On Narcissism: An Introduction

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In a letter written to Karl Abraham on September 21, 1913, while he was vacationing in Rome, Sigmund Freud announced he had begun "the sketch of an article on narcissism" (Freud and Abraham, 1965a [1907-26, p. 148). The term was borrowed from a German psychiatrist, Paul Näcke, and the notion that the self "is a frequent placement of the libido (narcissism)" had already been circulating for almost three years in psychoanalytic discussions (Nunberg and Federn, session of 18 May 1910, p. 541) and in writings by analysts such as Isidar Sadger. At an evening gathering of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society on October 12, 1910, Freud commented, "A prolonged remaining at the transitory stage of narcissism definitely predisposes to homosexuality and to dementia (Bleuler's 'autism')" (Nunberg and Federn, p. 13). Freud had evoked this notion himself in 'Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood ' (1910c) and in his thinking on homosexuality, and in 1911 Otto Rank had published "A Contribution to Narcissism" in the Jahrbuch.

However, Freud's essay had, and would continue to have, repercussions on a far greater scale. Carl Gustav Jung's criticisms of the libido theory, and his remark that it failed to account for dementia praecox, led Freud, in this period of rupture with his former "heir apparent," to sketch out a theoretical text that he would return to several months later, and would complete shortly after he finished the more polemical "On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement" (1914). "I am short because again engaged in writing. Narcissism has to be finished," he wrote to Ernest Jones on February 25, 1914 (Freud and Jones, p. 265). On March 16, he wrote to Abraham: "Tomorrow I am sending you the 'Narcissism,' which was a difficult birth and bears all the marks of it. Of course I do not like it particularly, but it is the best I can do at the moment. It is still very much in need of retouching" (Freud and Abraham, 1965a [1907-26], p. 167); and, on March 25: "Since finishing the 'Narcissism' I have not been having a good time. A great deal of headache, intestinal trouble, and already a new idea for work, which is an added difficulty for the summer" (p. 168). On April 6, in response to Abraham's congratulations, he wrote: "Your acceptance of my 'Narcissism' affected me deeply and binds us still more closely together. I have a strong feeling of its serious inadequacy. I shall incorporate the comment you would like on the by-passing of sublimation in the Zürich therapy" (pp. 170-71).

"On Narcissism" is divided into three parts. In the first, Freud seeks to show that the libido theory is applicable to "paraphrenia" if one is willing to accept that "the libido that has been withdrawn from the external world has been directed to the ego" (p. 75). Thus, it is possible to distinguish between "ego-libido" and "object-libido," and "the more the one is employed, the more the other becomes depleted" (p. 76). At which point, "in the total absence of any theory of the instincts" (p. 78; such a theory would be elaborated only six years later, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle ), a debate began over the hypothetical distinction between "sexual instincts" and "ego instincts."

In the second part of Freud's paper, the study of narcissism is approached by way of the study of "organic disease, hypochondria, and the erotic life of the sexes" (p. 82). The last of these gives Freud a chance to discuss the conditions under which object-choice occurs. The "anaclitic" type is already known ("the woman who feeds [the individual]," "the man who protects him" [p. 90]), but to this must be added loving "according to the narcissistic type: (a ) what he himself is (i.e. himself), (b ) what he himself was, (c ) what he himself would like to be, (d ) someone who was once part of himself" (p. 90). Object-love of the anaclitic type is said to be "characteristic of the male" (p. 88), in contrast to women, whose narcissism, like that of children (onto whom parents project their own narcissism), cats, beasts of prey, humorists, or master criminals, acts as a powerful attraction.

The third and last section proposes a theoretical improvement that prefigures the changes of the second topography of 1923. By attributing repression to "the self-respect of the ego" (Selbstachtung ) (p. 93), Freud defined an "ideal" against which each individual measures his or her actual ego. "This ideal ego [Idealich ]is now the target of the self-love which was enjoyed in childhood by the actual ego" (p. 94). Narcissism is displaced onto it or onto the object chosen to represent it, a process that is different from the desexualization of the object in sublimation. A psychic agency must perform the task of "seeing that narcissistic satisfaction from the ego ideal is ensured and which, with this end in view, constantly watches the actual ego and measures it by that ideal" (p. 95)an observing agency that Freud linked to moral "conscience" (p. 95) and in which the earliest administration of the superego may be discerned.

Numerous clinical considerations on delusions of grandeur, the paranoiac's feeling of being observed, passionate love, narcissism in homosexuality, or group psychology have illustrated or further enriched the major new lines of theoretical inquiry introduced in this short paper, which has become one of the touch-stones of psychoanalytic theory and an essential moment in its development.

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Narcissism; Rank, Otto.

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1914). Zur Einführung des Narzissmus. Jarbuch für Psychoanalyse, VI, 1-24; On narcissism: An introduction. SE, 14: 73-103.


Freud, Sigmund. (1910c). Leonardo da Vinci and a memory of his childhood. SE, 11: 57-137.

Freud, Sigmund, and Abraham, Karl. (1965a [1907-26]). A psycho-analytic dialogue: The letters of Sigmund Freud and Karl Abraham, 1907-1926 (Hilda C. Abraham and Ernst L. Freud, Eds.; Bernard Marsh and Hilda C. Abraham, Trans.). New York: Basic Books.

Freud, Sigmund, and Jones, Ernest. (1993 [1908-39]). The complete correspondence of Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones, 1908-1939 (R. A. Paskauskas, Ed.). London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Nunberg, Hermann, and Federn, Ernst (Eds.). (1962-1975). Minutes of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. New York: International Universities Press.

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