Bioethics Blogs

Elizabeth Lunbeck’s The Americanization of Narcissism by Jonathan Sadowsky

The The Americanization of Narcissism

Harvard University Press, 2014, 384 pages.

Historians have not handled psychoanalysis very well. The clumsy reductionism of much of the psychohistory movement is usually Exhibit A, though historians such as Dominick LaCapra and Joan Scott have been developing more nuanced ways of using psychoanalytic ideas for History. But the historiography of psychoanalysis has also had some glaring weaknesses. One of them has been a tendency to focus too much on Freud and his early followers. In this, it mirrored the psychohistory movement, which often treated psychoanalytic and Freudian thought as identical. This identification was one Freud encouraged. He enforced orthodoxy, and in the process damaged his legacy more than he could have imagined. There have nevertheless been many creative developments in psychoanalysis since Freud, though for too long it was politically necessary to frame them as a return to Freud’s true meaning. The development of psychoanalysis since Freud’s death in 1939 is only beginning to get the attention it deserves from historians. In The Americanization of Narcissism, Elizabeth Lunbeck gives us one of the best accounts, one that shows keen mastery of subtle theoretical distinctions, and is loaded with insightful readings of major figures.

Lunbeck stresses the protean quality of the concept of narcissism. This quality may have undermined clarity on some discussions, but, Lunbeck argues, it has also been a source of creative reinvention. Much of the book is focused on the contrast between Heinz Kohut and Otto Kernberg, and the embellishment of these émigré analysts’ insights by American social critics.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.