In The Heart of Man, first published in 1964, Erich Fromm examines “the role of narcissim for the understanding of nationalism… and the psychological motivations for destructiveness and war”. It all sounds very relevant today.
Fromm recognises that narcissism fulfils an important biological survival function for everyone, but needs to be at an optimum level modified by the reality of social cooperation. (cf healthy attachment to one’s own children, which needs to be bounded by reality.)
Extremes of narcissism
Fromm considers two extremes: the primary narcissism of the newborn infant, and the narcissism of the insane person. In both cases the outside world is not real – has not emerged to be real or has ceased to be real.
He regards people who have reached extremes of power as borderline insane: some Egyptian Pharaohs, Nero, Caligula, Hitler, Stalin… For them, everyone is an enemy; they are paranoid, yet there is some link to reality in that there are inevitably in reality a lot of enemies.
How can we recognise a narcissistic person? Sensitivity to criticism and denial of its validity. A lack of genuine interest in the outside world. Often recognised by facial expression: “a kind of glow or smile… the impression of smugness… a peculiar glitter in the eyes…”
A part of the personality (eg a physical feature) or people in the person’s sphere of interest (eg a political movement) may become the focus of the narcissism.
Benign and Malignant Narcissism
Fromm identifies two forms of narcissism – benign and malignant. In the benign form the object of the narcissism is the result of a person’s effort, where the work itself keeps the person in contact with reality, so the narcissism is self-limiting. In the malignant case the object is something the person has (eg wealth), not what he does. Fromm suggests that this form of narcissism is not self limiting.
Does it matter?
The extreme narcissist is someone who has lost touch with reality (including their own inner reality) and lives in the world of their own projections. So they are difficult to deal with as there is no common basis of ‘reality’. This is really compounded when these projections are shared with others in the phenomenon of social narcissism that Fromm moves on to, and will be covered in a further post.