CriticaLink | Freud: On Narcissism | Reading Guide for II: 82-87

Certain special difficulties seem to me to lie in the way of a direct study of narcissism…

In the beginning paragraph of the second section, Freud returns to the strategy of his opening: he argues that in order to understand "normal" psychological phenomena, we will have to turn to the "distortions and exaggerations" of mental illness. In the case of narcissism, however, Freud intends to investigate other kinds of experiences that may illuminate the phenomenon of narcissism and lead to the formulation of an adequate concept of how the libido is distributed among the "internal" ego and various "outside" objects. He proposes to examine 1) organic disease, 2) hypochondria, and 3) human sexuality.

Organic Disease

Once again, Freud returns to "common sense" to discuss the way a person suffering from an illness withdraws interest from the external world insofar as it does not involve his or her suffering. He refers to the lines of the comic poet Wilhelm Busch, which describe how the very soul of a person with a toothache comes to be concentrated in the aching tooth. In illness, as in sleep, the libido is drawn into the ego; Freud argues that sick people (and people trying to get to sleep) become "self-involved" as their libido withdraws from objects and is invested in the present situation of the ego.


In hypochondria, the patient withdraws libido from external objects and invests it in whatever part of the body is supposedly diseased. In this discussion, Freud touches on psychosomatic phenomena, how the mind can produce perceptible bodily suffering in the absence of any actual medical condition. Since the neurotic conditions of neurasthenia and anxiety neuroses (including hysteria) incur bodily discomfort as well, Freud assigns hypochondria to a place among these neuroses.

Describing the psychological state that produces hypochondria leads Freud to an explanation of erotogenicity, the capacity of any part of the body to provide sexual stimulation if the ego invests that particular part with libidinal energy. This relationship between the mind and the body, in which the mind can produce sensations in regions of the body by focusing attention and libido on those regions, is the basis not only for sexual experiences but also for what we often refer to "psychosomatic" illnesses, and what Freud calls the neuroses.

In the passages that follow, Freud turns to a mechanical metaphor to account explain the interrelationships among the distribution of libido, mental health, and mental illness. In Freud's view, our "mental apparatus" works like a machine designed to relieve the pressure of our own mental energies by channeling them into a range of outlets. If these energies get "dammed up," in Freud's metaphor, the result can be mental illness, as the mind "gets stuck" or channels the libido into objects that are ultimately unsatisfying, or even destructive (as in the case of obsessional neuroses, for example). Freud suggests that a delicate balance is necessary to sustain health: a person needs a strong ego in order to endure the difficulties of existence, but also needs to love in order to remain psychologically healthy. Again, Freud turns to poetry, this time the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine, to underscore his point.

Freud then compares paraphrenia with the transference neuroses in order to isolate and characterize the ways in which the libido can be withdrawn from and invested in objects and the ego. In paraphrenia, Freud explains, the libido is channelled to the ego rather than into fantasized objects, as it is in transference neurosis (in which libido, frustrated in its attempts to direct itself toward objects in the world, is invested in--transferred to--fantasies). Various phenomena observed in clinical practice (that is, in the mental states of patients) correspond to different states of the distribution of libido. They can correspond to 1) the vestiges of a previous "normal" state of mind, or a previous neurotic condition; 2) the withdrawing of libido from objects and its investment in the ego, which can take the form of hypochondria, megalomania, and regressions; or 3) the restoration of once-withdrawn libido to objects, which takes the form of hysteria, schizophrenia, or obsessional neuroses. Here again, by examining pathological psychic states, Freud hopes to gain insight into the operations of the psychic apparatus as such.