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The Tragedy of the SelfReview - The Tragedy of the Self
Individual and Social Disintegration Viewed Through the Self Psychology of Heinz Kohut
by Gary F. Greif
University Press of America, 2000
Review by Aleksandar Dimitrijevic
Nov 10th 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 45)

Just from the title, it is clear that Greif's book on Heinz Kohut is unusual. Although many books and papers have been written on Kohut's theoretical standpoints, therapeutic innovations, and even his life and correspondence, this one is dedicated to a somewhat neglected topic. This is a book written by a scientist who obviously is not a clinician, and it deals with one possible integration of Kohut's many -- and scattered! -- ideas about the modern man's position in the world that surrounds him. It is interesting why Kohut's followers have developed some other aspects of his theory down to the minute details, while neglecting this one. It would be valuable to know why he himself had done the same, although frequently claiming his passions lie in this field at least equally as in the field of depth psychology.

Indeed, why Kohut deserves a book like this is not an easy question to answer. Although he frequently claimed that could he choose once again he would be a historian and not a psychoanalyst, and although he often addressed "a self-psychologically informed historian," he wrote comparatively little on the topic. Only a handful of his numerous papers are devoted to it, and none of his three books deals thoroughly with it. Still, quantity is not all. His ideas, although not expressed as a well-rounded system, and often left in the form of sketches, brief hypotheses, or associations, could provide extraordinary inspiration and a starting point for a careful reader to make explicit Kohut's unwritten Beyond 'Civilization and its Discontents' (to state this rather freely), just as he himself has continuously tried to get beyond Freud's Beyond the Pleasure Principle.

Greif tries to achieve this in a rather short volume of 120 pages, organized in six chapters. The book can clearly be divided in two halves, since the first three chapters form one part, and the last three another. The book is also unusual since the author uses the endnotes only to provide references, these references show that in writing this book the author used literally everything Kohut had ever written. Yet they also show that Greif uses little else: apart from Kohut and Freud one does not find any references to psychoanalytic literature (be it pre- or post-Kohutian, so to say), but also not too much of any other literature either.

The first part of the book is an outline of Kohut's theory. The first three chapters are dedicated to the self's nature, development, and disintegration, respectively. The majority of the most important topics are presented: the self is "a structure of self experiences which is both fundamental and overarching," (p. 1) which develops through the relationship with self-objects as different from libidinal objects. Especially important in this development is the role of empathy as a type of knowledge (vicarious introspection); the most important mechanisms include optimal frustration and transmuting (micro)internalization. As for the more clinical aspects of the theory there is a discussion of various types of transference, horizontal and vertical splitting, narcissism, disintegration anxiety. They are all discussed in detail, and the development of Kohut's thought is also presented.

The second part of the book brings an effort to connect Kohut's theory with different very important topics of social theory. These chapters are devoted to the discussion of the relationship between self and culture, and Kohut's concepts of Guilty Man and Tragic Man. The author presents the basic ideas of several thinkers who consider that the most important role of the society is to provide restraining regulations, Freud being one of the most distinguished among them. Being himself very critical toward such theories, the author tries to show that Kohut's application of self psychology to social sciences is a solid and meaningful edifice. He first discusses the Kohut's notion of the Guilty Man, which is clearly connected to prevailing psychoanalytic conception of man as dominated by the conflict between drives, between wish and guilt. Beyond this, he is very critical of the current social situation in the Western world. And in the last chapter, he exposes what should be a step ahead of everything that has already been proposed in psychoanalysis, and of the way people now live their lives. Life of the Tragic Man, Kohut believed, and Greif agrees, is not governed by the pleasure principle, but is devoted to fulfillment of one's innermost values, ideals, and ambitions. Current forms of psychopathology are dominantly in the area of disorders of the self, Kohut thought, and Greif tries to prove that this is a consequence of the lack of selfobject support in our civilization, due to its overemphasis on economic welfare. The book closes with the optimistic belief that this is going to "diminish rather than increase."

But, we need to mention that besides these fundamental ideas there are also several things that the author could have used but did not. First, there are several of Kohut's very important ideas he could have used in the first part of the book, which is, I hold, of a less importance for his endeavor. Among them, he neglected to discuss Kohut's idea of multiple selves, which becomes more and more important after he had first introduced it in the mid seventies. Then, although he did mention it, he never really accepted the idea of the self as a configuration, which surely deserves considerable attention. But there are also several of his ideas that would be very useful for the second part of the book. One of them includes the term participating thought. Namely, Kohut had always thought that the social situation could only be changed through the interpretation -- in analogy with therapeutic situation. It would be interesting in itself to see how Greif would discuss the appropriateness of Kohut's quite frequent use of analogies between depth psychology and sociology of large groups as a scientific methodology -- coming from a professional who is not isolated, but who, instead of being active, participates in the social reality only through thinking about it and having an insight in its dynamics. Connected to it is his notion of the group self, literally unmentioned in this book. Then, although he widely discusses the problem of violence, the author does not give full use to the Kohut's notion of chronic narcissistic rage.

We need to mention the most important problems in Greif's argument. This book is a kind of "Applied Kohut", but, alas, without much original contribution. Kohut is used here as a weapon against individualism as a predominant form of social philosophy and sometimes against capitalism as ruling ideology, but not as a solid ground and inspiration for further development of social theory. The book is completely unaware of modern trends in psychoanalysis as a whole, and self-psychology in particular, but also of psychoanalytic theories between Freud and Kohut (and the use of authors such as Adler, Jung, Sullivan, and Hartmann would be very important for it). Although it could be understood as a volume for the professional public that does not consist mainly of depth psychologists, and so should provide information, sometimes basic, about Kohut's theory, one may justifiably ask what is new in all these chapters? And there could lay their most important problem, since the answer can only be almost nothing. If you have read Kohut carefully and extensively, there will not be very much for you to learn here. And in all these years after the publication of Kohut's last, posthumously published, book, self-psychologists have developed, reshaped, revised, critiqued, and refuted various aspects of his theory. Although it is published in 2000, this book's opening chapters do not show any mark of this.

Unfortunately, there are also a couple of aspects of Kohut's theory that were not properly studied by the author of this book. That is, there are a couple of aspects of Kohut's theory that were superficially studied. Let us mention just the most important among them, and that is the notion of the Tragic Man. Although Greif discusses it at length and devotes a whole chapter to it, it seems that his understanding of the Tragic Man (or "Tragic Self", as he prefers, for partly obscure reasons, unjustified, it seems, by Kohut's claim that even the nuclear self is not the center of the psyche) is fundamentally different from Kohut's. His definition (p. 52) that "The Tragic Self is the Individual which has either failed to achieve adequate self integration, or which has disintegrated to some degree," is contradictory to Kohut's claims that the Tragic Man are fully integrated than average persons, which enables them to pursue the realization of their nuclear self more persistently and uncompromisingly. Just a short quote (from: The Search for the Self. Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut. P. Ornstein (ed.), International Universities Press, 1990, Vol. 3) must suffice here: "Man's need, therefore, to move toward the realization of his deepest ambitions and ideals will, as I mentioned earlier, allow him even to tolerate torture and to accept death… (p. 214) … [The Tragic Man] may reach a death which in fact is part of the fulfillment of his nuclear self… (p. 216-7) … Hamlet's death is the triumphant fulfillment of his reconstituted nuclear self, and his weaknesses, hesitations, and temporary failures are like the climber's toils and sighs as he struggles to reach the peak (p. 172)."

This book is better in its overall intention than in its performance. It is important that we read such a book and discuss it, since Kohut is almost a unique figure in the psychoanalytic thought of the last three decades. This book introduces readers who are not depth psychologists to Kohut's theory and tries to make connections between it and various sociological theories and social philosophy. That feature makes it an almost unique volume in this field, as far as the last several years are concerned. It is clearly written and understandable; it could save a lot of the time one would have to dedicate to reading all of Kohut's works; it helps psychologists learn something about fields of knowledge we usually call political science and sociology.

All in all, the book is a very important and valuable step in a direction that is rarely considered in contemporary literature. But it also seems to be an in a way a premature attempt. Our final verdict on it has to be that it is certainly an important first step, but not much more than that. We have to hope that the following ones will be better prepared, but also that future editions of this book would be conscientiously and thoroughly revised and enriched.

© 2001 Aleksandar Dimitrijevic

Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Psychology, Belgrade, Yugoslavia.

Available from
The Tragedy of the Self : Individual and Social Disintegration Viewed through the Self Psychology of Heinz Kohut


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