Commentary Magazine


The Culture of Narcissism, by Christopher Lasch

Self & Society

The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations.
by Christopher Lasch.
Norton. 268 pp. $11.95.

Who lost America? It wasn’t the Left’s fault, replies Christopher Lasch in his apocalyptic new book, The Culture of Narcissism. For more than fifty years, radical intellectuals in this country have done their best to discredit “the authoritarian family, repressive sexual morality, literary censorship, the work ethic, and other foundations of bourgeois order.” But if those foundations are now collapsing, and Mr. Lasch is quite sure that they are, the bourgeoisie has no one but itself to blame. It is not the triumph of cultural radicalism, the author assures us, but a stunning transformation in the character of bourgeois individualism that is the key to the cultural crisis of our time. The severely repressed, morally rigid “economic man” of yesteryear—that fervent defender of time-hallowed customs and institutions whom J. P. Marquand gently satirized in The Late George Apley—has given way to an anxiety-ridden character out of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, who “acts out” his impulses in a desperate quest for a meaningful life. Instead of enforcing restrictions on personal freedom, as his puritanical ancestors did, the permissive American of today tries to get rid of them. The temple of bourgeois values is therefore being destroyed by the very class that built it. To the “psychological man” of contemporary America, immediate self-gratification is the only god worth serving.

According to Mr. Lasch, the shift toward “psychological man” originated in the gradual assumption of childrearing functions by surrogate authorities responsible to the state, to private industry, or to their own codes of professional ethics. “In the course of bringing culture to the masses, the advertising industry, the mass media, the health and welfare services, and other agencies of mass tuition took over many of the socializing functions of the home and brought the ones that remained under the direction of modern science and technology.” These developments profoundly affected the patterns of familial intimacy, and the altered structure of parent-child relations eventually worked a change in the structure of American personality. “On the principle that pathology represents a heightened version of normality,” Mr. Lasch argues that we can most clearly appreciate what has happened to us by reading through the growing literature on “pathological narcissism.” In the symptom constellations and character disorders of certain kinds of mental patients we can see the image, as in a cracked glass, darkly, of an entire nation’s narcissism. If our “way of life . . . is dying,” it is not merely because of the objective contradictions of advanced capitalism—economic stagnation, the impending exhaustion of natural resources, and the like—but because we ourselves, as individuals, are sick.

Mr. Lasch brings to this bold argument a wide acquaintance with the very best authorities on narcissistic illnesses, from Freud to Melanie Klein to a host of more recent specialists, including Otto Kern-berg, Heinz Kohut, Warren Brodey, and Peter Giovacchini. That Mr. Lasch understands what he has read is apparent in the mini-essays he gives us in his book on such topics as “Narcissism, Schizophrenia, and the Family” and “Narcissism and the ‘Absent Father.’” Popularizations in the best sense of the word, these lucid resumés of a difficult science remind us of what the magazine Psychology Today might have become had it not descended into sensationalism. Mr. Lasch’s erudition also makes him a perceptive critic of other popularizers of psychiatric modes of thought, as well as a devastating commentator on such deplorable fads of the day as the “new consciousness movement,” which in effect advises people not to make too large an investment in love and friendship, to avoid excessive dependence on others, and to live for the moment. In a passage which seems to me definitive, Mr. Lasch diagnoses this advice as simply a reinforcement of the emotional malaise which gave rise to the consciousness movement in the first place.

Yet at the same time that he has profitably gone to school to the psychiatrists, Mr. Lasch seems to have all but forgotten that he was formally trained as a historian. I am going to argue, he says, that changes in the patterns of domestic intimacy occurred over a period of several generations, but the argument he makes is far more a matter of assertion than demonstration. He does not take us into the lives of representative American families, or indeed into the life of any family, in the era prior to the appearance of surrogate authorities on childrearing, and prove to us by specific example that mothers and fathers used to have confidence in themselves as parents and that they communicated that self-confidence to their children. Nor does he take us into representative American homes one, two, and three generations later and show us how parent-child relations changed, as he claims they did, and how those changes enhanced the growth of narcissistic traits in their offspring. In lieu of family history, he gives us a series of random comments about social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who were professionally interested in children’s welfare. But the reformers’ claims to expertise do not come close to being a proof that American parents were progressively devaluing themselves, or that their children’s personality structures were changing.

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Having failed to produce solid evidence, Mr. Lasch is finally forced to turn to a quotation from the ineffable Geoffrey Gorer, whose book, The American People (1948), bears the same relation to the study of our national character as Velikovsky’s Worlds in Collision does to astrophysical research. The American mother, declares Mr. Lasch, quoting Mr. Gorer, has come to depend so heavily on experts that she “can never have the easy, almost unconscious, self-assurance of the mother of more patterned societies, who is following ways she knows unquestioningly to be right.” Like most of Mr. Gorer’s airy assertions, the statement carries no ballast—which is why Mr. Lasch immediately calls on a supporting witness. According to this observer, the “immature, narcissistic” American mother “is so barren of spontaneous manifestation of maternal feelings” that she “studies vigilantly all the new methods of upbringing and reads treatises about physical and mental hygiene.” She acts not on her own feelings or judgment, but on the “picture of what a good mother should be.” Now, Mr. Lasch may not be a diligent historian, but he is not without cleverness, and he handles these remarks so as to make them appear to be another sweeping comment upon modern American mothers and thus a confirmation of Mr. Gorer’s generalization. But in fact, the remarks are narrowly targeted. Drawn from a 1949 article in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, they refer only to the mothers of a small cluster of children whose psychological development had not been typically American, as the very title of the article indicates—“Adaptation of the Psychoanalytical Technique for the Treatment of Young Children with Atypical Development.”

Mr. Lasch also fails to point out that the mothers in what Mr. Gorer calls “more patterned societies” did not raise their babies without plenty of advice from members of their extended families. Whether they lived in medieval Europe or in the islands of the South Pacific in Margaret Mead’s time, these mothers did not go it alone. Much the same thing may be said of the mothers of early 19th-century America, as the biographical literature of the period makes clear. In a society largely made up of towns and villages, American mothers relied on the readily accesssible wisdom of relatives and neighbors, as well as of the family doctor.

Mothers who raised their children with the help of John B. Watson in the 1920’s, or of Arnold Gesell in the 1930’s, or of Benjamin Spock and T. Berry Brazelton in more recent decades, did so partly because urbanization had made traditional sources of know-how less available. Some of these mothers, we can be sure, were also haunted by a distrust of their own instincts, like the women described in the psychiatric journal article cited by Mr. Lasch, and their surrender to the dictates of the pediatric manuals may well have disabled them further. But how large a percentage of the total did they constitute? How many other mothers in the last sixty years have set just as high an evaluation on their maternal talents as their counterparts did a century ago? How many, indeed, have been so strengthened by their faith in the efficacy of modern medicine and the wisdom of pediatric science that their confidence in their childbearing ability has surpassed that of all previous generations of American mothers? Confronting and disposing of these questions are absolutely essential to the credibility of The Culture of Narcissism, but the author acts as if they did not even exist. With a dogmatism so insistent that it comes across as anguish, Mr. Lasch proclaims that the habit of relying on outside experts can only be interpreted as destructive of “parents’ confidence in their ability to perform the most elementary functions of childrearing,” and hence destructive of the capacity of their children “to form strong psychological identifications with their parents.”

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Sifting through the “wreckage” of American civilization in the 1970’s, Mr. Lasch sees one sign of a new and better life. A growing distrust of experts and of governmental bureaucracies has led men and women “in small towns and crowded urban neighborhoods, even in suburbs,” to initiate decentralized experiments in cooperation which possibly signify “the beginnings of a general political revolt.” Most observers regard grass-roots disenchantment with big government as a conservative force in contemporary American politics, but Mr. Lasch prefers the ancient dream of the Left: deep down, “the people” of this nation really don’t like capitalism, and eventually they will revolt against it.

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The rest of Mr. Lasch’s report on the current state of the Union consists entirely of denials that there is anything worthwhile going on. Thus he derides the idea that the rise of new religious cults and the swelling attendance at traditional churches augur another “Great Awakening” of piety. “The contemporary climate is therapeutic, not religious,” he avers. “People today hunger not for personal salvation, . . . but for the feeling, the momentary illusion, of personal well-being, health, and psychic security.” But as the thinness of his footnotes reveals, Mr. Lasch has not earned the right to speak in a tone of pontifical authority on these matters. His scornful dismissal of the spiritual content of religious revivalism in the 1970’s is simply an impertinence—an impertinence, I might add, which does not even have the saving grace of humor. Unlike H. L. Mencken, Mr. Lasch is an anti-cleric who never makes us laugh.

The chapters in The Culture of Narcissism on the “new illiteracy” in our schools and on the “degradation” of American sports are full of troubling facts. Yet the facts are as familiar to us as the news magazines and pop-sociology books from which the author seems to have gleaned them. What one wants from Mr. Lasch is not another rehearsal of current events, but an explanation of them. Once again, however, he is content to let polemicism substitute for serious analysis. To say, for instance, that our schools have been shaped in the image of our narcissism is profitless when the charge that we are narcissistic has not been proved in the first place.

Throughout his book, Mr. Lasch expresses a vivid contempt for what he calls “the privileged classes.” Thus in his discussion of American universities he observes that “Mass education, which began as a promising attempt to democratize the higher culture of the privileged classes, has ended by stupefying the privileged themselves.” As an example, he cites a group of Ivy League undergraduates who had never heard of the Oedipus complex and did not know who Oedipus was. I, too, am appalled by those students. Yet The Culture of Narcissism contains other examples of the stupefaction of the privileged classes which bother me even more, namely, the sloppy mistakes of the middle-aged professor who wrote the book. He refers to T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” as The Wasteland and to Wagner’s Bayreuth as Beyreuth. He garbles Vince Lombardi’s famous remark about winning being the only thing and then describes it as “George Allen’s dictum.” General Douglas MacArthur is quoted as saying that “Upon the fields of friendly strife are sown the seeds which, on other days, on other fields, will bear the seeds of victory,” whereas MacArthur actually said, “Upon the fields of friendly strife, are sown the seeds that, upon other fields on other days, will bear the fruits of victory.” If these mistakes had been made by another professor and Mr. Lasch had had the wit to recognize them, our apocalyptic author would have seized on them as further evidence that America is in the death grip of bourgeois narcissism. To me, they stand for something else—the inability of Christopher Lasch and other writers on the Left to recognize their own contribution to the destruction of cultural standards.

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