The Culture of Narcissism

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

In this latest work, Christopher Lasch continues his polemic against a politically and intellectually “bankrupt” liberalism, which he calls “the political theory of the ascendant bourgeoisie,” which “long ago lost the capacity to explain events in the world of the welfare state and the multinational corporation.” The bankruptcy has brought a decline of “competitive individualism.” In its place, “feel good” therapy has given us a society of narcissists out to satisfy the desires of the moment with little thought for the future.

In the course of the book, Lasch analyzes the problems of workers and managers, professional sports, and schools; explains the reasons behind the collapse of parental authority in the American family (his previous book was subtitled The Family Besieged); offers insights into the deep-seated masculine fears which cause the middle-class war between the sexes; and presents a multifaceted image of a society which has no hope for the future. And he does it all with an unquestioning faith in the Freudian explanations of all behavior.

Certainly there are many economic, political, and social problems in contemporary American society. Few observers of the culture would argue with some of Lasch’s statements, but as with most platitudes, these pronouncements are strong on generalities and weak on documentation. That is, what he writes looks substantial on the surface, but often that surface turns out to be a hollow shell. Such an approach leads to at least two major problems in his persuasive technique and one major failing in his total argument. (Before continuing, a definition is needed. Just who or what is a narcissist? It is difficult to summarize, but according to Lasch, the narcissist is a “superficially relaxed and tolerant . . . psychological man [who] forfeits the security of group loyalties . . . demands immediate gratification and lives in a state of restless, perpetually unsatisfied desire.” These are the dominant qualities of our society in Lasch’s view, so the “he” of a comment about a narcissist also means the “we” of contemporary society.)

The first problem involves the extreme positions the author takes in his sociological and psychological attacks upon American society. Perhaps he must be so shrill in his harangue; perhaps he feels such “overkill” is necessary to awaken us. Lasch is an academic, a historian from the University of Rochester; hence, one of the major sins of the narcissist, as detailed by Lasch, is that he no longer cares about the past. That is, the narcissist has no sense of history, of the continuity of time and society, and seemingly he does not want such a continuity. He is indifferent to the past, and that indifference, “which easily shades over into active hostility and rejection,” is the “proof” of the cultural bankruptcy of our society.

If we have no sense of the past, we also no longer care about the future, that is, a time beyond our own expected life span. “People busy themselves . . . with survival strategies, measures designed to prolong their own lives, or programs guaranteed to ensure good health and peace of mind.” Somehow it is slightly improper to attempt to prolong life, in the author’s view.

But if we are to achieve a concern for the future, if we are to reverse the narcissistic trend, might not one way be to attempt to live longer in order to help make things better? If we do not care about the future, why jog or diet or avoid carcinogens? Why do protestors picket against nuclear plants? They are concerned that a plant may explode and cause immediate damage to lives and property, and, at the same time, they are fearful that slow, accidental leaks or low-level (and legal) emissions may cause long-range genetic damage to persons living close to the plants, damage which may not appear for generations. Why do other groups form to protect whales or seals or birds if there is this total lack of care about the future which Lasch attributes to all of society?

The behaviors Lasch superimposes upon all of society may in fact be the actions of some people. However, his examples of narcissists are heavily skewed toward “the beautiful people,” the celebrities, and it is not justifiable to say that all of society has lost its sense of values and directions just because the nouveau riche and the disco groups seem to have done so. Yet Lasch makes such sweeping generalities his stock approach. Thus he can say that “self-absorption defines the moral climate of contemporary society” and that “the poor have always had to live for the present, but now a desperate concern for personal survival, sometimes disguised as hedonism, engulfs the middle class as well.” The economic problems of the middle class lead to second jobs, moonlighting, working wives, and repairs on the old car instead of the purchase of a new one. To call such activities “hedonistic self-absorption” is unfair and unjust.

Another sociological discussion which predicates all behavior upon the observed actions of a few comes in Lasch’s explanation for the collapse of parental authority in our society. He cites instances,...

(The entire section is 2124 words.)