CriticaLink | Freud: On Narcissism | Reading Guide for II: 87-91

A third way in which we may approach the study of narcissism is by observing the erotic life of human beings…

Freud starts his discussion of human sexuality with a treatment of the sexual life of infants, who derive pleasure from vital functions such as eating and being protected and who take as their first sexual objects those people who are responsible for these functions. These people are, by and large, mothers. Freud terms the child's libidinal investment in the mother an anaclitic object choice, in which sexual instincts are attached to, and determined by, ego-instincts. He contrasts this kind of object choice with the narcissistic object choice that characterizes the development of those people whose sexual development, according to Freud, has been disrupted: "homosexuals and perverts" (88). The development of the theory of narcissism is strongly linked to Freud's observations of those whose sexualities do not express themselves in "normal" ways.

While we may be justly disturbed by Freud's assumptions that the development of gay people has been in some way distorted, the next paragraph complicates Freud's ideas about sexuality. It is not a simple matter, he argues, of deciding that this person has engaged in an anaclitic object choice and this other person in a narcissistic object choice. We all start out with both kinds of object choice. Both are "options" for all human beings, though one generally dominates the psychic life of the individual.

As Freud continues with a breakdown of the differences in object-choices determined by gender, he is careful to avoid claiming universality for his schematizations. Men, Freud claims, are generally governed by the anaclitic object choice, which leads them to overvalue the object of their affections and to pursue women compulsively. This powerful investment in the woman, Freud suggests, stems from men's primary narcissism and the corresponding intense investment in their mothers as providers for their narcissistic needs.

Women's object choice is not characterized by the same intensity, since they incline toward the narcissistic object choice. Freud seems to imply that women enjoy a weaker bond with their mothers than do men. Attractive women in particular invest a good portion of their mental energy in themselves, which compensates for the fact that society restricts their ability to pursue men as sexual objects. In keeping with this narcissistic investment in themselves, women prefer the passive position of being loved to the more active position of loving. (The contours of Freud's own social world, sharply hierarchized in terms of gender, are quite evident in these scenarios.)

Freud muses on the social and cultural implications of this gendered difference in object choices. Narcissism, he argues, makes a person all the more attractive to a person who has engaged in an anaclitic object choice. This would explain, perhaps, the prevalence (in Western culture, at least) of the image of the unattainable women, the cruel mistress, and also the allure of Narcissus himself in the myth.

Freud's awareness that his depiction of the erotic life of women may be offensive to some readers is evident in the next paragraph, in which he states once again that his schematic portrayal cannot be universalized, and that many women make object choices in the manner of men. The following paragraph may appear to undo this hasty self-defense, for in it Freud argues that one way the woman emerges from her narcissistic object choice into a "complete object love" is by bearing a child, which, as an extension of their own bodies, serves to wean women from their narcissism. Freud returns to his defensive posture at the end of this paragraph and reiterates his awareness of lesbianism as an alternative mode of feminine object choice. He puts off discussion of male homosexuality to another essay.

Freud offers the following schema as a way of sorting out the kinds of object choice and the forms they can take:

<IMG src="love.gif" width=400 height=300>

Winding up this section of the essay, Freud suggests that the love parents feel toward their children is a revival of the parents' own narcissism. The child becomes the stand-in for the parents' egos, and their excessive and often blind indulgence of the child can be explained in terms of the extravagance of their own original narcissistic investment in themselves.