In the wake of Freud, Lacan thinks that narcissism is not a pathology in itself but, on the contrary, the condition that allows all of us to function in an acceptable way, like a Lowman. Even if in my life I’ve never achieved anything worthy of note, I have to “believe in myself,” and nurture the fundamental self-infatuation that makes me think “I’m cool!”
After all, democratic ideology strengthens our narcissism: in democracy everyone’s and anyone’s opinions count and therefore “my opinion” too, even if I know nothing about politics, is somehow sacralized. Most people, when they see that someone is hostile towards them, will immediately say “he’s jealous!” A sign of the fact that most of us think we’re enviable. This is what Lacan notes as the megalomania of every Ego – unless we look into the mirror of the Other. For this reason, the man in the hand-in-jacket pose who thinks he’s Napoleon has become the paradigm of the paranoiac. Why Napoleon? Not because he was a great general, there have been many others, but, Lacan jokes, because “Napoleon was someone who thought he was Napoleon” ( Lacan 1966 , p. 170). He was a low man – also because he was rather short – who became emperor and ended up dying on a remote island in the Atlantic. “In thinking he is Napoleon,” the paranoiac at once fulfils his megalomania and ironically and obliquely exposes every megalomania; the paranoid infatuation of the Ego.
Cognitive psychology considers this aspect under the entry self-esteem. These psychologists assess the levels of self-esteem, or self-disesteem, of various subjects, in order to ascertain the extent to which these levels influence their activities, and so on. Lacan, instead, would ask: who does one esteem in self-esteem? Now, by narcissism both mainstream psychoanalysis and cognitivism mean love of the self and thinking above all about oneself. They assume there is a Self, which is more or less the object of narcissistic love. For Lacan, by contrast, narcissism is an experience of imaginary alienation: it is a love not of one-Self, but of one’s mirror image. Narcissism is love for the other that represents me. For Lacan we don’t have the “false Self” on one side and the “the true Self” on the other (like in Winnicott), because there’s no room for the concept of Self in his topology. For Lacan, there is on the one hand the imaginary Ego – i.e. our mirror image, which in our ordinary paranoia we mistake for our self – and on the other, the subject as / S], i.e. an empty place in a series of symbols, a non-representation. In fact, the bar on the / S should also be read as a crossing out, not only as a split.
After Trump’s election to President of the United States, an Italian magazine asked me: “as a psychoanalyst, do you think Trump is a narcissist?” Saying that Trump is a narcissist simply amounts to saying that Trump believes in Trump, in the same way as we all believe in ourselves. For example, whenever there’s a political discussion, anywhere, I’m always struck by the way everyone thinly conceals a certain contempt for those who hold a different opinion. Their own opinion appears self-evident to them, and if someone doesn’t agree, it’s because they’re a slob. This is obviously not stated, and some don’t even think it consciously, but it’s true. We can say, however, that Trump is the narcissism of those who voted for him, most of whom probably suffer from serious narcissistic injuries. Trump, the man of success, tells them “I think what you think! You, who the New York and California intellectuals scorn as rednecks, as hicks full of prejudices, as losers. . . . I shall be your narcissism.”
So, a high or lower self-esteem from Lacan’s point of view doesn’t depend on an assessment of one’s qualities, but on the solidity of the self-infatuation an Ego is capable of. We’re efficient insofar as we identify with the mirror image – the ideal image – of ourselves, with our Ego. Luigi Pirandello would say that we identify with our mask. The point is not taking away the masks from subjects to show them their true faces, but to expose the fact that they are only masks (Pirandello called his characters “naked masks”). And in this recognition of being a mask, the subject advient, “succeeds.” The point is that showing how each Ego “believes in itself” has self-referential setbacks. Insofar as Lacan too was most certainly an Ego – and an extremely powerful one too – he was obviously himself affected by paranoiac miscomprehension. This reinforces many of his pupils, who believe they’re taking part in the strength of Lacan’s Napoleonic Ego, but who also often risk being led to a Waterloo in their relationship with “the people.”
CONVERSATIONS WITH LACAN