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Narcissism and its Discontents (Studies in the Psychosocial)

Walsh, Julie

Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke (2014)
ISBN: 9781137333438 (pb)

Reviewed by Carl Denig,

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Cover of Narcissism and its Discontents (Studies in the Psychosocial) Narcissism and Its Discontents Walsh, Julie. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2015 ISBN 978-1-137-33343-8 £58, hb. pp. viii + 182 Walsh’s book considers the desirability of narcissism. Her introduction unravels the theoretical strands running throughout: that both primary and secondary narcissism reflect an environment with which we interact, and that narcissistic fantasies of self-sufficiency emerge from the fundamental inequality of the infant’s environment (p.3). The central assumptions underlying the book is ‘that all narcissistic subjects are, enduringly, subjects-in-formation’ (p.5), and that in a sense, all theory is narcissistic fantasy.

Chapter one reviews Freud’s classic On Narcissism (1914), its contributions, and subsequent psychoanalytic and sociological responses thereto. She is here at pains to show that anaclitic and narcissistic object-choice collapse into one another and that primary narcissism raises the question of the ego’s formation and self-discovery (p.20). Uniting her discussion of Balint, Winnicott, and Lacan is the argument that primary narcissism ‘has both ‘a reality basis’ and a basis in ‘illusion’’ (p.28). Walsh then contrasts Marcuse, Lacan, and Fromm to establish one narcissistic paradox as knowledge and ignorance coexisting in the individual (p.40). In chapter two, she utilises the case of Little Hans to make paired theoretical points: first, the narcissistic genesis of the self can constrain the future workings of the intellect (p.51); and second, in being narcissistic, our will to knowledge is rooted in a fantasy that we can be self-sufficient in our efforts to expand our understanding (p.61). We encounter here a different narcissistic paradox, where people’s attempt to gain knowledge exposes them to a potential lack.

The middle chapters are billed as Sociology 1 and 2, and deal with nostalgia as sociological trope and Walsh’s rebuttal of critiques of cultural narcissism. She follows Freud in defining solidarity as ‘having at its root an appropriative fantasy’ (p.63). From this she goes on to argue that sociology has been, since Tönnies, essentially a nostalgic discipline. Narcissism and nostalgia both create and share a desire for an imaginary sense of community, created after the fact (p. 71). Sociology itself, according to Walsh, therefore has one foot in reality and the other in illusion. Sociology 2 uses these narcissistic paradoxes to argue against Christopher Lasch, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Richard Sennett. Walsh links these ‘declinists’ with reflexive sociology through their shared, though ‘tacit’, emphasis on narrative’s significance (p. 113). Her conclusion about the non-coherence of narrative returns us to the psychoanalytic notion of ‘subjects-in-formation (subjects who are not fully themselves)’ (p.114).

Chapter five relies upon a fiction: the “Narquette”, a composite of Simmel’s coquette and ‘Freud’s (female) narcissist’ (p.122). A major concern in this chapter is to engage with feminist critiques of Freud, but as in Chapter 4, she attempts to demonstrate that interaction without content can be pleasurable. Through Freud’s illustrations of charm and Simmel’s of flirtation, she wishes to show that ‘narcissism calls out to narcissism’ and therefore actively ‘communicates’ (p.137). She concludes by attempting to place a narcissistic paradox at sociality’s heart: Social ties contain within them the possibility of alienation, thus reminding us of our environment’s ultimate instability (p.144).

Walsh’s conclusion deals with the boundaries between narcissism and melancholia, and the narcissist’s paradoxical ‘state of possession and non-possession’ (p.145). Here her text is at its most oblique, but she apparently derives that melancholia is a repetition of the initial narcissistic injury, that is the recognition that one’s mother is not a part of one’s self. This initial injury, in my reading, is for Walsh the wellspring of the ego. The penultimate thought seems to summarise much of her argument: ‘Narcissistic sociability, then, describes the relations between subjects-in-formation who are both more and less than themselves, always trespassing the notional and imaginary boundary between self and other’ (p.161-2).

Simultaneously, however, this sentence showcases some shortcomings. Her text is evocative and links together diverse thinkers in a way corrective to the perspective that psychoanalysis only pathologises. Her critique feels slightly fractured, torn between psychoanalysis and sociology. Though Walsh states she’ll bear in mind her clinical experience (p.6), such consideration seemed to come mostly in asides. The monograph is theoretically rich, but risks ghettoising itself by presuming a familiarity with Freud before opening the book. Overall, one might mirror Walsh’s psychoanalytic jargon to conclude that the text would’ve benefitted from a firmer footing in reality and less in metapsychology.


FREUD, Sigmund. 1914. “On Narcissism,” pp. 67-102 in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XIV.