EVERY day, we read in the papers about gratuitous murders, perpetrated by nameless individuals as well as by the Hinckleys of this world. In The Self Seekers, Richard Restak, a Washington psychiatrist, makes us painfully aware that they represent simply the farthest end of a spectrum of narcissism on which we all find ourselves. A merit of Restak's book is that he documents the line leading from normal to disturbed narcissism, and then to the borderline condition, and over it to psychotic behavior.
Mark, the attorney, who is vaguely dissatisfied with life, Sonya who constantly feels about to be "wiped out," Lynn who depends on drugs to push away a sense of emptiness, Rhonda who cuts herself with a razor in order to feel anything, Skip Adams-Taylor who murders a woman picked up in a disco who momentarily made him feel humiliated--they are all dots on the line on which we can place ourselves. Along with such case studies, Restak mixes interviews and readings of distinguished psychoanalytic practitioners such as R.D. Laing, Heinz Kohut, and Otto Kernberg, descriptions drawn from Marcel Proust, Lawrence Durrell, and other literary portrayers of the narcissistic character, as well as accounts of his own personal experiences.
How are we to understand the narcissistic personality? Restak appeals to post-Freudian work on the subject. Freud's original theory used a drive model: libidinal (and aggressive) energy, in a closed system, seeking satisfaction, and if denied direct satisfaction, manifesting itself in repressed, sublimated, symptomatic, and other such forms. For the past quarter of a century or so, a different model--object relations theory--has predominated. It postulates that the nursing infant at first fuses the image of itself and its mother, and then separates the two at a later stage into an internal self-image and an object image of its mother. Pleasurable feelings in the parenting interaction lead to "good" object images and the opposite to "bad" images. The emphasis is on the formation of a stable and "good" self, as against the classical Freudian focus on psychosexual stages of drive satisfaction.
More recently, the "hot" subject, drawing on object relations theory, is narcissism, or self-psychology, with the recently deceased Heinz Kohut--a name increasingly to be reckoned with--its luminary. Self-psychology does not deny the Freudian conception; it builds on it, critically. This is the tradition in which Restak is operating.
As a clinical concept, narcissism has almost as many definitions as there are practitioners in the field. At its core, however, is the narcissist's feeling of an insecure self, which may split or fragment at any moment. Self-love tends to mask self-hate. Erikson has popularized the concept of identity; where the identity question is "Who am I?" the self question, as Restak puts it, is "Am I?"
Whence comes this pervasive sense of emptiness and lack of cohesion? The answer is not clear. A cold, unresponsive mother, a genetic defect, these may help explain on the individual level. Is ours also a "narcissistic culture," fostering such individual propensities? Restak offers a scathing answer in the affirmative. The manipulator, or self-seeker, he tells us, is the "natural consequence of a society which rewards material success, outward 'image' and competitive striving for status"; the "political process . . . is heavily involved in impression management"; and TV is a "pervasive instrument" for making "borderline values and concepts . . . the everyday concern of the average citizen." For Restak, TV violence and self- indulgence blur fiction and reality and lead viewers to act out in public life. Vice versa, Jim Jones and the People's Temple, as well as Charles Manson's "family," could have been TV episodes--and have been so "enacted."
The Self Seekers makes depressing but very informative reading. Unduly repetitious--where was the editor of this book?--and sometimes name-dropping, Restak nevertheless offers as good or better a presentation of object relations and narcissistic theory for the general reader as one can find. His analysis of the "culture" of narcissism is less polemical, more straightforward, and better grounded in the nuances of psychoanalytic theory than Christopher Lasch's best-selling The Culture of Narcissism. President Jimmy Carter read the latter before coming down from Camp David to deliver the famous speech in which he chastised America for its narcissistic malaise; he would have been better served by Restak's analysis, especially by reading the section on the very political process which fashioned the character of his own presidency.
Almost 150 years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville limned the American as "egotistic," which he identified as a fatal form of individualism. "Egotism," he wrote, "is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with his own person, and to prefer himself to everything in the world" (Democracy in in America, Vol. II (1840), Book II, Chapter II). What the Frenchman saw as a political and social consequence of equality, we, in our "therapeutic" society see as a "sickness." We describe it in clinical detail. In so doing, we run the danger of becoming fixated on the very self-absorbed sense that we are deprecating.
One has to keep reminding oneself that there is such a thing as healthy narcissism; in Kohut's formulation, a certain amount of grandiosity and idealizing is requisite for normal development. So, too, the manipulative character can be viewed more favorably as the "protean man." As Restak himself recognizes in a much too short concluding section, the task before us is to accept our complicated, complex, civilized life, and to integrate our multiple subselves into a coherent identity. Its overall negative tone aside, The Self Seekers is a lively and impressive contribution to that continuing effort. It deserves to be read in those terms.