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Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism
by William Murchison
We might suppose the plight of prophets to be entirely physical. Not by any means. Another kind of danger comes safety-pinned to the prophet’s mantle—that of being dimly understood, if understood at all. Consider Christopher Lasch.
When Lasch’s instantly famous The Culture of Narcissism came out in 1979, I asked our newspaper’s editorial cartoonist to illustrate my editorial page review of it. He produced a sketch of a blonde hunk preening and twittering in the bathroom mirror. It was a cute piece of art that illustrated what readers understood then and still understand by “narcissism”: to wit, self-adoration of the sort by which the original Narcissus came a cropper.
In fact, Lasch had launched a sharp attack on the culture of his day: its fixation on therapy, “the banality of the social order,” the breakdown of family, the spread of distrust. And so on. Tom Wolfe, then writing about the “me decade,” had come at the matter from a different, sprightlier angle. The outlook of the two eminent social critics fused neatly enough; their missions—the one scholarly, the other journalistic—stayed distinct.
More than a few reviewers saw Lasch, professor of American history at the University of Rochester, as a modern Jeremiah, howling at the corruptions of the day. (How many had actually read Jeremiah at the time is a topic that might support at the least an M.A. thesis.)
If not a full-fledged, finger-shaking, garment-rending Old Testament type, Lasch was a powerful explainer, and in the 1970s people wanted explanations of the considerable mess the world seemed to have made of itself. People magazine came calling at Lasch’s home, seeking insights.
Jimmy Carter, America’s preacher-in-chief, five years after Richard Nixon’s resignation from the presidency, was endeavoring to explain to Americans already fretting over stagflation and national decline why they now were waiting in long lines to buy gasoline. He convoked a summit of thinkers and policy leaders, including Lasch, and pumped them dry of insights; these insights and warnings he retailed, not naming names, in his much-ridiculed “malaise” address of July 15, 1979.
“Too many of us,” the president admonished, “tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption”— and, partly to make up for it, ought to “park [our] cars one day a week.” Lasch thought that although Carter made some good points, he leaned too heavily on the country’s most dedicated workers.
The following year, the American Book Award came Lasch’s way. He refused it. “I didn’t like the celebrity status that I had inherited somehow,” he later said, because it “gives priority to commercial success”—which wasn’t the point of the book-writing enterprise.
Lasch somehow survived these varied impositions of fate. He survived, not least, because he had written a solid and thoughtful book. The Culture of Narcissism, though somewhat thick with sociological and psychoanalytic vocabulary, holds up well indeed: certainly better than the works of pop prophecy that abounded in those days, e.g., Charles Reich’s The Greening of America and Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock.
Lasch was not out to define the future, or to shape it either. He was not even, for some extraordinary reason, out to get rich. He had come to describe the cultural carbon clogging the national carburetor. We weren’t going to be made okay by dieting or jogging or protest-marching, or even by opening up our souls. We might, if we paid careful attention to Professor Lasch, become more fully aware of what was afoot in our culture, and what effects it was producing. Light might break through. The rest was up to us.
What was amiss? Much, it seemed. The Culture of Narcissism grew out of Lasch’s earlier study of the modern family, Haven in a Heartless World, in which he had pointed to an alarming decline in the family’s authority. It seemed, on the basis of the more extensive scrutiny supplied in The Culture of Narcissism, that the culture itself was approaching bankruptcy. “Bourgeois society seems everywhere to have used up its store of constructive ideas.”
Liberalism had nothing to offer, said this disillusioned liberal, weary as he was of cultural libertarianism. “Psychological man” had become “the final product of bourgeois individualism,” liberated from past superstitions but seeking the meaning of life. He lives “in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.” All of which was congruent with Jimmy Carter’s presidential perceptions. But no White House speechwriter could afford to go where Lasch now led, which was toward arraignment of the “therapeutic” climate that caused Americans to seek “personal well-being, health, and psychic security.”
The world was changing, according to Lasch; we were all shook up. Much of this was due to capitalism and bureaucracy, which were changing the conditions of life. The old individualism, with its emphasis on work and repression or sublimation, no longer cut it.
We were living differently. No wonder we thought and acted differently. In our “narcissistic anguish,” we demanded psychic validation from the outside: no longer the feeble assurances of priest and preacher as to the proper organization of things, and the rewards for respecting such organization. The media found a new role in the intensification of “narcissistic dreams of fame and glory,” and the gratification that comes of identifying oneself with the famous if not necessarily great.
Lasch had pored over the cultural anthropologists, the sociologists, the psychoanalysts. The name of Sigmund Freud, which had appeared on page two, came into more frequent play, as did terms like secondary narcissism, id, superego, and libidinal. The reader who might regard such stuff as considerably less interesting, or plausible, than The New Yorker and National Review, or, better yet, Holy Writ, might at this point find his attention starting to wander. Indeed, Lasch’s early chapters are a bit jumpy, like the times themselves.
Yet fairly soon the importance of bearing with the author becomes clear. As the non-therapeutic generations of yore would have expressed it, Lasch gets down to brass tacks. He talks about sport, and about education and families. And here the enterprise gets very real, because we no longer are trafficking in general assertions about the mind (“Narcissism appears realistically to represent the best way of coping with the tensions and anxieties of modern life, and the prevailing social conditions there tend to bring out narcissistic traits that are present in varying degrees, in everyone.” Etc.). Yes, fine; now what’s this got to do with the price of eggs?
Quite a lot, on Lasch’s showing. Take a look at sport, which our culture has succeeded in trivializing. It’s been made over as show—spectacle for the sake of spectacle. That might be bad enough, but “the new illiteracy,” of which Lasch’s sixth chapter speaks, is a fearful commodity indeed. We can appreciate at this stage, even better perhaps than we could in 1979, the pungency of a phrase like “the spread of stupidity.”
To mass education he ascribes the blame. “People increasingly find themselves unable to use language with ease and precision, to recall the basic facts of their country’s history, to make logical deductions.” And so forth. The schools have gone in for “life adjustment.” For personal therapy, that is to say. Lasch rightly traces this phenomenon back at least to the 1930s; by the 1950s, “the trivialization of the high school curriculum had become unmistakable.” The educational bureaucracy had turned into “an agency of manpower selection.” Intellectual excellence had become identified with elitism. No, no, mustn’t have that!
Then back to family matters, of which Lasch knew so much from his previous literary outing. He saw family authority in ruins. The so-called cult of authenticity—get in touch with your feelings and talk about them endlessly—both reflected and justified “the collapse of parental guidance.” The therapeutic culture doesn’t much like “authority,” which it strives to replace with “participation.” And so respect for morality-based authority wanes in all departments of life. No more is demanded of the young than “conformity to the conventions of everyday intercourse, sanctioned by psychiatric definitions of normal behavior.”
Lasch talks of—well, naturally—sex; because not to talk about sex, especially as a means of personal fulfillment (“How’s your sex life?”) is seemingly to miss the point of modernity. Lasch laments the collapse of chivalry and the decoupling of copulation and the future, the latter expressed in children and the quaint, old satisfactions of the long-term male-female relationship. Today it’s all about narcissism, as is our growing obsession with extending life, while preserving (or seeming to preserve) the appurtenances of roseate youth, not least (or perhaps mainly) the sexual.
So there’s where we were in 1979—and, come to think of it, still are, to all outward appearances. I am invited now to comment on the relevance of The Culture of Narcissism to our society’s present purposes. That relevance seems to me vast. With just two exceptions.
A modern-day Lasch—the prototype died in 1994 at age 61 after a splendid career of cultural commentary and analysis—would expand his account of sexuality. He would move homosexuality front and center as the oddest evidence of the narcissistic need for psychic and sexual affirmation. One thinks one knows some of the things he would say. One would like to hear him say those and such other things as came to his incisive mind.
But that’s not the really large lacuna in this work. Nor do I say what I am about to say merely on the grounds of Touchstone’s religious character.
What I say is, you can talk, but you can’t talk adequately, about a culture of narcissism without proposing a religious cause for the present disturbance. Fools rush in where angels have been evacuated by force—or just made to feel unwelcome. If, say, authority in the family collapses, is it mainly because of shifts in the economy, compelling fathers and mothers to redefine the way they earn money and raise children, or is it because of an antecedent spiritual collapse within the hearts of the family members, from father and mother on down?
In other words, do father and mother see themselves any longer as tenders of ancient responsibilities or as economic units? As both? Well, then, to what extent? Can the larger society force father and mother to give over their ancient obligations, which stem from the way Christians and Jews understand the human relationship to God (“I am the Lord thy God: Thou shalt have none other gods but me”)?
I think it would be safe to venture that the Ten Commandments trump MTV and John Dewey and even Sigmund Freud—for all his proper understanding of human limits—every time the opportunity arises. Yet religion doesn’t often come into The Culture of Narcissism, except as a reference to the ways in which society formerly functioned.
Prescriptively, the book’s ending is limp. There’s just the authorial exhortation that citizens should react by creating their own “communities of competence,” permitting “the productive capacities of modern capitalism, together with the scientific knowledge that now serves it” to begin serving humanity’s interests. Whatever all that might mean in practical terms. A more truly practical approach would be to work for reconstruction of the not-yet-lost instinct to bend the knee before—as we Anglicans say—the “Maker of all things” and “Judge of all men,” to whom we “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.”
Well, yes, communities of competence, if we must. But the other first—without such a rearrangement shrinking our debt to Christopher Lasch for his energies, wisdom, and dedication. The Culture of Narcissism is among the proudest, most durable souvenirs of the 1970s, a compliment that—yes, I know—sounds less complimentary than is meant.