Is narcissism a religion

Béla Grunberger was the great outsider in the structuralist intellectual scene in Paris. In his new study of the philosophy of history, he presents a daring psychoanalytic interpretation of anti-Semitism

Power-hungry, horny Jews, the anti-Semite pursues their own frowned upon instincts

Some books, apparently written to last, quickly find their presence. Well over ninety-year-old Béla Grunberger (with his student Pierre Dessuant as co-author) has now enriched the religious discourse that has just started again with his book “Narcissism, Christianity, Antisemitism”. Published in France in 1997, it has been expertly translated into German by Max Looser.

Grunberger is a second generation Jewish psychoanalyst who did his training analysis with Ferenczi and who still knew Freud personally. Today he is himself a veteran of the science of the unconscious that just celebrated its centenary. Fled from Hungary from the Nazis, he has lived in Paris for decades. There he was a kind of opponent of Lacan for a long time and was considered an outsider in the structuralist intellectual scene at the time. Not least, a provocative book (“La génération contéstaire”) that he published in 1968 together with his wife Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, who is also a prominent psychoanalyst, about the social-psychological constitution of the protest movement, earned him this role. There the two (by the way, under a pseudonym that was soon to be revealed) advocated the thesis of the narcissistic character of protest, which is basically directed against oedipal development and thus against growing up.

What caused particular excitement at the time was that - to put it simply - the psychoanalytic reality principle was equated with the recognition of the father, the recognition of the father with that of the law, the strictness of the law with Judaism freed from religion itself, and finally this secular Judaism with psychoanalysis . With this strict circle, the youth revolt could be certified in a single litter that their uprising against the state was mentally immature and had anti-Semitic roots.

Grunberger now draws a comparably wide arc in his extensive historical-philosophical study on the connection between narcissism, Christianity and anti-Semitism, which is reminiscent of Freud's writings on cultural theory. The anti-Semitic affect is the answer to a narcissistic insult and historically represents a recurring epidemic reaction to violations of collective self-esteem that accompanied the crises of society. This hypothesis is played out for Christianity in the biography of the founder of the religion: The person Jesus does not know his real father - he unconsciously reacts to this insult by attacking the fatherly principle in Jewish law at the same time - in a grandiose illusion he declares himself to be God and the Jews to the devil. Christ, as the divine child purified from all instincts, embodies a narcissistic fantasy of boundlessness, immortality, human equality with God. Christianity blurs the distance to the Father with the idea of ​​God incarnate; it is narcissism transformed into a love religion and symbolically remains in an early position of amalgamation. An instinctual maturation towards the oedipal development of difference, knowledge and reality does not take place as it is represented by Judaism: the mother replaces the father, faith the law and the creed replaces knowledge. In the phantasm of the greedy, power-hungry and horny Jew, the anti-Semite pursues his own frowned upon instinctual tendencies, which remain fixed on the anal level as filth and filth.

Before raising any objection to this bulky late work of a well-deserved psychoanalyst, one must consider the idiosyncratic narcissistic theory that he has bequeathed to his profession and that penetrates every pore of this book. According to Grunberger, narcissism is due to prenatal existence, which constitutes a paradisiacal state through perfect care, undisturbed harmony and absolute absence of tension, which leaves a deep trace of the longing for a return to the delights of oceanic fusion postnatally. He mystifies narcissism into a psychological instance of regression based on biology and dialectically opposes it to the structure-forming instinct development that leads to the progressive recognition of reality in the Oedipal conflict. What is questionable about this theory is, not least, its monadic character, which suppresses the intrauterine ecology, the holding environment, the smiling mother, the reflective others that accompany narcissism. In contrast, in my own study I showed the intersubjective dimension of narcissism, which is not a solo event.

In the phantasm of the greedy,

The historical-philosophical application of this special theory of narcissism from the point of view of an assimilated Jew who withdraws the religious from Judaism provokes further criticism: Is his diagnosis of Hitler clinically indicated as a prototype of pathological narcissism fixed on the anal level? What about pre-Christian and extra-Christian anti-Semitism, what about the neo-pagan postmodern right that wants to clear away Christian culture with Jewish culture? Doesn't the neat separation between a Christian religion of narcissistic immaturity and a Jewish culture of Oedipal maturity itself arise from an obsession that obscures the view of a common tradition of both dogmatism and creative civilizing achievements? Isn't the genealogy of Judaism also based on a narcissistic fantasy of the “chosen people”? Last but not least, do the Christians in the Jews hate their own roots? Isn't Christian anti-Semitism also an expression of a “narcissism of minor differences” (Freud), which we can assume to be the source of ethnic hatred in the Yugoslav fratricidal wars? Grunberger's book raises all of these questions. Nevertheless: especially in his daring theses, it is not only highly stimulating for the discourse of religions.


The reviewer is a psychologist; most recently his book “Narcissism and Object” (Göttingen 2000) was published.Béla Grunberger / Pierre Dessuant: “Narcissism, Christianity, anti-Semitism. A psychoanalytic investigation ”, 513 pages, Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2000, 88 DM