Narcissism and Culture (1993)

(from the book “The Creative Process and Psychoanalysis”)


In the nineteen thirties, Sigmund Freud, whose work has had the fate to be both vigorously approved and refuted, wrote the essay ‘Civilization and its Discontent’--a work written when he was in the full swing of his scientific career. In this work Freud is prophetic, his analyses results in a morbid vision as to the outcome of the struggle between the two instincts, the life instinct – Eros, and the instinct of destruction, which was later identified with Thanatos – the death instinct. He identifies the potential outcome, at which he arrived through his meticulous psychoanalytical interpretations, within relationships which reflect social communications, i.e. what we normally call ‘living together’.

The purpose of the libidinal force would be fulfilled with the creation of optimal possibilities for firm object relationships with a quality which at first glance resembles that of the religious message: ‘…love thy neighbour…’. We say, at first glance because in this same essay Freud very clearly defines the regressive level of the ‘oceanic feeling’ offered by religious experience. He explains that if the libido is thwarted in its occupation of objects of importance, these unsuccessful attempts would force it to withdraw and object relationships would be increasingly charged with aggression, leading to an ultimate attempt at their destruction or destruction of other objects, regardless of their situation in external or internal reality. It appears that the intensity of the menacing feeling one experiences when confronted with these insights only increases when one brings to mind the fact that this was predicted more than half a century ago, and in the time interval since, a multitude of signs could be observed which only corroborate the authenticity of the presentiments of the founder of psychoanalysis.

Today we are witness to times which promote individuality, as well as independence and responsibility on the part of the individual. In places, this attitude is at its social inception, while elsewhere this mood has been a significant factor for a long period of time, influencing emotional relationships between individuals who accept and develop it further. This development has been boosted by opportunities to seek and experience individuality through a greater interest in individual bodily and spiritual actions, or through authorization or non-authorization of personal choices. Confirmation of personal identity is craved and found in differentiation from the others in the environs, or recognized in the two-dimensional projections of the various communication media. Individuality is sought and found even in the mediocre adoption of social and professional roles, increasingly spiced up by the aforementioned two-dimensional media objects.

Then again, the time in which we partake with active exertion of our psychic apparatus is replete with the most diverse types of information, whose reception initiates the creation of more or less energetic contents which result in frequent attacks on the stability of the perception of created notions about the inner and external world and notions about personal identity in relation to the external reality. The role of a professional, which most of the time is the role of an individual who meets with the same or similar objects on a daily basis, offers a repetition of object relations through which they become ever more emotionally disinvested.

At this point, we raise the question: Where is the libido? What are the objects of importance cathected by it? Is it possible that it dominates only abstractions, phantasms, imagined or imposed roles, information which endlessly arrives from all sides? Perhaps the libido has become the thrust behind the economy, material gains, money? We can remark right away that everything offered is completely opposite to the principal tendency of Eros and the libido in culture, and that is the rapprochement of individuals, families, tribes, and nations, the creation of new values in their integrated existence. Ultimately, we can seek and recognize relationships between individuals in real society only in sexuality and love.

However, to be able to recognize upon what kind of sexuality we embark, it is necessary that we examine the psychological structure of the individuals ‘produced’ in that very society who participate in such relations. We have stressed that their development is determined by identifications with roles offered by society and that the successfulness of this identification and adaptation determines the force that upholds self-respect. This implies that personal identity does not stem from a gradual approaching to authentic individuality, but from the upholding and preserving of accepted uniform conventionality.

Because this causes only a further departure from individual needs and potential, this development inevitably generates constant conflict situations amid the components which constitute the structure of the person. At this point, one might assume that this is a case of the creation of neurotic characters, as a product and a future mainstay of society. Moreover, from the aspect of role playing, the individuals provided in the immediate surroundings by the media can be recognized as an apposite criteria for comparison—and personal self-respect is tested through observation of possible differences and similarities. Objects from the external reality can either be integrated or avoided, if they are not compatible with the concept of such inner reality. At the same time, inundation with information from different sources in the environs instigates great expenditure of energy in the hasty synthesis of these objects and in defence against possible attacks on the stability of the inner world around which the identity is created.

This only adds to the possibilities for further generation of conflict situations in the psychic apparatus of the individual and new expenditures in energy occupied contents in defence of the threatened identity. We can observe that only very little of the energy sources remains to be invested in emotional relationships. We can conclude that the libido cathects primarily internal objects, notions about personal identity, not developed from real potential and maintained for the sake of a sense of self-respect, which in such cases is the very last defence against the advent of the process of self-destruction. At this point we ask: What kind of sexuality can these structures expect when their emotional investments are mostly focused on preservation of their own, loose and inauthentic identity?

Suddenly we come to the realization that we are actually discussing narcissistic structures, emotional relationships determined by fixation of the libido and its entrapment in secondary narcissism. Having recognized these structures as narcissistic, whose basic problem is how to achieve objective relationships which allow a real libidinous transfer and a union between two individuals, we would like to raise the same question again: What kind of sexuality are we examining? Can this kind of individual be free of fears that in a love relationship which requires unconditional involvement and temporary symbiosis, they will not lose their shaky identity? In such a relationship, the individual unconsciously experiences inferiority owing to the powerlessness of the remaining modest energy sources to satisfy the anticipated relation emotionally. If allowed, this sexuality ends at the point of physical consummation for the sake of preservation of the shaky sexual identity. We can see that the libido cannot in fact activate an emotional transfer and thus occupy an object relation. It remains imprisoned in the dungeons of narcissism. Love remains a reminder of the relationship with the parents, buried deep in the individual unconscious with an intensity which demands repeated realization.

Since yet another, perhaps fundamental biological necessity is not realized, a chain of release of repressed energy charges is inevitably activated, either mentally, physically or psychosomatically, realized through auto-aggressiveness or through hetero-aggressiveness. At this point, we can argue that there is a case of aggressive, destructive, instinctual forces at work opposite to the libidinal, being aware that the possibilities for their discharge are unlimited once the doors for such outcome are opened. And these outcomes are always to be expected when self-respect is destroyed, usually maintained through mutual support and relying on other individuals in an endless game of inauthentic roles.

As a consequence, these individual fears of disillusionment about personal identity and self-respect mobilize joint efforts to uphold these object relationships and impose them where they are not developed in such a manner. Suddenly, we come to the paradoxical conclusion that a cohesive rapprochement has somehow been achieved between individuals in society. Yet, in this rapprochement, the chief factor is not the libido, but fear and hostility.

We confront the suggestion that individuality, upon which narcissistic culture is founded, is still some kind of progress, a developmental step forward from the symbiotic-dominant, autocratic societies which we have left behind. But at the same time we are confronted with the fact that individualization, as we have described it, is not equal to individuation, because the first implies departure from the core of the person and the laws of nature, while the latter entails a process of understanding and accepting one’s own authenticity, as well as the uniqueness of the world that surrounds us.

In the end, we revisit the pessimism of Freud’s observation of society. Perhaps, with the only difference that we are not afraid of the end but of the supposed loss of promise that the creative would eventually win over the destructive. Let us hope that, one day, we might still truly take upon ourselves the message to ‘…love thy neighbour…’ —not as a result of religious regression, but through the superiority of reason.


The text was published in 1993 in ‘Lik’, Nova Makedonija.