This article traces some of the crossings of the literary, political, moral, and epistemological valences of “narcissism” in the work of literary critic Barbara Johnson, exploring how Johnson implicitly works within and against the view, as expounded by the Practical Criticism and others, of “morality” as a conduit between literature and politics. In contrast, Johnson works to read the differences within moral and epistemological schemas, betraying the pretenses of any moral “stance” without evading the necessity of holding political positions. The author follows Johnson's writings on Ovid, Heinz Kohut, and Nella Larsen, tracing the ways in which she articulates the relationship between literature and politics through narcissism as figure and reading practice that disrupts axiomatic conceptions of morality, finally reading narcissism as an “ethical” category in Johnson's work in the sense she draws from Paul de Man's readings of “allegory” in Rousseau. The “ethicality” of Johnsonian narcissism, the article argues, lies precisely in its undoing of the moralizing alignment of different evaluative schemas, and this is ultimately its political purchase as well.

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