CriticaLink | Spivak: Echo | Reading Guide for Pages 20-22

Freud's "On Narcissism," written on the threshold of The Metapsychological Papers, is philosophically bold. . . .

A characteristic of Freud's thinking that at once appeals to Spivak and disturbs her is its tendency to result in dilemmas. In "On Narcissism," Freud notes the impossibility of determining whether biology is the ultimate source of psychic phenomenon (a question we are still grappling with today). However, Freud then attempts to affirm the status of psychoanalysis as a science by stating that rather than proceeding from clearly defined concepts--which allow for neat, logical argumentation--the scientist must take into into account only the facts, the actual nature of observed phenomena that do not always correspond to the concepts and assumptions of the theories that claim to explain them. For the "facts" about narcissism, Freud turns to observations of children and "primitive peoples." For example, Freud points to the "magical thinking" that both children and "primitives" share: the idea that by thinking certain thoughts they can affect the outcome of events in the world--a narcissistic assumption of mastery over the world (§ I: 76-81).

At this point, Spivak criticizes the imperialism and racism of Freud's assumption that his statements about so-called "primitive" people are based on knowledge and not on speculation. (There is a subtle play on "speculation" = "mirroring" = "narcissism" running throughout Spivak's essay that becomes manifest in her later discussion of Samuel Weber's work on Freud.)

Despite Freud's classical education, Spivak argues, his borrowing from the Narcissus myth misses the complexity of Ovid's narrative. Both Freud and Jacques Lacan develop theories of narcissism that ignore the wider context of the Narcissus story, with its economy of rewards and punishments--its ethical dimension. Spivak reads Lacan's version of the ego's development in his essay on the Mirror Stage as resting on a simplistic contrast between the individual and the social. The remainder of her essay is largely an attempt to rearticulate the myth of Echo and Narcissus as illustrative of a social and ethical--rather than an individual and psychological--situation. Ovid's Narcissus will become an illustration of what Spivak calls mortiferous self-knowledge, a form of narcissistic knowledge that is unproductive, "deadly," because it collapses in the face of the dilemma of knowing the other person.

In a sense, Spivak is claiming that Freud and Lacan produce weak psychoanalytical models because they have failed to attend to the nuances of Ovid's poetry.