the ‘unfairness of his own favoured position’, but perhaps he also wants to take some credit for this turn of events; after all, it is the ‘true love’ of Freud and Martha that is deserving of the gift. And then, lest a doubt persists over who will ultimately be accountable for the future success and happiness that Freud dares to imagine, he declares his inten­tion to ‘work and earn so much that I shall no longer need to feel ashamed’. What a poignant display of avaricious desire rooted in vul­nerability! Just as for Richard III the litany of Nature’s wrongs whets his determination to ‘prove a villain’, so Freud’s milder note of resolve is sus­tained by a sense of injustice: for some, the narcissistic wound sharpens ambition.

Freud’s wish to protect himself from shame offers us an opportunity to re-engage with the theory of environmental disequilibrium that I have advanced throughout this book. We recall that our re-reading of primary narcissism put forward in the previous chapters, is one where the essen­tial disequilibrium in the child’s given environment of care motivates his narcissistic fantasies of self-sufficiency (and indeed the narcissistic fantasy of fusion with the other). Bringing Freud’s personal reflections to bear on his account of the ‘Exceptions’ encourages us to imagine the vicissitudes of character formation that develop from this primary sit­uation. It is obvious enough that with the giving of a gift comes the negotiation of a power relation; this is the case with any mother’s gift of love to the new-born child, as it is the case with a friend’s gift of financial aid to the not-yet-married Freud at twenty-seven years of age. To put it simply, there is nothing exceptional in suffering the unequal power relations of one’s environment. But just as importantly, as Freud allows us to see, there is nothing exceptional in the desire to be imper­vious to such forces: to be untouchable by the social other would be equivalent to being invulnerable to shame. In a love letter of all places, Freud demonstrates the enduring appeal of this narcissistic ideal.

We should note that if we are all vulnerable to the fundamental dis­equilibrium of our social environment (and dream of being otherwise), Freud nonetheless suggests that some of us are more vulnerable than others. Here, rather than focus on the disadvantages of material inequal­ity and social class that personally preoccupied Freud, he directs his reader to the category of (what we are now habituated to call) gen­der. Of course, we cannot really be surprised by Freud’s focus here since his account of the subject’s sexuation – the assumption of a gendered identity consequent upon his/her inscription into the world of sexual difference – is isomorphic with his postulation of unconscious mental processes. This speaks to psychoanalysis’ formative conception of the unconscious, and to the fact that early psychoanalytic theory-building privileged the sites of gender and sexuality over those of class, race and ethnicity. Freud, then, cannot conclude his discussion of the ‘Excep­tions’ without a brief comment on the ‘claim of women to privileges and to exemption from so many of the importunities of life’ on account of their guiltless suffering (315).

In this 1916 paper on character-types we see Freud persist in his attempt to develop a feminine psychology that hinges on the little girl’s ‘penis envy’ and subsequent investment in her own body: ‘women regard themselves as having been damaged in infancy, as having been undeservedly cut short of something and unfairly treated’ (315).

Needless to say, there are many reasons why we might find Freud’s movement from the villainous particulars of Richard III to the gener­ality of the female condition troublesome; not least because it throws into question the exceptionalism of the so-called ‘Exceptions’. When Freud claims that it is a lot to bear ‘to be brought into the world as women instead of as men’, he really is speaking categorically (315). If we defer for a short while the temptation to get caught up in debates over the possibility of a Freudian feminism, then what I think we can take from Freud’s seemingly sweeping presentation is his insistence on the normalcy of the desire to be an exception (i. e. minimally, the psy­chology of around 50 per cent of a given demographic ‘rests upon the same foundation’ as this so-called character-type (315)). What’s more, although Freud asserts that it is his clinical data – the women on the couch – that ground his pronouncements on feminine narcissism, by his own example we are invited to speculate that his sense of ‘fellow­feeling’ must also be at play. Freud’s great fear of poverty is an instructive coordinate to keep in mind here.2 We noted above that there are many different psychosocial sites that can accommodate a narcissistic wound (from congenital deformity to class disadvantage); if the physical wants of Richard III put Freud in mind of the guiltless sufferings of women, we would do well to remember that penis envy can only be situated within the broader remit of the castration complex. Let me explain by way of a further example.

In another moment of private correspondence, Freud reflects on the ways in which his financial hardships impinge upon his mood. Writing now to Wilhelm Fliess, rather than to Martha, Freud states that to be afforded an ‘ample livelihood’ would ensure him greater satisfaction in his work; specifically, his writing style would be improved and the acuity of his ideas enhanced. He explains to Fliess:

My mood also depends very strongly on my earnings. Money is laughing gas for me. I know from my youth that once the wild horses of the pampas have been lassoed, they retain a certain anxiousness for life. Thus I came to know the helplessness of poverty and continually fear it. (Freud, 1899b: 374)

Freud’s evocation of agitated wild horses to convey the persistence of poverty-anxiety (rather than penis envy) articulates his experience of the social environment’s fundamental disequilibrium. The ‘injus­tice of our poor origins’ (letter to Martha above) continues to leave its mark precisely because the helplessness of dependency is ineradicable.

On which note we might suggest that the feeling of ‘having been unde­servedly cut short of something and unfairly treated’, is much less a trait of woman than it is the legacy of childhood. The difficulty of accepting a gift of aid – the difficulty of being patronised – recalls the recipient to the ties of his environment, and forces him to concede that despite his best efforts, despite his hard works, and despite his carefully cultivated illusion of self-sufficiency, he remains subject to a power that is not of his own making. What is ‘continually feared’, then, is the repetition of this state of infantile helplessness (kindlichen Hilflosigkeit) which, as we have characterised it in previous chapters, entails a recognition that the environment can always withdraw its care – the mother can always leave.

We recall that the very registering of environmental disequilibrium propels the subject’s narcissistic fantasy. The villainous grievances of Richard III, the heightened work ethic of the young Freud, and the ‘characteristic exceptionalism’ of womankind, demonstrate that the vicissitudes of this fantasy are manifold. But perhaps what they all bring to mind is the plea for fairness that typifies childhood. The circulation of the term in the various complaints is conspicuous: From Richard’s protest, ‘I, that am curtail’d of this fair proportion’, via Freud’s appetite for economic redress, ‘[…] a wealthy man should mitigate the injus­tice of our poor origins and the unfairness of his own favored position’, to the Freudian account of women who are ‘undeservedly cut short of something and unfairly treated’. It would seem difficult, then, to sever the relation between narcissism and a keen sense of what is un/fair. But if our sense of ‘fairness’, which was, incidentally, one of Freud’s favourite English words, is cultivated via our narcissism, then we would need to ask what kind of ethical relations this makes possible.3 How might the ‘Exceptions’ – still smarting from their narcissistic wounds – become ethical characters for whom the other is something more than a site of envious appropriation?

If, as we have noted thus far, a narcissistic wound can prime one’s capacity for ‘fellow-feeling’ and the flourishing of human compassion (see discussion above of narcissistic compassion in ‘The Wolfman’ case), and if, furthermore, it has a role to play in the development of a sense of balance and proportion, then we are still unclear as to how exactly the transformation from private investment to public concern is enacted. In other words, how might it be that the narcissist, with his claims to the type of exceptionalism that Freud describes in his 1916 paper, can come forward as an exemplar in the contemporary psychosocial land­scape? This is the question to keep in mind in our ongoing discussion because it is also the question of today’s political climate. Contrary to the critical declinist perspective considered in the last chapter it doesn’t do to simply disparage identity politics as ‘narcissistic politics’ or to decry the passing of a (fantasy) public discourse that was unsullied by private claims and counter claims. Rather, as Wendy Brown (1995) makes clear with her addition of the notion of ‘wounded attachments’ to the political lexicon, the challenge is to recognise the ‘pain installed at the heart of many contemporary contradictory demands for political recognition’ and to imagine the conditions for this pain’s articulation that would resist its ossification – which is to say imagine conditions that might afford the given subject a release from his ressentiment or psychic attachment to his own particular wound (74). The ‘narcissistic’ landscape of late modernity cannot be disputed: private interest claims abound, and wounded identities seek-out recognition. But such narcis­sism is only truly destructive if it inhibits the prospect of freedom from identity. One of the possibilities that inheres in the Narcissus myth is that Narcissus’ love for his poolside companion releases him from his identity. To suggest that Narcissus enacts a move beyond himself is per­haps paradoxical given his reputation for total self-involvement, but it is precisely this paradox that we will pursue further below.

When, as Freud insists, narcissism calls out to narcissism, when it pro­vokes our fellow-feeling, it does so on account of its general form rather than any idiosyncratic content. I suggest, then, that in order to appre­ciate narcissism’s communicative potential, we will need to understand its formal, or aesthetic, quality (that which was denied it by Sennett and Lasch). This leads us to a final thought about Freud’s reading of Richard III as an ‘Exception’. As established, the point that Freud makes in his treatment of Richard III is that our own narcissistic wounds prime our capacity for fellow-feeling. But the critical point to note is that the success or failure of the playwright’s communication of this fact rests entirely on his poetic skill. In order for the audience’s sympathy to be stirred, it is imperative that ‘Richard’s soliloquy does not say every­thing’ but ‘merely gives a hint, and leaves us to fill in what it hints at’ (314). Freud recognises that a ‘bungler’ in Shakespeare’s place would surely have revealed too much too soon, contravened the artistic rule of obliquity, and violated the audience’s desire to enjoy and partake in the play’s illusions. The therapist reading Freud’s paper may wish to take his respect for the poet’s ‘subtle economy of art’ as a recommendation on analytic technique: that a patient will have limited investment in a therapy in which language is directed too quickly towards conscious understanding becomes a known fact to the therapist who (inevitably) bungles his lines (315). What we can also take from Freud’s reading, and carry into our discussion below, is that the playwright’s formal mastery of play – his calibration of what to reveal and what to merely hint at – assures a spellbound audience.

After narrative

Our focus in this chapter on the high point of cultural critiques of narcissism from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, has left open the question of narcissism’s discursive circulation beyond this historical moment. There is no doubt something in the claim that, with hind­sight, the type of narratives explored above look to have been ‘rather reactionary take[s] on "postmodern" society’ (Frosh, 2011: 37-38). And yet, they still leave their mark. If we can make the case for revitalising the figure of Narcissus and affording him a more productive role in the dynamics of sociability, then we need to enquire after his sociological legacy. In doing so we can discern a direct lineage from the work of Sennett and Lasch in the 1970s to the sociology of reflexive modernity associated with the British sociologist Anthony Giddens in the 1990s.

The shared ground between these figures consists in their reading of the modern individual of a ‘post-traditional order’ as being without many of the supports, external referents, and received cultural scripts that pre­viously structured his identity; the primary difference between them is that Giddens actively resists a diagnosis – associated, he suggests, with all critiques of mass society – in which the modern age is characterised as one of ‘high anxiety’ (1991, 32). In this regard Giddensian dedica­tion to ‘reflexivity’ emphasises the other side of the protean dilemma to Sennett and Lasch. It goes without saying that the difference between these theoretical orientations can be explained, in part, by the interven­ing decade or so and the changes in cultural discourse that accompanied it (irrespective of whether we choose to describe such change through the language of globalisation, the themes of the postmodern, or the lin­guistic turn, for example). However, it should equally go without saying that there is no reason to think that the sociology of reflexive modernity is more compelling as sociology than the critical declinism that Giddens is confident it usurps.

Narcissism is not explicitly retained as a critical term for Giddens; nonetheless his re-orientation of some of the concerns that occupied Sennett and Lasch will give us the opportunity to reconnect our discus­sion with the terms of the therapeutic, and to re-evaluate MacIntyre’s provocation from the top of this chapter that, in an emotivist cul­ture, the stock character of the therapist does not have a moral voice. We can anticipate that under the rubric of risk and reflexivity, where the very ‘conduct of life’ is subject to ‘planning and rationalisation’ (see Beck-Gernsheim, 139), therapy becomes – as per MacIntyre’s vision – a question of private-sphere-technical-expertise. If, with the aid of the therapist, the modern subject apprehends her future as a site of coloni­sation demanding the active calculation of risk or ‘the routine contem­plation of counterfactuals’, then she is both the object of the critical declinists’ concern (being unwilling to distinguish between manipula­tive and non-manipulative social relations) and the exemplary subject of Giddens’ modern reflexivity (Giddens, 1991: 29).3 These alternative and period-specific evaluations of modern selfhood and the therapeu­tic endeavour merit brief consideration at the close of this chapter. For despite obvious differences of critical orientation between the 1970s declinists and the 1990s sociologists of reflexivity, they do have a shared commitment to narrative accountability which, in my view, psychoanal­ysis – especially through its understanding of narcissism – is duty-bound to disrupt.

In After Virtue, MacIntyre frames selfhood as a narrative practice: ‘man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal’ (216). The story-teller’s task is an ethical one in which the capacity to give an intelligible narrative account infers the capacity to demand an account from the other: ‘I am not only account­able, I am one who can always ask others for an account, who can put others to the question. I am part of their story, they are part of mine’ (218). It is in this way that narrative identity proposes, formally at least, a necessary relation to the other. Once MacIntyre seeks to establish this ideal of narrative communication in historical terms, however, he runs into a difficulty. We have to accept, he suggests, that the identity the self comes to narrate is in great part inherited from the traditions of community within which it is embedded – family, city, tribe, nation for example. From the perspective of ‘modern individualism’, however, MacIntyre expects such an emphasis on inheritance to strike an ‘alien’ note (220). Here, then, he is echoing Sennett’s understated call, noted earlier in the chapter, that in the modern era we are increasingly faced with the task of making our own masks; which is to say we cannot inherit historical narratives without inheriting the problem of historical authority. As MacIntyre stresses it, ‘we are never more (and sometimes less) than the co-authors of our own narratives’ (213). The three words in parentheses here are the most tantalising for they infer something about the mode of sociability possible under the conditions of MacIntyre’s nar­rative theory; namely, that if we cannot all come to the party with masks of equal author-ity then neither are we all equally autonomous actors. By translating the narrative process of self-accounting into the ethical sphere of the polis, MacIntyre must accept that apparently free exchange and collaboration of individual narratives is always based upon a prior condition. The economy of story-telling is by no means equitable since, along with the giving of the story, comes the question of the owner­ship of the language: although it is me telling the story, in what sense is it mine?

Lasch’s depiction of the narcissistic survivor shocked out of a narra­tive relation to history is consonant with MacIntyre’s thesis here, as well as with Sennett’s emphasis on the importance of the actor’s relation to a sense of historical plot. For the survivor, Lasch claims, ‘[… ] life consists of isolated acts and events. It has no story, no pattern, no structure as an unfolding narrative’ (1984a, 96). He stresses the profound sense of ‘historical discontinuity’ which conditions the new narcissist’s experi­ence of ‘a world in which the past holds out no guidance to the present and the future has become completely unpredictable’ (1991, 68). With his temporal perspective locked in the present, Lasch claims that the survivor’s capacity for ‘moral judgements’ and ‘intelligent political activ­ity’ is greatly diminished (1984a, 93). With such a diminished faculty for ethical reflection, life is no longer confronted by a moral agent but rather by a passive victim, and consequently the pseudo-morality of victimhood comes to dominate cultural discourse (67). It is hard to overlook the association here of Lasch’s politics of victimhood and the more wide-ranging concept of identity politics. For the critical declin – ists, any politics that re-centres itself on the experience of belonging to a marginal identity group quickly runs into the problems of authentic­ity and inauthenticity considered above: consequently identity politics is tantamount to the politics of narcissism.

In his ‘Destructive Gemeinschaft’ article, Sennett expresses his dis­satisfaction with a model of politics constructed on the premise of ‘identity-as-legitimacy’ (185). He explains that ‘[w]hile the locality fights the outside world for threatening its solidarity, within itself it conducts continual tests of who really belongs and who really expresses the sense and the interests of the collective whole’ (185). Here, then, the anxious narcissist of Lasch’s depiction finds himself scrutinising the legitimacy of the interest claims of others, and defending the authenticity of his own personal-political identity. Sennett offers Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch as an example of a project that exemplifies ‘the process of nar­cissism at work in an ideology of liberation’ (179). We might expect Sennett to be in sympathy with Greer’s project which forcefully cri­tiques ‘the psychological sell’ whereby woman ‘seeks aid because she feels unhappy, anxious and confused, and psychology persuades her to seek the cause in herself’ (Greer, 1976 [1970]: 90). And of course Sennett does appreciate Greer’s identification of the social structures of female oppression, but he argues that these structures get obscured by her ral­lying call for woman to seize what woman wants: ‘Total gratification of the self becomes the alternative to systematic discrimination against females. In the course of the book [The Female Eunuch], the world, at first seen as concretely unjust, becomes a mirror or resource for the self’ (Sennett, 1977: 178-179). Reiterating his thesis that categories of human experience are depoliticised when couched in the language of psychol­ogy, Sennett holds that a politics legitimated by the terms of its ‘identity’ will become immobilised in the narcissistic mirror.4

Writing almost two decades later, Giddens’ sociology has a rather different complexion: now, the paralysis of ‘identity politics’ has meta­morphosed into the productivity of ‘life politics’. Deriving from the emancipatory projects of the 1960s and 1970s, Giddens’ life politics is a mode of discourse directed towards ‘self-actualisation’ which signifi­cantly and self-consciously departs from declinist critiques of a political climate governed by the language of selfhood (1991, 9). We can see this divergence most clearly in Giddens’ and Sennett’s contrasting read­ings of the importance of intimacy and sexual relationships as sites of contemporary self-definition.

In keeping with his critique of the ‘tyranny of intimacy’, Sennett argues that the realm of sexuality has come to be invested with per­sonal and psychological significance to the detriment of sexual relations. ‘Sexuality thus becomes burdened with tasks of self-definition and self­summary [… ] choosing someone to sleep with becomes a reflexive act; it tells you who you are’ (Sennett, 1977: 181 my emphasis). This emphasis on the burdensome and onerous qualities of such acts is not shared by Giddens, for whom ‘[t]he possibility of intimacy means the promise of democracy’ (1992, 188). The ‘structural source of this promise’, he sug­gests, ‘is the emergence of the pure relationship’ which encompasses all social relations but is expressed in its ideal form in the intimate part­nerships made possible by the conditions of reflexive modernity (188). Giddens sees that the ‘internal referentiality’ of the pure relationship means that ‘trust has no external supports’ and ‘has to be developed on the basis of intimacy’ alone (138). Unlike Sennett, however, who we can assume would include the ‘pure relationship’ in his critique of identity – as-legitimacy, Giddens’ pure relationship is positively framed as the key to political projects of self-actualisation.

Giddens argues, contra Lasch, that ‘the modern self is not a mini­mal self’ (1991, 181; 209). Rather, personal life is experienced as an ‘open project’ which neither induces a narcissistic retrenchment, nor produces a style of selfhood in which the negotiation of life choices is undertaken with anxious scrutiny (1992, 8). Whereas Lasch relates narcissism ‘to the apocalyptic nature of modern social life’, Giddens tells us that ‘apocalypse has become banal’, meaning that although awareness of high-consequence risk may provide a source of unspecific anxiety in late modernity, it rarely dominates a person’s existence on the day-to-day level (181-183). If awareness of high-consequence risk does become a prominent feature of one’s day-to-day existence this should be attributed to a failing of the individual’s capacity for ‘basic trust’ rather than seen as a representative symptom of a cultural malaise. We can see here that Giddens has transformed Lasch’s new narcissist from the cul­tural norm (or at least the culturally representative moral character) into the pathological exception.

For Giddens the reason that the failing of ‘basic trust’ is held to be exceptional rather than commonplace can be found in the reflexive character of late modernity itself: risk calculation is embedded in social and political institutions, and embodied in the projects of selfhood. The subject of a modern individualised society, as risk theorist Ulrich Beck writes, must ‘conceive of himself or herself as the centre of activity, as the planning office with respect to his/her own biography, abili­ties, orientations, relationships and so on’ (135). Whereas Sennett and Lasch had tended to hierarchise the public and private spheres, endow­ing each with their own distinct characteristics, Giddens infers that the private sphere (as a zone of intimacy) exists alongside the public sphere on a continuum of life organisation, planning and reflexivity. Because reflexive modernity doesn’t allow for a hard and fast distinc­tion between notionally private virtues such as spontaneity, and public techniques of organisation and planning, neither does it allow for a clear-cut distinction between manipulative and non-manipulative social relations.

Predictably perhaps, the therapist is an important figure for Giddens in configuring the reflexive strategies of public and private life. ‘Ther­apeutic endeavours […] interpret the reflexive project of the self in terms of self-determination alone, thus confirming, and even accentuat­ing, the separation of the lifespan from extrinsic moral considerations’ (1991, 180). Whilst Giddens acknowledges that ‘not all […] therapies are oriented primarily towards control’, this is nonetheless a rather alarming characterisation of the therapeutic function in what he calls the late modern order. On his reading, therapy is to be ‘understood and evaluated essentially as a methodology of life-planning’ which aims to integrate experiences within a narrative of self-development (180). Giddens admits that such processes of self-integration entail the ‘sep­aration of day-to-day life from contact with experiences which raise potentially disturbing existential questions’; he calls this continual sep­arating process – which includes the bracketing out of radical doubt and the displacement of high-consequence risk – the sequestration of expe­rience (244). He insists that ‘in so far as it is focussed upon the lifespan, considered as an internally referential system, the reflexive project of the self is oriented only to control: It has no morality other than authentic­ity’ (1992, 197-198). Authenticity through self-mastery, then, becomes the credo of a life lived as a planning project.

One cannot help but be struck by the taken-for-granted status that authenticity has come to assume in Giddens’ sociology. We have already seen how for Sennett the culturally sanctioned quest for ‘authentic­ity’ comes to be symptomatic of an impoverished ethical landscape. Giddens on the other hand, though he concedes that authenticity ‘skirts any universal moral criteria and includes references to other people only within the sphere of intimate relationships’, nonetheless situates it as the singular ethical directive of his ‘life politics’ (1991, 79). It is to be expected that an ethical world-view, as proposed by Giddens, in which it appears that the subject can only form an instrumental relation to the other, will face strong critique. Indeed, Zygmunt Bauman’s complaint that Giddens’ politics of authenticity reduces morality – ‘stretching one­self towards the Other’ – to an accidental derivative of self-concern strikes a familiar note, especially so in the context of our discussion of cultural narcissism (2002, 171).

The implicit accusation that Giddens’ reflexive subject is narcissistic is, of course, double-edged. As we have seen throughout this chapter, the critic who identifies a negative narcissism at work in contemporary social relations soon comes up against the contradictions of his own his­torical subjectivity. Perhaps, then, rather than evaluating the contesting claims of critical declinism on the one hand and reflexive sociology on the other, we would do well to note that underlying these ostensibly divergent perspectives is a tacit agreement on the central importance of narrative. For Sennett, Lasch and MacIntyre it is only an impersonal historical narrative – where history consists in established plot points and traditional quest formations – that can save the subject from triv­ial or destructive self-interest; whilst for Giddens narrative is the key both to self-integration, and to the success of modern life politics. The term narrative is a shared transmitter of value, then, but it is also a common problematic. In each case the conditions of narrative remain obscure because of an enduring confusion between the narrative sub­ject and the narrative object. The formative slippages between author and actor, mask-maker and mask-wearer, inventing stories and inherit­ing stories, are everywhere discernible but seldom fully acknowledged in the sociological texts we have considered. Indeed, we might suggest that to acknowledge these inherent slippages would be to demand a transgression of a narrative mode of sociology altogether.

The psychoanalytic understanding of narcissism we have been con­sidering in this book facilitates such a transgression by refusing to let us overstep the question of origin or the constitution of narrative. The infant’s illusion of self-sufficiency is paradigmatic in this respect since it implies the precariousness of its own narrative fabrication. The auton­omy of the subject is, in an important sense, an invented myth at once proposing to give an account of a complete selfhood and always, of necessity, falling short. Furthermore, just as narcissistic self-sufficiency – the logic of the ego-ideal – entails a vulnerability to a primary envi­ronment of care, so narratives of autonomy are interpenetrated by the demands of other narratives. The objection will be raised that, by returning endlessly to metapsychology – and indeed to the paradig­matic case of the child – in this fashion, we do not help the sociologist account for the lived experience of contemporary social reality. And yet, the experience of social reality that we have committed to describing is not determined by fully realised individuals operating from within their bounded subjectivities in a rational manner (nor, indeed, by the private planning officers of Giddens’ regime). In this respect, the psychosocial emphasis on subjects-in-formation (subjects who are not fully themselves) remains of value; likewise our encounter with the metapsychologi­cal complexities of narcissism offers a useful counterweight to the sociological conception of the self-interested ego.

Judith Butler touches on similar ground in her text of 2005, Giving An Account of Oneself, when she asks what the goal of psychoanalysis might be beyond that of the narrative reconstruction of a life. ‘If the other is always there, from the start, in place of where the ego will be, then a life is constituted through a fundamental interruption, is even interrupted prior to the possibility of any continuity’ (52). On this reading, rather than invest in the integration of narrative, the psychoanalytic project attends to the non-narrative formation of subjectivity (most starkly expressed in Freud’s most radical reading of the Fort-Da game as ‘daemonic repetition’, always in excess of the pleasure principle). It is clear that Butler is not concerned to account for the human subject’s incapacity for narration in terms linked to contingent cultural circum­stance (e. g. the ‘cultural decline’ of the 1970s). Instead her account postulates ‘a fundamental interruption’ that sets in motion the subject’s inevitable narrative failings. But the reason that this line of thought is not pursued by the critical declinists, nor indeed by the reflexive sociologists, is because of their shared conception of man as ‘a story­telling animal’ (MacIntyre, 216). Whether this animal is endangered or excelling in the conditions of late modernity is open for debate; the desired coherence of his narration, however, is not.