Sigmund Freud – “On Narcissism” (1913-14)

Whereas formerly, Freud (and others) thought of ego-libido and object-libido as separate drives, and of the human as carrying on a twofold existence–“one to serve his own purposes and the other as a link in a chain, which he serves against his will, or at least involuntarily” (549) ( Similar division can be found in Darwin, Mill, and Nietzsche, to name only a few)–the essay “On Narcissism” attempts to theorize a single force behind both pleasure and self-preservation. In the post-war writings, Freud will “solve” this problem in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Here, Freud suggests that Narcissism might not be a “perversion,” but rather “the libidinal complement to the egoism of the instinct of self-preservation, a measure of which may justifiably be attributed to every living creature” (546).

Thus Freud notes, “The first autoerotic sexual satisfactions are experiences in connection with vital functions which serve the purpose of self-preservation.” This initial self-directed relationship, under the first topography, gets directed outward into objects; but in the second topography, Freud beings to conceive of an “ego-ideal” that is set up as “the substitute for the lost narcissism of his childhood in which he was his own ideal” (558). Thus Freud argues,

The formation of the ego-ideal is often confused with the sublimation of instinct, to the detriment of our understanding of the facts…As we have learnt, the formation of an ideal heightens the demands of the ego and is the most powerful factor favoring repression; sublimation is a way out, a way by which those demands can be met without involving repression.

Thus instinct, the drive for self-preservation, is preserved in the very act of satisfying the pleasure principle.

Freud offers will become only a provisional “single-drive” theory—a distinctively optimistic, pre-war outlook: “The return of the object-libido to the ego and its transformation into narcissism represents, as it were, a happy love once morel and, on the other hand, it is also true that a real happy love corresponds to the primal condition in which object-libido and ego-libido cannot be distinguished” (561). In terms of taste and food, aesthetics and nutritive consumption, this amounts to a convergence of the realms of freedom and necessity.


“On Narcissism,” from The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gay (1989).

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