Thursday, August 09, 2007

Narcissism and self esteem, a small note

In the current, long overdue discussions over self-esteemism gone amok, it is worth bearing in mind that narcissism is not self-love as such. Narcissus was fascinated with himself, and that fascination arose in part because it was himself. But, as Jackson Lears pointed out years ago in an obituary essay on the late Christopher Lasch, narcissism is more precisely not self-love, but rather than inability to distinguish between self and world.

I long ago gave up altogether on Freud, but there are still insights that resonate, and one is that narcissism, because it is an inability to distinguish between self and world, is an infantile and infantilizing condition. Because it is the condition of the infant to be unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality, between desire and world. The self esteem movement is infantilizing for exactly this reason; it erases the distinction between self and world and thrives on the confusion of the two.

But the real world intrudes, if only dimly, and produces this weird sense of fragility and mistrust and resentment of what authorities, starting with parents, tell you, because somewhere you sense that it can't be quite as easy as all that. I recall that the great philosopher of law and philosopher of literature and pyschoanlysis, Herbert Morris, for many decades at UCLA, and one of my great mentors, remarked to me that his favorite rock n roll song was "You Can't Always Get What You Want."

I wrote about this back in the mid-1990s, following Lasch's untimely death, here in the TLS, and here in the Columbia Law Review. I also wrote about it in a review of It Takes a Village, also in the TLS, and indirectly in a 2000 review essay in the Los Angeles Times Book Review on the pedagogy of reading, here, which caused great if brief consternation among private school parents in Los Angeles but got me congratulatory calls from the then mayor of Los Angeles and the then state superintendent of education in California. And much hate mail from the education schools. I touched a nerve in multiple directions.

But I think the most important article in the popular press today on this topic is this one from New York Magazine, widely noticed but no less important for it, here.