CriticaLink | Freud: On Narcissism | Reading Guide for I: 76-81

Before going any further I must touch on two questions…

The two questions Freud proposes are:

  1. How does narcissism relate to auto-eroticism, that is, obtaining sexual gratification from one's own body?
  2. Is it important to distinguish libido which takes the form of sexually charged desire from the basic impulses of the ego such as self-preservation?

In responding to the first question, Freud makes a crucial statement: "I may point out that we are bound to supposed that a unity comparable to the ego cannot exist in the individual from the start; the ego has to be developed" (76-77). This is a fundamental theoretical argument, the one on which Jacques Lacan bases his arguments in "The Mirror Stage."

Auto-eroticism is a condition that pre-exists the formation of the ego; elsewhere Freud refers to the "polymorphous perversity" of the infant. Since narcissism is defined as an investment of libido in the ego, the ego and narcissism must come into being concurrently. Freud seems to suggest here that narcissism is a later stage in human development than auto-eroticism, but it is important to remember that narcissism does not replaceauto-eroticism; as with most features of psychic life in the Freudian model, earlier stages continue to persist alongside later developments.

In responding to the second question, Freud digresses for a moment to reflect on the relationship between speculative theory and empirical observation. Freud seeks to reinforce the status of psychoanalysis as a science; he insists that rather than proceeding from clearly defined concepts--which allow for neat, logical argumentation--the scientist must "face the facts," taking into careful account the actual nature of phenomena that do not always correspond to the concepts and assumptions of the theories that claim to explain them.

Even though they are somewhat nebulous as concepts, particularly as regards the distincition between them, the ideas of "ego-libido" (inward-directed libido invested in the ego) and "object-libido" (libido directed outward toward objects, including other people) have value for Freud because they are derived from direct observations of the nature of psychological processes in patients. Freud goes on to discuss the advantages of this two-fold concept of libido. It corresponds both to clinical findings, especially the transference neurosis, and to a commonsensical assessment of the human condition: we do differentiate, for example, between the experiences of hunger (ego-libido) and the experience of love (object-libido) even if we sometimes use one as a metaphor for the other. Speculating that "all our provisional ideas in psychology will presumably some day be based on an organic substructure" (78), Freud also leaves room for the role of what we would now call genetics: the twofold libido may simply be the way humans experience their pre-programmed, evolutionary, biological determination. Nevertheless, Freud is willing to detach psychoanalysis from its biological supports if its findings contradict theories grounded in biology. Without other scientific theories to support his findings about the antithesis of ego-instincts and sexual instincts, he must continue to work between direct observation and theorization.

Freud concludes this section of the essay with an examination of the claim of his former student Carl Gustav Jung that the libido theory does not help to explain schizophrenia. The importance of these last passages lies in their clarification of the difference between a "popular" idea of "sexual interest" (one connected to romantic love and sexual activities) and the psychoanalyitic sense of "libido," which Freud describes as an energy that can be directed to human beings or, as in the case of the anchorite in the example, sublimated and directed toward non-human objects such as God or nature. The ascetic can sublimate and redirect his or her sexual desires for other human beings, but that does not mean that the libido is directed toward the ego, as in Freud's conceptualizion of the eitiology of schizophrenia (for which Freud sometimes uses the term "dementia praecox").