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Shulman, M. (2018). Teaching Freud's “On Narcissism”. Am. Imago, 75(2):297-302.

(2018). American Imago, 75(2):297-302

Teaching Freud's “On Narcissism”

Michael Shulman, Ph.D.

“On Narcissism” has long been a favorite Freud text for me, but it is a difficult one, in particular in its opening sections. Freud's considerations of perversion, megalomania, paranoia, hypochondria, and ego-libido versus object-libido are complex and quite abstract, sometimes abstruse. Freud ruminates over his own distinctions between the sexual and the self-preservative instincts, considering whether revisions to his theory of the libido are needed in light of the phenomenon of narcissism. But “On Narcissism” is not only difficult, it is outright strange, almost mad-sounding even, as when Freud raises the question “what makes it necessary at all for our mental life to pass beyond the limits of narcissism and to attach the libido to objects?” (1914, p. 85), and insofar as, if we take him seriously, the only reason that we love is in order not to fall ill.

How to teach “On Narcissism”? The level of difficulty and paradox in this paper is such that candidates reading it sometimes pass into a dim twilight of odd thoughts and vague musings—and perhaps on to intellectual or literal sleep. This was true of my own experience of “On Narcissism” on certain re-readings. But an extraordinary series of images, three human and one animal, would always wake me half way through the essay's second section (see pp. 88-89). For me these images burst on the scene, like a bunch of characters jumping on stage through a curtain, and it is in their company that I try to engage my students in the service of their beginning to deal with the difficulties and riches of “On Narcissism.” Pairing Freud's paper with a reading of the Narcissus myth, and using these vivid images, we can help students of psychoanalysis extract from Freud's paper an essence of what he meant by narcissism, and recognize what can be considered an original scene of narcissism—if not the “primal scene,” a second scene of primary psychological importance.


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