CriticaLink | Freud: On Narcissism | Reading Guide for I: 73-76

The term narcissism is derived from clinical description…

"On Narcissism: An Introduction" begins with a move that is characteristic of Freud's developing approach to theorizing about the psyche. Freud refers to a psychological state that other theorists have described as abnormal--in this case, exclusive auto-eroticism--and suggests that it might be a more pervasive condition that previously thought, then expands this suggestion even further to indicate that it might actually be a condition common to the psychological makeup of allhuman beings.

"Loving oneself," Freud argues, is the "libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation" (74). We all have impulses to nourish ourselves and to protect ourselves from danger; these impulses are bound up with our desires, and we can't neatly separate our sexual desires (directed at other humans) from our inwardly directed desire to care for ourselves.

Freud calls this basic, sexually charged desire directed at the self "primary" or "normal" narcissism. He contrasts primary narcissism with a "secondary narcissism" which arises in pathological states such as schizophrenia in which the person's libido withdraws from objects in the world and produces megalomania. The secondary narcissism of the mentally ill is, Freud suggests, a magnified, extreme manifestation of primary narcissism which exists in all individuals.

Other clues to the existence of primary narcissism come from observations of children and what Freud calls "primitive peoples," who engage in what Freud in Totem and Taboo calls "magical thinking": for example, believing that wishing for something will make it appear, or that uttering a spell will have real effects. These behaviors reflect a sense of the self as powerful, able to have an influence on external reality, and Freud believes that such an investment in the self is a part of human development. He calls it "an original libidinal cathexis of the ego" (75).

Freud imagines a libidinal economy in which object-libido (directed outward) and ego-libido (directed inward) exist in a ratio. Being in love is at the extreme end of object-libido; being a paranoid schizophrenic is at the extreme end of ego-libido.