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

The disturbances to which a child's original narcissism is exposed…

In the third section, Freud turns to the now-famous (and infamous) issue of the "castration complex" or "castration anxiety," which he singles out as the psychic event with the most significant impact on the developing individual's primary narcissism. Both boys and girls undergo a version of the castration complex, Freud explains. For boys, it involves fears about the loss of the penis (think of South Park's Cartman, who worries that his "fireman" might get cut off); for girls, the castration complex supposedly takes the form of "penis envy."

The model of the castration complex allows Freud to posit a developmental stage in which ego-instincts and libidinal instincts are still fused (remember that in Freud's overall model of development, libido pre-exists the formation of the ego itself) but are expressing themselves in ways that point to narcissistic investments: worry about the penis or its absence is associated with a developing image of the self. The remainder of this passage is devoted to a critique of another of Freud's former students, Alfred Adler, whose theory of a "masculine protest" is linked to the castration complex, but does not, according to Freud, adequately account for the operations of narcissism.

Freud now asks, what has happened to primary narcissism? In so-called normal adults, has ego-libido been completely emptied out as it is turned outward toward objects? Freud says that the answer is obviously no. In elaborating the reasons why, he engages in a discussion of another crucial concept in psychoanalysis, repression.

The beginning of this discussion has important implications for many of the theories that inform cultural studies. As we all know from our own experiences (unless we are especially good at repression), any individual's libidinal impulses sometimes run up against resistances that take the form of laws, rules, codes of behavior, the expectations of authority figures, and other "external" factors that we have "internalized" insofar as we recognize them as having some sway over our behavior. The relationship between desires and restrictions on how desires are expressed are differ from one individual to the next, but at this point Freud divides people into two general categories: some people indulge their desires, or at least entertain them in fantasy, while others reject them (at least some of them) or refuse to even recognize them.

People in this second group, Freud argues, have set up what he calls an "ideal ego," which has been shaped in the context of the demands and restrictions they have internalized. This ideal ego takes the place of the actual ego that was formerly the object of primary narcissism; these people have a narcissistic investment in idealized, projected image of themselves. This formulation of a substitution corresponds with Freud's conviction that no one ever gives up pleasures, but simply finds other means of obtaining those pleasures. The formation of this ideal ego is one of the central issues Jacques Lacan discusses in "The Mirror Stage."

Freud distinguishes between idealization and sublimation. Both have to do with the operations of the libido, but in idealization, the object of libidinal investment is given a value that exceeds its actual value. Freud has already suggested that men, because of the nature of their anaclitic object choice, tend to idealize the women they fall in love with. The ego itself can be aggrandized in this way, resulting in the ideal ego and its role in. Freud is careful to distinguish idealization from sublimation, which is primarily the function of deflecting object-libido away from direct sexual expression. A person committed to celibacy, for example, may sublimate his or her erotic desires into a love of a divine being or social welfare. Sublimation allows for a way out of repression, since the libido can take an object, just not a directly sexual one. The idealization of the ego, on the other hand, produces the psychic conditions under which repression can occur.