Can you explain the quote, "[N]arcissistic rage is to narcissism as aggression is to Oedipal desire"?

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Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Understanding this complex analogous statement, "[N]arcissistic rage is to narcissism as aggression is to Oedipal desire," requires a sound foundation of definitional foundation establishing the meaning of the four parts: narcissism, narcissistic rage, Oedipal complex, and Oedipal aggression.

Narcissism: Aside from mild narcissism, narcissism that is the component of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) involves arrogant behavior that is lacking in empathy for others feelings and needs and involves a driving need for admiration. This arrogance and drive to be admired make narcissists manipulative, exploitative, demanding and vindictive (important to narcissistic rage). NPD narcissism grows out of a self-centered abnormal failure to empathize or sympathize and a resultant desire for:

  • admiration
  • power
  • domination
  • grandiose self-presentation
  • manipulation

inordinate fascination with oneself; excessive self-love; vanity. Synonyms: self-centeredness, smugness, egocentrism.

Psychoanalysis. abnormal admiration of one's own physical or mental attributes carried over from the Freudian infantile level of personality development.

Narcissistic rage: Narcissistic rage, found in NPD narcissism, applies to vindictive, retaliatory, vengeful reactions to challenges presented to the narcissist's dominance, arrogance, self-admiration, grandiose self-presentation, power, exploitation, or manipulation. Narcissistic rage is comprised of a rage that intends to do emotional or physical harm to someone in revenge for a slight, an insult, a rejection, a refusal to comply with manipulative or exploitative efforts, a challenge to an opinion or plan, or any other sort of self-initiative that might be asserted against an NPD narcissist. The key components are intention, revenge, harm, and these are united with the aim of exerting or establishing power, dominating or maintaining domination. Narcissistic rage manifests along a continuum of behaviors spanning from aloofness to violent physical attacks any of which may include emotional abuse, screaming, and hysteria.

Oedipal complex: A Freudian concept, applied by Freud, but not by later psychoanalysts, to both girls and boys, describing what Freud called a universal "desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex and a concomitant sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex" (Encyclopedia Britannica). Freud called this complex the "nuclear complex" of all later to develop neuroses. In the Oedipal complex, the child develops feelings of intense rivalry against the same sex parent in their infantile desire to possess the opposite sex parent.

Oedipal aggression: According to Freud, the feelings of rivalry in the Oedipal complex turn into a deep feeling of aggression. The aggression is directed at the same sex parent in a desire to replace them as the object of the opposite parent's sexual satisfaction. According to Freud, the Oedipal complex, with its desire, rivalry and aggression, is resolved through the defense mechanisms of repression and identification, though, if not resolved through these defense mechanisms, neuroses develop and aggression remains an abnormal component of personality resulting in an aggressive personality disorder. 

Analogy: The way in which narcissistic rage is to narcissism as aggression is to Oedipal desire is that rage and aggression are both the maladaptive affective reactions to personality disorder and/or neuroses. While Freud says that the Oedipal complex is universal, without resolution through appropriate defense mechanisms, then the aggression associated with it becomes an abnormal affective response to life's situations in which circumstances go contrary to desire. While some individuals may have exceptional gifts of beauty, talent, intellect, physical prowess, academic ability or other attributes, if these natural qualities are combined in an abnormal personality or abnormal personality development and are accompanied by the lack of empathy and compassion, grandiosity, and the desire for dominating power, then the rage that is triggered presents an abnormal affective response to life's situations in which circumstances go contrary to desire.

The term "narcissistic rage" was first coined by Heinz Kohut in 1972 in The Analysis of the Self from which date it became a significant concept in psychoanalysis. Kohut's term reflected his interdisciplinary interests in literature, culture, and civilization but was founded in psychoanalysis of narcissistic personalities. Kohut's psychology of personality is built upon a triad of development along three axes all of which work together to form a "cohesive self": (1) the grandiosity axis of stable self-esteem; (2) the idealization axis of a stable system of goal-stetting ideals; (3) the alter ego–connectedness axis of communication of feelings to and relationship building with others. While "narcissistic rage" was widely accepted and popular among psychoanalysts, Kohut's idea of three axis, with narcissism integral to one of the axes, was not originally as widely supported. Kohut observed that narcissistic rage "can include phenomena as different as slight annoyance, paranoiac rancor, and catatonic fury" (AGN Oppenheimer. "Narcissistic Rage," Gale Cengage).

Psychoanalytic theory links narcissistic rage to the loss of control of a situation, person, circumstance or group of persons: domination and manipulation requires control. Narcissistic rage is said to signal "the existence of some unresolved psychic injury of an archaic, narcissistic character" (Oppenheimer). "Archaic" in psychoanalysis refers to infantile states or the earliest stages of personality or character development when the full development of personality and character have not been reached: narcissistic rage is said to signal the existence of some unresolved psychic injury, or psychological injury, of a character that has not reached full development and that leans toward self-admiration; the injury in the archaic state pushes the character toward the abnormal narcissism of NPD. 

  • Character: According to Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman, character classification comprises six major virtues and then various strengths that fit under each virtue (from their book Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification qtd by Margarita Tartakovsky in "Measuring Your Character Strengths")

Psychoanalytic theory holds that narcissistic rage is the attempt to "repair an injustice, a narcissistic wound" (Oppenheimer) that remains felt so long as shame resulting from the injury persists after the initiating archaic injury. As the shame from such an event is realistically beyond the means of a person to relieve without therapeutic intervention, the rage will continue to manifest in the NPD narcissist. Freudians say that narcissists feel the need to "destroy" the "witness" to the archaic injury; this cannot be achieved, so the shame and rage persist. Narcissistic rage is expressed in present life desire for revenge that erupts in the "face of ridicule, disdain or contempt" (Oppenheimer). Revenge is the expression of narcissistic rage. Destructiveness accompanying revenge is linked to the narcissistic "defect" as described, which originates with an initiating archaic injury, or narcissistic injury. Narcissistic destructiveness manifest in narcissistic rage is not an expression of nor "a reaction to a primary instinct" (Oppenheimer).

The aggression of narcissistic rage toward another person is distinct from and to be distinguished from the aggression of narcissistic rage toward a selfobject. Kohut's idea of "selfobject" is integral to his theory of development in his psychology of self. The selfobject is an archaic presence (present in early developmental stages before development, including physical development, is fully completed) that allows needs to be fulfilled for which an individual cannot help themselves, e.g., food or warmth or clothing or love provided for a young child. The person who fulfills the need that would otherwise go unmet is the selfobject: the individual who helps to forward the accomplishment of the development of the self through meeting otherwise unmet needs.

Kohut emphasizes that selfobjects must not be experienced as being disappointing or as failing: the person in the archaic stages must not be betrayed by the selfobject, upon whom the person depends, through disappointment in or failure to meet the persons needs. If there is disappointment or failure experienced in relation to archaic selfobjects, the aggressiveness of narcissistic rage is released within the person's archaic character (unformed character) and "cannot be quelled" (Oppenheimer) even though the obstacle to need fulfillment may itself be overcome or lifted.

Source: AGN Oppenheimer. "Narcissistic Rage." International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. Ed. Alain de Mijolla. Vol. 2. Gale Cengage, 2005.