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Christopher Lasch: The Culture of Narcissism, Preface

September 17, 2021

Even before I finished A Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch, I knew it would make room for itself on the list of books that reflect and shape my view of the world. I am frankly in awe at how Lasch, writing in 1979, understood and explained society so well that his work seems somehow even more relevant today than I imagine it did 40+ years ago. He identified trends that have only grown in influence, and not usually for the better.

Therefore, instead of a normal book review, I’ll be writing about A Culture of Narcissism as a series of posts that combine my abundant notes with my thoughts and reactions. (It will be similar to my Camille Paglia project in that way.)

Lasch opens with a salvo of observations about contemporary society. He reminds me of how civilization is described as decadent by both Camille Paglia (society no longer believes in itself) and Nietzsche (we’ve lost the capacity to solve the problems we face). Here are some things he says:

American confidence has fallen to a low ebb. 1

Bourgeois society seems everywhere to have used up its store of constructive ideas. It has lost both the capacity and the will to confront the difficulties that overwhelm it. 1

Liberalism . . . long ago lost the capacity to explain events in the world . . . ; nothing has taken its place. 1-2

[S]ciences no longer provide satisfactory explanations of the phenomena they profess to elucidate. . . . Academic psychology retreats from the challenge of Freud into the measurement of trivia. 2

[S]ciences no longer provide satisfactory explanations of the phenomena they profess to elucidate. . . . Academic psychology retreats from the challenge of Freud into the measurement of trivia. . . . Philosophers no longer explain the nature of things or pretend to tell us how to live. . . . Historians in the past assumed that men learned from their previous mistakes. Now that the future appears troubled and uncertain, the past appears ‘irrelevant’ even to those who devote their lives to studying it. 2

Lasch doesn’t think all is lost, though. We can pull out of this downward spiral:

“[B]ut we also find another side of the picture, which . . . suggests that western civilization may yet generate the moral resources to transcend its present crisis.” 3

We’re only in the preface at this point, but it sounds like the solution will be found in that that the masses are ultimately ungovernable and skeptical about relying on experts or a governing class. Modern bureaucracy, he tells us, has undermined traditions of local action, but their revival is the only hope that a decent society will emerge “from the wreckage of capitalism.”

It’s basically a populist, anti-centralizing message. To be honest, it reminds of me of Steve Bannon’s views on how the large, aggregating, bureaucratic systems in the world make life worse for regular people. Lasch and Bannon both have a similar praise for an inherent goodness and decency in non-elites that flourish if it weren’t being constantly beaten down by national and international structures that have been built up. It’s a little romantic, and it might be Rousseauian for me. But it’s hard to argue that something vital is being drained out of us and that it has something to do with the systems that were originally intended to make our lives better.

The preface climaxes in an absolute tour de force of cultural criticism describing the narcissism that has taken hold on us culturally:

[T]he culture of competitive individualism . . . in its decadence has carried the logic of individualism to the extreme of a war of all against all, the pursuit of happiness to the dead end of a narcissistic preoccupation with the self. 4

Strategies of narcissistic survival now present themselves as emancipation from the repressive conditions of the past, thus giving rise to a ‘cultural revolution’ that reproduces the worst features of the collapsing civilization it claims to criticize. 4

Many radicals still direct their indignation against the authoritarian family, repressive sexual morality, literary censorship, the work ethic, and other foundations of bourgeois order that have been weakened or destroyed by advanced capitalism itself. 4

The new narcissist is haunted not by guilt but by anxiety. He seeks not to inflict his own uncertainties on others but to find a meaning in life. . . . [H]e finds little use for dogmas of racial and ethnic purity but at the same time forfeits the securities of group loyalties and regards everyone as a rival for the favors conferred by a paternalistic state. His sexual attitudes are permissive rather than puritanical, even though his emancipation from ancient taboos brings him no sexual peace. . . . He praises respect for rules and regulations in the secret belief that they do not apply to himself. . . . [He] demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire. 4-5

[T]he cultural devaluation of the past reflects no only the poverty of the prevailing ideologies, which have lost their grip on reality and abandoned the attempt to master it, but the poverty of the narcissist’s inner life. . . . [P]eople today resent anyone who draws on the past in serous discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present. 5

Lasch concludes with a defense against charges that he is merely a traditionalist who wants to return to the past:

I see the past as a political and psychological treasury from which we draw the reserves (not necessarily the in the form of “lessons”) that we need to cope with the future. Our culture’s indifference to the past–which easily shades over into active hostility and rejection–furnishes the most telling proof of that culture’s bankruptcy. 6

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