What is an incurable narcissist

Interpreting social (mis) developments as the fruits of modern narcissism was en vogue in the 1970s. Now the Halle psychiatrist Hans-Joachim Maaz has made a new attempt.

Our world is full of evils, both large and small: eruptive violence breaks out in wars, hatred of strangers and different people simply does not want to die out, schoolyards are places of bullying. Progress shows its downsides, mobility is becoming a nuisance due to traffic noise and surface erosion, nuclear power plants radiate the world, intensive agriculture leaves behind contaminated soil. Power-hungry self-promoters determine politics, speculators without morals cause dramatic financial crises. Fitness mania and fear of old age put the individual under pressure. Wouldn't it be helpful to know the cause of all these plagues?

Cause wrong life

The psychiatrist Hans-Joachim Maaz, former chief physician of the clinic for psychotherapy and psychosomatics at the Diakonie Hospital in Halle, presents himself as such a knowledgeable person. In 1990 his book about the "emotional jams" of the GDR citizens who were not only politically but also "emotionally walled in" made him a bestselling author. His latest hit is called “The Narcissistic Society” (published by C. H. Beck) and again provides a psychogram, only this time Maaz does not limit himself to the East Germans, but sees Ostler and Westerner united under the sign of a pathological narcissism.

True to his motto that although being shapes consciousness, the unconscious determines being beforehand, Maaz argues strictly psychoanalytically. The reader searches in vain for cultural-historical, political, sociological or socio-philosophical analyzes. “Narcissism” is becoming the key term to explain almost all suffering, defects and cruelty, from drug addiction to the Holocaust. Where the historian Ian Kershaw needs a thick work (“Das Ende”, published 2011) to explain why Nazi Germany fought to the point of failure, a single sentence is enough for the psychiatrist Maaz. Kershaw cites desperation, hopelessness, fear of unconditional surrender and the regime's terror as reasons. Maaz, on the other hand, writes just as succinctly as it is erroneous: "Without the convinced to enthusiastic lust for war and murder of a majority of the German population, the National Socialist regime would not have been sustained to the bitter end."

If one ignores the author's unpleasant tendency to exaggerate and generalize (for example, he does not explain getting into debt economically, but reduces it to a “collective addictive disease”), the impression remains: his problem analyzes touch on really sore points. In contrast to healthy narcissism, which also exists when early childhood was saturated with parental love, the narcissistic disorder is due to its serious deficiency. Heinz Kohut said the relevant part forty years ago. Building on Kohut's research, Maaz focuses on the importance of the mother for child development: healthy self-love is dependent on affection in order to develop. Infants and toddlers must be able to reflect themselves in the loving gaze of the mother.

If the mother - egocentric, hardened or merely pretending - fails, this creates a fundamental offense in the child which, and that is the bleak, remains incurable for a lifetime and can only be "regulated", namely through defense and compensation. Children who notice that they are rewarded with the longed-for affection for obedience are now taking the path of adjustment. A "false life" (Maaz) begins, in which the self sets aside its own desires. The narcissistically disturbed occurs in two forms: as a "great small" seeking fulfillment in suffering and as a "great self" (vulgo: Gernegross). One type puts his light under a bushel, the other inflates his ego. When both meet and form a couple, the partners behave towards each other like a pot and a lid. Maaz reads the marriage of former Chancellor Kohl with his first wife Hannelore as such a "collusive" connection, but also the union of the depressed East Germans with the successful West Germans. Maazen's reductionist perspective includes the fact that he consistently suspects outstanding achievements as substitute gratifications. All efforts, including great cultural creations, must therefore be interpreted as compensations for the originally suffered lack of love.

What is surprising, along with the author's key attitude, is the publication date of this book. The high time to interpret social phenomena as narcissistic dates back to the late 1970s and actually seemed to be over. It was then that the writings of American social scientists and critics such as Richard Sennett and Christopher Lasch set the tone. Sennett made it clear in "The Fall of Public Man" that narcissism is not simply self-love, but inflicts pain on the self. Tormented by the question “What do I really feel?”, The modern narcissist suffers a split between action and emotion. His search for emotional authenticity ties him to a basically empty self and becomes an obsession. Political engagement, exertion, sociability, convention no longer count for him, there is “decay and the end of public life” (according to the German book title).

Christopher Lasch tightened Sennett's judgment and in 1979 proclaimed a "culture" or an "age" of narcissism. The robust liberal individualism is at the end, self-realization instead of conquering the world is the order of the day. Lasch was unable to begin with a left-wing cultural criticism that, walking in the footsteps of Herbert Marcuse, happily stylized narcissism as an emancipation from repressive living conditions. He was bothered by the victory of “therapeutic thinking”, which turns perpetrators into victims and ruins the sense of responsibility, and in the fear of growing old he sensed a “collapse of the historical sense of time”: The new narcissistic generation does not take children as treasure, but as a threat true of her own status, consequently does not want to bring any offspring into the world, so as not to have to make room for them on stage, and prove that she cares neither for the past nor the future.

The need seems to be growing

Lasch shared the view with Sennett that the proliferation of bureaucracy is causing narcissism to shoot, because performance is not measured and rewarded there, but judged according to what charisma and talents promise. Just as narcissus mirrors his face in delight in the water in the classic myth, so under bureaucratic conditions the personality in their professional position can be reflected. There is a merging of self and social position. Instead of sovereignty, however, this only causes dependency and de-solidarization. Richard Sennett still regards narcissism as the enemy of "cooperation", as his latest book, which has just been published in German, shows. And Hans-Joachim Maaz could show that the psychology of this character disorder has hardly made any gains in knowledge for forty years. The narcissist's diffusion and plight seem to be growing. Are the “social networks” of our day narcissistic mirrors or liberating windows on the world? The book that would shed light on this has yet to be written. We already have a suggestion for the title: “The Facebook generation on the couch”.