In his 1914 essay ‘On Narcissism’, Sigmund Freud painted a portrait of ‘His Majesty the Baby’ – a deluded megalomaniac resplendent in a fantastical belief in his own omnipotence. But Freud was led inexorably, if paradoxically, from this image of absolute solipsism (the infant looks around and sees only his self, his thoughts, his desires) to the question of group psychology – of how individuals tie themselves to the social world. It was in this essay that the idea of an ‘ego ideal’ crystallised. Faced with the various blows to narcissism imposed by cultural demands, external reality and the unconscious itself, the individual turns elsewhere: unwilling to ‘forgo the narcissistic perfection of his childhood’, he ‘seeks to recover it in the new form of an ego ideal’. This concept then led Freud to propose ‘a special psychical agency which … constantly watches the actual ego and measures it by that ideal’. This, of course, is conscience – that inner voice watching, chastising, censoring and holding the ego to account that Freud would later call the superego. Tracing the vicissitudes of narcissism from that irrecoverable scene of blissful self-love through its displacement and investment in the ego ideal, Freud follows a path from solipsistic self-love to the question of how that self-love is bound up with (and masked by) certain ideals against which we measure ourselves – including the social side of the ego ideal, the ‘common ideal of a family, a class or a nation’.
That narcissism is an ethically, even morally, freighted term is central to both Elizabeth Lunbeck’s The Americanization of Narcissism and Simon Blackburn’s Mirror, Mirror. Tracing the history of the term in psychoanalysis, social criticism and popular psychology, Lunbeck claims that, though the psychoanalytic concept of narcissism was formulated in Europe